What keeps our moral compass pointing in a healthy direction? For many 19th and early 20th century thinkers, one of the key social and moral challenge of the age was the development of ‘good character’. Character, writes Jose Harris in her excellent book Private Lives, Public Spirit (1994) was always a slightly slippery phrase but at heart was agreed to be ‘essentially a public characteristic’ (p. 249. Character was formed through allowing your inner self to be shaped by the outer world of agreed public values – it was what enabled the fragile and fallen inner self to acquire a degree of resilience and fibre. To mid-twentieth century ears that all sounded somewhat stuffy and oppressive. With the birth of modern psychology at the beginning of the twentieth century, we spent the best part of a century fascinated by ‘personality’. If I understand correctly, the modern concept of personality is the love-child of the Enlightenment (with its interest in the rational, autonomous individual) and the Romantic Movement (with its focus on the inner life as the wellspring of human creativity). This turned the locus of moral action on its head: whereas in the concept of ‘character’ there is recognition of the role of culture and shared values in shaping personal identity and practice, the foregrounding of ‘personality’ implies a view of society as an agglomeration of individual perspectives, and the shaping of the public through the triangulation of many private perspectives. As a result, it’s arguable that public life became primarily a question of the management of these individual perspectives. Rather than ‘acquiring character’, we ‘are characters’. Just as in wider society, so in theology and church life the mid-twentieth century witnessed a shift away from ‘character’ and towards ‘personality’ (for how this happened in the US church context see: Heather A Warren, ‘The Shift from ‘Character’ to ‘Personality’ in Mainline Protestant Throught, 1935-45′ Church History 47 (1998), 537-55). Whilst we’ve learnt a great deal from the concept of ‘personality’, and it has been part of a welcome wider opening-up of individual expression, the decline of the concept of ‘character’ has reflected (but also contributed to) a greater sense of difficulty in articulating exactly what sorts of attitudes and behaviour we expect from each other within culture and society.
In this light, it’s intriguing that in the first decade of the twenty-first century the concept of ‘character’ is undergoing something of a resurgence, well beyond the church sphere. Statements from employers’ organisations and advice on jobseekers’ websites regularly include statements to the effect that what businesses most want from new job applicants are values such as honesty and integrity, perseverance and the ability to relate to others (even above specific skills or knowledge, particularly at entry level). The Think-Tank Demos has in the last few years undertaken a major enquiry into character education (http://www.demos.co.uk/files/Character_Inquiry_-_web.pdf?1304696626).
And there is even a Jubilee Centre for Character and Values at the University of Birmingham (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/research/activity/education/jubilee-centre/index.aspx).
‘Character’ is not a specifically Christian concept but equally there is a considerable repository of Christian thought and reflection about ‘character’ over two millennia. We now live in a highly pluralistic concept, and it is unlikely that there can be universal agreement about what constitutes ‘good character’ in the 21st century. A majority of the population would probably also want to strike a different balance between personal authenticity on one hand and shared values on the other, than our Victorian forebears did. However, as we move into challenging times, economically, socially and environmentally, and as the public bureaucratic framework we have been used to for most of our lives begins to retrench, the person of self-discipline, principle and integrity is going to be more important than ever.