Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What is ‘Character’?

Remember the days when a person’s ‘character’ was important, and the English public schools were devoted to ‘character-building’? Those days of Empire are long past, and somehow the building of character seems less important, now that we have no perilous missions to undertake, at great personal risk.

Character seems to be different than personality. It has a stronger normative feel - ‘a person of good character’ - and we seem to think it can be trained (character-building) in a way that personality just seems innate.

In my metaphor of the mind, I rather sign up to the ‘triune brain' concept, founded on the evolutionary layering of the human brain on successive reptilian (hind brain), mammalian (limbic system) and human (neocortical) ‘platforms’.

Since all these systems retain a degree of integrity and run in parallel, they each compete for control of the body and consequent expression in overt behaviour. We are intuitively quite familiar with these concepts. We talk of ‘animal lusts’ when primitive satiative drives take over, and ‘panic’ when fear/avoidance impulses seize control. These are all hind-brain functions.

Limbic system dominance manifests itself in cloying sentimentality or over-emotionality. Psychologists talk of the ‘neurotic personality’.

Neocortical dominance surely expresses itself in the over-controlled and emotionless ‘Spock-like’ behaviour of the stereotypical detached intellectual.

My thesis would be that none of the above, one-sided developments of ‘character’ are taken to be ideal by the great systems of the world which meditate upon the perfectibility of man. Philosophical Taoism for example is in essence a series of allusive prescriptions for ‘the perfect man’ (prescriptions understood as genderless, of course). The great religions also have this focus as one of their centre points and objectives.

If there is to be a concept of the optimal or harmonious interworking between the elements of the triune brain to express the best or highest form of character, then there has to be a ‘specification’ of what that perfect model should be. Where would we expect to find that specification?

I think in the theory of optimal social organisation. All the complexities of the human brain and human behaviour emerge from the conflicting demands of the human body per se, and the demands of the social organisation without which no human can survive. In the 'environment of evolutionary adaptedness', that is the tribe, of course.

Looking at optimal social roles, it seems unlikely that there is exactly one superior character type. Perhaps we should start with the temperament model empirically documented by theorists such as Keirsey. Consider his taxonomy of Guardian, Artisan, Rational, Idealist and try to understand the balance of internal drives which would allow each temperament to operate in its own way, as an ideal-type.

So, taking the Rational temperament as an example, we would ideally prefer intellectuals (neocortically dominant) who had sufficient warmth (a limbic function) to create social bonds and influence people effectively, and who were still sufficiently in touch with their reptilian-level drives that they could use aggression and fear constructively, rather than either repressing those drives or succumbing to them in mindless capitulation (cf. the Jungian ‘shadow’). So there’s a possible recipe for an intellectual with a ‘good character’.

I guess you could do a similar exercise for the other temperaments. Should be a Ph. D. thesis in there for someone.