One rarely thinks of character until one grows older. As I approach the ripe old age of sixty, I have been thinking much about the idea of character. What is character? How is one’s character formed? What are the ramifications of having a good or bad character? The best starting point is to trace the etymology of the word.
The word, “character,” is derived from the Greek word, “kharakter,” which means “engraved mark,” also “symbol or imprint on the soul,” properly “instrument for marking,” from kharassein “to engrave,” from kharax “pointed stake. . .” 1. In our common usage, we say that one’s character is the sum of qualities that makes one what he or she is, and by which we differentiate one’s personality from another. However, as with most words, there is a much deeper meaning hidden within. Notice that character is really an image, a mark, a symbol which is imprinted upon the soul. I believe this imprinting occurs at birth.
Every child is born with a certain character. It is innate. It is a mark, an impression formed in soft material when an object is pressed into it. The soul is the soft material imprinted with a specific character. The theory of tabula rasa is totally wrong. We are not born an empty slate; we are born with a character that must be developed throughout one’s life in order to be realized fully.
James Hillman, in his book, The Soul’s Code, called this idea the “acorn theory.”
I believe we have been robbed of our true biography–that destiny written into the acorn–and we go to therapy to recover it. That innate image can’t be found, however, until we have a psychological theory that grants primary psychological reality to the call of fate.2
The image is the manner in which a simple acorn sprouts and grows into a huge oak tree. There is an innate mark upon the acorn, which it eventually grows into. It has fate. It has a destiny, as do we all. For over one hundred years, sociological and psychological theories have claimed human character is the product of nature/nurture. In today’s terminology, this equates to genetics/environment. But this idea, says Hillman, “omits something essential–the particularity you feel to be you.”3 Furthermore, if I accept
the idea that I am the effect of a subtle buffering between hereditary and societal forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim.4
The victim mentality is to be eschewed at all cost. It has proven to be disastrous for millions of people, all who possessed a unique, innate calling of character that was never allowed to manifest itself. The acorn was obliterated. This is not to say it cannot be reanimated, but not as long as one views oneself as a victim of circumstance.
Mainstream society, politicians, educators, and many other so-called societal leaders want you to believe you are a victim. Victims are more easily controlled. People who feel a burning destiny in their bosom are not easily manipulated. They don’t want you to listen to that still, small voice of your heart. Following your calling does not fit into their plans for you. Each of us feels this burning in our hearts at one time or another, usually in our youth.
There is a long tradition of the belief in a personal destiny in Western civilization. The Romans called it one’s “genius.” They attributed it to a sort of tutelary being assigned to one, who watches over one’s safety, very similar to the “guardian angel” of Christianity. A Roman historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, speaks of this in his writings:
. . .the opinion of theologians is, that all men when they are born (without prejudice to the power of destiny) are connected with a superior power of this kind, who, as it were, guides their actions; but who is seen by very few, and only by those who are endued with great and various virtues.5
It may also be gathered from the immortal poetry of Homer, that they were not really the gods of heaven who conversed with his heroes, or stood by them and aided them in their combats; but the familiar genii who belonged to them; to whom also, as their principal support, Pythagoras owes his eminence, and Socrates and Numa Pompilius and the elder Scipio. And, as some fancy, Marius, and Octavianus the first, who took the name of Augustus. And Hermes Trismegistus, and Apollonius of Tyana, and Plotinus, who ventured upon some very mystical discussions of this point; and endeavoured to show by profound reasoning what is the original cause why these genii, being thus connected with the souls of mortals, protect them as if they had been nursed in their own bosoms, as far as they are permitted ; and, if they find them pure, preserving the body untainted by any connection with vice, and free from all taint of sin, instruct them in loftier mysteries.6
Note that the genius is not the same as one’s soul. They are, however, closely intertwined. The genius guides one’s actions, but not against one’s free volition. The genius remains connected to the soul until one’s death. This nexus, in my opinion, forms one’s character. It cannot be viewed as being true character without examining the genius-soul connection.
It is important to know that the Latin use of the world, genius, does not equate to our definition of it, as one who possesses an overabundance of intelligence. The Romans viewed it as a real being attached to the soul.
The context in which Ammianus is writing concerns the succession of emperors. Julian became emperor upon the death of his cousin, Constantius. The latter had been having dreams of his impending fate. He believed his genius has departed him, “as one who was soon to leave the world.”7
Western civilization is so far removed from this idea! Behavioral psychological theories have cursed at least two generations with their atheistic theories, viewing human beings no better than a Pavlovian dog, and robbing us of our callings. There is now the need to revitalize this ancient doctrine so that we may fully realize what we are meant to do in this mortal coil.
More to come on the subject of one’s character.
Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Warner: New York, 1996.
Marcellinus, Ammianus. The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus. trans. C.D. Yonge. George Bell & Sons: London, 1902
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