How Character Can Change According To Circumstances


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.


Read More:  Are Omens Real?


You Will Carry Burdens

I was re-reading Plutarch’s Life of Pericles over the past few days.  One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that the best solace is always to keep company with the greatest of men; for in doing so we cannot help but become greater.

We should be careful with whom we spend out time.

When you wish to improve your basketball game, you don’t play two-on-two with a flat-footed dullard.  When you wish to improve your social skills, you don’t pick an uncalibrated dunce as a wingman.  So how can one expect to improve one’s character if a man constantly associates with fools and clowns?

The life of a great man, Plutarch tells us, is one of burdens.  The average spectator doesn’t see these burdens, believing the great man to be blessed by the Divine.  And his is, in a way.  But there is a Janus-face to this rosy picture.

The glories of the great man are counterbalanced by the price of such greatness.  What are some of these burdens?  The life of Pericles shows us that they are these:

1.  You will be surrounded by non-comprehending people.  In one anecdote, Plutarch describes how Pericles was boarding a ship during a time of political crisis.  Suddenly, a solar eclipse took place.  The phenomena caused great consternation among the passengers, and the ship’s navigator was greatly disturbed.

Pericles said to him:  “Why are you so upset?,” and held his cloak up before the navigator’s face, blocking the navigator’s vision of the sun.

“If you cannot see the sun now, and are not afraid, why would you be afraid when some other obstruction blocks it from view?”  This question he asked the navigator.

The point of this story was obviously to show that people are often afraid of what they do not understand.  Great men, almost by definition, seek out paths that are not trod by others.  They will be misunderstood, ridiculed, mocked, even vilified.  But if we wish to achieve anything in this world, there will come a time–often not of your own choosing–where you will have to swim against the prevailing currents.

The salmon will all be swimming one way, and you will have to swim another way.  And the salmon will not be pleased about this.  Not one bit.

2.  You will have to endure great tragedy.  Plutarch also tells us how the life of Pericles, although filled with the most transcendent glory, was scarred by personal tragedy.  During the wars against Sparta, a plague gripped Athens, killing off a great many people and throwing the city into disorder.

Pericles was blamed for much of this (unfairly, of course) by his political enemies.  He lost a number of personal relatives in the plague, including several of his own sons.  One anecdote has him being driven almost mad with grief over the loss of one of his favorite sons.

And yet he had to endure.  He could not take “time off” for morbid self-reflection.  He had to keep going.  There was no respite.

And this is one measure of greatness:  the ability to carry great burdens.  It is not often discussed.  It is not often meditated on.  But it is there.

Theodore Roosevelt lost both his wife and his mother in one day, and was nearly paralyzed by grief.  Yet it forced him to go West, and seek a new type of life for himself; and this act probably saved him from madness and a stupefying inactivity.  Cicero lost his favorite daughter, and this fact threw him into a serious bout of depression.  Yet this period of convalescence he used to write some of his best philosophical works.

General John J. Pershing, one of America’s most capable military figures of the early twentieth century, lost nearly his entire family in a catastrophic fire.

The neck of the Chinese peasant has a thick musculature, gained from years of pole-carrying and balancing of heavy weight.  He knows hardship, and he knows how, in the Chinese phrase, how “to eat bitterness.”

In our efforts at character development, and in our polishing of our souls, we should know from the beginning that we will carry heavy burdens.  It is inevitable.  It is unavoidable.  Don’t seek to avoid them:  instead, learn how to manage them.

But with practice, these burdens can be managed and balanced.  We can, in time, develop the thick pole-carrying neck of the patient, determined Chinese peasant.

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