Force Of Character
( Originally Published 1879 )
WHAT you can effect depends on what you are. You put your whole self nto all that you do. If that self be small, and lean, and mean, your entire life-work is paltry, your words have no force, your influence has no weight. If that self be true and high, pure and kind, vigorous and forceful, your strokes are blows, your notes staccatos, your work massive, your influence cogent—you can do what you will.. Whatever your position, you are a power, you are felt as a kingly spirit, you are as one having authority. Too many think of character chiefly in its relation to the life beyond the grave. I certainly would not have less thought of it with reference to that unknown future, on the margin of which some of us undoubtedly are at this moment standing; but I do wish that more consideration were bestowed upon its earthly uses. I would have young men, as they start in life, regard character as a capital, much surer to yield full returns than any other capital, unaffected by panics and failures, fruitful when all other investments lie dormant, having as certain promise in the present life as in that which is to come.
Franklin, also, attributed his success as a public man, not to his talents or his powers of speaking—for these were but moderate—but to his known integrity of character. " Hence, it was," he says, " that I had so much weight with my fellow-citizens. I was but a bad speaker, never eloquent, subject to much hesitation in my choice of words,. hardly correct in language, and yet I generally carried my point." Character creates confidence in men in every station of life. It was said of the first Emperor Alexander of Russia that his personal character was equivalent to a constitution. During the wars of the Fronde, Montaigne was the only man among the French gentry who kept his castle gates unbarred; and it was said of him, that his personal character was worth more to him than a regiment of horse.
There are trying and perilous circumstances in life, which show how valuable and important a good character is. It is a sure and strong staff of support, when everything else fails. It is the Acropolis which remains impregnable, imparting security and peace when all the other defenses have been surrendered to the enemy. The higher walks of life are treacherous and dangerous; the lower full of obstacles and impediments. We can only be secure in either, by maintaining those principles' which are just, praiseworthy, and pure, and which inspire bravery in ourselves and confidence in others.
Truthfulness, integrity and goodness—qualities that hang not on any man's breath-form the essence of manly character, or, as one of our old writers has it, " that inbred loyalty unto virtue which can serve her without a livery." He who possesses these qualities, united with strength of purpose, carries with him a power which is irresistible. He is strong to do good, strong to resist evil, and strong to bear up under difficulty and misfortune. When Stephen of Coloma fell into the hands of his base assailants, and they asked him, in derision, " Where is now your fortress ? " " Here," was his bold reply, placing his hand upon his heart. It is in misfortune that the character of the upright man shines forth with the greatest luster; and, when all else fails, he takes stand upon his integrity and his courage. In the famous battle at Thermopylae, the three hundred Spartans, who alone had refused to abandon the scene of action, withstood the enemy with such vigor that they were obliged to retire wearied and conquered during three successive days, till the enemy suddenly falling upon their rear, crushed them to pieces.
Strength of character consists of two things—power of will and power of self-restraint. It requires two things, therefore, for its existence—strong feelings and strong command over them. Now, it is here we make a great mistake; we mistake strong feelings for strong character. A man who bears all before him, before whose frown domestics tremble, and whose bursts of fury make the children of the household quake—because he has his will obeyed, and his own way in all things, we call him a strong man. The truth is, that is the weak man; it is his passions that are strong; he, mastered by them, is weak. You must measure the strength of a man by the power of the feelings he subdues, not by the power of those which subdue him. And hence composure is very often the highest result of strength.
Did we never see a man receive a flagrant insult and only grow a little pale, and then reply quietly? This is a man spiritually strong. Or did we never see a man in anguish, stand, as if carved out of solid rock, mastering himself? Or one bearing a hopeless daily trial remain silent and never tell the world what cankered his home peace? That is strength. He who, with strong passions, remains chaste; he who, keenly sensitive, with manly powers of indignation in him, can be provoked, and yet restrain himself and forgive—these are the strong men, the spiritual heroes.
The truest criterion of a man's character and conduct, is, invariably, to be found in the opinion of his nearest relations, who, having daily and hourly opportunities of forming a judgment of him, will not fail in doing so. It is a far higher testimony in his favor, for him to secure the esteem and love of a few individuals within the privacy of his own home, than the good opinion of hundreds in his immediate neighborhood, or that of ten times the number residing at a distance. The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or nine at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day
Deportment, honesty, caution, and a desire to do right carried out in practice, are to human character what truth, reverence, and love are to religion. They are the unvaried elements of a good reputation. Such virtues can never be reproached, although the vulgar and despicable may scoff at them; but it is not so much in their affected revulsion at them, as it is in the wish to reduce them to the standard of their own degraded natures, and vitiated passions. Let such scoff and sneer—let them laugh and ridicule as much as they may—a strict, upright, onward course will evince to the world and to them, that there is more manly independence in one forgiving smile, than in all the pretended exceptions to worthiness in the society of the mean and vulgar. Virtue must have its admirers, and firmness of principle, both moral and religious, will ever command the proudest encomium of the intelligent world, to the exclusion of every other thing connected with human existence.
That character is power is true in a much higher sense than that knowledge is power. Mind without heart, intelligence without conduct, cleverness without goodness, are powers in their way, but they may be powers only for mischief. We may be instructed or amused by them, but it is sometimes as difficult to admire them as it would be to admire the dexterity of a pickpocket or the horsemanship of a highwayman.