Heraclitus’ Maxim Still Holds True: Character is Destiny

Terrence Moore

February 1, 2004

Young people may not realize the extent to which their future depends on how others judge their character. But they will learn soon enough. Certainly every employer will want to know about a person’s character before hiring him. Someone who is responsible for a business, who has put his blood, toil, tears, and sweat into the growth of a company, does not want to give the keys to the front door and the cash register and all of the company secrets to a person who cheats, steals, or is lazy. Before hiring someone, consequently, an employer will ask for character references. Character references cannot be your buddies. They must be people in positions of authority: other employers, teachers, professors.

The more sensitive the job, the more the employer will look into your character. When I was trying to get into the Marine Corps, an officer put me through a searching interview whose purpose was to determine the nature of my character. Among the questions he asked was, “Have you ever used illegal drugs?” Thus, the decisions that you make in early youth, while at a party or “hanging out” with friends, will have consequences later in life. Applying to the F.B.I. would be even more difficult. When doing background checks, the Bureau tracks down your college professors, your high school teachers, neighbors, and anyone you have ever worked for. The personnel departments of the major innovative companies are not much less thorough. They cannot afford to hire someone who would sell an idea to a rival company. They will not pay six-figure salaries to people who always have excuses for not getting their work done.

Character is a concern to more than just employers. The degree to which a person can attain anything of importance or expense in life will depend upon the strength of his character. Need proof? While not in school, the minds of fifteen year-old boys are often on cars and the opposite sex, which seemingly have nothing to do with character. Ultimately, however, character affects one’s prospects in every field of endeavor. A car dealer will not hand the keys of a $75,000 Porsche over to someone whose credit history is not flawless. More important, a prospective wife or husband wants to know the minutest details of someone’s character before embarking on the life-ennobling enterprises of marriage and childrearing with that person. Happiness depends upon a right judgment of character. What sensible person wants to spend her life with someone she cannot trust? We see again that the decisions made in early youth have lasting consequences.

So if good character is so important, then how does one attain it? Achieving excellence in moral matters is no different from doing so in any other human activity. One must practice. No less a philosopher than Aristotle said that we become virtuous by practicing the virtues. In other words, a person must know his own character thoroughly and constantly work to improve that character. By doing good things, one becomes good. The great moralist Benjamin Franklin used to ask himself every night, “What good have I done today?”

Young people must have a great deal of help in forming their characters. They will not at first readily admit their weaknesses and faults. Adults should tell them when they are doing good things and when they are not. This is simply moral teaching or coaching. Ultimately, however, a person will have to take full responsibility for his own character. The great historian Macaulay defined character perhaps better than anyone. “The measure of a man’s character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” Every parent and teacher should put to young people this question: “What will you do when I am not looking over your shoulder?” In other words, those who cannot be trusted without being watched will never be entrusted with great things.

Terrence Moore is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center. He is the Principal of Ridgeview Classical Schools in Fort Collins, Colorado.