Five insights about character
A few life-changing tips for those who wish to become better human beings
Character, specifically my own and how to improve it, has been at the forefront of my thinking for a number of years now. After all, the betterment of one’s character is one way to describe the major goal of Stoicism, or of any Greco-Roman philosophy (and, arguably, of many other philosophies, like Confucianism).
That’s why last year I published a book on the subject, The Quest for Character: What the Story of Socrates and Alcibiades Teaches Us about Our Search for Good Leaders. In a sense, the book puts together much of what I’ve learned about character from both a philosophical and a scientific standpoint (“sci-phi,” if you will), applying it not just to the question of what makes a good leader, but more broadly the question of what makes for a good human being.
The Quest for Character examines the issue using examples from Greco-Roman antiquity, for two reasons. First, because human nature hasn’t changed, and some of the insights of the best of our forerunners are just as good as those of any modern psychologist or sociologist. Second, because it’s easier to learn from other people’s examples if those people are sufficiently removed from us that we don’t really have an emotional stake in whether they were right or wrong, good or bad.
While you will forgive me for also suggesting to read the actual book, here are the five major insights I have arrived at while writing it. Hopefully they’ll be useful to you in your personal quest for ethical self-improvement.
Insight n. 1: Virtue can (and should) be taught
Nowadays when we hear talk of virtue we tend to think of old fashioned Victorian characters, or perhaps of the Christian virtues of hope, faith, and charity. But the word “virtue” comes from the Greek arete, which means excellence. So a virtuous person is an excellent person, the best person they can be.
What does that mean? The ancient Greco-Romans thought that being excellent means performing one’s function well. For instance, I recently bought an excellent bread knife. Meaning a knife that does well what it is supposed to do: cut bread.
By analogy, an excellent human being is one who does well what human beings are designed by Nature to do. Since our distinctive characteristics are that we are highly intelligent and highly social animals, our natural function is to use our brains to solve problems, and to do so in a socially cooperative fashion. That’s how we survive and flourish as a species. It’s not just the ancients who say so, this view of humanity actually jibes well with the discoveries of modern primatologists and evolutionary biologists. Large brains are our chief evolutionary weapon, and social living is a crucial characteristic of our species.
According to the Greco-Romans, virtue understood as human excellence is a skill (techne) and therefore can be taught, just like any other skill. Imagine you wished to learn a musical instrument, or maybe a new language. How do you go about it? You will learn some basic musical theory or grammar; you will get a good teacher who can guide you; and then you’ll practice, practice, practice. The same goes for virtue: you become a better person by learning a bit about ethics, by following a good teacher like Socrates, and by doing a lot of practice.
But how, exactly, do you practice virtue? Suppose that you feel like you are not generous enough, for instance. One way to improve at this might be to get into the habit of putting some change into your pocket before leaving your house, and then give that money to the first homeless person you encounter—no questions asked. This will initially be awkward, perhaps embarrassing even. But the more you do it, the more it will become second nature. And you’ll soon be on your way to becoming a more generous person.
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