I turned the page and found a photograph of a man bending over and talking to a small boy. Both are dressed in black. The man, if I remember correctly, wears a flat-brimmed hat and has side curls. He stoops to the same level as the boy and looks directly into his face. His right hand is on the boy's shoulder and his left is pointing upward toward the sky.

Lifeless bodies are lying all around them. About ten feet away stands another man, in uniform. He is holding a rifle and sighting it at the heads of the man and small boy. It is their turn to die. The squeeze of the trigger must have been almost simultaneous with the click of the shutter.

The photograph breaks my heart. But, strangely, it also encourages me. Wanting somehow to understand what I am seeing, I do what human beings have always done when confronted with something that requires an explanation. I have created a story for myself about it. The story might not be accurate, but it is an important story for me nonetheless. It makes it more possible for me to live in a world that includes the Holocaust.

This man spends his last moments on earth telling a story, or at least so it seems to me. He is a Hasid, one of those most pious and fervent of Jews. As he bends down to speak to the boy, finger pointing to the sky, perhaps he is saying something like this: "Do not be afraid, my son. This man cannot really hurt us. He is sending us to the next world, where we will join your mother and sister. God is waiting for us. Everything is going to be all right."

The man, I believe, was making use of the story he had embraced for his life in order to come to terms with his and his son's horrific death. I choose to see it as an act of defiance. Deprived of all other means of resistance, he resists the soldier with the rifle and all that soldier represents in the most powerful way of all—he insists on the superiority and ultimate triumph of his own story. "You, killer, have the gun and think I am nothing. But I, killer, have God, and you have nothing." The man, however, does not actually say this to his executioner, or likely even think it. He has something infinitely more important to do. He has to comfort for a few moments longer a frightened child. And he does so by interpreting this final, terrifying event in light of the story of their whole lives.

This man has character. No, this man is a character—a character in the story he has chosen to live. The difference is crucial. Character is not something you have; it is something you are that inevitably shows itself in what you do. It is determined by the stories of which you are a part. As the concept of character makes a highly visible comeback in our public conversation, we must rescue it from glib politicians, do-gooders, and busy-body moralizers. When we worry about our character and that of our children—and we should—we ought to think of stories. We should more purposefully choose the stories in which we are characters.

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America is rediscovering character. In magazines, on talk shows, in pulpits and classrooms (CT, Sept. 11, 1995, p. 35), and even in philosophy and social science journals, the recurring theme is that we need to be better people. Though it is still not possible to talk about virtue in America and be understood, it is now almost possible to talk about virtues—and that is an enormous change.

We have come to this conclusion reluctantly. Character talk used to be as American as apple pie. It was a conscious factor in whom we befriended, or hired, or married. But the whole concept of character became dated, quaint, even faintly suspect, and slowly disappeared from our public vocabulary.

The public rehabilitation of character has coincided with the values debates of recent years. Values is something of a weasel word, suggesting that the worth of anything derives from someone or other choosing it, rather than from any inherent merit in the thing itself. (Fidelity, for instance, is important if you happen to value it, but not otherwise.) The term fits our relativistic temperament, suggesting that you have your values and I have mine, and there is no valid way of choosing between the two.

We are slowly realizing that oftentimes we do have to choose, as individuals and as a society. We are being forced to admit that some values are better than others, as much as it sticks in our tolerant throats to say so. And as soon as we move from the general discussion of values to identifying the specific values by which one ought to live, we bump into character.

A leading commentator on this move is the well-known social scientist James Q. Wilson, who even a decade ago observed, "The most important change in how one defines the public interest that I have witnessed—and experienced—over the last twenty years has been a deepening concern for the development of character in the citizenry." This concern is now omnipresent.

From the "New York Times" to "Newsweek" to "Forbes," we find sympathetic articles on the need to think consciously about our character. And, lest we forget, 1996 is an election year. We will be treated once again to dueling editorials about the character issue in politics—why it should matter and why it shouldn't. (My own editorial comment: how can anyone think character could ever be irrelevant in an arena so full of oughts and shoulds? Every ought is rooted in a value; every value requires a choice; every choice defines a character.)

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When yapping ideologues can be gagged for a moment, there is broad agreement on the need for, and the content of, character. Ask people to list the traits of a good person and you will find consensus in an area where we are often told consensus is not possible. In fact, the list has not changed much over the centuries.

Like so much of Western culture, the traditional understanding of character arises primarily from two sources: the classical and the biblical. Common to each is the assumption that the only significant test of what you believe is how you live. Both wisdom and goodness exist only in actions in the real world. Character is values lived.

Aristotle, the godfather of the philosophical discussion of character, drew on certain common understandings in Greek thought: that human beings are social creatures, that human behavior can be shaped, that certain behaviors are helpful for the society and the individual and others harmful, that the best way to identify good behavior is to look to a good role model, and that good behavior—the key to a good life—is most likely when those behaviors have become habits after years of repetition. In short, do the right thing, and do it often.

In speaking of behaviors, I am instinctively using the language of psychotherapy in which we are all so steeped. The Greeks spoke of virtues. Virtue included the idea of strength, or the capacity to perform an act. Virtue was what you did, not what you did not do. (Avoiding certain wrong acts was not an adequate basis for goodness in Greek or biblical society.) As the skill necessary for athletic performance requires exercise and practice, so too a person could be virtuous only through exercising the virtues in daily acts. That exercise was seen as the basis for forming character.

The Greeks identified four chief or cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. Prudence is practical wisdom—that is, wisdom (not to be confused with intelligence or information) that leads to good choices and results in successful living. Justice centers on acts of fairness and honesty and the rule of law. Courage, also called fortitude, gives one the capacity to do what is right or necessary even in the face of adversity. And temperance is self-discipline, the ability to control one's impulses to do things that are gratifying in the short run but harmful in the long.

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It is not good enough to get two or three out of four. That might be great for baseball, but it is bad for society. The core virtues make each other possible. A sense of justice is ineffectual if one lacks the courage to stand against injustice. Courage without wisdom is simply foolhardiness. And all the other virtues are undercut when one lacks self-control.

The Bible agrees with all this and adds more. Each of the classical Greek virtues finds support in Scripture. In the Old Testament, a wise person is a person who lives wisely—that is, in right relationship to God—not a person who is simply intelligent or learned. Justice is seen as a primary quality of God that we should try to reflect in ourselves and in our society. Courage is prized on the battlefield but even more as a necessary quality for living as God requires under hostile conditions. And the Old Testament is replete with examples of the consequences of losing self-control.

One place among many where God reveals the character traits he requires is Psalm 15. The psalm opens with a question: "Oh Lord, who may approach your holy place? Who may worship on your holy mountain?" That is, what are the qualities a person should bring into God's presence?

The psalmist then answers the question in the rest of the psalm, part of which reads as follows: "Those who walk blamelessly, live righteously and speak truth from the heart. Those who do not gossip or wrong neighbors or speak evil of those around them." These are actions, not passive states of being. They are not descriptions of one's psychological state or level of self-esteem.

The New Testament brings to the forefront qualities of character that are implicit in the Old and that go beyond the classical understanding. These too grow out of the nature of God as reflected in his creatures: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23). There is a more empathetic, other-directed nature to the Christian virtues than to the classical, a product of their origin in the ultimate virtue —love. (Interestingly, the concern for the poor and disadvantaged in modern secular liberalism derives from this Judeo-Christian heritage, though the debt is rarely acknowledged.)

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The Bible parallels classicism in emphasizing the importance of models and mentors. "Be holy as I am holy," God tells us. Christ calls the disciples to follow him so they can learn by word and deed how to live as they should. Paul offers himself as an example to the new Christians of the young church. Conversion begins, but only begins, a lifelong process of character formation and reformation.

And as in the classical example, that process depends more on actions than on abstract beliefs. Nothing is easier than mental assent to a set of propositions, but Christ sets a higher standard: "If you love me, obey my commands" (John 14:15).

As similar as they are in many ways, the classical and biblical notions of character differ at a crucial point—sin. For Aristotle, there is little if anything wrong in our character and our society that cannot be fixed by greater efforts in the way of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. Paul, on the other hand, says, "I do not understand my own behavior. For rather than doing the thing I want to do, I do what I hate" (Rom. 7:15).

The classical model says there is nothing wrong that we cannot fix ourselves; the biblical says our radical brokenness can be fixed only by the one who made us. One sends us inside ourselves for help; the other sends us to someone greater than ourselves. This crucial difference continues today. A look at the overflowing shelves of the self-help section in bookstores tells us clearly which option contemporary America has chosen.

These two streams, classical and biblical, flowed together into Europe and shaped moral education (which was at the heart of all education) for 1,500 years. They were not seriously challenged until the Enlightenment. The savants of the eighteenth century recognized the need for morality, especially to keep the masses in line, and looked to the Judeo-Christian tradition to define moral behavior. But they found the God of the Bible inconvenient. Thomas Jefferson turned his Bible into a paper snowflake, cutting out all the passages that involved the miraculous. Like other leading Enlightenment thinkers, he sought to ground morality in reason, not in divine revelation.

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The goal of philosophical ethics for the last 200 years has been to find that rational basis for morality—on which, presumably, all reasonable people can agree. The attempt has fizzled. As Alasdair MacIntyre has shown in his widely influential book "After Virtue," reasonable people have not even been able to agree on what constitutes moral behavior, much less actually find a way to ensure it. Because we no longer share a common moral tradition, we repeatedly talk past each other on moral issues. We are left sifting the fragments of many traditions for an alternative to radical, relativistic individualism. The only universally approved virtue today is tolerance, yet we are increasingly aware that we are doomed if we tolerate everything.

The ascendancy of relativism has been hard on the idea of character. But there is an equally important reason why the idea of character has disappeared from our public discussions, and that is the dominance of popular psychology and psychotherapy in all deliberations of what it means to be a human being. The concept of character—once part of the everyday vocabulary of personal assessment—has been almost entirely replaced with the concept of personality.

Psychology aspires to be a science, and science by definition is mute in the face of any ought. It can deal with what and sometimes with why but not with should. Though character was used as a term in psychology in the early parts of this century and has persisted in Europe, it was banished from American psychology well before midcentury. Gordon Allport, an eminent Harvard psychologist and one-time president of the American Psychological Association, expressed the common view when he wrote in the 1930s that we "must frankly admit that [character] is an ethical concept" and that, as such, "the psychologist does not need the term at all; personality alone will serve."

Psychology took the ancient idea of character, an idea that was central to education and moral development, stripped out value judgments (especially moral ones), and gave us personality to take its place. Allport says, "Character is personality evaluated, and personality is character devalued." In Allport's own terms, the notion of moral excellence (character) was replaced by that of social and personal effectiveness (personality). Defining the self by character traits like courage, honesty, and loyalty gave way to definition by personality traits like assertiveness, self-confidence, and introspectiveness.

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Consider Allport's definition of personality as "character devalued." Likely he meant the self looked at objectively, unencumbered by controversial and imprecise values ("ethical moss," in his words). But the net effect of replacing the language of character by that of personality (and that replacement is almost total) has been the literal devaluing of human beings and the human experience. This is not the fault of psychology per se, which has the right to limit what it investigates, but of the wholesale adoption of this way of understanding the human person by a naive and confused society. Psychology may not need the concept of character, but human beings and human society do.

We are now seeing the early stages of a scattered attempt to rehabilitate the concept of character. This change reflects a widespread sense that our society is sick and only strong medicine will do. Having lost much of our faith in social innovations (where, for instance, are the advocates of "open marriage" today?), we are turning to some traditional remedies that we tried to live without, and one of those is character.

But why is the attempt only scattered? Why, in fact, is it often controversial, met in some quarters with great suspicion? Who could possibly object to a greater emphasis on character? The fact is that character has returned to the public conversation during wartime—the culture wars—and no discussion of the role of character is neutral. As so often happens in our public conversations, the debate frequently splits along ideological lines. Many take it as given (and even desirable) that no agreement could ever be reached on what constitutes character or how we should encourage it. They are frightened by what they see as the attempt to equate character and family values with one, and only one, political and social agenda. And the suspicion is mutual.

A clear example is the reception of William Bennett's "The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories." Since its publication in 1993, this hugely successful book has been widely praised as leading the way in the restoration of civilization and widely vilified as trumpeting a retreat to the bad old days of racism, sexism, and (gulp) spanking. Jesse Jackson has complained, accurately, that conservatives have co-opted character and values as their issue, making liberals look like defenders of irresponsibility and moral decay.

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Many rightly ask where all this conservative concern for character—especially the virtue of justice—was in the 1950s and '60s, when African Americans were trying to win their most basic freedoms. The oft-lamented golden age when we were supposedly a virtuous (and Christian) people was also a time that was quite comfortable with overt racial segregation and sexism and great numbers of people living in poverty, among other sins.

Nevertheless, too much current liberal reaction is little more than relativistic skepticism about any attempt to establish a widely agreed-on set of values to live by. Barbara Ehrenreich, for instance, in an unusually cynical opinion piece last year for "Time" magazine, scorned the phrase "family values." While acknowledging that we "may be stuck with the family" until we progress to something more "sensible," she depicts the family as commonly "a nest of pathology" and cites approvingly a feminist view that compares marriage to prostitution.

While acidic views like Ehrenreich's contribute nothing to the debate, there is a legitimate concern that a renewed emphasis on character and values not be merely a convenient sound bite for pandering politicians nor provide cover for a retreat from hard-won and still fragile gains for minorities and women. Louis Sullivan, secretary of Health and Human Services under George Bush, argues often and passionately for the relevance of character to health issues in our society (a great deal of ill health being the result of bad choices) but insists that a renewed emphasis on the need for individual responsibility and community-enforced values should not be used as a smoke screen for an attack on the necessary and legitimate role of government in health and other areas.

In fact, both liberals and conservatives frequently promote an impoverished sense of character that is inadequate to support the kinds of changes we need—in ourselves and in our society. The conservative notion too often encourages mere conformity and defends a nostalgic version of the past. Character is not much more than the Boy Scout pledge sprinkled with civic religion.

Liberals have their own version, and it is equally pallid. "Embrace diversity, be nice to minorities, don't laugh at jokes that disempower women." They are unable to articulate a distinction between healthy pluralism and crippling relativism. They rhapsodize about e pluribus but have lost the vision for unum.

(Continued in Part 2)


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