Do you know what “character” is? The word itself, in its derivation and original usage, means: “a stamp, mark or sign, engraved or stamped.” As time passed the term was applied to the personal peculiarities of individuals, and was defined as: “the personal qualities or attributes of a person; the distinguishing traits of a person.”
Later the term was extended to mean: “the part enacted by anyone in a play.” In the common usage of the term we seek to convey an idea in which each and all of the above stated meanings are combined. A man’s character is the result of impressions made upon his own mind, or those of the race. It is also the sum of his personal qualities and attributes. It is also, in a sense, the part he plays in the great drama of life.
Each man’s character has its inner phase consisting of the accumulated impressions of the past which seek to manifest in the present. And, likewise, the character of eachman manifests in an outer phase of form, mark, and stamp of personality. There are no two characters precisely alike. There is an infinite possibility of combination of the elements that go to make up character. This is accordance with what appears to be a universal law of nature, for there are no two blades of grass exactly alike, nor two grains of sand bearing an exact resemblance to each other. Nature seems to seek after and to manifest variety of form and quality. But, still, just as we may classify all things, animate and inanimate, into general classes and then into subordinate ones—each genus and each species having its particular characteristics, qualities and attributes, so we may, and do, classify human character into general classes and then into particular subdivisions into which each individual is found to fit. This fact makes it possible for us to study Human Nature as a science.
The character of each individual is held to be the result of the impressions made upon the plastic material of the mind, either in the form of past impressions upon his ancestors or of past impressions received by the individual. The past impressions reach him through the channel of heredity, while the personal impressions come to him through environment. But by heredity we do not mean the transmission of the personal characteristics of one’s parents or even grand-parents, but something far deeper and broader. We believe that one inherits far less of the qualities of one’s parents than is generally believed. But, we believe that much that goes to make up our character is derived from the associated qualities and impressions of many generations of ancestors. Inasmuch as each individual contains within him the transmitted qualities of nearly every individual who lived several thousand years ago, it may be said that each individual is an heir to the accumulated impressions of the race, which however form in an infinite variety of combinations, the result being that although the root of the race is the same yet each individual differs in combination from each other individual. As Luther Burbank has said: “Heredity means much, but what is heredity? Not some hideous ancestral specter, forever crossing the path of a human being. Heredity is simply the sum of all the effects of all the environments of all past generations on the responsive ever-moving life-forces.”
The records of the past environment of the race are stored away in the great region of the subconscious mentality, from whence they arise in response to the call of some attractive object of thought or perception, always, however, modified and restrained by the opposite characteristics. As Prof. Elmer Gates has said: “At least ninety per cent of our mental life is sub-conscious. If you will analyze your mental operations you will find that conscious thinking is never a continuous line of consciousness, but a series of conscious data with great intervals of subconsciousness. We sit and try to solve a problem and fail. We walk around, try again and fail. Suddenly an idea dawns that leads to a solution of the problem. The sub-conscious processes were at work. We do not volitionally create our own thinking. It takes place in us. We are more or less passive recipients. We cannot change the nature of a thought, or of a truth, but we can, as it were, guide the ship by a moving of the helm.”
But character is dependent upon race inheritance only for its raw materials, which are then worked into shape by the influence of environment and by the will of the individual. A man’s environment is, to some extent at least, dependent upon the will. A man may change his environment, and by the use of his will he may overcome many inherited tendencies. As Halleck well says: “Heredity is a powerful factor, for it supplies raw material for the will to shape. Even the will cannot make anything without material. Will acts through choice, and some kinds of environment afford far more opportunities for choice than others. Shakespeare found in London the germ of true theatrical taste, already vivified by a long line of miracle plays, moralities and interludes. In youth he connected himself with the theatre, and his will responded powerfully to his environment. Some surroundings are rich in suggestion, affording opportunity for choice, while others are poor. The will is absolutely confined to a choice between alternatives. Character then, is a resultant of will power, heredity and environment. The modern tendency is to overestimate the effects of heredity and environment in forming character; but, on the other hand, we must not underestimate them. The child of a Hottentot put in Shakespeare’s home, and afterward sent away to London with him, would never have made a Shakespeare; for heredity would not have given the will sufficient raw material to fashion over into such a noble product. We may also suppose a case to show the great power of environment. Had a band of gypsies stolen Shakespeare at birth, carried him to Tartary, and left him among the nomads, his environment would never have allowed him to produce such plays as he placed upon the English stage.”
Many persons are reluctant to admit the effect of heredity upon character. They seem to regard heredity as the idea of a monster ruling the individual with an iron hand, and with an emphasis upon undesirable traits of character. Such people lose sight of the fact that at the best heredity merely supplies us with the raw material of character rather than the finished product, and that there is much good in this raw material. We receive our inheritance of good as well as bad. Deprive a man of the advantage of his heredity, and we place him back to the plane of the savage, or perhaps still lower in the scale. Heredity is simply the shoulders of the race affording us a place for our feet, in order that we may rise higher than those who lived before. For heredity, substitute evolution, and we may get a clearer idea of this element of character.
As for environment, it is folly to deny its influence. Take two young persons of equal ability, similar tastes, and the same heredity, and place them one in a small village, and the other in a great metropolis, and keep them there until middle-age, and we will see the influence of environment. The two may be equally happy and contented, and may possess the same degree of book-education, but, nevertheless, their experiences will have been so different that the character of the two individuals must be different. In the same way, place the two young persons, one in the Whitechapel district, and the other amidst the best surroundings and example, and see the result. Remember, that inenvironment is included the influence of other persons. The effect of environment arises from Suggestion, that great moulding and creative principle of the mind. It is true that, “As a man thinketh, so is he,” but a man’s thoughts depend materially upon the associations of environment, experience, and suggestion. As Ziehen says: “We cannot think as we will, but we must think as just those associations which happen to be present prescribe.”
But, without going further into the question of the elements which go toward forming character, let us take our position firmly upon the fact that each individual is stamped with the impression of a special character—a character all his own. Each has his own character or part to play in the great drama of life. The character of some seems fixed and unchangeable, while that of others is seen to be in the process of change. But in either case each and every man has his own character or manifestation of Human Nature, in its inner and outer aspects. And each individual, while in a sense forming a special class by himself, nevertheless belongs to a larger class, which in turn is a part of a still larger, and so on.
Instead of studying the philosophy or metaphysics of character, or even its general psychology, let us in this particular volume devote our attention to the elements which go to form the character of each and every person, so that we may understand them when we meet them in manifested form. And let us learn the Outer Form which accompany these Inner States.
Upon the stage of Life move backward and forward many characters, each having his or her own form, manner and appearance, which like those of the characters upon the mimic stage, may be recognized if we will but bestow a little care upon the subject. The Othellos, Hamlets, Shylocks, Iagos, Richards, Lears, and the rest are to be found in everyday life. The Micawbers, Chuzzlewits, Twists, and the rest are in as full evidence on the streets and in the offices, as in the books. The person who is able to read and interpret Human Nature is possessed of a knowledge far more useful to him than that contained within the covers of musty books upon impractical subjects.