What Is Character? Its 3 True Qualities and How to Develop It

by Brett & Kate McKay on June 25, 2013 · 62 comments

in A Man's Life, On Manhood, On Virtue


Character. Like honor, it’s a word we take for granted and probably have an affinity for, but likely have never really had to define and may struggle to do so when pressed. It’s a word most men desire to have ascribed to them, and yet the standards of its attainment remain rather vague in our modern age.

It’s certainly not a word that’s used as much as it once was. Cultural historian Warren Susman researched the rise and fall of the concept of character, tracing its prevalence in literature and the self-improvement manuals and guides popular in different eras. What he found is that the use of the term “character” began in the 17th century and peaked in the 19th – a century, Susman, writes, that embodied “a culture of character.” During the 1800s, “character was a key word in the vocabulary of Englishmen and Americans,” and men were spoken of as having strong or weak character, good or bad character, a great deal of character or no character at all. Young people were admonished to cultivate real character, high character, and noble character and told that character was the most priceless thing they could ever attain. Starting at the beginning of the 20th century, however, Susman found that the ideal of character began to be replaced by that of personality.

But character and personality are two very different things.

As society shifted from producing to consuming, ideas of what constituted the self began to transform. The rise of psychology, the introduction of mass-produced consumer goods, and the expansion of leisure time offered people new ways of forming their identity and presenting it to the world. In place of defining themselves through the cultivation of virtue, people’s hobbies, dress, and material possessions became the new means of defining and expressing the self. Susman observed this shift through the changing content of self-improvement manuals, which went from emphasizing moral imperatives and work to personal fulfillment and self-actualization. “The vision of self-sacrifice began to yield to that of self-realization,” he writes. “There was a fascination with the peculiarities of the self.” While advice manuals of the 19th century (and some of the early 20th as well), emphasized what a man really was and did, the new advice manuals concentrated on what others thought he was and did. In a culture of character, good conduct was thought to spring from a noble heart and mind; with this shift, perception trumped inner intent. Readers were taught how to be charming, control their voice, and make a good impression. A great example of this is Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People from 1936. It focused on how to get people to like you and how to get others to perceive you well versus trying to improve your actual inner moral compass.

Susman argues that the transformation from a culture of character to a culture of personality was ultimately about a shift from “achievement to performance.” Character was split into good and bad, personality into famous and infamous; in a culture of personality you can be famous without having done anything to earn it. Susman illuminates this difference by noting that while the words most associated with character in the nineteenth century were “citizenship, duty, democracy, work, building, golden deeds, outdoor life, conquest, honor, reputation, morals, manners, integrity, and above all, manhood,” the words most associated with personality in the twentieth were “fascinating, stunning, attractive, magnetic, glowing, masterful, creative, dominant, and forceful.”

There’s nothing wrong with the cultivation of personality, and we’ve offered plenty of advice on it here on the site. It can help you navigate the world, form relationships, and become successful. But personality is absolutely no substitute for character, which should be the foundation of every man’s life.

Thus today we will be exploring the true nature of this largely forgotten ideal. We’ll be doing so by tapping into the writings of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when character was still king.

What Is Character?

The etymology of character is quite telling. The word comes from the Greek kharakter for “engraved mark,” “symbol or imprint on the soul,” and “instrument for marking,” and can be traced further back to the words for “to engrave,” “pointed stake,” and “to scrape and scratch.”

Anciently, a character was the stamp or marking impressed into wax and clay, and as Henry Clay Trumbull explains in 1894’s Character-Shaping and Character-Showing, it served as:

“another name for the signature, or monogram, or personal superscription, or trade-mark, of the potter, the painter, the sculptor, the writer, or any other artist or artisan, or inventor, as indicative of the personality of the maker, or of the distinctive individuality of the article marked. It is the visible token by which a thing is distinguished from every other thing with which it might otherwise be confounded.”

In the 17th century, the word came to be associated with “the sum of qualities that defines a person.” These qualities included a man’s intellect, thoughts, ideas, motives, intentions, temperament, judgment, behavior, imagination, perception, emotions, loves, and hates. All of these components, William Straton Bruce writes in 1908’s The Formation of Christian Character, “go to the shaping and coloring of a man’s character. They have all some part in producing that final type of self, that ultimate habit of will, into which the man’s whole activities at last shape themselves.”

The balance of these components within the soul of each man, and the way one or another predominates over others, is what makes a character unique and sets apart one individual from another.

It should not be thought, however, that character is synonymous merely with personal tastes, temperaments, and preferences. Things like how you dress, your favorite music, or whether you are introverted or extroverted have little to nothing to do with character. Rather, character is defined in how your habits, motives, thoughts, and so on relate to morality, particularly as it concerns integrity. Character was defined as “your moral self,” the “crown of a moral life,” and referred to as a “moral structure,” something you built through virtuous behavior. Bruce writes:

“Character is nature and nurture. It is nature cultured and disciplined, so that natural tendencies are brought under the sway of the moral motive. His natural individuality marks off a man from his fellows by clear and specific differences. But this individuality may be non-moral. To produce character it must be brought under discipline, and organized into the structure of a true moral being…

Above all, [character] includes a choice, a settled habit or bent of will, so that it can be seen in its outcome in conduct. Character takes up the raw material of nature and temperament, and it weaves these into the strong, well-knit texture of a fully moralized manhood.”

The 3 Qualities of True Character

To better understand the nature of character, we now turn to James Davison Hunter who laid out the 3 qualities of true character in his modern book, The Death of Character:

Moral Discipline

“We cannot differ as to the need in our national character of those qualities of self-control, of quick and unquestioning obedience to duty, of joyful contempt of hardship, and of zest in difficult and arduous undertakings which, rightly or wrongly, we consider soldierly, which we attribute in such rich measure to our forefathers, and which the moral exigencies of our national task to-day as peremptorily demand. To put these primary and elemental needs as sharply as possible, let us call them discipline and austerity. Our American character needs more of both.” –Robert Elliott Speer, The Stuff of Manhood, Some Needed Notes on American Character, 1917

The one quality most associated with character in the nineteenth century was self-mastery – the dominion of an individual over his impulses and desires, so that he was in control of them, and not the other way around. A man of self-mastery embodies the kingship of self-control and can direct his will and make his own choices, rather than being a slave to his base impulses.

Moral discipline is also a quality that not only allows a man to bear hardship stoically, but even to actively seek out a rougher, more austere life, one that eschews the kind of indulgence that deprives character of needed training and leads to softness.

Moral Attachment

The pursuit of character does not have as its sole end the cultivation of self. Susman notes that it is in fact “a group of traits believed to have social significance and moral quality,” and he found that the most popular quote related to character during the nineteenth century was Ralph Waldo Emerson’s definition of it as: “Moral order through the medium of individual nature.” This is to say that character has always been about something greater than self and included the self as part of a community. Moral attachment means being committed to a set of higher ideals and to acting, and if need be, sacrificing, for the greater good of one’s community. Speer beautifully explains the meaning of moral attachment:

The moral elements of individual character are inevitably social…When a man ‘has trained himself,’ to use the words of Lord Morley in dealing with Voltaire’s religion, ‘to look upon every wrong in thought, every duty omitted from act, each infringement of the inner spiritual law which humanity is constantly perfecting for its own guidance and advantage . . . as an ungrateful infection, weakening and corrupting the future of his brothers’ he views each struggle within his own soul against evil and each firm aspiration after purity not as a mere incident in his own spiritual biography but as a fight for social good and for the perfecting of the nation and of humanity. And the struggle for social good and the perfecting of human life is fundamentally a struggle for the triumph of ideals in personal wills. God can take hold of men only in man. He revealed Himself and wrought redemption less by a social process than by a personal incarnation. And the only way of which we know to uplift the life of the nation and to fit it for its mission and its ministry is to reform our own and other men’s characters, and ourselves to be what manner of man among men we would have the nation be among nations…

For a man to love himself so much that he never thinks of his neighbors, to blind his eyes so completely to consequences that he can live for the passing moment,—this is a very easy philosophy, and the man or the woman who is able to practice it will seem, for a while, to live in the sunshine, a fine butterfly, smooth-going life. All this is easier than to say, not, What is my impulse? but, What ought I? not, What do I like? but, What is best for all the world? not, What is the easy way? but, What is the hard way over which the feet go that carry the burdens of mankind, that bear the load of the world?”

Moral Autonomy

“The core of all character lies in individuality. Character is a moral fact: and, until life is individual, it is not moral. And by individual we mean something single, separate, and alone, that cannot be accounted for from outside, cannot be grouped under any general laws, cannot be extracted out of outside conditions. Its actions must spring from out of itself, it makes them happen; and you have to enter into its inner life and secrets if you would know why it does anything. However alike the circumstances may be, no other being would do exactly what this character does, or say what it says. It is this seal of individuality which it sets on everything that comes out from it, which makes it a character. Sometimes it stamps it weakly, and then we say a person has little or no character; or sometimes it stamps it forcibly, and then we say, ‘That is a man of character.’” –Henry Scott Holland, Creed and Character, 1887

Character cannot develop in an environment in which ethical decisions are forced upon the individual. Character is a product of judgment, discretion, and choice – born from a man’s free agency. A decision that is coerced cannot be a moral decision, and thus cannot be a decision of character.

Davison summarizes the definition of character thusly: “Character, in a classic sense, manifests itself as the autonomy to make ethical decisions always on behalf of the common good and the discipline to abide by that principle.”

How Does Character Develop?

“Character gains through its expression, and loses through its repression. Love grows through its expression. Sympathy grows through its expression. Knowledge grows through its expression. The artistic sense grows through its expression. The religious sentiment grows through its expression. The capacity for instruction, for administration, for command, grows through its expression. The more a man does in any line of wise endeavor, the more he can do in that line, and the more of a man he is in that line. And the refraining from the free expression of love, or of sympathy, or of knowledge, or of the artistic sense, or of the religious sentiment, or of the power of instruction, of administration, or of command, both limits and lessens that which is thus repressed.

To possess and to exhibit an admirable personal character is a duty incumbent on every one. In order to possess such a character, its exhibit by its expression is a necessity. He who does not endeavor to express those traits and qualities which are the exhibit of an admirable personal character, cannot hope to retain such a character, even if it were his by nature; and he who does endeavor to express them, can hope to gain the character which they represent, even though he lacked it before.” –Henry Clay Trumbull, Character-Shaping and Character-Showing, 1894

There are many things that engrave our character upon the clay of our lives, and shape our character for better and for worse into a unique set of scratches and grooves. Our character begins to be shaped from the very time we are born and is influenced by where we grow up, how we are raised, the examples our parents provide, religious and academic education, and so on. Our character can be dramatically altered by a life-changing tragedy – the contraction of a disease, a severe accident, the death of a parent, child, or spouse. Such events may turn a man bitter or cynical, or may cause him to discover energies of soul and feelings of hope and compassion hitherto unimagined. A man’s character can also be greatly formed by a call to take upon himself a mantle of leadership during a crisis or emergency – an event that tests and exercises his physical and mental abilities.

One of the greatest influences on our character is those with whom we surround ourselves, as Speer explains:

“The important elements of character-making—or character-shaping—which we are most likely to overlook or undervalue are the exceptional impressions made upon us by casual acquaintances in our earlier life, and the quieter influences exerted over us by those with whom we are closely associated in after years—when our characters are commonly supposed to be fully and finally established. If we could trace back to their first exhibit some of the characteristics which now mark us most distinctively, we should perhaps find that we owe their development, not to the steady training in their direction received by us at home or in school, but to the sudden disclosure of their attractiveness in the life of some one whom we were with but for a brief season; or, again, we should see that the temptations which try us most severely, and the evil thoughts and imaginings which have given us greatest trouble in life, are the outgrowth of germs planted in our minds by persons of whom we have no distinct recollections apart from the harm they thus did us.

Nor is it in childhood only that our characters are shaped and directed by our associates. The best characters are always open to improvement, and always in danger of deteriorating. Many a husband seems actually made over by his wife; and many a wife seems absolutely another person through her husband’s influence, after a few years of married life. It is perhaps a friend of our maturer years whose purity and nobleness, whose gentleness and grace, whose spirit of fairness and charity, or whose well-defined views on every point of ethics where he has a conviction, impress us with the correctness and beauty of his ideal, gradually influence us to his ways of thinking, and inspire us to strive toward his standards of judgment and feeling.

Or again, our moral tone is lowered and our tastes are vitiated by intimate companionship, in social life or in business, with one of grosser nature, or of perverted and debased tendencies. Characteristics which had been long repressed in our nature come into new prominence, and those which had before distinguished us drop out of sight. So long as we live, our characters are in the formative state; and whether we be counted strong or weak, our characteristics are continually being re-shaped and re-directed by those whom we newly come to know and admire, or with whom we are newly brought into intimate association. A fresh ideal held before us, a purer, nobler, lovelier character coming distinctly into our range of observation and study, is something to thank God for; for it may be an inspiration to us, and a help toward the better and higher development of our characters than we have before realized.”

As we can see, many factors, some beyond our control, play a role in molding our character. But the single greatest influence on our character is that which we have ultimate power over: how we respond to circumstances. Writers of the 19th century agreed that the true exercise and test of a man’s character was whether he would hold to his moral principles no matter how sorely tempted or how painful the repercussions. Holland writes:

“At all costs, character must show itself to be free and above its circumstances. If a man is the creature of circumstances we call him a man without character; changing with all the changing hours, he has no self-identity, and character is that with which we identify a man. Character is vital and vigorous so far only as it insists on making itself free room for action amid the thronging events, and it dies down as soon as it fails to hold itself aloof and separate from circumstances. Character is the reaction from circumstances. It is the inner movement which encounters and withstands the shock of change and outward things. And it must, therefore, issue from a life that directs itself.”

Many men feel like character is something that can only be built during dramatic tests and crises. But it is truly in “the constant, habitual, hurried, routine acts of common life that that swarm of little judgments is made such as form the character.” We would do well to remember that we are “being made every minute, and we cannot help it,—you and I, as we walk and talk, eat and drink, marry and are given in marriage, work and play, go out and come in.”

As we are faced with varying circumstances each day and judge and decide how to act, our actions become our habits, and our habits become our character as Speer explains:

“By means of the will man passes from an intellectual state into act and deed. And these activities of the mind are not merely isolated movements; they become links in a series of actions and acquire permanence. The agent throws himself into these acts; and in the exercise of knowing and willing he becomes characterized by his own deeds. The more frequently he does the act, the more easy and pleasurable does it become. And this blending of pleasure and volition creates that tendency or bias towards doing it that we denominate Habit. Therefore it is that we have spoken of character as a habit of will.”

Why Develop Character?

“Men of character are the conscience of the society to which they belong.” –Ralph Waldo Emerson

Deciding to become a man of character means choosing to live a more disciplined and less selfish life. So why undertake such a hard path?

Both classical and biblical cultures believed that the character of each individual was tied to the health of the society as a whole. The founding fathers argued that that the citizenry’s commitment to living a life of character was the key in the success or failure of the republican experiment. “The steady character of our countrymen,” Thomas Jefferson said, “is a rock to which we may safely moor. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigor. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”

In a similar vein, James Madison wrote: “Is there virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical checks—no form of Government can render us secure. To suppose that any form of Government will secure liberty or happiness without any form of virtue in the people, is a chimerical idea.”

The founders rightly saw that without a people of character there could be no trust and justice, and thus no true community or stability. No true pursuit of happiness.

What benefits the whole, benefits the individual as well. As Speer puts it, “only hardness can make a great soul” and the cultivation of character gives us the inner exercise that makes our souls grow:

“It is only where we have gone that we know the way; it is only the experience in life that we have passed through that gives us our true knowledge of life, because the end of life is its relationships, and wealth of life depends on the breadth of true knowledge and the riches of true relationship. Smoothness of life is simply deadening because it keeps us out of what is real life…

[The] indulgent life [is worthless] because it cannot connect men and women with the real springs of strength and of power. No strong man was ever made against no resistance. We develop no physical power by putting forth no physical effort. All the strength of life we have we get by pushing against opposition. We acquire power as we draw it out of deep experience and effort.”

A life of indulgence and ease, Speer concludes, “leave men and women weak, with no strength either themselves to bear or to achieve for others.”

Without seeking the power and strength that comes from building one’s character, we will lament that when we need the power of self-mastery, we do not have it:

“And in our own lives the easy education does not go easily all the way. There comes a time when, having always indulged ourselves, we can’t break the habit; when, never having taken our lives in our hands and reined them to the great ministries of mankind, we discover that we cannot. We find that we obey our caprices; follow any impulse; cannot stick to any task; do not know a principle when we see it; have no iron or steel anywhere in our character; are the riffraff of the world that the worthy men and women have to bear along as they go.”

Character offers a form of freedom that seems foreign in our modern age, but at least for me personally, still deeply resonates:

There is no freedom outside of character. Liberty, as Montesquieu says, is not freedom to do just as we please. Liberty is the ability to do as we ought. And the freedom that we need is not the freedom of caprice and whim and listening to our impulses. It is the freedom that enables our eyes clearly to see what right is, and then empowers us to do it.”

Speer also reminds us that just as the companions we choose can mold our character, so can we mold others:

“We are ourselves the shapers and directors of the characters and the characteristics of some whom we meet or reach. This thought ought to give us a sense of added responsibility and of added anxiety. What we are may settle the question of what a multitude of others shall be and shall do. Our lives and characters are entering into and becoming a part of the lives and characters of those whom we never knew until recently, and their lives and characters are entering into and becoming a part of ours. The composition of their and our characters is still in progress.”

Is our character influencing others for good and helping them build their own power and strength? Are we doing our part to be a man of character and infuse our culture and nation with vitality? What grooves and lines are you engraving upon your character each and every day? Character is our legacy – what will yours be?

{ 62 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Steven L June 25, 2013 at 9:32 pm

Excellent article. Thank you.

2 Craig L June 25, 2013 at 10:14 pm

This article is so very true.The problem I see is that, in the media, you see so many people held up as paragons, like celebrities, who really aren’t of good moral fabric. These people are then “sold” to younger people as models. When that idol is caught being immoral younger people see this as an excuse to do the same. My question is; How to change this idolization of the dramatic?

3 Phil June 25, 2013 at 10:18 pm

Fantastic article. As a military man, this resonates deeply with me. It reminds me a lot of the lectures I heard from my father growing up, and I’m only 25, so the concept of character can’t be too terribly dead.

The idea of character is so sorely lost on the newer generations that the new airmen that I get in my workcenter come to work expecting a handout. These are not noble young men and women wanting to serve selflessly; these are self-entitled little brats that have no moral compass at all, and join the Air Force expecting to do the least amount of work possible for what they perceive to be an ‘easy’ paycheck. I see them every day. It’s horrible. I work in aircraft maintenance, and there is absolutely no room for this kind of attitude and lack of character. I hope it changes soon.

4 Billy R. June 25, 2013 at 10:53 pm

Well worth the read. I am doing my best to become a man of character. AOM is very helpful in this effort.

5 dude June 25, 2013 at 11:13 pm

Well written article, I really enjoyed reading. it reminds me of why I always thought my grandfather was a man of great character. I think I better understand know how a man follows the path to achieve a sense of integrity and high character.

6 Casey James Choate June 25, 2013 at 11:18 pm

It’s good to hear you guys talking about character. I don’t think enough men think about this these days.

I like Ben Franklin’s virtues. Google it.

7 Geoff June 25, 2013 at 11:20 pm

130. That’s how many occurrences of the word character there are in this article.

8 Stuart Schwenke June 26, 2013 at 12:01 am

Character and Religion relate to one another. If morality forms the heart of character, as the three points indicate, then the moral framework defines the character. The quotes and references in this article assume a Judeo-Christian moral system.

Unfortunately, many want the character afforded by this system without the commitment to the central figure. Thus, we have many attempts in our secular society to enforce the character traits without the moral system behind the traits.

This pattern has occurred before in human history with no more success than we have achieved. I am not calling for a theocracy, but character is linked to one’s religious point of view. Our character strengths and weaknesses point to the strengths and weakness, not of our religious system, but to our personal faith and practice of that system.

Great article. Thanks.

9 Naveen June 26, 2013 at 1:09 am

Wonderful article guys. Seriously. I’ve been doing a practice called Falun Dafa for some time now. And the core of this practice is character cultivation.

Character cultivation is rather difficult to put in practice. No, that’s an understatement. It’s one of the most difficult undertakings of a human existence. That’s more like it. Imagine a world filled with men and women of virtue and good character. You wouldn’t need laws or officials to govern. Each person will look after himself and others.
Cultivation of character is rather a very profound pursuit. One that yields many, many benefits. Unless you step on this path, you wouldn’t know it. Its actually the stepping stone in the pursuit of truth.

A person with high moral character is unshakable like diamond. He is adored by even the Gods. True spiritual practices and orthodox religions all preach morality as the basis of everything else. If you have no morality or character, then all the procedures or decorations mean nothing.
Character cultivation is hard work, but the fruit of the effort is indeed sweet. Easy words as said in the article. But very difficult to put in practice. Give it a try. For example, you might believe you’re a very honest man. But your honesty can only be put into test in an appropriate circumstance. When you forgo self-interest and work towards the welfare of others and when you are prepared to accept losses for the sake of an honest dealing, only then you will know how honest you are.

So goes with all virtues. You’re not what you think. Or say. Only actions reveal the true story.

10 james June 26, 2013 at 5:05 am

an awesome inspiring article.
where can i get a print of the ‘character is power’ image at the top of the page?

11 MatthewSD June 26, 2013 at 8:11 am

I always appreciate articles on AoM about virtue and self-development that aren’t biased towards the post-modern shallowness I see more commonly and that steer clear of the “appeal to tradition” that can be hard to avoid when looking to the past to find a sounding board for your own life.

12 Ray June 26, 2013 at 8:46 am

Great topic and excellent sources. This was an enjoyable reading before I head out this morning. Makes me think about my own life, where i’m at, what i’ve been through and how it has made my character up to this point in life. Everyday each of us are re-calculated, equaling the sum of our past decisions. Character, it speaks loudly even if we don’t. – Have a great day Brett!

13 Gary June 26, 2013 at 11:13 am

Great article.
“Our character is what we do when we think no one is looking.”
–H Jackson Brown, Jr.

14 Timothy June 26, 2013 at 11:40 am

Great article, children these days need to be taught this and not shallow selfish ideals.

15 Ryan June 26, 2013 at 12:43 pm

Great article! I wish school taught this!! I hope one day my two boys will be great men. I love the image;where can i get a print of the ‘character is power’ image at the top of the page?

16 Brett McKay June 26, 2013 at 1:10 pm

@James & Ryan-

The image at the top is an illustration from an old 19th century book about character. I pretty sure it’s not available anywhere as a print, but if there’s interest, it’s something we could add to our store….

17 Prachi June 26, 2013 at 1:34 pm

Wow, great article. Something we know but have forgotten and definitely don’t remind ourselves of every day. Personality taking precedence over Character with advent of consumerism is a connection I never made!

18 Ryan June 26, 2013 at 1:47 pm


I would love to buy the book and if you made a poster I would buy that too! What is the name of the book?

Thanks for the reply!

19 Jimmy Brown June 26, 2013 at 1:57 pm

I enjoyed this article very much. It really built on a couple of books I’ve read recently. Susman’s look at the age of character and the age of personality first came to my attention while reading Susan Cain’s book Quiet, where she used it to discuss why the world has become tailored to extroverts. It was wonderful to see the two ages expanded upon here.

The other book is The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. He spends a large part of the book explaining and expounding the bodily nature of spiritual discipline, so to prove the need for physical actions of both abstinence and engagement to produce Christlike character. Or as it says here, “Character gains through its expression.” Thinking the right things isn’t enough; what we do molds what we become.

Thank you for a truly profitable read.

20 Colin J June 26, 2013 at 2:09 pm

It’s sad to be referring to character as predominately being a past interest of importance to society. It’s actually a simple concept that explains why we have and continue to deteriorate morally. As my pastor put it, no one simply drifts into favor with God and men. We naturally stray toward bad behavior. Or if you’re not religious, think of it this way: all mammals will physically follow the path of least resistance. That’s why “funneling” a deer into a trap works. You place things in its regular path, it walks where it’s easier instead, toward your trap. Think of any decision you have to make and most of the time the right thing to do will be the harder one to make. Eating right, not lying, or giving money to charity. They aren’t easier than the alternative. They are the objects in our path through the woods. We have, as a society, focused too much on what’s easier, what’s faster, and what breaks down morality. We would only reverse this process if a lot more people everywhere collectively went with the harder and the right decisions, and stopped giving in to the plagues of political correctness and moral relativism.

21 Amanda Kennedy June 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I second James and Ryan, and would love a print of the “character” graphic. I was going to ask if there was a hi-res version available before reading the comments, it’s a wonderful image!

22 Patrick June 26, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Golden. Another great read; will this be series like your articles on “Honor?” I’d love to see you work out some of the connections between virtue(s) and character. If you’ve never read it before, I’d definitely recommend Jonathan Edwards’ “The Nature of True Virtue” — a great, 18th century read. Sure the language is a bit archaic and the logic a bit dense to follow at times, but well worth the effort — enduring in reading it builds character.

And I’m with James and Ryan on the graphic. It would be a great addition to the AoM Store.

23 Brett McKay June 26, 2013 at 2:54 pm


The book is called “Traits of Character Illustrated in Bible Light” by Henry Kletzing. Lots of good stuff in it (and more cool illustrations too). The reprint is available on Amazon, but pretty pricey. Fortunately it’s also available for free online, on archive.org and google books:



No plans on making this a true series, but there are aspects of character we may revisit in the future. Thanks for the book recommendation.

People who would like to see this as a print….would it you like it to be a smaller print, like an 11X17 or 13X19 or a full-size poster like 18X24?

24 Tyler June 26, 2013 at 5:25 pm

This definitely influenced me to consider my character more. Thank you.

25 Zach June 26, 2013 at 6:24 pm

As a philosophy major, I can attest to the idea of character lacking among people. Many professors, even, are completely averse to teaching character; the ancients are often scoffed at in the classroom by both students and professors; though, not by all. When I meet a person of character, the meeting brings a renewed vigor to life. The posts in A Man’s Life also revitalize my vigor and bring encouragement and fodder for an often lonely task, becoming a better man. Much obliged.

26 Dave June 26, 2013 at 6:35 pm

Excellent article! Sometimes I feel that the ones who call themselves “old fashion” are the ones with real character. Sticking to their values regardless of changing ethics. Character is a measurable thing and it shows in those who have it, for sure.

Thanks again!

27 Jimmy June 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm


That quote you’ve got always stays with me as my definition of character. Our football coach said it to us in high school, though we always got the “Character is what you do when you think no one is looking” version, because he was trying to teach us to be men. Team sports develop character when they require you to work hard for success. On a rugby pitch, for instance, you have to trust the teammates on either side of you to have their man so there’s no overlap. They have to trust you back that you’ll make your tackle. Slacking off easy. Working hard is, well, hard. Thinking about character actively grows that character.

28 Matt M. June 26, 2013 at 8:49 pm


This is a great article. I like your articles when they dig into a forgotten concept such as this.

As a constructive comment, the articles about food, how to build/make this or that can be found on other websites. However, articles like these are what sets AOM apart.

Thanks again,

29 Hayden M June 27, 2013 at 12:29 am

This is an incredible article. The quote by James Madison was especially powerful. As much a we like to think that we can a healthy culture and along with a completely inclusive ‘anything goes’ morality that makes no demands, neither the great thinkers or the events of history bear this idea out. A football coach who I once worked for often told his players that you win games in practice. Ultimately, nothing new happens during a test (athletic, academic, or moral) what has long been happening is simply revealed.

30 Nate June 27, 2013 at 8:51 am

“…to reform our own and other men’s characters, and ourselves to be what manner of man among men we would have the nation be among nations…”

Best line I’ve read anywhere in a long time. Cool article, Brett.

31 John L June 27, 2013 at 8:58 am

This is a great article. It most definitely made me look at my own character.I will put my vote in for a poster size print

32 Jeff C June 27, 2013 at 9:22 am

I bristle at the ties between religious morality and character. There have been many atheists of the highest character, not to mention the agnostics, deists and people of non-Abrahamic religions. I don’t particularly care what others think of my character because too often their definition of character is not the same as mine and is based upon rules that are far from universal. History is filled with men of great character that are seen as truly awful people today.

33 Matt June 27, 2013 at 11:23 am

This is the best article I have read all year… including my usual op-eds from the WSJ and NRO. Thank you

34 John June 27, 2013 at 11:43 am


I would be really interested in a poster or print of that illustration, it’s fantastic! Please let us know if you can make that happen.

35 AP June 27, 2013 at 11:48 am

Another EXCELLENT article. True for men and women. I would also be interested in a print or two, Brett. Thank you for your work here and please continue on!

36 Aaron June 27, 2013 at 1:34 pm

BRett. I have been a fan of this site for a while now. This may be the best article to date. The idea of character vs personality is perhaps the most applicable lesson in this article. Although a man of personality can and probably will be successful in his life, his personality will not and cannot secure true happiness and fulfillment. A man of character is entirely different, although he may or may not seem successful in a worldly sense ( ie wealthy, many investments, many possessions,etc.) he will always have an inward sense of peace and contentment with himself and his relationship with others( wife, family, employer/employees). WE need more men of character. I am grateful the men of character in my life that have shown me what it means to reach the pinnacle of manliness. Keep it up Brett and all other contributors to this site!

37 Rebecca Ohanian June 27, 2013 at 1:53 pm


I do not believe I have read any of your articles before, but I really enjoyed reading this one. I agreed with you all the way through, and you brought up points I had never thought of before. I particularly enjoyed the point that focus changed from “what a man REALLY WAS and did” to “what others THOUGHT he was and did.”

It is fascinating to see how changed our society is, that I know only few men of character. I wish more people could read this article and realize that their life impacts the greater whole. My generation lives with this idea that “what I do with my life doesn’t concern you,” that there are no consequences to our actions and we shouldn’t “judge” each other. An interpretation that reflects how we have changed is the change in the meaning of the phrase “Carpe Diem.” My generation believes “Carpe Diem” means party today because there may not be tomorrow, whereas before it was written to mean “Sieze the day, your future is not going to prepare itself, so work for it.” So we run around acting like children, seeking our own desires and refusing to believe that our actions affect other people.

In addition to giving me understanding about social matters, this article has also begun to help me understand theological issues I have been thinking about. The question being what part of us was “made” and what part of us comes from our own self. Does every person have the ability to choose right? And I think this article addressed that question with the comparison between “character and personality.” One requires action and discipline, and the other just IS. Sometimes our personality can affect our decisions, but truly our personality does not write our good or bad character.

The connection you made between the everyday decisions and long-term character is so accurate. We do all assume that, in the face of some serious dilemma, THEN we would become people of character, but that is far from the truth. Who you decide to be every day is who you will be every day.

The only suggestion I have for you is to write this article in very plain and common language. Most of the people who need to read this today would not spend time or effort to read an article that is somewhat difficult to understand to them. I may actually attempt to write some sort of summary so that when I post this or share it with others, they might read it.

Thank you for this wonderful article. It is a good reminder of why we should seek to develop character, and how our actions really do affect the whole. I only wish that more people believed that in this world. Things would be much different. I hope many men AND women read this article and take it to heart.

Thank you.

38 Ric Sobers June 27, 2013 at 8:45 pm

Excellent article. May I make a possible suggestion: if you could put a way that we can make a print copy of these good articles, it would be appreciated.


39 C. Kingsfield June 27, 2013 at 11:56 pm

Sorry to hear this, Phil. I see similar things, too, in my line of work and in the general culture.

In contemplating this article I see how far away from these ideals our culture has fallen. I know perfectly well that no true golden age existed, that history is cyclical or irregular to a notable extent. But I really think that we’re languishing on this count and that we need to return to a clear focus on personal character and responsibility (not just “personality,” as the article clarifies). If we don’t, we’re in long-term trouble.

40 Tsvetelin Stoimenov June 28, 2013 at 5:01 am

Esteemed Brett,

That was quite the interesting article, differentiating between character and personality is truly something that I have rarely seen done. I fully agree with your point that character, being the mastery of self, like any other mastery, is built on habit. That’s is something I’ve been steadily implementing, with a good degree of success, into my own life.

@Rebecca I generally agree with your opinion, however, I don’t think that it is either viable or necessary to write the post in ‘a plain and common’ language, as that would defeat to whole point of the article. After all, it condenses the ideas and knowledge of several books into a very short format. I must ask: ‘If the person wants to build character, what better step could he or she make, than look up a few words, so as to see a clearer picture?’ I certainly did understand most of it, but I still had to check a few things, and English isn’t my native language.


41 Elliot L. June 28, 2013 at 1:47 pm

@Craig L
I think one big part of this is how much modern consumerism plays into our lives. Buying on impulse is usually the desired outcome, so these celebrities you mentioned are then sold to the younger audience because they advertise this ‘YOLO’ lifestyle.

Other than that, another enlightening article Brett. It really brings together a lot of what you’ve been writing about: the habit loop, thumos, postive and negative freedom, the autonomous man in the other-directed world, the list goes on and on. Thanks again for this.

42 Ryan June 28, 2013 at 1:58 pm


Thank you for the links!

Full-size poster like 18X24 please!

43 Big Bad Moose June 29, 2013 at 8:34 am

Brett and Kate,

As usual, you put more hair on my hoofs.


Big Bad Moose

44 Big Bad Moose June 29, 2013 at 8:38 am

Also, a full sized poster 18×24 would be far more appropriate for lessons of this magnitude.

Vire et honestas,


45 Tarun June 29, 2013 at 2:43 pm

The top picture has been my iPhone’s lock screen for months now.

46 Timothy July 1, 2013 at 12:08 am

A very good article. However, I must differ on one point. Religion has nothing to do with the development of character. As an atheist and graduate of seminary, I can attest to the fact that many a pious man has shown very poor character.
As an example of a secular I look to the “Ethical Culture” movement.. A good list of books on the subject of character and virtue would include: “Character Strengths and Virtues”
I would buy the poster too…

47 Sebastian July 5, 2013 at 12:44 pm

WOW!!! Absolutely amazing! This post has truly changed my life (as many of the other posts have done as well). I love how the words you (Brett) wrote and the words of great men of history can invoke such powerful emotion, conviction, and inspiration to become a better man. Amazing!

I read Phil’s comment, who’s working maintenance in the Air Force, and I certainly agree with the lack of true character and the prominence of selfish behavior. At the same time I feel a sense of hope and optimism that we can be a part of the change by being, ourselves, better men of character. I just recently joined the Air Force and I’m stationed out in Oklahoma and both realize there are those who inspire greatness and those that can damage the honor and reputation of what it means to be a great airman. As I mentioned before, I find strength in knowing that I can learn from men and women that are strong in character and then share that with others who are in need.

Awesome! Thank you so much this post! Changed my life!

48 Kent July 5, 2013 at 3:52 pm

Excellent article! Many of our current political leaders and corporate moguls should take this sound advice.
To bad this is not required teaching/reading in our society today.

49 Jacob C July 5, 2013 at 11:01 pm

One of my favorite posts of all-time. Also, I vote for a smaller size poster — 13X9 — I think the design is best suited for that size. Looking forward to seeing it, thanks!

50 Tim July 10, 2013 at 8:40 am

Great article, sorry that people are “bristling” over the mere mention of religion. Maybe a man of character isn’t bothered by the mention of religiousity or the lack of it. Maybe a man of character realizes that both religious people and atheists can be heinous cretins. Maybe he isn’t bothered by that realization.

But he is bothered by the lack of a moral center…

51 Fedoradude July 11, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Outstanding article! Thanks for posting it, sir.

52 Rich July 13, 2013 at 8:52 am

Everyone know that the first step in truly developing character is reading an article on the internet about it.

53 Ryan Moreau July 18, 2013 at 8:59 pm

You see: faith without works is dead faith, and dead faith does not bring forth fruit, the fruit is:
Love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patients), gentleness,goodness,faith, meekness, temperance (gal22-23). note against such there is no law because it is the law.

People saying because we under grace we don’t uphold the law Romans 3:29. look what happens when we don’t uphold they law, look to the world to see.

Nice article

54 The Wolf July 30, 2013 at 10:28 am

“Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.”
-Pulp Fiction.

55 PETE August 16, 2013 at 10:44 pm

“Doing the right thing when no one is looking”

56 ann shaffer September 18, 2013 at 11:02 am

I was born in the wrong century. I doubt many today value character development at all. No wonder Christians seem archaic. I kept thinking about Bill Clinton who was and remains wildly popular despite glaring character flaws. As this article proposes personality trumps character in today’s world.

57 josh Meyer October 2, 2013 at 9:52 pm

This article was spot on. Great job breaking it down. Including the history and transformation of the term was brilliant.

58 Agboola Philip O. January 2, 2014 at 5:23 am

Wow! This article has encouraged me to keep focusing on developing my character. My only wonder is that “character is what we are,why are we pretending to be something else?”…good character,true happiness.

59 Seth January 12, 2014 at 5:34 am

One of the best article about character. Well thought and well written. Thank you for your wonderful efforts.

60 Mark February 21, 2014 at 6:54 am

An inspiring read. I am damn sure gonna try to become a better man and human. I just entered my twenties and since I lack a figure which teaches me all this.. I’ll benefit from this enormously. Thanks!

61 Alex Milinkovich April 16, 2014 at 5:51 pm

The book that turned me on to character was the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” definitely a great read that talks about developing character.

62 Peter April 24, 2014 at 3:45 am

I came across this article/website when searching ‘character’ and ‘character development’. I agree with a great deal of what has been said, both in the article itself and subsequently in the comments. The area that I would take (slight) exception to is the idea that character and its development is largely a thing of the past. As a teacher of 11-18 year old students in the UK for over 20 years, I would argue that character is becoming an increasingly relevant topic of discussion in many fields – education, parenting, sport, social policy, law and order, and the world of work to name but a few. Of course, this is not the same as saying it is once again an embedded aspect of our society! However, I can think of many recent works which in part or wholly adress issues of character – Dweck’s ‘Mindset’; Tough’s ‘How Children Succeed – Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character’; Goleman’s ‘Emotional Intelligence’; Coyle’s ‘The Talent Code’; Syed’s ‘Bounce’; Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards’ for example. Then there are organisations like charactercounts.org, whose explicit aim is the cultivation of character. Readers of the blog might also like to study the concept of ‘Aristotelian virtue’, which should resonate with much that has already been said. Another very interesting read is Kerr’s book ‘Legacy’, which looks at the New Zealand Rugby team and its emphasis on character. Their starting point for selection is character, and their strapline is ‘Better People Make Better All Blacks’. I recently attended a conference at a leading school here in the UK which was all about resilience (an aspect of character) and having the character strength to ‘Fail Well’ – a very interesting concept based on the research of Lance King from New Zealand (his website http://www.taolearn.com is well worth a visit). Another very interesting read At my school we actively teach resilience strategies and are developing plans to explicitly teach/develop character strengths, and in these tasks we make great reference to work done in the USA. Perhaps the world is (slowly) beginning to change?
A very interesting article and one I shall be regularly re-visiting – thank you Brett.

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