From Character to Personality

I am continuing to benefit and be convicted by David Wells’ book The Courage to Be Protestant. Here Wells is commenting on the shift from a man’s character being most important to his personality being most important. I have seen this become a key issue with ministers as pastors are hired more for their personality than for their character. Earlier Wells noted that, “character is either good or bad; personality is attractive, forceful, or magnetic.” Here is a longer quote on the consequences of this shift.

With this shift have come many consequences, probably few of which were foreseen as these great changes began to unroll. The older vision in which character was paramount produced an understanding of the self that was quite different from what we have now. Then the thought was that personal growth comes through cultivating virtues and restraining vices. Moral limitation through self-control and self-sacrifice was the key to satisfaction and happiness.

By contrast, the vision that grows with the new preoccupation with personality is one of unlimited self-expression, self-gratification, and self-fulfillment. The pursuit of pleasure has taken the place of moral nurture, the expression of emotion that of moral reticence [reserve/restraint]. What is remarkable about this is that people now think happiness has nothing to do with the moral texture of someone’s life and can be pursued as an end in itself. Indeed, many think it can simply be bought. That is what living in our consumer paradise has done to us now that we have vacated the older moral world.

This shift from character to personality has also changed our ideas about success. An earlier generation thought about success in terms of hard work. But not hard work by itself. It was work that was also done well, work that reflected moral virtues like diligence, integrity, conscientiousness, and standards of fairness. People who worked well tended to live more circumspectly. They were more likely to restrain self-indulgence, refuse to make their consumption conspicuous, and express civic virtues in their town and neighborhood. Success in these ways was something that all could attain regardless of what kind of work they did…

When our focus changed from character to personality, so, too did our understanding of what success is. Success was not about living the good life, but about living well, high on the hog, as Americans say. Once others approved of us because of our character and the quality of our work…now it is far more important to stand out simply for what we have and how we can impress others.

Today we may well prefer to be envied than admired. Whereas the older kind of success was durable, this is not. This is fleeting. It is dependent not on its own quality but on the perceptions of others. Perceptions, however, are fickle, changing, quickly superseded, quickly forgotten. Success today, therefore, has to be constantly renewed, burnished, updated, recast, reinvigorated, made even more current, made freshly appealing, dressed up afresh, and reasserted. This is an ongoing project, and if it does not go on, our success begins to evaporate…

When the self began to be experienced through personality rather than within the framework of character, moral obligations that were common broke down. There was no longer a moral world outside each individual that restrained and directed that individual. Now, we have become self-directing, each in his or her own way.

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