The Force of Character: And the Lasting Life
By James Hillman, Ph.D.
Besides giving aging its value and its meaning, character has other virtues. We can lay these out quite succinctly, circumscribing the idea of character.
1. The idea of character depends on the archetypal notion of difference. Character is defined in the simplest dictionary form as "any observable mark, quality or property by which anything, person, species or event may be known as different from something else" (italics mine). Character thus confirms, even trumpets, the unique, the singular, the odd. Since character locates individuality in the observable marks of difference, eccentricity becomes necessary to character.
2. Bodily events are equally representative of character and may not be excluded from inquiry into the psychology of character. Character comprehends psyche and soma; character is a psychosomatic idea.
3. Character is presentational. It requires descriptive language-adjectives, such as "stingy," "sharp," "opinionated"; adverbs, such as "slowly," "carefully," "deliberately"-which transmits images and awakens feelings. "Go in fear of abstractions," wrote Ezra Pound, "use no adjective which does not reveal something." Character richly refurbishes psychological discourse with the 17,953 trait names listed by the Harvard Psychological Laboratory. Each specifies a form of human behavior. In capturing character precisely and comprehensively, poetic speech far surpasses the language of behavioral science.
4. Character is a cluster of characteristics. A character is "not presumed to be strictly unified. ... The character is the entire configuration without the traits seen as layers with a core holding them together," writes the philosopher Amelie Rorty. Since the idea of character defies simplistic reductions, an inquiry into character calls for a complex kind of intelligence. It will appreciate the juxtaposition of layers as a poetic or painted image and it will abandon the search for a unifying core.
5. Character is perceptible as an image. It is on display as style, habit, gesture, disposition, constitution, carriage, mien, presence. The face reveals character and appeals to character. As image, character must be imagined as well as perceived.
6. Character has always been distinguished from talent, skill, gifts, and measurable abilities. It can be lamed by deficiencies and trapped in fixations, all the while talents and skills exhibit brilliance. Character does not yield to standardized measurements of performance. The characteristic uniqueness of a style eludes analysis.
7. Character also eludes the moral clamp. It reveals itself not in the morality of behavior but in its style. Character traits include vices and virtues. They do not define character. Character defines them. Perseverance or loyalty may instigate a criminal act as well as a just one. Friendship may motivate revenge as well as self-sacrifice. The imaginative scope of character cannot be pressed into an ethical definition without perverting its nature and sterilizing its fecundity.
8. Unlike "personality," character is impersonal. Rocks, paintings, houses, even kinds of bacteria and logical propositions demonstrate character. The discourse of personality is human psychology; of character, imaginative description.
9. As with personality, so with "self." Self is reflexive, pointing back to the subject, merging with its abstract rival, "ego." Selves narrow down to people. We do not speak of the self of a horse, a pine tree, or a promontory, yet we sense their definite characters. Self, often equated with the timeless in a human being, has little to contribute to the archetypal issue of oldness. Obituaries speak of character traits, but would fall mute attempting to eulogize the deceased's self. Formulations of self are without limiting characteristics. Self conflates with God.
10. Uniqueness carries character beyond temperament and type. Type reduces character to two dimensions of "flat characters" (E. M. Forster's phrase). Temperament will manifest itself variously, depending on character. An introverted temperament may show innumerable styles: stubbornness, fearfulness, superficial adaptation, shyness, seclusion, systematic denial, deep concentration. These phrases call up images; "introvert" leaves one blank. While introversion requires a schema of contrasts for its definition, the traits and images of character stand on their own.
11. Character leaves traces in political history. As a determinant of the course of human events, character ties psychology to society, drawing psychology away from its obsessive subjectivity.
12. Character reintroduces Fate into psychology. Substitutions for character eliminated this ancient connection. "Ego," "personality," "self," "agent," "individual" reduce psychology to the study of human behavior-to processes, functions, motivations-and omit the fateful consequences implied by the idea of character. Psychology short of fate is too shallow to address its subject, the soul.
13. Character is to late years as individual calling of the daemon is to early years; it gives sense and purpose to the changes of aging. Character is a therapeutic idea.