Historically, Character Mattered

John Adams

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus ruled Rome as an Emperor from 161 to 180 BC and is a philosopher of Stoicism. There were Five Good Emperors and he was the last one. Ryan Holiday wrote a book about the Stoics and here is what he said about Marcus Aurelius’s character and his teachings:

“Marcus Aurelius famously described a number of what he called ‘epithets for the self.’ Among his were: Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. These were, then, the traits that served him well as emperor. There are many other traits that could be added to this list: Honest. Patient. Caring. Kind. Brave. Calm. Firm. Generous. Forgiving. Righteous. There is one word, however, under which all these epithets sit: virtue. Virtue, the Stoics believed, was the highest good—the summum bonum—and should be the principle behind all our actions. Virtue is not holiness, but rather moral and civic excellence in the course of daily life. It’s a sense of pure rightness that emerges from our souls and is made real through the actions that we take.”

We believe as Latter-d Day Saints that virtue is holiness and AND also “moral and civic excellence”. I like how Ryan Holiday describes the feeling of character traits or virtue as “the sense of pure rightness that emerges from our souls and is made real through the actions we take.” That “pure rightness” of feeling propels me over and over again to do the right thing. I love feeling “right” and not emotionally tangled and burdened with negative feelings. Knowing what character is helps me to act in the right way. 

For this reason, that rightness, has been taught for hundreds of years by parents, grandparents, and community leaders. Church sermons have extolled these character traits and virtues.

Historically, as now, a person’s character was their inner virtues and attributes. It is what they said and how they acted. Was a person hardworking and truthful? Persistent or frugal? The neighbors and local merchants would know if this person werewas  trustworthy enough to lend a tool to or extend credit. Would he return the tool in good shape or pay back the grocer’s bill?

Even now, who we are, when no one is looking, matters. Those hard, daily choices or the promises that fall easily from our lips, are a big deal. It is letting people know that they can count on us, that we will do what we say, and that we aren’t just a piece of fluff that will blow away with the first strong wind of adversity.

Development of these inner attributes and family reinforcement of these virtues was something that was the focus of many people in days long past. Poets wrote sonnets about it, and pilgrim girls cross- stitched samplers of words like “’honor‘,” “’courage’,” “‘kindness‘,” and “’love‘.” Historical figures like Benjamin Franklin, Abigail Adams, Mahatma Gandhi, and Clara Barton, worked steadily on their character throughout their whole lives. I watched the movie “Gandhi” and saw how he was a young lawyer thrown off the train in South Africa because he dared to sit in a first class car. Because of that incident he increasingly saw the injustice of the British Empire as colonial rulers in his country of India. Gandhi courageously started nonviolent acts of disobedience, like only wearing homespun cloth that was simply made at home without a giant loom, so that the people would stop making the nicer cloth to be exported by the British. The people of India followed his example and the money stopped flowing to the British. These courageous acts snowballed until the people of India, led by Gandhi, threw off the kingdom which at that time ruled a quarter of the earth’s inhabitants, with a minimum of violence. 

Sadly, as we have become more prosperous as a country and busier in our families doing many important, worthwhile activities, we as parents let a lot of simple, profound teaching about character fall by the wayside. Economic pressure and technology has made family time all but disappear. Popular culture and screens make it hard to compete for our children’s attention. My hope is that as you read through this post you will be inspired to commit to be part of the group of parents who teach these invaluable character traits to their children.

John Adams, was the 2nd President of the United States, and before that ambassador for many years to the Netherlands, trying to get money for the American Revolution. He was very busy and important. Yet he made the time to write to a grandson:

“Have you considered the meaning of that word “worthy”? Weigh it well…I had rather you should be worthy possessors of one thousand pounds honestly acquired by your own labor and industry, than ten millions by banks and tricks. I should rather you be worthy shoemakers than secretaries of states or treasury acquired by libels in newspapers. I had rather you be worthy makers of brooms and baskets than unworthy presidents of the United States procured by intrigue, factious slander and corruption.”

We as parents and grandparents are the ones to continue this valuable teaching by example and exposing our children to opportunities to teach character traits.

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