Read THE INFLUENCE OF PERSONAL CHARACTER of The Young Lady's Mentor, free online book, by A Lady, on

The immense importance of personal character is a subject which does not enough draw the attention of individuals or society, yet it is to the power of gaining influence, what the root is to the tree, the soul to the body. It is doubtful if any of us can be acquainted with the infinitely minute ramifications into which this all-pervading influence extends. A slight survey of society will enable us, in some degree, to judge of it. There are individuals who, by the sole force of personal character, seem to render wise, better, more elevated, all with whom they come in contact. Others, again, stand in the midst of the society in which they are placed, a moral upas, poisoning the atmosphere around them, so that no virtue can come within their shadow and live. Family virtues descend with family estates, and hereditary vices are hardly compensated for by hereditary possessions. The characters of the junior members of a family are often only reflections or modifications of those of the elder. Families retain for generations peculiarities of temper and character. The Catos were all stern, upright, inflexible; the Guises proud and haughty at the heart, though irresistibly popular and fascinating in manner. We see the influence which men, exalted and powerful, exert on their age, and on society; it is difficult to believe that a similar influence is exerted by every individual man and woman, however limited his or her sphere of life: the force of the torrent is easily calculated, that of the under-current is hidden, yet its existence and power are no less actual.

This truth opens to the conscientious a field of duty not enough cultivated. The improvement of individual character has been too much regarded as a matter of personal concern, a duty to ourselves, to our immediate relations perhaps, but to no others, a matter affecting out individual happiness here, and our individual safety hereafter! This is taking a very narrow view of a very extended subject. The work of individual self-formation is a duty, not only to ourselves and our families, but to our fellow-creatures at large; it is the best and most certainly beneficial exercise of philanthropy. It is not, it is true, very flattering to self-love to be told, that instead of mending the world, (the mania of the present day,) the best service which we can do that world is to mend ourselves. “If each mends one, all will be mended,” says the old English adage, with the deep wisdom of those popular sayings, a wisdom amply corroborated by the unsettled principles and defective practice of too many of the self-elected reformers of society.

It is peculiarly desirable, at this particular juncture of time, that this subject be insisted upon. Man, naturally a social and gregarious animal, becomes every day more so. The vast undertakings, the mighty movements of the present day, which can only be carried into operation by the combined energy of many wills, tend to destroy individuality of thought and action, and the consciousness of individual responsibility. The dramatist complains of this fact, as it affects his art, the representation of surface, the moralist has greater cause to complain of it, as affecting the foundation of character. If it be true that we must not follow a multitude to do evil, it is equally true that we must not follow a multitude even to do good, if it involve the neglect of our own peculiar duties. Our first, most peremptory, and most urgent duty, is, the improvement of our own character; so that public beneficence may not be neutralized by private selfishness, public energy by private remissness, that the applause of the world may not be bought at the expense of private and domestic wretchedness. So frequent and so lamentable are the proofs of human weakness in this respect, that we are sometimes tempted to believe the opinion of the cold and sneering skeptic, that the two ruling passions of men are the love of pleasure and the love of action; and that all their seemingly good deeds proceed from these principles. It is not so: it is a libel on human nature: men, even erring men, have better motives, and higher aims: but they mistake the nature of their duties and invert their order; what should be “first is last, and the last first.”

It may be wisely urged, that if men waited for the perfecting of individual character, before they joined their fellow men in those great undertakings which are to insure benefit to the race, nothing would ever be accomplished, and society would languish in a state of passive inertness. It is far from necessarily following that attention to private should interfere with attention to public interests; and public interests are more advanced or retarded than it is possible to believe, by the personal characters of their agitators. It is difficult to get the worldly and the selfish to see this, but it is, nevertheless, true; and there is no wisdom, political or moral, in the phrase, “Measures, not men.” Measures, wise and just in themselves, are received with distrust and suspicion, because the characters of their originators are liable to distrust and suspicion. Lord Chesterfield, the great master of deception, was forced to pay truth the compliment of declaring, that “the most successful diplomatist would be a man perfectly honest and upright, who should, at all times, and in all circumstances, say the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” So the rulers of nations ought to be perfectly honest and upright; not because such men would be free from error, but because the faith of the governed in their honour would obviate the consequences of many errors. It is the want of unselfishness and truth on the part of rulers, and the consequent want of faith in the ruled, that has reduced the politics of nations to a complicated science. If we could once get men to act out the gospel precept, “Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you,” nations might burn their codes, and lawyers their statute-books. These are the hundred cords with which the Lilliputians bound Gulliver, and he escaped. If they had possessed it, or could have managed it, one cable would have been worth them all. Much has been said, much written, on the art of governing. Why has the simple truth been overlooked or suppressed, that the moral character of the rulers of nations is of first-rate importance? Except the Lord build the city, vain is the labour of them who build it; except religion and virtue guide the state, vain are the talents and the acts of legislators. Is it possible that motives of paltry personal advancement, or of pecuniary gain, can induce men to assume responsibilities affecting the welfare of millions? The voice of those millions replies in the affirmative, and their reproachful glances turn on you, mothers of our legislators! It might have been yours, to stamp on their infant minds the dispassionate and unselfish devotedness which belongs to your own sex, the scorn of meanness; the contempt of self, in comparison with others, peculiar to woman. How have you fulfilled your lofty mission? Charity itself can only allow us to suppose that its existence is as unknown as its spirit.

The important fact, then, of the great influence of personal character, can never be too much impressed upon all; but it is peculiarly needful that women be impressed with it, because their personal character must necessarily influence that of their children, and be the source of their personal character. For, if the active performance of the duties of a citizen interfere, and it undoubtedly does so, with the duty of self-education, of what importance is it that men enter upon them with such a personal character as may insure us confidence while it secures us from temptation? The formation of such a character depends mainly on mothers, and especially on their personal character and principles. The character of the mother influences the children more than that of the father, because it is more exposed to their daily, hourly observation. It is difficult for these young, though acute observers, to comprehend the principles which regulate their father’s political opinions; his vote in the senate; his conduct in political or commercial relations; but they can see, yes! and they can estimate and imitate, the moral principles of the mother in her management of themselves, her treatment of her domestics, and the thousand petty details of the interior. These principles, whether lax or strict, low or high in moral tone, become, by an insensible and imperceptible adoption, their principles, and are carried out by them into the duties and avocations of future life. It would be startling to many to know with what intelligence and accuracy motives are penetrated, inconsistencies remarked, and treasured up with retributive or imitative projects, as may best suit the purpose of the moment. Nothing but a more extensive knowledge of children than is usually possessed on entering life, can awaken parents to the perception of this truth; and awakened perception may, perhaps, be only awakened misery. How important is it, then, that every thing in the education of women should tend to enlighten conscience, that she may enter on her arduous task with principles requiring only watchfulness, not reformation; and such a personal character as may exercise none by healthy influences on her children!