It may be asked how a man’s character changes according to his circumstances. Without doubt it does change; there remains an unalterable core of our character, fashioned from our earliest years, but onto this trunk may be grafted or discarded a variety of traits and habits.
On this subject we should be mindful of the following:
1. It is easier to add character traits than it is to remove them. The learning of a new set of habits and traits can be accomplished if the incentives and motivations are there. Far more difficult it is to try to remove some ingrained character feature that may have been with us for years. It is not impossible, but it is difficult.
Adding is easier than removing. Being mindful of this, we should endeavor to add character traits, rather than to try to remove ones that may already exist. The removal of character traits should be reserved for those situations where the trait in question is directly harmful or a serious impediment to future growth.
2. The true revelation of character comes at moments of difficulty or stress. If we wish to know our own, or someone else’s character, we should seek out situations in which we can exert pressure on that individual. The resulting observations will be useful.
3. The ravages of disease or old age can corrode positive character traits. It will not corrupt the most important ones, but it can have adverse effects. As an example of this, Plutarch mentions an incident (Pericles 38) where Pericles, who had contracted the plague, permitted some visitors on his sickbed to lay amulets and charms on him. He had always derided superstition and would never have permitted such conduct had he been healthy. Thus is it shown that disease may corrode the bulwarks of virtue.
Somewhat conversely Plutarch in his Spartan Sayings also relates an anecdote about the Agiad king Cleomenes, the son of Anaxandridas. The king had suffered greatly from a long bout of illness, and in desperation, had enlisted the aid of practitioners of the magical arts. When his friends had expressed unease at this development, the king said, “There is no reason to be amazed. I’m not the same person I was before, so of course what I believe and disbelieve isn’t the same either.”
It is also clear that with the advance of old age come the vices of greed, superstition, and timidity; for these vices flourish in a climate of fear, which old age does much to aggravate. As a man advances in age, he will acutely feel the hound of fear biting his heels, as he becomes more and more worried about his security and health.
And it is for this reason that we must do all we can when young, so that the advance of old age or sickness will not expose us to these vices.
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