Ancient wisdom from the Tao Te Ching
December 28, 2017
What’s in a Name?
January 12, 2018

The Character of “Character”

Usage of the word “character” in the English language has been steadily declining since the turn of the 20th century. (See Google analytics of “character” mentions.) Even today, when one uses the word, it is likely in reference to a movie part, dramatic role, or a facet of a psychological profile, rather than in the sense of having moral force and integrity.

I heard the word used that way quite often growing up, particularly in regards to my lack of it. Nowadays, I can’t think of the last time I heard it used. Is it because I’m now an adult, morally upstanding, and the reference is unnecessary, or does society place less emphasis on the concept?

The idea of character as a moral force had its roots in the classical literature of the Roman world. The Roman orator and statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, wrote that history should be both useful and moral. It was useful because it emphasized policy and legal precedents, and moral because it should provide models of conduct. Conduct in the world of Ancient Rome was based upon the concept of Mos Maiorum.

Loosely translated, it means “ancestral custom”. As an idea, it was the foundation of Roman traditionalism and social practices that underpinned private, political and military life. Because Mos Maiorum was distinct from written law, it evolved over time. Under this Mos, or custom, was the idea of the pater familias, or the head of the household, who held absolute authority over his familia, in terms of marriage, inheritance, even death. Balancing this authority was the mos, or expectation, that the head of a household exercise authority with moderation, and that he act responsibly, or otherwise risk severe social censure.

Familia permeated the social and business world of Rome in the form of the patron-client relationship, which was similar to an extended family. Obligations between parties were mutual and also hierarchical. One’s patron could also be a client to a higher patron, and a client might also have more than one patron. The result was a sophisticated social network as complex as our current social media and Internet infrastructure. (As an interesting side note, Metcalfe’s Law [see “Governance and the Rise of Networks”] was as valid then as it is now, and yields a possible explanation for the Roman Empire’s ascent, supremacy, and subsequent decline in terms of value and importance.)

Patronage—the obligations between client and patron—was not itself a legal contract, but a moral one. It was based on the concept of fides, trust, as well as mos, which underpinned this unique sense of Roman social identity. Supporting that culture was Mos Maiorum, but powerful as it was, it had a weakness. It was an intangible social construct, whose expression depended upon the moderation and sensibilities of those who wielded power. In other words, its use depended on the character of the participants.

The Roman Republic faltered due to the rise of charismatic individuals, who stood in opposition to the conservative principles of consensus and moderation by casting them aside in favor of political and military expediency. The result was civil war.

Augustus, once he became Emperor, invoked the Mos Maiorum once again in an attempt to instill the sensible moderations that had marked the rise of the Republic. It was not until the Christian era that such cohesive ideas were finally done away with altogether.

What were the concepts that underpinned Mos Maiorum specifically?

I have mentioned one: fides.

Fides implies trustworthiness, reliability, and confidence. Most contracts were oral and fides was necessary for business contracts, trade, and social interaction.

Pietas: Cicero called it justice toward the gods. It was not just on the surface but more the inner devotion and respect to family, homeland and the gods.

Religio and cultus: the word “religion” comes from the Latin religare, to bind. It referred to the bond between man and the divine, and the demand that it be respected. Cultus was the actual religious practice. Christianity was considered a cult in the Roman world, not in the modern sense as being a faction, but because it emphasized the performance and practice of the Mass.

Disciplina: the discipline and self-control necessary for successful military operations.

Gravitas and Constantia: self-control with dignity and perseverance.

Virtus: the quality of being a man (vir), one who knew what was good, evil, useless, shameful, or dishonorable.

Those who demonstrated all of the above had dignitas, or worth and honor, that ultimately embodied the spirit of Mos Maiorum, and thus, “character”.

Why the usage of “character” peaked at the end of the 19th century is an interesting question. Perhaps it was the result of several causes that came with the advent of the 20th century, such as the rise in the economic power of the individual, the overthrow of the deterministic worldview of the universe due to the exploration of the probabilistic nature of radioactivity and quantum mechanics in the sciences, the exponential growth of global interconnectivity, which put customs of different lands in conflict with each other, the influence of the state upon the family unit, and ultimately, on the extraordinary ability of the Internet to leap across traditional social, economic and global divides.

Today, the usage of “character” is at a low ebb, and coincident is the dissipation and erosion of what has been considered long-term values that are no longer observable in the current state of the world. Maybe those values have declined, but it is also important to understand that values change over time in the same way that Mos Maiorum shifted and evolved during the Roman era, yet never fully disappeared. They showed up once again in the 18th and 19th centuries as a result of renewed interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome. (See Democracy and the Founding Fathers.)

Values, character, and the like are not concepts that are specifically made into law, although the law can express them to some degree. Rather, they are social customs that evolve as a society develops.

In today’s world, it may seem that new values have replaced the old, but it is also possible that those older character-determining concepts still exist today, but are hidden underneath the surface. It has been my experience that those whom I admire most demonstrate those values. I noticed while writing the Eye of the Moon that these same qualities came through in the people I wrote about.

The Roman world lasted for over 600 years. The Internet has been around for some thirty. Perhaps what the world really needs is a few hundred years to sort it all out. In the meanwhile, I think it might be worth reviewing the qualities that determine character and seek to emulate them. Failing that, acting with moderation in all things is rarely wrong. There is much that is valuable in the past, and there is much to look forward to in the future because one thing is certainly true: Life will find a way. It always does.

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