Character Forming

I read an interesting article in my old favourite the New Scientist this week. I’ve been ploughing through some accumulated backnumbers, the magazine having recently been forcibly rehabilitated as a format, after the missus trod on my Kindle and bust it.

What goes around comes around, as the rustling of magazine pages and the need for more light to read newsprint disturbs her slumber at lights out. I feel a shade guilty and remember that part of the reason I bought a Kindle was to be a more considerate bedfellow – and to save my dwindling night reading vision. More carrots and a new Kindle are in order.

Back to the point. The article’s writer Samuel Barondes says ‘personality’ is best understood as a composite of: dispositional traits, troublesome patterns, character strengths and sense of identity.

I like this idea. But a trying to remember it, sat on the Tube today, mutation and evolution intervened and I came up with a subtly different variant:

1) Innate preferences
2) Experiences
3) Bad traits
4) Our internal narrative.

Similar, but not quite the same. I’ve subconsciously pulled out experiences – and therefore, implicitly, the environment. Perhaps that’s because I increasingly believe much of what we are is shaped by chance and circumstances.

But ‘bad patterns’ or traits, as a significant part of who we all are, is a discovery. When you think about it we all have them. And when it comes to bringing them to life, Theophrastus, whom the article signposts, takes some beating. Theophrastus was a pupil of Aristotle and wrote extensively on flora. He also wrote a field guide to that most variegated of fauna – the human being.

The Characters of Theophrastus – a bit like Aristotle’s ‘On Physiognomy’ – tend towards the negative in people. Perhaps both disliked extremes and preferred the ‘golden mean’ as their prescription for the ‘good’ character. For his part Barondes says every culture values self-control, kindness and a sense of one’s place in the universe.

I read Theophrastus’s thirty ‘characters’, and to my growing embarrassment recognised myself strongly in two, and a little in another one. The good news, at least based on my list, is I can forgive myself a bit.

Some of my bad patterns are innate, some the fault of my environment. But my best defence against my ‘bad traits’ is an increasingly clear narrative if who I am and what I am for. Half-way through my life, I reckon the last element of ‘character’ is the one I can do most about.

We are all basically a self-edited ‘story’ looking backwards. And, following Aristotle, we are all the sum of our actions going forward. So I conclude it’s well worth continuing to pay proper attention to both. Theophrastus is a warning to those who don’t.

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