Manvotional: Character

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 15, 2011 · 24 comments

in Manvotionals

From Character, 1881
By Samuel Smiles

CHARACTER is one of the greatest motive powers in the world. In its noblest embodiments, it exemplifies human nature in its highest forms, for it exhibits man at his best.

Men of genuine excellence in every station of life—men of industry, of integrity, of high principle, of sterling honesty of purpose—command the spontaneous homage of mankind. It is natural to believe in such men, to have confidence in them, and to imitate them. All that is good in the world is upheld by them, and without their presence in it the world would not be worth living in.

Although genius always commands admiration, character most secures respect. The former is more the product of brain-power, the latter of heart-power; and in the long run it is the heart that rules in life. Men of genius stand to society in the relation of its intellect as men of character of its conscience.

Great men are always exceptional men; and greatness itself is but comparative. But each man can act his part honestly and honorably, and to the best of his ability. He can use his gifts, and not abuse them. He can strive to make the best of life. He can be true, just, honest, and faithful, even in small things. In a word, he can do his duty in that sphere in which Providence has placed him.

Commonplace though it may appear, this doing of one’s duty embodies the highest ideal of life and character. There may be nothing heroic about it; but the common lot of men is not heroic. And though the abiding sense of duty upholds man in his highest attitudes, it also equally sustains him in the transaction of the ordinary affairs of every-day existence.

Intellectual culture has no necessary relation to purity or excellence of character. “A handful of good life,” says George Herbert, “is worth a bushel of learning.” Not that learning is to be despised, but that it must be allied to goodness. Intellectual capacity is sometimes found associated with the meanest moral character—with abject servility to those in high places, and arrogance to those of low estate. A man may be accomplished in art, literature, and science, and yet, in honesty, virtue, truthfulness, and the spirit of duty, be entitled to take rank after many a poor and illiterate peasant.

Still less has wealth any necessary connection with elevation of Character. A man may possess only his industry, his frugality, his integrity, and yet stand high in the rank of true manhood. The advice which Burns’s father gave him was the best:

“He bade me act a manly part, though I had ne’er a farthing, For without an honest manly heart no man was worth regarding.”

Character is property. It is the noblest of possessions. It is an estate in the general good-will and respect of men; and they who invest in it—though they may not become rich in this world’s goods—will find their reward in esteem and reputation fairly and honorably won.

Simple honesty of purpose in a man goes a long way in life, if founded on a just estimate of himself and a steady obedience to the rule he knows and feels to be right. It holds a man straight, gives him strength and sustenance, and forms a mainspring of vigorous action.

But the purpose, besides being honest, must be inspired by sound principles, and pursued with undeviating adherence to truth, integrity, and uprightness. Without principles, a man is like a ship without rudder or compass, left to drift hither and thither with every wind that blows.

It is because of this controlling power of character in life that we often see men exercise an amount of influence apparently out of all proportion to their intellectual endowments. They appear to act by means of some latent power, some reserved force, which acts secretly, by mere presence. As Burke said of a powerful nobleman of the last century, “his virtues were his means.” The secret is, that the aims of such men are felt to be pure and noble, and they act upon others with a constraining power.

Character is formed by a variety of minute circumstances, more or less under the regulation and control of the individual. Not a day passes without its discipline, whether for good or for evil. There is no act, however trivial, but has its train of consequences.

Every action, every thought, every feeling, contributes to the education of the temper, the habits, and understanding, and exercises an inevitable influence upon all the acts of our future life. Thus character is undergoing constant change, for better or for worse—either being elevated on the one hand, or degraded on the other.

The best sort of character cannot be formed without effort. There needs the exercise of constant self-watchfulness, self-discipline, and self-control. There may be much faltering, stumbling, and temporary defeat; difficulties and temptations manifold to be battled with and overcome; but if the spirit be strong and the heart be upright, no one need despair of ultimate success. The very effort to advance—to arrive at a higher standard of character than we have reached—is inspiring and invigorating; and even though we may fall short of it, we cannot fail to be improved by every honest effort made in an upward direction.

It is character which builds an existence out of circumstance. Our strength is measured by our plastic power. From the same materials one man builds palaces, another hovels: one warehouses, another villas. Bricks and mortar are mortar and bricks, until the architect can make them something else. Thus it is that in the same family, in the same circumstances, one man rears a stately edifice, while his brother, vacillating and incompetent, lives forever amid ruins; the block of granite which was an obstacle on the pathway of the weak, becomes a stepping-stone on the pathway of the strong.”

Although the force of example will always exercise great influence upon the formation of character, the self-originating and sustaining force of one’s own spirit must be the main-stay. This alone can hold up the life, and give individual independence and energy. “Unless man can erect himself above himself,” said Daniel, a poet of the Elizabethan era, “how poor a thing is man!” Without a certain degree of practical efficient force—compounded of will, which is the root, and wisdom, which is the stem of character—life will be indefinite and purposeless—like a body of stagnant water, instead of a running stream doing useful work and keeping the machinery of a district in motion.

When the elements of character are brought into action by determinate will, and, influenced by high purpose, man enters upon and courageously perseveres in the path of duty, at whatever cost of worldly interest, he may be said to approach the summit of his being. He then exhibits character in its most intrepid form, and embodies the highest idea of manliness.

{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Justin Wollmann October 15, 2011 at 11:48 pm

Very good find! In my life, I find many situations in which I have the opportunity to take it easy and be ignorant, slow, rude, or unproductive. However, I have learned in the last couple of years, that being of strong character is important to a person reaching their maximum potential, and also to becoming an intelligent and productive citizen.

And like this Gentleman brings up: Being a man of strong character is never a straight shot. It’s very difficult to maintain a strong character.. But that’s why it’s worth it. Nothing good comes easy, and we can see in our own society, that people who give up on strong character, turn to weak men. And we need less weak men in our society.

2 er October 16, 2011 at 6:03 am

I really enjoyed this article, its written very well and encompasses much wisdom. Aristotle the Greek philosopher also made similar arguments. Can’t recall his exact words or the text (I think it was “the republic”) but he called it “passion”.

Passion gives you the strength and motivation to do everything you do, to have passion you must stick to your beliefs and keep them in one chosen direction, its a sort of positive feedback cycle.

3 Will Berlin October 16, 2011 at 9:14 am

This is just what I needed to read this morning. Thank you for it!

4 Daren Redekopp October 16, 2011 at 9:22 am

Sometimes I find myself wishing I were born in a time when words such as these were originally penned. Living as we are on the brink of oblivion, such words have never been more needed and never more scarce. So here’s to a fresh call to virtue: may we answer with vigor.

5 David Y October 16, 2011 at 10:23 am

Character counts. Character lasts.

It is how we live out lives when we think no one is looking the shows our true character. It may not always be easy, and others may tell you “why bother”. But, in the end you know you did the right thing.

People may achieve success and fame through their other talents. But, without character those things may be fleeting. How often do we find out about famous people that we admired and looked up to only to find out they have no real character and lived lives we end up depising?

6 Harry Stone October 16, 2011 at 10:39 am

I actually had to hold back a tear! Everything written here is exactly what my parents worked to instill in me and I strive to embody. It’s hard and discouraging sometimes, especially lately…and reading something like this really helps me to push on. Thank you.

7 TTFK October 16, 2011 at 12:33 pm

When defining a person’s character, the entire article can be summed up in one sentence:

Character is how you act when you think nobody is looking.

8 Tony D October 16, 2011 at 3:35 pm

In North America, character building is usually something men do as team building exercises through corporate functions.

I’m a dating, or approach coach for men. And some people think what I teach may be manipulation or something absurd. But I don’t know a better method for developing a man’s character than showing him how to properly express his attraction for the fairer sex.

9 Seth MIllican October 16, 2011 at 5:10 pm

A great reminder of what truly makes us men, when all of the fluff is taken away. Our character and integrity is what makes us who we are, after all of the materialism, popularity, and intellectualism of contemporary society is stripped away. It’s so encouraging to know that the true test of manhood comes from qualities any man can develop, regardless of his external circumstances. It’s a choice we can all make, and so in reality, we have little in the way of excuses when we choose not to. Reading this was challenging to me, a great way to start the week. Thank you!

10 Jeffrey Armando Vasquez October 16, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Great post. Thank you for sharing. We teach that character is “who you are when no one is watching” to the students at our charter school. It’s a lesson in simplest form, but it’s great to read an expanded version here.

11 E.J. October 17, 2011 at 12:14 am

What is mean by the phrase “A handful of good life is worth a bushel of learning”? Does George Herbert imply that a good life is weighed in one handful? Isn’t a handful a small amount? What’s more valuable here, good life or learning?

12 Pete October 17, 2011 at 1:10 am

An incredible article by Mr. Smiles that withstood the test of time. Although it seems that a man with exceptional character is hard to find in todays youth. But one area that breeds the character that Smiles is regarding is todays military men and women. Which still contributes to building people of high character and virtue. I can attest this myself, but when I look outside the ranks the moral character of the everyday person seems lost in there own way. Even within the military there are those who have a hard time grasping the concept of moral character. I can only hope that the everyday person will eventually get back to finding themselves and help build a society with attainment to this trait.

13 Scott Arnold October 17, 2011 at 12:59 pm

Outstanding, bravo.

14 Michael October 17, 2011 at 1:32 pm

@ E.J. (October 17, 2011 at 12:14 am), who wrote:
“What is mean[t] by the phrase ‘A handful of good life is worth a bushel of learning’? Does George Herbert imply that a good life is weighed in one handful? Isn’t a handful a small amount? What’s more valuable here, good life or learning?”

Good life. The George Herbert quotation implies that the lessons of experience, a.k.a. “the school of hard knocks,” are worth more than formal education. This is consistent with the author’s argument than the intellect is inferior to the heart, which is the seat of character.

15 Nkosana October 17, 2011 at 1:53 pm

Great article. It reminds me of an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson with the same title. It turnred my life around. Thanks again!

16 Lee October 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm

I always wonder what it was like for the common man living in times past such as this. Then I wonder if I could live back then. Would the people be as steadfast in their beliefs as the author says? Would they have more character? Did modern inventions really change us all that much?

Then I read something like this and realize that while the stuff we own may change, humans have more or less remained the same throughout the millennium.

17 Jesper October 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Great article!

I do think humans have changed as life, for a lot of people, has become more comfortable. Toil and struggle builds character and comfort kills it.

18 Wil Kelley October 19, 2011 at 11:19 am

For me the article did not succinctly define character.
I expected the article to tell me what character is and why I needed it.
I hoped the article would help me measure my own character and tell me how to improve it.

19 Lawrence October 23, 2011 at 2:48 am

If only people still spoke like this. Very moving. Thanks for the post.

20 Damar October 24, 2011 at 9:37 am

Excellent post! Everything I am trying to be. Been following this ideal o mine for atleast half a year now. Striving and going the extra mile to the point of satisfaction no matter the drudgery

I feel like a titan every day of my life!

I feel awake!

21 Vinicius November 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm

I am admired with so much wisdom and quality of the writing that I felt like just one read at it wouldn’t be enough.

22 nick November 7, 2011 at 2:02 pm

This is exactly the way I feel about life and how we as men should go about living it. True moral values must be upheld in order to preserve the good in mankind which I believe is slowly disappearing. We need to show our friends this so that they may see what living life truly is.

23 Daniel November 11, 2011 at 9:15 pm

This is a Biblical article, although it may not have meant to be. Good work, truth is truth no matter what it’s source.

24 Umaila November 13, 2013 at 8:50 am

This is very gud article…its help me a lot..

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