Character is freedom worth having

I have often wondered why two persons growing in the same soil rich with adversity will, not uncommonly, turn out so differently. Why do some spirits flourish, while some flounder in the repetition of the same patterns they have been taught?

The matter is not one that can be left for scientists to discuss in their laboratories, their analysis dressed in jargon and statistics. Science is always done in the realm of fact, and those are clear and copious enough: an abusive father, a city ravaged by war, or any of the myriad ways life can undo us. The difference lies in how we assent to the impressions we receive. Among those impressions are the stories our civilization tells us. Those stories emerge as explanations of why things are the way they are, and as they pass from popular hypothesis into revered tradition they become like the air around us: ever-present, never questioned.

The first story that now dominates the thinking of the age is that humans are completely unable to discern any fundamental truths. Truth, they say, is a spook conjured by the greedy and the selfish to maintain their privilege. The world is voided of nobility, duty, or justice. The existence of rights is not so much the achievement of a high-minded civilization amid uncaring nature as it is an exercise in soft domination.

The second story is that individuals stand helpless before forces they do not control. History, the Market, or whatever new crisis makes it to the news. But what is a force in human society but a social habit, a repetition of patterns so prevalent that they appear to be a single, unstoppable force? It does not take a Marx to tell us that technological development influences our lives in unexpected ways, though it does take a Marcus Aurelius or an Epictetus to teach us that character is how we choose to deal with those upheavals.

This is why some people flourish while others fall short: those who flourish have mastered, through logic or intuition, the discipline of assent. They are not goaded into reacting to every impression, but ponder the choice between a higher and a lower alternative. Character is a living affirmation of timeless truths, and therefore, a divergence from today's social habit of believing truth to be whatever serves our inclinations.

Many believe that freedom can only be granted by the community and written into law, or wrested from a tyrant through revolution. And while they are right in many respects, the greater freedom of the City is an illusion if it is not sustained by the individual who says with Epictetus: “Impression, wait for me a little. Let me see what you are, and what you represent. Let me test you.”