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Quite distinct from the technical meaning which the term character possesses in theological controversy is that attached to it in the language of common life, as well as in the literature devoted to psychology, ethics, and education. The interest surrounding the conception of character in these latter branches of speculation has been constantly increasing during the past hundred years.


Different shades of meaning pertain to the term in different contexts. In general we may say that character is the expression of the personality of a human being, and that it reveals itself in his conduct. In this sense every man has a character. At the same time only human beings, not animals, have character: it implies rationality. But in addition to this usage, the term is also employed in a narrower sense, as when we speak of a man "of character". In this connotation character implies a certain unity of qualities with a recognizable degree of constancy or fixity in mode of action. It is the business of psychology to analyze the constituent elements of character, to trace the laws of its growth, to distinguish the chief agencies which contribute to the formation of different types of character, and to classify such types. If anything approaching a science of character is ever to be built up, it must be a special psychology. French psychologists during the last thirty years have given us a large quantity of acute observations on the topic of character. Chief amongst them have been: MM. Azam, Pérez, Ribot, Paulhan, Fouillée, and Malapert. Still these contributions do not constitute a science.

The behaviour of each human being at any stage of his existence is the outcome of a complex collection of elements. The manner in which he apperceives or takes in certain present impressions, the sort of thoughts which they awaken, the particular feeling with which they are associated in his mind, and the special volitions to which they give rise are, in spite of the common nature in which he participates with other men, in a certain measure peculiar to himself. Taken collectively they are said to constitute or, more accurately perhaps, to reveal his character. At any epoch in mature life a man's character is the resultant of two distinct classes of factors: the original or inherited elements of his being, and those which he has himself acquired. On the one hand, every human being starts with a certain nature or disposition--a native endowment of capacities for knowledge, and feelings, and tendencies towards volitions and action--which varies with each individual. This disposition is dependent in part on the structure of the bodily organism and especially of the nervous system which he has inherited; in part, perhaps, also on his soul which has been created. It forms his individuality at the beginning of life; and it includes susceptibilities for responding to external influences, and potentialities for developing in various ways which differ with each human being. A fundamental error in English psychology from Locke to John Stuart Mill was the ignoring or under-estimating of this diversity of native aptitude in different individuals. Much of the Associationist treatment of the development of the human mind proceeded on the assumption of an original equality or similarity of mental faculty, and consequently tended to ascribe all subsequent differences to a diversity of circumstances. It vastly exaggerated what has been called the part played by nurture as compared with that of nature. It overlooked the fact that the original capacity and disposition of the individual mind largely determines how it shall appropriate the experience presented to it by its environment. This error was peculiarly unfavourable to the affording of an adequate account of character. Since Darwin there has been a return to the older and truer doctrine which recognized fully the importance of the original endowment of each individual. For, although the author of the "Origin of Species" himself exaggerated the influence of the environment in his biological theory, he and his followers were driven to lay great stress upon heredity and the transmission from parent to offspring of individual variations and acquired habits.


The original endowment or native element in character with which the individual starts life is practically identical with what the Ancients and the Schoolmen recognized under the term temperament. From the times of Hippocrates and Galen they distinguished four main types of temperament: the sanguine, the choleric, the phlegmatic, and the melancholic. Curiously enough modern speculation from Kant to Wundt and Fouillée tends to accept the same general classification, though sometimes under other names. These different types of temperament the Ancients held to be due to the predominance in the organism of different humours. Modern writers variously account for them by differences of texture and varying solidity of the tissues of the body, by varying development of different parts, by diverse rates of activity in the processes of nutrition and waste, in the changes of nerve-energy, or in circulation, and by differences of tonicity in the nerves. Whatever be the true physiological explanation, the fourfold classification seems fairly to represent certain markedly contrasted types of disposition, though they leave room for subdivision and intermediate forms. Moreover, though scientists are still far from being agreed as to the precise elements in the organism on which temperament depends, the fact that different forms of temperament have an organic basis seems certain. The transmission from parent to offspring of hereditary dispositions, therefore, involves no conflict with the doctrine of the creation of each human soul.

Although our original temperament is thus given to us independently of our will, we ourselves play an important part in the moulding of our character, and we thus become responsible for certain ethical qualities in it. Character has been defined as "a completely fashioned will". It would be more accurate to say that character is "natural temperament completely fashioned by the will". It is, in fact, a resultant of the combination of our acquired habits with our original disposition. As the quality, shape, and structure of the organism and of its different parts may be variously modified in the process of growth--especially during the plasticity of early life--by variations in nutrition, exercise, and environment, so may the faculties of the soul be variously developed by the manner in which it is exercised, and by the nature of the objects on which its faculties are employed. Among the acquired elements which go to the building up of character may be distinguished those pertaining to cognition, whether sensuous or intellectual, and those belonging to the emotional and volitional activities of the soul. Exercise strengthens the power and widens the range of each faculty, creating, not uncommonly, a craving for further exercise in the same direction. The regular use of the intellect, the controlled activity of the imagination, the practice of judgment and reflection, all contribute so the formation of habits of mind more or less thoughtful and refined. The frequent indulgence in particular forms of emotion, such as anger, envy, sympathy, melancholy, fear, and the like, fosters tendencies towards these sentiments which give a subconscious bent to a large part of man's behaviour. But finally the exercise of the will plays the predominant part in moulding the type of character which is being formed. The manner and degree in which currents of thought and waves of emotion are initiated, guided, and controlled by the will, or allowed to follow the course of spontaneous impulse, has not less effect in determining the resultant type of character than the quality of the thoughts or emotions themselves. The life of the lower animal is entirely ruled by instinct from within, and by accidental circumstances from without. It is therefore incapable of acquiring a character. Man, through the awakening of reason and the growth of reflection, by the exercise of deliberate choice against the movements of impulse, gradually develops self-control; and it is by the exercise of this power that moral character is especially formed. Character is in fact the outcome of a series of volitions, and it is for this reason we are responsible for our characters, as we are for the individual habits which go to constitute them.


Starting from the basis of the four fundamental temperaments, various classifications of types of character have been adopted by different writers. The intellectual, the emotional, and the volitional or energetic stand for the chief types with A. Bain. M. Pérez, taking for his principle of division the phenomenon of movement, distinguishes characters as lively, slow, ardent, and équilibrés or well-balanced. M. Ribot, proceeding from a more subjective ground of division and excluding indefinite and unstable types as strictly speaking characterless, recognizes as the most general forms: the sensitive, subdivided into the humble contemplative and emotional; the active, subdivided into the great and the mediocre; and the apathetic, subdivided into the purely apathetic or dull; and the calculateurs or intelligent. By combination these again afford new types. M. Fouillée takes sensitive, intellectual, and volitional for his scheme and by cross-combinations and subdivisions works out an equally complex plan. MM. Paulhan, Queyrat, and Fouillée and Malapert have each different divisions of their own, thus establishing, at all events, the impossibility of attaining agreement on the subject.


These efforts naturally suggest the question: Is a science of character possible? Mill devoted an important section in Book VI of his "Logic" to answering this query. He argues that there may be a true science of human nature, though not, as in the case of the physical sciences, an exact science. The laws which it can formulate are only approximate generalizations expressive of tendencies. It may not attempt exact predictions, owing to the complexity and uncertainty of the causes at work. Though mankind have not one universal character, there exist universal laws of the formation of character. The ascertainment of these laws constitutes the object of the science of ethology. The phenomena being so complex the method of investigation must be deductive. We have to draw inferences from general psychological principles, and then to verify them by study of concrete individual cases.

It is very unwise to lay down limits to the progress of knowledge; but it may be affirmed that, at all events, we have at present nothing approximating to a science of character. As we have said, there is already in existence a considerable literature devoted to the psychological analysis of the constituents of the different forms of character, to the study of the general conditions of its growth, and to the classification of types of character. But the results, as yet reached, have little claim to the title of a science. There are moreover two obstacles, which though not, perhaps, absolutely fatal to the possibility of such a science are graver difficulties than Mill realized. Firstly, there is the element of individuality lying at the root of each character and variously determining its growths even in like circumstances, as we see in two children of the same family. The mistaken view as to the original equality and similarity of different minds naturally involved an erroneous under-estimation of this difficulty. Secondly, there is the fact of free-will, denied by Mill. We do not maintain that free-will is irreconcilable with a science whose laws are approximate generalizations as Mill conceived those of ethology to be. All anti-determinists allow enough of uniformity in the influence of motive upon action to satisfy this condition. Still the admission of free-will in the building up of character does indisputably increase the unpredictableness of future conduct and consequently of a science of character.


Whilst psychology investigates the growth of different types of character, ethics considers the relative value of such types and the virtues which constitute them. The problem of the true moral ideal is, in some ethical systems mainly, and in all systems partially, a question of the relative value of different types of character. The effect on the agent's character of a particular form of conduct is a universally accepted test of its moral quality. Different systems of ethics emphasize the importance of different virtues in the constitution of the ideal moral character. With the Utilitarian, who places the ethical end in the maximum of temporal happiness for the whole community, benevolence will form the primary element in the ideal character. For the Stoic, fortitude and self-control are the chief excellences. The egoistic Hedonist would seem bound to praise enlightened prudence as the highest virtue. For the Christian, Christ is, of course, the true example of ideal character. The vast multitude of varied types of moral perfection presented to us in the lives of the saints who have striven to copy Him show the infinite many-sidedness and rich fruitfulness of that ideal. In all conceptions of ideal character strength forms an essential feature. Firmness of will, fortitude, constancy in adhering to principle or in pursuit of a noble aim hold so important a place that in common language to be a man of character is frequently equivalent to being capable of adhering to a fixed purpose. But strength of this kind may easily degenerate into irrational obstinacy or narrow fanaticism. Another essential is the virtue of justice, the constant, practical recognition of the rights and claims of others-involving, of course, all our duties towards Almighty God. In addition to these, habits of charity and magnanimity, with temperance and self-restraint in the control of our lower appetencies, will be included. Finally, the richer the culture of the mind, the larger the intellectual horizon, the broader the sympathies, and the more balanced the springs of action in the soul, the more will the character approximate to the ideal of human perfection.


The true aim of education is not merely the cultivation of the intellect but also the formation of moral character. Increased intelligence or physical skill may as easily be employed to the detriment as to the benefit of the community, if not accompanied by improved will. Both do not necessarily go together. As it is the function of ethics to determine the ideal of human character, so it is the business of the theory or science of education to study the processes by which that end may be attained and to estimate the relative efficiency of different educational systems and methods in the prosecution of that end. Finally it is the duty of the art of education to apply the conclusions thus reached to practice and to adapt the available machinery to the realization of the true purpose of education in the formation of the highest type of ideal human character.


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Character (in Catholic Theology)

Character indicates a special effect produced by three of the sacraments, viz. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders. This special effect is called the sacramental character. The term implies a relation (as will be explained below) to a term used in the Epistle to the Hebrews (1:3) concerning the Son of God, who is there described as the Charaktèr tês hypostáseos autoû, or "figure [ figura] of the Father's substance". In Protestant theology, the term character is used in another sense in treatises concerning the Blessed Trinity; the phrase "hypostatic character" being employed to signify the distinctive characteristic (or what Catholic theologians call the proprietas personalis) of each of the Three Divine Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here we are concerned only with the sense of the word in Catholic theology, that is, with sacramental character.

Sacramental character means a special supernatural and ineffaceable mark, or seal, or distinction, impressed upon the soul by each of the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders; and it is by reason of this ineffaceable mark that none of these three sacraments may be administered more than once to the same person. This is express Catholic doctrine declared both in the Council of Florence (Sess. ult., Decret. Eugenii IV, §5) and in the Council of Trent (Sess. VII, can. ix, and Sess. XXIII, cap. iv and can. iv). "If any one shall say that in three sacraments, viz. Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders, there is not a character impressed upon the soul, that is a certain spiritual and ineffaceable mark [ signum] whence these sacraments cannot be iterated, let him be anathema" (Concil. Trid. Sess. ult., can. vii). If, indeed, there be grave doubt whether any one of these sacraments has really been administered, or whether the maimer of its administration has been valid, then it may be administered in a conditional form. But if they really have been validly administered, they cannot again, without sacrilege, be conferred upon the same person. The character imparted by these sacraments is something distinct from the grace imparted by them. In common with the other sacraments, they are channels of sanctifying grace. But these three have the special prerogative of conferring both grace and a character. In consequence of the distinction between the sacramental grace and the sacramental character, it may even happen, in the reception of these sacraments, that the character is imparted and the grace withheld; the lack of proper dispositions which is sufficient to prevent the reception of the grace may not prevent the reception of the character. Thus, an adult who receives baptism without right faith and repentance but with a real intention of receiving the sacrament, obtains the character without the grace. The sacramental character, then, is not in itself a sanctifying gift; it is of a legal and official, rather than of a moral, nature. Nevertheless, normally, the character has a connection with grace. It is only accidentally, by reason of some faulty disposition in the recipient of the sacrament, that the association between the character and the grace is broken. In the Divine intention, and in the efficacy of the sacraments, the grace and the character go together; and the grace is proportioned to the special function which the character indicates. So that the character is sometimes called a sign, or mark, of grace.

The sacramental character, as we have said, is ineffaceable from the soul. This means, not that the effacement of this spiritual mark is an absolute metaphysical impossibility, but that in the established order of Divine Providence there is no cause which can destroy it in this life--neither sin, nor degradation from the ecclesiastical state, nor apostasy. This is of faith; and it is a theological opinion of great probability that the character is not effaced from the souls of the blessed in Heaven; while it is an opinion of some probability, that it is not effaced from the souls of the lost. Theology further tells us that character is a mark, sign, or badge by which the recipient is devoted to the work of worshipping God according to the ordinances of the Christian religion and Christian life; and that this is the reason why a character should be impressed by the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders rather than by the others. Not all of the sacraments are directly and immediately ordained for the work of Divine worship; e.g. the Sacrament of Penance only absolves from sin, restoring the sinner to his former state, but not conferring on him any special privilege or faculty. Again, among the sacraments immediately connected with the worship of God, we may distinguish between the sacrament which constitutes the very act of worship (that is the Eucharist), and those sacraments which qualify a person to take part, as an agent or recipient, in the worship. Now these last are Baptism, Confirmation, and Holy orders. The Sacrament of Orders consecrates a man to the work of Divine worship as an agent, i.e. for the conferring of the sacraments upon other persons; baptism dedicates a person to Divine worship by qualifying him to receive the other sacraments; and confirmation, which confers spiritual manhood (as distinguished from the new birth of baptism), qualifies the recipient for the duty of honouring God by professing the Christian Faith before its enemies. The sacramental character is compared by theologians to a military badge, or the insignia of an order of knighthood. Scotus illustrates it by an argument drawn from the analogy of civil society, in which he names three official ranks:

  • the royal household, or that of the chief magistrate, by whatever name he may be called;
  • the public service, e.g. the army;
  • the officers of the army.

By baptism, he says, we are enrolled in the household of Christ; by confirmation, we are made soldiers of Christ; by Holy orders, we are made officers. And as these ranks have their distinctive badges in civil society, so in the spiritual society, or Church, the ranks are distinguished in the sight of God and His angels by spiritual badges, marks, or sacramental characters.

All theologians affirm that the sacramental character is not a mere external denomination; and practically all are agreed that it is a sort of quality or state made inherent in the soul. Those, such as Scotus, who say that it is a relation (to Christ) mean that it is a relation with a real fundamentum, or ground and whether we say that it is a relation having a ground in the soul, or a state or quality involving a relation, seems to signify quite the same thing, the difference being only in the expression. The category of quality being divided by Aristotelean and Scholastic philosophers into four kinds, theologians for the most part classify the sacramental character as something akin to the genus of quality called power. Theologians also tell us that the character inheres not in the very substance of the soul but in one of the rational faculties; but it is a question in dispute whether the faculty in which the character inheres as its subject be the will or the practical reason (the Scotists holding that it is the will; the Thomists, that it is the practical reason). The sacramental character or mark is the character or mark of Christ, not of the Holy Spirit, and as the Redeemer has three prerogatives, as Prophet, Priest, and King, this mark is the mark of Christ as Priest. It is a participation in His priesthood and an assimilation to it. Now, every created perfection is a shadow of some perfection of the Deity, and therefore assimilation to Christ even in His human nature is assimilation to God. And as the Son is described in the Epistle to the Hebrews as "the Character of the Father's substance", hence the sacramental character has been defined as "a distinction impressed by the Eternal Character [the Son] upon the created trinity [i.e. the soul with the intellect and the will] sealing it into a likeness (secundum imaginem consignans) unto the Trinity which creates and anew-creates (Trinitati creanti et recreanti)." For theology distinguishes in the soul

  • the natural image and likeness of God;
  • the likeness produced by sanctifying grace and faith, hope, and charity;
  • the likeness not moral, but, so to say, legal and official, produced by the sacramental character.

The doctrine of the sacramental character is one of those which have been developed, and its history is traceable with sufficient clearness. It is to be observed, however, that the doctrine rests upon the authority of the Council of Trent, and that the history is given as history, not for the purpose of invoking the authority of the primitive Church. Though first solemnly defined by the Council of Trent, it had already been officially declared in the Council of Florence; and it was the unanimous opinion of all theologians, long before the time of Wyclif, who questioned it. It was set forth with the utmost explicitness by St. Augustine in the controversies of the fifth century. He points out that all who favoured rebaptism did so because they failed to distinguish between two effects of the sacrament that is between the sanctifying gift of grace and the Holy Spirit, on the one hand, and the gift, on the other hand, which was not in itself sanctifying but which was a mark dedicating the recipient (cf. Contra Ep. Parm., II, n. 28, with Ep. xcviii ad. Bonifac.). In this controversy the doctrine of the sacramental character was but asserting itself with greater emphasis because it was (constructively) attacked. The Church was but bringing out into distinctness a doctrine held all along. For the Fathers of the fourth century habitually speak of baptism as a permanent, an everlasting, or an ineffaceable, seal; and what they say of baptism may be applied to confirmation, since the two sacraments were usually associated. They compare the seal, or mark, of baptism with the insignia of soldiers, with the mark placed by shepherds upon sheep, with circumcision, with the marking of the doorposts of the Israelites in Egypt. Such evidence as we have from the earlier ages all tends to prove that the Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries were only thinking out more explicitly what they had received from their predecessors. Thus Hippolytus contrasts the seal (or mark) of baptism, the mark given by Christ to his believers, with the mark of the beast (Hippolyt., De Christo et Antichristo, n. 6); the writer of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (see POPE ST. CLEMENT I; CLEMENTINES) calls it (c. 7, 8) the "seal impressed"; the "Pastor" of Hermas (lib. lII, Simil., IX, cc. 6, 16, 17, 31) speaks of baptism as a seal. At the end of the second century we find in the work known as "Excerpta Theodoti" (n. lxxvi), generally attributed to Clement of Alexandria, historical evidence of the existence of the doctrine. As the coin circulating in Judea in Christ's time bore the image and superscription of Cæsar, so, the writer says, does the believer obtain through Christ the name of God as an inscription, and the Holy Spirit as an image, upon his soul; as even brute animals by a mark show their owner and by a mark are distinguished, so the believing soul, which has received the seal of truth, bears the marks (stígmata) of Christ.

In the light of this traditional teaching it is possible to see some reference to this truth in the Apostolic writings. Thus St. Paul says: "Now he that confirmeth us with you in Christ, and that hath anointed us, is God: Who also hath sealed us, and given the Pledge of the Spirit in our hearts" (II Cor., 1:21-22). Here there is a distinction made between the "unction", i.e. grace, and the "sealing", or impressing of a mark (character), and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Again he says: "In whom [Christ] also believing you were signed with the holy Spirit of promise" (Ephes., 1:13), and "grieve not the holy Spirit of God: whereby you are sealed unto the day of redemption" (4:30). It is obvious, therefore, that this doctrine has been taught from the beginning, at first, indeed, without emphasis or clearness, in an obscure and only half-conscious manner, but with growing clearness; and though some theologians in the Middle Ages may have doubted whether it could be proved to be contained in the deposit of revealed truth, they did not at all doubt that it was true, or that it was a part of Catholic teaching.


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