Somewhat delayed post, but the topic, I think, is plenty fresh. On the Brooks view of individuality (which I discussed on below), Maggie Gallagher at the Corner says:

Having psychologized every other aspect of morality, there is no good reason why we shouldn’t also psychologize the idea of character.

But the core problem with David Brooks’s analysis is this: In the Victorian sense, character was not an innate characteristic you possessed, it was something that other people gave you.

Character was understood to be an aspiration, in other words, that became real by acting in such a way that others observed in you “character.”

Absent a cultural context that promotes this ideal, character in the old sense doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t exist raw in nature as an empirical fact of human beings. It is a cultural creation, made real when people care enough to aspire to it and to incarnate it to the extent that human beings can incarnate ideals.


The core problem with Maggie’s analysis is this: in the sense used by John Stuart Mill, who shares the “Victorian” view of character she praises, individuals in fact have no innate individual character. Mill uses “individual” as an honorific, a term we bestow upon people so full of individuality that both they and we can experience it. Individuality turns out to be a slippery fudge word, alas, having to do with the originality of the powers that happen to have seemingly accumulated in or around you. I’m all for taking the reality of cultural creations seriously — and for a full understanding of what it means to incarnate something of the spirit. But the Millean vision of individuality — as Emerson, who in large part shares it, suggests — is inimical to the cultural incarnation of people who recognize the reality of individual being and take it seriously. Our rather cultish view of charisma, which accepts the disintegration of the individual in the pursuit of full experiences of individuality, seems to promise a new dark ages of pop superstition and a fall away from the very precondition of character, socially constructed or otherwise.

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Articles by James Poulos

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