« Inflammatory Debate Topic of the Day | Main | The Case Against Limiting the Franchise »

August 25, 2010

Exercising the Character

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

- Friedrich Nietzsche

In the middle of David Brooks' latest column lies an unsettling story. A female novelist undergoes a grueling mastectomy without benefit of anesthesia. Most of us would want to forget such an agonizing experience; to put it behind us. This woman chose to write about it:

It took her three months to put down a few thousand words. She suffered headaches as she picked up her pen and began remembering. “I dare not revise, nor read, the recollection is still so painful,” she confessed. But she did complete it. She seems to have regarded the exercise as a sort of mental boot camp — an arduous but necessary ordeal if she hoped to be a person of character and courage.

Burney’s struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.

She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness.

In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.

This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days. Capitalism has also undermined this ethos. In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.

My childhood was filled with tales like this. As a girl I devoured books whole. I almost inhaled them, so greedy was I to learn how the world works, how different people think, how they respond to - and rise above - adversity. Who and why they love. How ordinary folks triumph over grief, disease, disability, poverty, despair. So the tale Brooks told resonated with me, strange as it seems to modern eyes.

Character was a common theme in my childhood reading. Tale after tale spoke of self denial, fear, temptation, pain, courage, perseverance and eventual victory. One doesn't hear much talk of character these days. It has gone out of fashion, but I don't believe capitalism is to blame.

For well over 200 years capitalism has been the signature feature of American life and yet this erosion of character appears nowhere in the books I read during my growing up years. They were (almost without exception) written long before I was born. The erosion is a recent phenomenon that has occurred within my lifetime.

Children - even ones who moves every year - live in a carefully circumscribed universe bounded by rules, family, school, playgrounds and neighborhood friends. For a young boy or girl, reading offers a chance to escape parental warnings and "wait until you're olders". Opening a new book shatters the bonds of time, space, and being. One can see the world through the eyes of an Indian boy or a young girl growing up in the Depression; an elderly Chinese slave or Alexander of Macedonia. The reader can travel backward or forward in time at will, savoring the accumulated wisdom of other ages, other cultures, other lives.

But a traveler touring the classics can't help but notice the common elements that unite characters of every description. There were lessons to be learned: men were sinful by nature and became virtuous only through hard work and determination. The world was a dangerous place; fortunes could be made and lost in an instant. Luck turned sour when one least expected it, but the reverse was true as well.

Without the tempering influences of duty, morality, and character men were weak and easily controlled. People could be divided into ants and grasshoppers. Civilization was a fragile construct threatened on all sides by disease, famine, war, and simple human folly. Security and comfort could be created (however briefly) by industrious ants who worked hard; built strong, secure nests for their families; and saved their food and money against the inevitable prospect of hard times. And then there were the grasshoppers: living in the moment, dependent upon the hard work and foresight of others, never thinking to provide for their own future.

By the age of 8 or 9 I branched out from the relatively structured world of classic literature and began devouring modern books, magazines and newspaper articles - anything and everything I could get my hands on. But this new, undiscovered country offered very different lessons than the piles of books in my parents' house. In the enlightened 60s, social problems were not caused by man's sinful nature or deficiencies of character. No, the system - that fragile and artificial semblance of order so carefully constructed by those officious and moralizing worker ants - was to blame for disrupting the natural order of things. Men were not sinful after all. We were born with an innate sense of goodness that must be allowed free reign. Social ills were the result of oppression, not being understood or allowed to follow one's bliss wherever it led.

Self denial and self restraint were no longer respectable hallmarks of the civilized man. The enlightened person recoiled at such pathological indices of unnatural and unhealthy repression.

Character (with its buzz killing overtones of morality and judgment) was officially "out". "If it feels good" was in. In this new world nothing was off limits, and those who warned that habitual license saps the will and weakens the social fabric were dismissed as joyless scolds out to frighten the weak minded with exaggerated and largely imaginary fears.

In this enlightened universe we were encouraged to indulge every momentary whim. If some negative consequence followed, it was dismissed as an capricious and unfair accident. We were not to blame - "bad luck" was impossible to predict but thankfully, utterly unconnected to our behavior.

This idiocy continued well into the Seventies. We were urged to vent our anger and hostility. After all, they were natural reactions, weren't they? What was profoundly unnatural and unhealthy was keeping them in check. We were encouraged to let it all hang out - the good and the bad alike. We went to primal scream therapy and vented every resentment and grievance, secure in the knowledge that we would feel better afterwards (even if those around us felt much worse).

I often wonder if future generations would recognize the world that beckoned from my childhood bookshelf? Few kids these days have the patience to wade through Victorian-era prose. Even fewer exhibit any curiosity as to how the safe, comfortable world we take for granted came into being. They lack the patience to read even modern books and magazines, much less classic novels like Great Expectations or The Brothers Karamazov. This is the era of the graphic novel. Readers cannot be expected to tackle difficult subjects. Instead we bribe them with dumbed down, accessible fare that meets them where they are rather than challenging them to grow.

Nearly everyone these days recognizes the need for exercise. Muscles atrophy when they're not used. But how many understand that the same is true of willpower, integrity, and the capacity for critical thought? Technology makes tasks that formerly required concentration and diligence easy and painless. But when everything becomes easy, how do we acquire patience and self discipline?

Modern technology, which is essentially infinite button-pushing, also fills one's days with tiny errors surfing the Web, texting or punching TV controllers. It is a trail of constant error. One gets desensitized to errors because, like mice in a maze, another "out" from one's misstep is just another click away.

That we make these unending miscues with the small stuff may not matter, but rewiring the brain to accommodate relentless error may soften us up to making slovenly mistakes with things that do matter. The habits beneath due diligence fall away as we play in the Web's surf.

A generation of ants are in real danger of producing a generation of grasshoppers. Insulated from the harsh realities our parents and grandparents never forget, we are growing soft:

When I was my son's age, I was eager to make money. But, then again, there's a huge difference between my life at 13 and his life now.

I was raised by lower-middle-class grandparents on a fixed income. Even though my grandmother did a great job spoiling me, I knew in my early teens that if I wanted to buy, say, a metal detector (which I wanted one summer), then I'd have to earn the $60 on my own.

Amy grew up much the same way: If she needed something that wasn't essential, she had to pay for it. End of story.

Our son and 7-year-old daughter don't face those same economic pressures. Of course, we don't give our kids everything they want. But we've no doubt gone overboard in buying them things that were beyond our economic reach as kids.

We get a lot of satisfaction in doing that. But it comes with a pretty big downside—one we're only now beginning to grasp. Because of it, our son, who understands money far better than his young sister at this point, doesn't understand what it means to pay his own freight. He has learned to count on Mom and Dad.

It's not as though this generation lacks a framework for understanding human nature. We know all about moral hazard. On some intuitive level we understand that people respond to well intentioned attempts to insulate them from risk and the consequences of their own irresponsibility by taking more risks and acting even more irresponsibly. And yet we continue making the same mistakes:

Most people have learned enough not to post damaging information about themselves online, but there are the occasional few who like to post pictures of themselves overdrinking or who like to ramble on incoherently. Maybe they complained about their boss or bragged about stealing from their employer. Now the German government is passing a law to protect those people from their own idiocy.

A new law in Germany will stop bosses from checking out potential hires on social networking sites. They will, however, still be allowed to google applicants.

Lying about qualifications. Alcohol and drug use. Racist comments. These are just some of the reasons why potential bosses reject job applicants after looking at their Facebook profiles.

According to a 2009 survey commissioned by the website CareerBuilder, some 45 percent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates. And some 35 percent of those employers had rejected candidates based on what they found there, such as inappropriate photos, insulting comments about previous employers or boasts about their drug use.

Classical thinkers like Plato were very much concerned with encouraging responsibility and public virtue because they - like our Founding Fathers - considered these qualities essential to the survival of a free society. I hear a lot of talk about freedom these days but precious little about accountability. Freedom cannot long exist where men seek to be excused from the consequences of their freely made decisions. Such men can neither control nor support themselves.

We have become a society that will accept no limits on individual freedom - not even those imposed by nature and consequence. But the real world lurks outside our carefully constructed playgrounds. Once we have used up our inheritance, will we possess the discipline and fortitude to wrest security and comfort from the wreckage we are creating?

Posted by Cassandra at August 25, 2010 07:54 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Few kids these days have the patience to wade through Victorian-era prose.

Patience? What they need is parents. Over this summer vacation, my son read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The White Company, and the poet Sidney Lanier's redaction of Sir Thomas Malory, The Boy's King Arthur. He also read The Hobbit, which is big on these issues.

Classical thinkers like Plato were very much concerned with encouraging responsibility and public virtue because they - like our Founding Fathers - considered these qualities essential to the survival of a free society.

Quite right. I was just reading the Charmides this week. It's interesting because it's a discussion of the virtue of duty, sophrosune. (This is often translated as "temperance," or "moderation," or "self-control," but the real trick to sophrosune is that it's about understanding your duty, and then doing it.)

One could read the Charmides as comical -- no one in the dialogue actually appears to have the virtue, as Socrates is being tempted by lust, Charmides by liquor, and Critias by pride. Or one could read it as a purely philosophical exploration of the difficult of defining a word that we think we understand, which is how it is usually read.

But the real point of the dialogue is unspoken, because the Greeks reading the dialogue would have known the history: Critias becomes one of the leaders of the Thirty Tyrants, which executes many Athenians and restricts their traditional rights. Charmides joins him in this as one of their officers. Both of them are killed in the ensuing civil war.

Or take the Laches, wherein Laches and Nicias are talking with Socrates, who challenges them to define "courage." They cannot do so; and this is the same Nicias we read about in Plutarch, who lost the Sicily campaign out of timidity. It was the loss of the war with Sparta that caused the Thirty Tyrants to come to power in the first place.

These questions of character have real and severe consequences. Plato could see them clearly from where he sat, following a loss of war to a foreign power, a tyranny set up by the Spartans to rule over the people of Athens, and a brutal civil war. All that could have been avoided, he thought, had the leaders been better men.

Posted by: Grim at August 27, 2010 10:37 AM

He also read The Hobbit,

So a hobbit is reading the hobbit? hrm

Themistocles was one of those "better men", yet while he saved Athens, once, his repayment was to be hounded into exile to serve Xerxes as a colonial governor in Anatolia.

Better men of character can do a clutch save in the nick of time. But the culture and nation is forever doomed, when they lack staying power.

The decline may be immediate or it may take several decades.

The primary fault of good men is that they are more or less easily taken down by lesser men. The primary fault of incompetent men is that they bring down everybody, including themselves, sooner or later.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 27, 2010 12:29 PM

That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.

Everyone here should be able to bench press a schoolbus...

Posted by: BillT at August 27, 2010 01:23 PM

I may have mentioned this before, but in an interview the novalist Mercedes Lackey was asked why she writes fantasy. Her reply was: because fantasy is the last place where you can still discuss and deal with good and evil and the hard questions. There is a lot about duty in her Valdemar novels.

Grasshoppers: Many of my fellow grad-students were unable to sit and read two 350 page academic histories a week, which you pretty much had to be able to do in order to do well. They lacked the self-discipline, the training, or both. (OK, they guy with three kids who was trying to get ready to deploy to Iraq gets a pass on this one). The ones my age and older had no problems, even if we were working part time.

Reading list as a kid: Fables and folk tales, especially the colored fairy books. Mythology. Some Victorian novels, lots of sci-fi once I was old enough, lots and lots of history. Loads of science books (Azimov, I love you, sir!) Rudyard Kipling's novels, short stories and poems. Great poetry (Browning, Longfellow et al). I think the only books my folks didn't let me read were some of their medical references and a book of naughty poetry.

And what Bill said.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at August 27, 2010 02:02 PM

Part of the problem is the theory, very popular among educators, that "there is so much more knowledge now than in the past" that there is really no *need* to learn from those old-timey people, who didn't really know anything much anyway. See my post on temporal bigotry.

Posted by: david foster at August 27, 2010 02:29 PM

Bruno Betelheim wrote about the bowdlerization of children's books several decades ago. He described a young boy of his acquaintance who was being taught Hebrew and could easily manage difficult passages of the Bible in that language, but could barely read beyond the "See Jane run" level in the English books his public school considered appropriate for his age. Bailey White also wrote about using maritime disaster stories to entice young students to learn to read. For some reason they never could get enough of shipwrecks. She started by pasting simplified passages over some of the harder bits, but found that her kids would pull up the pasted strips in a hunger to get to the more detailed text below.

This is a digression, because it concerns how complex a level kids can read at if they're challenged, rather than how important it is for kids to be given tales to read that concern good, evil, effort, and risk. But the point is that kids rise to the occasion if given a chance.

Posted by: Texan99 at August 27, 2010 03:10 PM

Childhood reading list: basicly, everything and anything. There were some books that didn't make much sense, so I quit them, sometimes coming back, sometimes not. It was when we moved to Aberdeen (4th grade) that I got my own library card, and promptly read all of the YA on the bookmobile, and started requesting adult books. ("Rocket Ship Galileo" may have been my first science fiction novel, one of the Sherlock Holmes the first mystery, "Sailing Alone Around the World" the first biography, I'm not sure which of Robert Lee Scott's was the first military history book.) I discovered that I could check out books for my parents, too, so I could get ten or twelve books a week instead of five.

Reading is a great way to escape the plains of South Dakota. I got a warning from the city police chief for reading -- while riding my bicycle!

I think we succeed too well in protecting children from pain and consequences.

Posted by: htom at August 27, 2010 03:41 PM

If kids are interested or curious in something, they'll remember it. If they aren't, they don't.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 27, 2010 03:53 PM

I'd cover the important bits with the peel-ups. The covered-up parts are the "secret knowledge" that young minds are hungriest for!

Posted by: htom at August 27, 2010 04:17 PM

My daughter just finished reading 'Little Women.' She loves the language. She also loves Sherlock Holmes.

Whenever we moved to a new place, Mom took us all to the local library to get a card and show us where it was, and to see how far it was from Chez Parent.

If it was close enough, and had bike racks, Saturdays were library days for me.

In Monterey, I had a ritual: I walked to the Monterey Co. Library, got my quota of books for the week. Then off to Troia's Market for a couple of ices.

The ices lasted for the week. The ideas and characters from the books? To this day.

Posted by: Cricket at August 27, 2010 07:43 PM

David, how does one get *more* knowledge *now*, without building on knowledge from the past?

Posted by: Cricket at August 27, 2010 07:45 PM

It can be argued (I'm not sure that I agree) that the modern educational establishment is designed to produce consumers, not producers; dependents, not providers; followers, not leaders, and watchers, not creators. And above all, not thinkers, although there are some.

I was stunned to learn, several years ago, that someone in the Navy had figured out how to derive, on a vessel under way, all of the information available from a GPS unit, from no knowledge to time, position, and course, by using only seven star observations -- real time updates (including acceleration) then coming from additional star fixes.

Posted by: htom at August 27, 2010 08:44 PM

I think Weaponsmaster Alberich would have made an excellent Marine, LittleRed... I've read most of the Valdemar books. I know I have missed some of her newer creations (from within the past 5 years or so). He even rated two books focusing on him: Exile's Honor and Exile's Valor. Note to others here: you can read these two books and not have read all the others, although Alberich appears in many other books.

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at August 28, 2010 01:04 AM

Only seven?

Usually six makes for 3, and 7 is for 4d.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 28, 2010 04:09 AM

I think I cleared out the entire science fiction section at the local library once in junior to high, after getting a Christmas book gift in elementary school.

Posted by: Ymarsakar at August 28, 2010 04:10 AM

Miss Ladybug, Alberich has been on of my favorite of Lackey's characters starting with "Arrows of the Queen." I was thrilled when she gave him two books of his own, and I think she put a lot more intellectual effort into them than she has the last few. Honor - based on what? Duty - but to whom? Hard questions even for everyday folks like most of us. Yup, he'd make a good Marine, provided Kantor didn't do something rude during a white-glove inspection.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at August 28, 2010 04:27 PM

LOL, LR1... I think it would be awesome to have a Companion... They're more than just horses...

Posted by: Miss Ladybug at August 28, 2010 05:24 PM

I don't know the precise details; I suspect the seven sights have to be of different stars and they have to be well spread across the sky. My guess is that you start with assuming a time and date, and use something like Newton's to fix that error.

Posted by: htom at August 28, 2010 08:35 PM