A subject infrequently canvassed yet constantly on our minds is character. Aside from people’s fashion choices, their character may be the first thing we notice about them. Are they patient? Are they humble? Are they kind?
Dr. Larry P. Arnn dives into this topic in his lecture on Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” at Hillsdale College, which you can follow along for free here. Character is the state of the soul that arises from the choices one makes. It is the changing of oneself.
In Book II of “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle identifies two types of virtues. The first is virtue of thought, which is developed by teaching and experience. The second is virtue of character, which Aristotle says is developed by habit. Arnn focuses on the latter virtue, asserting that character is an “expression of serious intention restated numerous times.”
Character is formed by consistently making right choices. It is the product of habits, something you do over and over again. This process involves both us and our choices. Good choices are based on good intentions. Habits that form character are made from good choices that shape you into a virtuous person.
“But don’t mistake that you are not an agent in the doing of it,” Arnn said.
Developing character is an act dependent upon human freedom. We cannot choose whether we grow taller or not, for that is a result of nature. But we can certainly choose to do the right thing, which develops habits that lead to character. This is what Aristotle means when he says, “Therefore the virtues come to be present neither by nature nor contrary to nature, but in us who are of such a nature as to take them on, and to be brought to completion in them by means of habit.”
But in developing our character, how can we determine how much is too much or too little? Aristotle said there is not a fast rule of moderation.
“It is the business of life to seek the right amount,” Arnn said. “There are obstacles, temptations and confusions that are in the way, but if you think about it and you keep your soul in order and your attitude right, then you will make better choices.”
And time eases this challenging process. Making good choices initially seems impossible until you realize you are capable of reaching your goal. For those beginning their journey of habituating themselves toward virtue, education helps. Adults are tasked with guiding youth to maturity, Arnn said, although nowadays they often fail. But something else also implicitly guides our quest for character.
Character is not a mean between excess and defect. Rather, “every intellectual operation is measured by its truth,” Arnn said. “Every voluntary human action aims for the good. We want the good because there is order and proportion and truth in Aristotle’s statement. In evil, there is falseness.”
Everyone knows it was wrong for the Nazis to pack humans onto the trains and send them to slaughter houses. We must listen to what we know to be true. Listening to this voice of truth is the act of building character.
It takes practical wisdom to discern these things, which is often developed by experience. It is difficult and confusing, and usually requires sacrificing something desired.
“Rules of moral intention and accurate judgment of the best thing that can be achieved,” Arnn said. “And that’s what you have to cultivate.”