Monday, April 26, 2010

In the footsteps of James Hillman 32

What is Character?

When we use this word we immediately think of adjectives like "good," "bad," "helpful," "selfish," "egotistical" or "self-effacing."  In other words we immediately assume that character refers to the traits a person has.  The Penguin English Dictionary, the nearest dictionary I have to hand, defines it thus: 1 a. the mental or moral qualities that distinguish a person. b. the distinctive qualities characteristic of something; its main or essential nature.  2. Any of the people portrayed in a novel, film, play etc. 3. Good reputation. 4. Moral strength, integrity. 5. A symbol like a letter, numeral or punctuation mark used in writing or printing.

I am often asked to write references for past pupils, and the first thing that jumps to my mind would be whether the character of that pupil is trustworthy or not.  Then one would mention all the other good qualities like punctuality, attendance, politeness, dedication to work, diligence etc which a prospective employer would be looking for.  Hillman gives an interesting take on what is meant by character.

A Deeper Definition

At this sage we are not surprised that our author Dr. Hillman gives a very insightful and profound definition of character.  Once again he goes back to Greek philosophy and then to the etymology of the word.  Firstly he referes back to Heraclitus's famous saying that "Ethos anthropoi daimon," which we will loosely translate here as "Man's character is his Genius" where the word character renders the English translation of "ethos."  Hillman researches the origins of the word "ethos" and finds it essentially means the "habits" that people commonly display.  In other words, Heraclitus might be inferring that ethos is a habitual or customary behaviour.  In other words, "you are how you are."  Once again I prefer to quote Hillman's mellifluous prose here by way of insight and profundity of wisdom:
What you do in life affects your heart, alters your soul, and concerns the daimon.  We make soul with our behaviour, for soul does not come already made in heaven.  It is only imaged there, an unfulfilled project trying to grow down. 

The daimon, then, becomes the source of human ethics, and the happy life - what the Greeks call eudaimonia - is the life that is good for the daimon.  Not only does it bless us with its calling, we bless it with our style of following...

The invisible source of personal consistency, for which I am using the word "habit," psychology today calls character.  Character refers to deep structures of personality that are particularly resistant to change.  When they are socially harmful they are named character neuroses (Freud) and character disorders.  These hard-to-change lines of fate are like the fingerprints of the daimon, each whorl different from every other.  The very word "character" originally meant a marking instrument that cuts indelible lines and leaves traces.  And "style" comes from stilus (Latin), a sharp instrument for incising characters (for instance, letters).  No wonder style reveals character and is so hard to change; no wonder character disorders lie at the core of diagnosed psychopaths and sociopaths. (The Soul's Code, 260 - 261)
We believe, and quite rightly, that all men and women are created equal, even though it is patently obvious from the moment of birth that each is thrust out into a different world: some infants belong to rich families, some to poor, some, yet again are born into famous or talented families while others to infamous and singularly untalented families.  Some are born handicapped, either mentally or physically.  Each of us is, as it were, a victim of our circumstances.  And yet, over the years thinking humankind has arrived at a philosophy of life which states that each one of us is unique, a once-off and very valuable and irreplaceable once-off at that.  Again, here I am beguiled by the angelic prose of Dr. Hillman.  The following words, I believe, are well worth pondering, because they contain a lot of wisdom:

Since neither nurture nor nature gives equality, where do we even get the idea?  It cannot be induced from the facts of life; nor can equality be reduced to a factor common to all human beings, such as erect posture, symbolic language, or manipulation of fire, because individual differences elaborate the common factor in billions of ways.  Equality can only be deduced from uniqueness, from what the scholastic philosophers called the "principle of individuality."  I am imagining this uniqueness as haeccitus (medieval Latin for "thisness") in the genius as the formative factor given with each person's birth so that he or she is this one and not some other one, anyone, no one. (Ibid., 272)
In other words, equality by its very nature is axiomatic, a given, rather like the axioms of Euclid's Geometry or the axioms or basic first principles of any science or theory of knowledge.

Above I have placed a picture of Dr James Hillman (b. 1926 -    )

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