Chapter II
The Importance of Character

That "Heaven helps those who help themselves," is a maxim as true as it is ancient. The great and indispensable help to success is character.

Character is crystallized habit, the result of training and conviction. Every character is influenced by heredity, environment and education; but these apart, if every man were not to a great extent the architect of his own character, he would be a fatalist, an irresponsible creature of circumstances, which, even the skeptic must confess he is not. So long as a man has the power to change one habit, good or bad, for another, so long he is responsible for his own character, and this responsibility continues with life and reason.

A man may be a graduate of the greatest university, and even a great genius, and yet be a most despicable character. Neither Peter Cooper, George Peabody nor Andrew Carnegie had the advantage of a college education, yet character made them the world's benefactors and more honored than princes.

"You insist," wrote Perthes to a friend, "on respect for learned men. I say, Amen! But at the same time, don't forget that largeness of mind, depth of thought, appreciation of the lofty, experience of the world, delicacy of manner, tact and energy in action, love of truth, honesty, and amiability--that all these may be wanting in a man who may yet be very learned."

Sir Walter ScottWhen someone in Sir Walter Scott's hearing made a remark as to the value of literary talents and accomplishments, as if they were above all things to be esteemed and honored, he observed, "God help us! What a poor world this would be if that were the true doctrine! I have read books enough, and observed and conversed with enough of eminent and splendidly-cultured minds, too, in my time; but I assure you, I have heard higher sentiments from the lips of the poor uneducated men and women, when exerting the spirit of severe, yet gentle heroism under difficulties and afflictions, or speaking their simple thoughts as to circumstances in the lot of friends and neighbors, than I ever yet met with out of the Bible."

In the affairs of life or of business, it is not intellect that tells so much as character--not brains so much as heart--not genius so much as self-control, patience, and discipline, regulated by judgment. Hence there is no better provision for the uses of either private or public life, than a fair share of ordinary good sense guided by rectitude. Good sense, disciplined by experience and inspired by goodness, issued in practical wisdom. Indeed, goodness in a measure implies wisdom--the highest wisdom--the union of the worldly with the spiritual. "The correspondences of wisdom and goodness," says Sir Henry Taylor, "are manifold; and that they will accompany each other is to be inferred, not only because men's wisdom makes them good, but because their goodness makes them wise."

The best sort of character, however, can not be formed without effort. There needs the exercise of constant self-watchfulness, self-discipline, and self-control. There may be much faltering, stumbling, and temporary defeat; difficulties and temptations manifold to be battled with and overcome; but if the spirit be strong and the heart be upright, no one need despair of ultimate success. The very effort to advance--to arrive at a higher standard of character than we have reached--is inspiring and invigorating; and even though we may fall short of it, we can not fail to be improved by every honest effort made in an upward direction.

"Instead of saying that man is the creature of circumstance, it would be nearer the mark to say that man is the architect of circumstance. It is character which builds an existence out of circumstance. Our strength is measured by our plastic power. From the same materials one man builds palaces, another hovels; one warehouses, another villas. Bricks and mortar are mortar and bricks, until the architect can make them something else. Thus it is that in the same family, in the same circumstances, one man rears a stately edifice, while his brother, vacillating and incompetent, lives forever amid ruins; the block of granite which was an obstacle on the pathway of the weak, becomes a stepping-stone on the pathway of the strong."

Martin LutherWhen the elements of character are brought into action by determinate will, and influenced by high purpose, man enters upon and courageously perseveres in the path of duty, at whatever cost of worldly interest, he may be said to approach the summit of his being. He then exhibits character in its most intrepid form, and embodies the highest idea of manliness. The acts of such a man become repeated in the life and action of others. His very words live and become actions. Thus every word of [Martin] Luther's rang through Germany like a trumpet. As Richter said of him, "His words were half-battles." And thus Luther's life became transfused into the life of his country, and still lives in the character of modern Germany.

Speaking of the courageous character of John Knox, [Alexander] Carlyle (1722-1805) says, with characteristic force: "Honor to all the brave and true; everlasting honor to John Knox, one of the truest of the true! That, in the moment while he and his cause, amid civil broils, in convulsion and confusion, were still but struggling for life, he sent the schoolmaster forth to all comers, and said, 'Let the people be taught;' this is but one, and, indeed, an inevitable and comparatively inconsiderable item in his great message to men. This message, in its true compass, was, 'Let men know that they are men; created by God, responsible to God; whose work in any meanest moment of time what will last through eternity.'

. . . This great message Knox did deliver, with a man's voice and strength, and found a people to believe him. Of such an achievement, were it to be made once only, the results are immense. Thought, in such a country, may change its form, but cannot go out; the country has attained _majority_; thought, and a certain spiritual manhood, ready for all work that man can do, endures there. The Scotch national, character originated in many circumstances; first of all, in the Saxon stuff there was to work on; but next, and beyond all else except that, in the Presbyterian Gospel of John Knox."

Washington left behind him, as one of the greatest treasures of his country, the example of a stainless life--of a great, honest, pure, and noble character--a model for his nation to form themselves by in all time to come. And in the case of Washington, as in so many other great leaders of men, his greatness did not so much consist in his intellect, his skill and his genius, as in his honor, his integrity, his truthfulness, his high and controlling sense of duty--in a word, in his genuine nobility of character.

Men such as these are the true life-blood of the country to which they belong. They elevate and uphold it, fortify and ennoble it, and shed a glory over it by the example of life and character which they have bequeathed. "The names and memories of great men," says an able writer, "are the dowry of a nation. Widowhood, overthrow, desertion, even slavery cannot take away from her this sacred inheritance . . . Whenever national life begins to quicken . . . the dead heroes rise in the memories of men, and appear to the living to stand by in solemn spectatorship and approval. No country can be lost which feels herself overlooked by such glorious witnesses. They are the salt of the earth, in death as well as in life. What they did once, their descendants have still and always a right to do after them; and their example lives in their country, a continual stimulant and encouragement for him who has the soul to adopt it."

It would be well for every young man, eager for success and anxious to form a character that will achieve it, to commit to memory the advice of Bishop Middleton:

Persevere against discouragements. Keep your temper. Employ leisure in study, and always have some work in hand. Be punctual and methodical in business, and never procrastinate. Never be in a hurry. Preserve self-possession, and do not be talked out of a conviction. Rise early, and be an economist of time. Maintain dignity without the appearance of pride; manner is something with everybody, and everything with some. Be guarded in discourse, attentive, and slow to speak. Never acquiesce in immoral or pernicious opinions.

Be not forward to assign reasons to those who have no right to ask. Think nothing in conduct unimportant or indifferent. Rather set than follow examples. Practice strict temperance; and in all your transactions remember the final account.

A Review of "How to Get On in Life"

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Chapter III - Home Influences


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