Character is one of the greatest motive powers in the world. In its noblest embodiments it exemplifies human nature in its highest forms, for it exhibits man at his best. It is the corner-stone of individual greatness—the Doric and splendid column of the majestic structure of a true and dignified man, who is at once a subject and a king. Character is to a man what the fly-wheel is to the engine. By the force of its momentum it carries him through times of temptation and trial; it steadies him in times of popular excitement and tumult, and exerts a guiding and controlling influence over his life.
There are trying and perilous circumstances in life which show how valuable and important a good character is. It is a strong and sure staff of support when every thing else fails. In the crisis of temptation, in the battle of life, when the struggle comes either from within or without, it is our strength, heroism, virtue, and consistency—our character, in short—which defends and secures our happiness and honor. And if they fail us in the hour of need—in the season of danger—all may be irretrievably lost, and nothing left us except vain regrets and penitential tears.
Character is power, character is influence, and he who has character, though he may have nothing else, has the means of being eminently useful, not only to his immediate friends, but to society, to the Church of God, and to the world. When a person has lost his character all is lost—all peace of mind, all complacency in himself, are fled forever. He despises himself; he is despised by his fellow-men. Within is shame and remorse; without, neglect and reproach. He is of necessity a miserable and useless man, and he is so even though he be clad in purple and fine linen, and fare sumptuously every day. It is better to be poor; it is better to be reduced to beggary; it is better to be cast into prison, or condemned to perpetual slavery than to be destitute of a good name, or endure the pains and evils of a conscious worthlessness of character. The value of character is the standard of human progress. The individual, the community, the nation, tell of their standing, their advancement, their worth, their true wealth and glory, in the eye of God, by their estimation of character. That man or nation that lightly esteems character is low, groveling, and barbarous.
Wherever character is made a secondary object sensualism and crime prevail. He who would prostitute character to reputation is base. He who lives for any thing less than character is mean. He who enters upon any study, pursuit, amusement, pleasure, habit, or course of life, without considering its effect upon his character is not a trusty or an honest man. He whose modes of thought, states of feeling, every-day acts, common language, and whole outward life, are not directed by a wise reference to their influence upon his character is a man always to be watched. Just as a man prizes his character so is he.
There is a difference between character and reputation. Character is what a man is; reputation is what he is thought to be. Character is within; reputation is without. Character is always real; reputation may be false. Character is substantial and enduring; reputation may be vapory and fleeting. Character is at home; reputation is abroad. Character is in a man’s own soul; reputation is in the minds of others. Character is the solid food of life; reputation is the dessert. Character is what gives a man value in his own eyes; reputation is what he is valued at in the eyes of others. Character is his real worth; reputation is his market price. A man may have a good character and a bad reputation; or, a man may have a good reputation and a bad character, as we form our opinion of men from what they appear to be, and not from what they really are. Most men are more anxious about their reputation than they are about their character. This is not right. While every man should endeavor to maintain a good, reputation, he should especially labor to possess a good character. Our true happiness depends not so much on what is thought of us by others as on what we really are in ourselves. Men of good character are generally men of good reputation, but this is not always the case, as the motives and actions of the best of men are sometimes misunderstood and misrepresented. But it is important, above every thing, else that we be right and do right, whether our motives and actions are properly understood and appreciated or not. Nothing can be so important to any man as the formation and possession of a good character.
Character is of slow but steady growth, and the smallest child and the humblest and weakest individual may attain heights that now seem inaccessible by the constant and patient exercise of just as much moral power as, from time to time, they possess. The faithful discharge of daily duty, the simple integrity of purpose and power of life that all can attain with effort, contribute silently but surely to the building up of a moral character that knows no limit to its power, no bounds to its heroism. The influences which operate in the formation of character are numerous, and however trivial some of them may appear they are not to be despised. The most powerful forces in nature are those that operate silently and imperceptibly. This is equally true of those moral forces which exert the greatest influence on our minds and give complexion to our character. Among the most powerful are early impressions, examples, and habits. Early impressions, although they may appear to be but slight, are the most enduring, and exert a great influence on life. The tiniest bit of public opinion sown in the minds of children in private life afterwards issue forth to the world and become its public opinions, for nations are gathered out of nurseries. By repetition of acts the character becomes slowly but decidedly formed. The several acts may seem in themselves trivial, but so are the continuous acts of daily life.
Our minds are given us, but our characters we make. The full measure of all the powers necessary to make a man are no more a character than a handful of seeds is an orchard of fruits. Plant the seeds, and tend them well, and they will make an orchard. Cultivate the powers, and harmonize them well, and they will make a noble character. The germ is not the tree, the acorn is not the oak; neither is the mind a character. God gives the mind; man makes the character. Mind is the garden; character is the fruit. Mind is the white page; character is the writing we put on it. Mind is the metallic plate; character is our engraving thereon. Mind is the shop, the counting-room; character is our profits on the trade. Large profits are made from quick sales and small percentage; so great characters are made by many little acts and efforts. A dollar is composed of a thousand mills; so is a character of a thousand thoughts and acts. The secret thought never expressed, the inward indulgence in imaginary wrong, the lie never told for want of courage, the licentiousness never indulged in for fear of public rebuke, the irreverence of the heart, are just as effectual in staining the heart as though the world knew all about them.
A subtle thing is character, and a constant work is its formation. Whether it be good or bad, it has been long in its growth and is the aggregate of millions of little mental acts. A good character is a precious thing, above rubies, gold, crowns, or kingdoms, and the work of making it is the noblest labor on earth. A good character is in all cases the fruit of personal exertion. It is not an inheritance from parents; it is not created by external advantages; it is no necessary appendage of birth, wealth, talents, or station; but it is the result of one’s own endeavors. All the variety of minute circumstances which go to form character are more or less under the control of the individual. Not a day passes without its discipline, whether for good or for evil. There is no act, however trivial, but has its train of consequences, as there is no hair, however small, but casts its shadow.
Not only is character of importance to its possessor as the means of conferring upon him true dignity and worth, but it exerts an influence upon the lives of all within its pale, the importance of which can never be overestimated. It might better be called an effluence; for it is constantly radiating from a man, and then most of all when he is least conscious of its emanation. We are molding others wherever we are. Books are only useful when they are read; sermons are only influential when they are listened to; but character keeps itself at all times before men’s attention, and its weight is felt by every one who comes within its sphere.
Other agencies are intermittent, like the revolving light, which, after a time of brightness, goes out into a period of darkness; but character is continuous in its operations, and shines with the steady radiance of a star. A good character is therefore to be carefully maintained for the sake of others, if possible, more than ourselves. It is a coat of triple steel, giving security to the wearer, protection to the oppressed, and inspiring the oppressor with awe. Every man is bound to aim at the possession of a good character as one of the highest objects of his life. His very effort to secure it by worthy means will furnish him with a motive for exertion, and his idea of manhood, in proportion as it is elevated, will steady and animate his motives. The pursuit of it will prove no obstacle to the acquisition of wealth or fame; but, on the contrary, not only is the attainment of a good character an almost indispensable thing for him who would make his mark in the world, but such is the nature of character that the control over the acts and thoughts of an individual, which must be acquired before character can exhibit inherent strength, conduces, in a very great degree, to the very condition which produces success.
Character is the grandest thing man can live for; it is to have worth of soul, wealth of heart, diamond-dust of mind. He who has this aim lives to be what he ought to be, and to do what duty requires. To him comes fame, delighted to crown him with her wreaths of honor. Sum it up as we will, character is the great desideratum of human life. This truth, sublime in its simplicity and powerful in its beauty, is the highest lesson of religion, the first that youth should learn, and the last that age should forget.
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