Character and Its Critics

By James Jiang

Few words have performed as much public service of late as character.[1] With the resignation of Barnaby Joyce as the National Party Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, we may finally be getting an end to the use and abuse of this c-word. Nationals MP Andrew Broad weighed into the controversy by quoting American Baptist minister Billy Graham: “When character is lost, all is lost”. Liberal MP Andrew Hastie quickly followed up by insisting that Joyce had failed “that character test” apparently required by deputy-prime-ministerial office. Joyce himself paid lip service to the term by referring to his wife, Nat, as “a woman of remarkable strength, character, and good cheer”. And predictably, the Australian Christian Lobby kicked this discursive carnival off with an opinion piece on “why character and virtue still matter”.

The critic and novelist Raymond Williams once suggested that we ought to be a little wary of words about which no one has anything bad to say. While he was speaking in that instance of another c-word (“culture”), it is an attitude worth taking up in respect of character’s recent recrudescence. Why should a word that appeared to have fallen down the back of the wardrobe of the moral imagination become so abruptly fashionable? And what might these appeals to “character” possibly have to tell us about our attitudes towards love and politics? These are big questions and in looking for answers, it might be best to begin by digging up some of the philological and historical background to this (however, briefly) ubiquitous term.

Let’s start with a little etymology. The word originates from the Greek etymon charakter, which denotes a letter or mark fixed by stamping or engraving, and its earliest figurative use was theological: a character was “a spiritual token”, the indelible mark left on the soul by the holy sacraments. It is in the seventeenth century that we begin to arrive at something close to our contemporary usage: “the sum of the moral and mental qualities which distinguish an individual or a people, viewed as a homogeneous whole” (OED, definition 9a). The emphasis given to “moral qualities” derives from two separate sources. The first is the (mis)translation of Aristotle’s ethos as (credible) character, identified in the Rhetoric as one of the three sources of persuasiveness (for a rich discussion of ethos and its relation to character, see Kathy Eden’s brilliant book on The Renaissance Rediscovery of Intimacy). The second and less well-known source is the tradition of character writing that dates back to the satirical sketches of Theophrastus, a botanist and philosopher who succeeded Aristotle as head of the Lyceum. The Theophrastan character was intended to illustrate the ways in which certain social and ethical types (exemplifying such traits as arrogance, cowardice, or stupidity) deviated from the golden mean of self-moderation. As a sketch, it put a premium on economy of expression and thus provided an opportunity for seventeenth-century moralists such as La Bruyère and Samuel Butler to exercise their epigrammatic wit.

I want to dwell on this literary genre a little longer since changes in its conventions were, I think, symptomatic of some fundamental shifts in the cultural implications of character. One salient transformation that character writing undergoes in the seventeenth century is the loss of a moral or psychological universalism. Each of Theophrastus’ characters was devoted to a vice dressed up as a personage, that is to say, it was the individual specification of a universally dispersed attribute. There is still a residue of this universalism in John Earle’s character of a child in his Microcosmography (1633):

[A child] is a man in small letter, yet the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple … He is nature’s fresh picture newly drawn in oil, which time, and much handling, dims and defaces. His soul is yet a white paper unscribbled with observation of the world, wherewith, at length, it becomes a blurred notebook.

And like Theophrastus, Earle draws up a familiar set of vices (“A too idly reserved man”, “a self-conceited man”, “a weak man”). However, he also intersperses these with professional (“a meer dull physician”, “a constable”, “a surgeon”), service (“a tobacco-seller”, “an old college butler”, “a cook”), and religious (“a she precise hypocrite”, “a sceptick in religion”) types. Already, Earle has moved away from the implicit “cosmography” of the Theophrastan character (and its illustration of “the great arc of human potentialities”, as the anthropologist Ruth Benedict once put it) towards a social geography mapped out along the lines of religious affiliation and social stratification. This shift becomes pronounced as the genre was increasingly polemicized along sectarian lines. Butler’s Characters (1667-69) takes aim at sceptics and atheists, but more specifically Quakers, Anabaptists, Presbyterians, and Catholics; the list of occupations also lengthens to include playwrights, aldermen, and publicans.

If the character genre began as a critique of human folly, by the mid-seventeenth century, it had been sharpened by writers like Butler into an ideological weapon against extremism and inflexibility in civic behaviour and religious belief. It might not be too far of a stretch to see within the genre a critique of narrowness or one-sidedness in the fulfilment of “human potentiality”. As deliberate travesty or caricature, each sketch was bound to depict “a pinched and hidebound type of human character” (to borrow John Stuart Mill’s trenchant phrase in On Liberty). While the links between character writing and Augustan satire have been well established, something remains to be said about the extent to which the genre lends support to Max Weber’s account of the relationship between Protestant sectarianism and the rise of the professions as well as prefiguring nineteenth-century critiques of middle-class Philistinism.


I’ve wandered some distance from the Joyce scandal, but what this history suggests is the degree to which character, as the subject of a pre-novelistic literary practice, was an internally unstable term—with its satirical slant, character writing tended to point up the very “hidebound” limitations of the social world that the word “character” evoked. Nominally descriptive of the sorts of persons out there in the world, character writing was more often than not high-handedly prescriptive in pointing out their shortcomings. In the Theophrastan worldview, persons constituted object lessons and were thus exemplary in both a neutral and a normative sense. Even a nineteenth-century moralist such as Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help (1859) and, indeed, Character (1871), who may not have been consciously thinking of Theophrastus, is no less indebted to the Theophrastan technique of drawing upon exemplary lives in stirring his readers. Indeed, the strain of moral didacticism that dominated the Victorians’ use of the word is made clear in the shift from the plural (Butler’s Characters) to the singular. Daniel Walker Howe provides a neat synthesis of the moral ambitions behind the Victorian obsession:

The intended product of Victorian didacticism was a person who would no longer need reminding of his duties, who would have internalized a powerful sense of obligation and could then safely be left to his own volitions. … A society composed of such persons, the Victorians hoped, could get along with a minimum of government; thus the Victorian political ideal of liberalism was linked to moral seriousness on a private level. The Victorians also expected that the individual self-assertion of such persons, hard working and conscientious, would be the most effective way to promote the general material welfare. The Victorians themselves called the quality they sought to create “character”. This was not a set of rote responses but an intangible strength of purpose, combining self-reliance, self-discipline, and responsibility.

Character was a way of hooking private morality up to public welfare and it found itself buttressed by a distinctly nineteenth-century psychology of habit that, under the auspices of both biological evolution and geological uniformitarianism, stressed the profound impact of slow yet irresistible cumulative processes. This gospel of habit was preached most successfully by William James in The Principles of Psychology (1890), which was as likely to be cited by an economist as by an educator or a doctor.

But, as Stefan Collini has observed, “there was … an unresolved tension between voluntarism and determinism” in all this talk of character. If character is the product of habit, do we merely need to will it into being? Or is our ability to exercise volition conditioned by our character in the first place? The emphasis on habit complicates the subtle distinction between “a set of rote responses” and “intangible strength of purpose”—how are we to distinguish the two once the latter has been routinized? In the final section of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-1905), Weber famously compared the transition from the heroic asceticism of the Puritans to the asceticism of the industrial technocratic to the thickening of a “light cloak” into “a casing as hard as steel” (stahlhartes Gehäuse). For social critics such as Mill and Matthew Arnold, character had suffered something of a similar fate; when compared to the Romantic conception of Bildung (which emphasized an experimental open-mindedness to the experiences that might come to shape a self), the Victorian sense of character seemed like a case of moral rigor mortis.

By the mid nineteenth century, then, character was already sounding stuffy to the more high-minded Victorians. So why should contemporary politicians continue using this term? A large part of this has to do, I think, with the fact that character talk is always embedded in a rhetoric of social legitimation; it legitimates not only the subject of the character judgment as a person of public import (and thus, a worthy object of scrutiny), but also the character judge as a person capable of objective discrimination that rises above social prejudice and political partisanship (well played, Broad).

What’s particularly interesting in this case is the way in which Joyce himself has tried to de-legitimize the interest in his affair by deploying a different rhetoric. On Friday, Joyce began his resignation press conference by insisting that “this [was] never about me” before using a “circuit-breaker” metaphor to explain his decision. And he concluded facetiously with some consideration for “the poor buggers … parked outside [his] house every day”. The assumption here is that he is being watched not as a public figure whose character is being weighed, but rather as a media personality whose intimate life is being consumed (the “circuit” being broken is presumably the circuit of 24-hour surveillance).

The words I’ve just italicized may seem coterminous, but as the historian Warren Susman once argued with regard to early twentieth-century American culture, there is a world of difference between character and personality. For Susman, the nineteenth century was a culture of character, that is, a culture that placed a premium on self-improvement through work (Weber’s Protestant ethic) and submission to a higher moral law. The twentieth century, however, inaugurated a culture of personality, which privileged consumer values, popular therapies, and self-realization over self-sacrifice. In this account, Virginia Woolf was very much right when she famously declared that “on or about December 1910 human character changed”: the “character” ideal had been supplanted by a new self-image conditioned by a mass society in which the desire for individual recognition was exacerbated by the fear of being lost in the crowd.

Since his diplomatic wrangle with Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, Joyce may have become more prone to thinking of himself from the perspective of a culture of personality. But the culture of character—and the ideas of duty, honour, integrity, and, indeed, manhood that it brings in its train—dies hard and it was bound never to disappear completely in the realm of politics, where the very rubric of accountability suggests a visible (or at least demonstrable) discipline of self-restraint (which, as Susman points out, harks back to the theological doctrine of justification by works). Even if Susman’s distinction appears a little too neat, it offers some explanation as to why the Joyce affair should prove so disturbing yet so compelling: we were watching a figure negotiate not only between the competing demands of two lives, but also between the moral claims and attitudes of two disparate cultures.


[1] I am very much indebted to Alecia Simmonds for suggesting this topic.