Resist enticements

Whenever you look around, there are so many small things that look attractive at first glance: opportunities to gain some money quickly, easy pleasures or unthinking applause from those who don't know what's worth praise and what isn't.
Perhaps you have some social skills, some power or influence somewhere — then there's a constant temptation to misuse them for gaining quick advantage; or you know you'll get away with some weak and improvised performance most of the time — so you take your chances more often than you should, skipping thorough preparations; you know that some promise of gain will open doors — and thus you give such a promise, bringing harm either to yourself when you don't keep it or to others when you do, and signal them that it's not merit that counts but only whom you know and owe.
It takes some practice to recognize enticements of that sort, and some caution and will to resist them. But resist them we should. They harden bad habits, making it more and more difficult to get rid of them. All decline of character is progressive. Every time you yield to it, it gets more and more ingrained. What's worse: unless you have stabilized better habits for a long time, and very strictly, it's horribly easy to slip back. A small indulgence can be sufficient to bring it all to the front again and toss you right back to where you started. Alertness is in order, and a strict and rigorous weeding out of all temptation. What looks like only taking small and inconsequential steps that really shouldn't matter will inevitably turn out such that you will pay for it, albeit later. Take care.

Ostentatious reclusiveness

Reflection is a quiet business that requires focus, and it often helps to actively seek solitude, to keep distractions away and to avoid the influence of those who promote competing values. (Such things as people take for values, like money, fame or pleasure.)

When you withdraw, observe yourself: do you subtly make sure that people notice it, that you are seen as doing something that looks grave and important? Do you manipulate the perception of others so that your reclusiveness looks like a deliberately chosen way of living, do you try to make that impression?

It is all well that you are searching for truth in self-dialogue, seeking out weaknesses in yourself, in your actions, views and feelings, your character and your overall ideas of how to live your life. And these are things of some momentum; they really are important; they are the only things that matter in the end. But then what other people think (or perceive) should be of no interest here, right? This should be a dialogue exclusively with yourself. Perhaps you'll ask others for advice, or discuss ideas with them — in this sense, it's not required to exclude others. But obviously, these are not activities you have to withdraw for, quite the contrary. When your withdrawal has a hidden agenda with respect to others, then it never is an interest in getting their support, but in being recognized: a desire to be admired for it. Turning your back on people is a showy sort of action; think hard, however: what would be that important about your not being around? Priding yourself on your retreat and your philosophy is itself a sort of ambition and of boasting.

And so is being too secretive and totally withdrawn from people's eyes — it is more subtle, and it takes a little longer for people to notice, but the idea comes from the same source. It's attention-getting in disguise (making your absence felt so that it draws people's attention).

There's not much point in trying to persuade yourself (and others) that you are someone who thinks so important thoughts that your solitude mustn't be interrupted for the good of mankind. If you want to be able to focus, by all means make room for it, and take care that you get the quiet you need. But it's not something that anyone besides yourself needs to know. Take care.

Unfavorable situations

Good qualities of character never come easily. Not only do you have to recognize a deficit in your own attitudes in the first place before you can begin correcting it; not only do you have to work for a long time and take a lot of setbacks to effect a lasting change; but even when you are in general capable to do the right thing in all sorts of situation, it takes an effort every single time. When people show, for instance, admirable composure and control under stress, that is not usually so because it's 'just their personality' — it's something they have mastered in a long and rigorous quest, and in addition, it's an act of will to do it freshly on every new occasion. It is an excellence of character that manifests itself in such endurance; an excellence that has been built up successfully and yet requires energy and determination again and again. And some qualities, such as endurance indeed, couldn't even be found in situations other than those which bring stress, confusion, pain and injustice.

By now it can begin to seem that quality of character is inextricably bound to unfavorable circumstances in order to be applied. If it is good to show courage opposite danger, patience when facing tedium, moderation in view of temptations: are then not danger, tedium and temptations good things as well, at least in the sense that they can give occasion for good attitude? And what about bravely enduring pain, say, during medical treatment, or even, more dramatically, under torture? Justice, if you know you have been treated badly? Calm and restraint in the middle of a nervous crowd? If these are admirable qualities, then are not pain and torture, grievance and turmoil also of some good? Should you (a sort of pervert argument might go) even wish for these if you're intent on building a good character?

Not so fast. In every situation there are aspects that we can control, and others which we cannot influence. In general, our attitudes are of the former sort: it's up to you how you behave in any kind of circumstance. (Although we may at times experience ourselves as unable to control our attitude in the heat of the situation, that is a shortcoming that can be addressed in the long run.) We cannot always choose the situations which we'll find ourselves in, but we can choose what attitude to take once we are in them. And if we cannot choose whether we get into a certain situation (say, a medical treatment, as in the example above, with all the pain that may go along with it), then there's no point in wishing or hoping for it to happen (or, in this case, to being prevented from happening). It's just a waste of energy. We can, however, wish to take a decent attitude, and wishing this can eventually motivate us to invest the effort that is necessary to actually do it: to take that decent attitude. (A side remark: there is no point in hoping here, either; you don't hope that you'll behave properly, it's something that you have to do.)

It is consistent with this view to avoid unfavorable situations, if that's in our control (and if we do not compromise ourselves by it: caution is a good quality of character, cowardice is a bad one). That is because situations of this kind are precisely not good, or bad, just in themselves. However, if we do in fact get mixed up in such a situation (or even if we just envisage the possibility), then there is a choice: namely, the choice of which attitude to take; and here we wish for exercising that choice correctly: in favor of a good attitude (in this example that's endurance, not giving in and compromising self-respect and love for others just for being relieved from pain or getting off the hook quickly).

In truth, what's good or bad are only the character qualities themselves, not the situations. The conditions of our surroundings obtain independently of someone displaying good or bad character in them. People may be in painful or stressful situations and fail to endure them, they may act weakly and immorally. Or they may act admirably, refusing to let themselves be driven by stress-induced confusion or the desire to avoid pain, achieving control and even success from within such adverse surroundings. What is good, and thus worthy of wishing for, are not the circumstances, but that we act in them just as we should. Take care.

Ethical perfection

When we work to improve our character (and thus our lives), the limiting point for this activity is ethical perfection. Perfection is the state where no more improvement is conceivable, the ideal state in which everything fits. This is a very interesting concept. To get more clear about it, let's speculate a little about what having a perfect character would be like.

Perfection is not a 'more or less' concept. You can't be perfect to a greater or lesser degree. You can't be perfect in just one sense, but not in another, too. You also can't be perfect at some times only, and not at other times. If you were perfect, that would show itself in your judging, feeling and acting exactly right, in every respect, under any circumstances.

Take honesty as an example. Ethical perfection would mean, among other things, to be honest on every occasion that requires it. (Moralists disagree over whether it is always wrong to be untruthful, or whether it depends on the context, or the consequences; let's for the moment assume there is an answer which settles this general philosophical question: 'being honest on every occasion that requires it' then means for our purposes being truthful at least on all occasions which are determined by that answer as requiring it.) And of course, that means honesty not only in your overt actions, but also in your views and feelings.

But you wouldn't have a perfect character (even with respect to this single trait, honesty) yet; it's not enough to be in fact honest on all these occasions, if you get into them. It takes more: you'd have to be honest under all conceivable circumstances in which it would be required. Your character must be such that you'd be honest on every possible occasion, whether life happens to bring you into that situation or not. Let's assume you are disposed so that you are honest at each and every sort of occasion, with only a single exception: in periods of sleep deprivation (in which you become, by a curious quirk of personality, a compulsive liar). Now assume further that in fact, you never get into a situation in which you suffer sleep deprivation, that the whole circumstances of your life make it extremely improbable that you'd ever come near such a condition. So you're never lying, you're never even likely to do so, you don't have the resemblance of a serious thought of it — and still, that doesn't count as perfection. It's not perfection for the mere possibility of your lying which isn't eliminated, even though it never comes to be actualized.

Psychological studies have shown that people's behavior in accordance with a given character trait depends much on context: many people aren't reliably honest at all, and even those who are often cease to be dependable in unusual contexts, or contexts unfamiliar to them. (Which doesn't show, of course, that there aren't character traits, such as honesty. It does show, however, that the stability of a person's characters isn't a given from birth, and even those who set out to improve theirs have much more work cut out for them than just that of making it stable for common circumstances. It's a more extensive task than it seems at first glance.) The goodness that we're looking for in perfection of character is something that includes stability over all circumstances, even the merely remotely possible ones. It's not that of the 'good enough', or that of the 'good for most purposes'.

Ethical perfection, like everything else in matters of good and bad, does not depend on circumstance. What can be either so or otherwise, just by a different turn of events, must not count in when we examine the quality and success of our life and character. A perfect, but by chance untested, character would be as good as an imperfect, but untested, character would be bad. It doesn't matter whether it's exercised, for the question of perfection what counts is only the condition itself, not whether and how often it is tested by actual circumstances.

And of course, just as the mere lack of occasion doesn't make a character weakness irrelevant for perfection, the converse does also hold: nothing in a circumstance of life can make it even better for someone who already has reached perfection. If you're in that condition, then no turn of luck can add anything relevant (it wouldn't have been perfection, if that were possible). To remain with our example: if you are perfect in that you are honest at all occasions which require it, then you are not made better or worse by a course of life that brings you more or less often into such situations. What counts is ethical perfection as such, and not how often it shows itself in concrete circumstance.

Remember, though, that we have looked only at a single quality of character here as an example, namely honesty. It goes without saying that perfection would include not only this one trait, but a host of others: courage and justice, steadfastness and moderation, kindness and generosity, prudence and thoughtful reflectiveness; they're all just names for your arriving at correct views and adequate feelings, and acting well in the endlessly varying constellations of our lives. If you'd get it right in every single instance, that would be the sort of ethical perfection we were talking about. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.