The concept of character - a person's core values and guiding principles, the ideals a person strives towards and the rules that govern their actions - is easy to overlook. More emphasis seems to be placed on personality, or those surface-level traits that everyone can see: appearance, manner of dress, hygiene, taste in music or films, and so on. When we meet new people, our instinct is to judge them on personality, for character is revealed through action and interaction, and the affect a person has on the world around them, which, for many, can be difficult to ascertain upon an initial meeting.
In spite of the desperate, howling appeals of the religious, the Judeo-Christian-Muslim scriptures provide precious little useful instruction when it comes to construction of character and morality. Fortunately we have Aristotle, whose Nicomachean Ethics fills the void quite admirably with a more complete set of virtues and vices, explored with some thoroughness.
Aristotle lays out a three-tiered continuum of "excess" and "deficiency" in each "sphere of action," with the "mean" state occupying the happy medium that every person should strive for. For example, in the sphere of fear and confidence, "rashness" is excessive, "cowardice" is deficient, and "courage" is the mean. Furthermore, each sphere of action is described in detail. Continuing with the example of "fear and confidence," we may differentiate between physical and moral courage, with the former being a willingness to risk life and limb and the latter a willingness to take a stand on one side or the other of some issue or conflict.
Aristotle's work finds a number of timeless uses, from crafting one's own character deliberately and methodically through practice to child-rearing to analysis and judgement of potential companions. In practice, we try to give our friends the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deficiencies and excesses of character in the hopes that we will receive equal treatment, but more often than not, when we surround ourselves with people of low moral character, we get burned, and we wish that we'd payed more attention to that old bearded Greek.
Equally useful in judgement of a person's character is a cursory knowledge of psychology. Although the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders has been heavily and justly criticized, using it as a guide to behavior is, nevertheless, useful. The hallmarks of Borderline Personality Disorder, for example, are, according to DSM IV, patterns of "instability in interpersonal relationships, self-image, and affects, and marked impulsivity." Individual behavior may vary greatly within any particular disorder, but having some loose guidelines such as these along with the Nicomachean Ethics could be quite useful in managing one's own behavior and relationships in a rational way.
Like music, art, graphic design, typography, astronomy, and a number of other subjects that have garnered my interest, the topic of character is one that I have obsessed over for years, possibly because I dabble in fiction writing from time to time. But theory and practice do not always coincide. My own character, for instance, suffers from a number of excesses and deficiencies, including licentiousness, irascibility, prodigality, and cantankerousness. Knowing about them helps me to counteract them, so that I can lean more towards the mean. And when it comes to choosing companions, my heart (rather than intellect) wins out every time. I would serve my own interests better by avoiding many of the people that I love. But I can't bring myself to do that, even when their choices and actions are highly dubious, or when a few of them are angry with me, having judged me harshly for some flaws in my character. In this regard, Gustavo Gutiérrez's A Theology of Liberation resonates with me deeply, not just in the area of civic duty, but in interpersonal relationships. A guiding principle laid out in this text is the idea that "communion with the Lord inescapably means a ... life centered around a concrete and creative commitment of service to others."
More so than to society, I am in service to those whom I love: my children, my family, and my friends. And sometimes the best way to serve someone you love is to step away from them, to give them the space and the time required to grow in new directions. With the exception of my two children, I can step away momentarily from some of my many loved ones for these purposes, but I do not forget about them or give up on them, and I await their return with open arms when - and if - we may one day be reconciled.