Character and history

How do features of character play into the fabric of history? The first has to do with psychology, motives, and agency; the second has to do with large events and processes.  So how might a better understanding of the domain of individual character contribute to better historical understanding?

When we talk about a person’s character, we are usually thinking of a set of fairly durable characteristics of thinking and acting that go beyond the choices of a minute. The color of tie that I choose in the morning isn’t a feature of my character — though it might be influenced by character traits. The decision to stand up to a bullying colleague probably does express a character trait. So character is a feature of agency that seems more fundamental than motives or purposes. It is an embedded disposition of behavior, a way of looking at the world of action and choice. Will Kane, the sheriff in High Noon, makes his choices for reasons that are more fundamental to him than trying to bring about this outcome or that. 
There is also a suggestion of moral valuation involved in making assessments of character. We often describe people who act according to principle or who act out of virtue as having “good” character, whereas people who lie, betray, break commitments, or act viciously are thought to have bad character. Iago had bad character while Cincinnatus had good character — courage, integrity, fidelity.  Here is a good article by Marcia Homiak on “moral character” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that makes the connection between character and virtue ethics. (Interestingly, it would appear that Kant’s ideal moral agent is one who has no character whatsoever, but instead acts purely out of rational recognition of the dictates of practical reason.)

So why would character be important in history? There are several possible reasons.
  1. It might be held that a key actor’s choices were crucial for a turning point in a historical sequence, and those choices were influenced or determined by his/her character. For example, “FDR’s steadfastness contributed to the end of the Great Depression”; “Hitler’s vicious antisemitism caused the Holocaust”.
  2. We might observe that a large population acted collectively in a critical moment — say, the Solidarity struggles in Poland or ordinary African-American people in Montgomery during the boycott — and their decisiveness was influenced or determined by a widespread feature of character — courage, obstinacy, perseverance.
  3. It is possible that important features of character are historically conditioned or instigated by key historical experiences — the Great Famine in China creating widespread fearfulness about the future, the 1960s anti-war movement creating optimism about collective action. In this respect “character” is historically conditioned and collective rather than purely individual.
  4. We might look at some historical events or episodes as being particularly important because they embody or exemplify certain features of character that we want to valorize — the defense of Stalingrad or the protection of Jewish children in Le Chambon, for example (Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There).
This question about character and history reproduces an older issue in the philosophy of history, the question of the role of individuals in history. But this question is both more and less specific. It is more specific because character is only one factor in agency. So even if we have settled that actors make history, we are asking a more refined question by singling out “character” for specific attention. And it is less specific because it is conceivable that we might argue that collectivities had character as well as individuals.  So it might be held that the sans-culottes possessed a collective character that distinguished their behavior from that of other social groups.
Let’s briefly consider a related question: what is character to a biographer? The biographer is trying to put together a truthful interpretation of the subject through his/her actions and expressions. What motivated the subject? What were his/her overriding beliefs and goals? What moral or religious convictions did the subject possess, and how strongly did these influence her actions and choices? Character comes into this mix when the biographer is obliged to answer questions like these: Did the subject possess courage and conviction? Or did threat and opportunism suffice to influence action? Can we interpret the narrative of the subject’s life as a meaningful expression of his or her abiding character?
It seems that a reasonable answer to the opening question might come down to this: History is composed and propelled by socially embedded actors whose behaviors are themselves complex outcomes of an internally embodied system of reasoning, feeling, and acting.  As argued in earlier posts (linklink), we don’t have particularly good theories of the actor on the basis of which to analyze them (desire-belief-opportunity theory, rational choice theory, practical rationality, pragmatism, …). It seems reasonable to hypothesize that the features of individual thinking and behavior to which we refer with the concept of “character” are indeed important aspects of agency.  So “character” is relevant to history because it is a constituent of agents and a potentially important part of our theory of the actor.

(This discussion leaves a number of open questions. What is the relation between character and other important drivers of behavior — interests, habits, or commitments? Further, we would like to know where character comes from in the individual’s development. Here is a contribution to a volume on the philosophy of action where I try to provide some additional details; link.)

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