Why Do We Lack Character
Our people have no character” is acknowledged universally, at home and abroad, in business and government circles, and in every sphere of administrative activity. Lack of character produces social imbalance and leads ultimately to national decline and disintegration. The malady has been eating up the vitals of our social life too fast to withstand an unexpected shock.
Meaning of Character.
The outward signs of a weak character are commonly believed to be bribery, corruption and exploitation but they do not bring out the true significance of the word. It belongs to the realm of ethics, which defines character in terms not easily intelligible to the common man. Here are a few definitions given by Western writers on ethics.
“Morality is character. Character is that which is engraved. Character is really inwardness. Immorality as energy is also character, but to be neither moral nor immoral is merely ambiguous”.
(Soren Kierkegarard in “The Present Age”, page 15).
“Character is the manifestation of Truth, and Truth is the conformation of Appearance to Reality”.
(Professor Whitehead in “Adventures of Ideas”, page 309).
“Character is adopting ‘Good’ and good is the movement in the direction of home, ‘evil’ is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes away”.
(Martin Bubar in “Between Man and Man”, page 78).
“Character is the possession of power over oneself; it is the victory over slavery to oneself”.
(Berdyaev in “Slavery and Freedom”, page 47).
“Each person should in his acts, and behind them in his thoughts and his emotions, exercise that control which is necessary in order to assure not only harmony in his own personality but also social harmony”.
(Alexander Loveday in “The Only Way”).
“Character in the most general sense is a man’s attitude towards his human surroundings which is expressed in his actions”. (Kerschensteiner’s essay on “The Concept and Education of Character” quoted by
(Martin Bubar in “Between Man and Man”, page 108).
Let us attempt a definition on a layman’s level.
An Illustrative Proverb.
The proverb says “Sacrifice wealth to save life and sacrifice life to save honour”. The first half of the proverb is clear. Wealth and life have their respective values and if only one of them can be saved then wealth should be sacrificed to save life. One who sacrifices wealth for life or vice versa is, however, neither credited with character nor condemned. A miser once fell ill and his son called in an eminent doctor, not for helping the patient, but for saving his face against the charge of indifference towards his ailing father. The doctor examined the patient, diagnosed the disease and wrote out a prescription. As the son was leaving for buying the medicines, the father told him to do so only after first ascertaining from the undertaker the cost of his funeral, that is, he should adopt the less costly course. The advice will excite laughter, not because it exhibits lack of character but on account of its absurdity. Preservation of self is an urge which every living being follows instinctively. How hard does a tiny little ant struggle against obstacles endangering its life! Man is no exception. If he sacrifices wealth for life, he follows a natural instinct and not any moral value. Doing the opposite would be devoid of sense. Harming oneself is lunacy.
The second half of the proverb suggests that life and honour have both a value but that if there is a tie between them and only one can be saved, then it is honour which should be preferred. He who sacrifices life for safeguarding honour is universally applauded as a man of character; he who sacrifices honour to save life is unreservedly condemned.
Preservation of life is an animal instinct; not so is the preservation of honour. The concept of honour is unknown to the animal world. In fact it forms the line of demarcation between the Animal and the Man. Honour is a specific human value. Preservation of human values elevates the level of life, from the animal to the human. Character may, therefore, be defined as who so preserves human values against animal instincts is a man of character.
Assessment of Human Values.
Human values might have different meanings. Take the word honour. “God has saved my honour,” means that I have not been disgraced before my friends. “She gave her life to save her honour”—here honour signifies chastity. But the meaning of chastity itself might differ from people to people. In the East if some one casts an evil glance at a veiled lady, her father or brother would not hesitate to shoot him. In the West, however, if a girl flirts publicly,her father or brother, instead of having any qualms, would feel proud of her as a popular society girl! Again one society might attach the greatest importance to a particular value which in the estimation of another society might not be a value at all. We respect and honour our parents, but there have been tribes with whom eating them up constituted a sacred duty. The Puritans saw nothing wrong in stealing Negro children and shooting the Irishmen. The Jews thought it bad, even criminal, to levy interest among themselves but permitted it in the case of non-Jews. In an island of the Pacific there is a tribe with whom dishonesty is the best moral conduct and among whom the cleverest cheat is held in the highest esteem. Thugs felt proud of killing poor wayfarers. Nationalism is recognized the world over as a political and social creed and one who helps the well being of his nation by exploiting the other nations, is regarded a patriot worthy of being immortalized in metal and marble.
In the words of Rumelin.
“Self regard is its (State’s) appointed duty; the maintenance and development of its own power and well-being is the supreme principle of all politics. The State can only have regard to the interest of any other State so far as this can be identified with its own interest. The maintenance of the State justified every sacrifice and is superior to every moral rule”
(Quoted by Robert H. Murray in his,
“The Individual and the State”, page 216)
Universal Standard of Character.
Since human values vary with different societies should character mean harmonizing oneself to the values which a society might stress for the time being? In days gone by Spartans viewed theft a virtue and held the smartest thief in the high-test esteem; today theft is a crime and a thief a criminal. With us conception of a virgin is a disgrace for the family, in the West sexual intercourse between a willing couple is neither an evil nor a criminal offense: even homosexuality betweenwilling parties is condoned there. Is there then no universal standard of character?
Quranic Concept of Character.
People inhabiting different countries might follow different ways of life but, according to the Holy Quran, human values are the same anywhere and unchangeable too. It is not given, however, to human intellect to determine such values. Human intellect is essentially individualistic in character. It can seek preservation of the particular self to which it belongs individually or collectively, but not that of the other selves. For the well-being and preservation of mankind as a whole,however, what is needed is not an individualistic intellect, which cannot see beyond its nose, but a comprehensive and all pervading intellect, namely God and Revelation. It is Revelation alone which gives abiding universal values. The revealed values are preserved in the Holy Quran, the code of life for mankind in all climes and ages. Quranic values are Permanent Values of life and provide a universal standard of character or, to use Quranic terminology, Taqwa.
Rational thought fully endorses Quranic concept of character. The famous writer Hastings Rashdall says:
“That there is one absolute standard of values, which is the same for all rational beings, is just what Morality means.”
(The Theory of Good and Evil, Vol. II, page 286)
On page 211 of the book he agrees that these values cannot be devised by human intellect but have been revealed to man and says:
“Certainly it (moral law) is to be found, wholly and completely, in no individual human consciousness. Men actually think differently about moral questions, and there is no empirical reason for supposing that they will ever do otherwise”.