Thursday Dec 17 2009
Always a fan of pith & substance, when I wrote out the three rules for a good living in my last post (Wolf’s Theorem),
it occurred to me that the same formula might apply to the development
of good temperament. In common parlance, ‘temperament’ is the kind of
person we are. One supposes it’s what Shakespeare had in mind when he
bid Hamlet say: “Come, give us a taste of your quality.” (Act II, Scene
Temperament is more formally defined in the Oxford Concise dictionary as the individual character of one’s constitution that permanently affects the manner of acting, feeling and thinking. Matters it seems to me entirely within our control, though occasionally there are examples to the contrary: “He’s hot-headed”, “She’s selfish”, “He’s impulsive”, and so on. And it is true that we seem to have characteristics that in some measure define us: we are sometimes graced with artistic talent, physical presence or an ability to think clearly under certain conditions. The options are infinite. Regardless, we hold the reins to the outer expression of those qualities—or frailties—entirely within our grip, barring mental disorder or lesion in the cerebral cortex.
In Yiddish (as in many languages and cultures), there are many words to describe someone of even temperament—but the Jews nail it with the exuberant term ‘mensch’. A ‘mensch’ is someone with an admirable character, observable rectitude, dignity, possessing a sense of what is right, responsible, calm and decorous. I contend there are three simple rules to qualify—valid in any culture:
1. Know yourself.
The first of these three dicta is probably the most important, and was an old charge when Aristotle expressed it in his teachings. The capacity to take a personal inventory has to be developed through teaching, self-instruction and introspection. To do it takes a form of wisdom. Everyone is familiar with Polonius’ instruction to his son Laertes when he is about to leave home, which reads in part:
This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man,
(Hamlet, Act I: Scene iii)
Now, there’s a trick here: we’re all capable of self-deception. The Nobel philosopher/physicist Feynman said, “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.” Others have riffed off this, contending sensibly that, rather than trying to attain some verifiable truth (which is not a truth inside us, but a truth among us), a primary value of modern everyday life is to not fool ourselves or cheat ourselves into believing something. Perhaps this is what Anais Nin meant when she said, “We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
If one knows oneself, one knows as a matter of course what we are committed to. And commitments are the only sure way of bring the future into being, including the kind of person we want to be.