The Essence of True Character

I was going through my Word documents a few days ago and came upon this exceptionally beautiful writing by Ralph Waldo Emerson about character that I must have copied some time ago. I think it’s so worth sharing, especially in these times when the world seems to be experiencing such division and unrest on a multitude of varied topics and ideals.


Of all the attributes we can help to instill in our kids, character is surely at the top of the list.


The following words are wise and deep, for character is not a trait that is easily defined in a few brief words or a mere sentence or two. But, Mr. Emerson has done a fabulous job of examining character in action and exploring its many elusive facets. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I did.


“Persons with character are as easy to spot as if they were a different color. Self-trust and the perception that virtue is enough is the essence of character. It is the natural tendency to defy falseness and wrong. It speaks the truth, and it is just, generous, hospitable, temperate, despises pettiness, and is scornful of being scorned. Character persists when the mood has passed in which the decision to act was made. Character displays undaunted boldness and a fortitude that does not wear down or out.



“When the soul is not master of one’s reactions to the world, then that soul is everyone’s dupe. The person of character is not for sale. He does not ask to dine nicely and to sleep warm. He does not need plenty; he can lose with grace. Character is persistent. The person of character makes a choice based on honorable considerations and sticks with it and, no matter what, does not weakly try to reconcile itself with the world.



“The person of character knows that he is born into a state of war and his own well-being requires that he should not go dancing for peace. Knowing this, he collects himself and neither defying nor dreading the thunder, he takes both his reputation and his own life in his hand, and, with perfect calm and politeness, dares the hangman and the mob by the absolute truth of his speech, and the correctness of his behavior. Toward all external evil, the person of character affirms his ability to cope single-handedly with an infinite army of enemies. To this military attitude of the soul we give the name of heroism.



“No change of circumstances can repair a defect of character. The heroic character does not accept the conventional opinions and practices. He is a nonconformist. Acquiescence to the establishment indicates lack of character which must see the house built before they can comprehend the plan.



“There is a class of individuals which are endowed with character, heroism, insight and virtue. They are usually received with ill-will by the masses. No one can use common beliefs to understand these characters. They cannot be judged from glimpses. They need perspective, as a landscape. You cannot understand them by popular ethics nor by simple observation of their actions. It is said that he who confronts the gods knows heaven. This is the nature of the person of character.



“The heroic character is a person of truth, master of his own actions, and expresses that mastery in his behavior, not in any manner dependent and servile either on persons, or opinions, or possessions.



“People of character are an energetic class, full of courage and of attempts which intimidate their paler brethren. Being up to the demands of their very nature, they can out pray saints, out general veterans and outshine all courtesy. They are comfortable with pirates and scholars.



“Times of heroism are generally times of terror, but the day never dawns in which this element is without value. Latent inner power is what we call Character, a reserved force which acts directly by presence, and without means. It is conceived of as a certain indemonstrable force, a Familiar of Genius, by whose impulses the hero is guided, but whose counsels he cannot impart. Character is of a stellar and indiminishable greatness.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson






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