Dearth and death of character
Character or the primacy of character, as we knew and know it, is dead. And it is on the way to the cemetery for a final burial. Instructively, this fatal fate of character traverses geographical, religious and cultural boundaries. The high ideals which people of the generation before mine and which we grew up to embrace and celebrate have now become anachronisms in the so-called brave new world. How else do we account for the rise of the Donald Trumps and Boris Johnsons and their likes as icons of popular democracy in the western world? How do we account for the high number of judicial officers soiling their hands on the temple of justice? How do we account for a Chief Justice standing aside while his predecessor is hounded out of office and he is appointed to head the judiciary? Where is self-respect when a Chief Judge cannot tell the King that he is wrong? Where is character when a VC cannot stand up to power as Professor Ade Ajayi did to the military in 1978? Some four hundred years later, the declaration of Shakespeare’s witches in Macbeth ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair’ has come to dominate the world.
Character refers to the ‘mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual’. There are strong characters just as there are weak characters. Also, there are persons who can be said to be unstable in character. When we talk about good character, we refer to persons who have one or several of such virtues as integrity, honesty, loyalty, fortitude, courage, and other important virtues that promote good behaviour. It is true that in all societies there had always been persons who tried to subvert the law, who tried to create their own world by operating outside the accepted norms. But Chinua Achebe’s proverb ‘the man had taken enough for the owner to notice’, always caught up with people in the form of nemesis.
Good character is predicated on one factor: that we know what is right and what is wrong. Swami Sivananda says that “If you do not know the laws of right conduct, you cannot form your character”. We are not dealing here with the pristine or the natural instincts which are inherent in man. At the first level, we speak of values and thoughts and ideas which have been imparted to us from when we became conscious of our environment. Parental, societal, religious and educational settings help to inscribe these in our hearts. Also, there are certain forms of right and wrong that are instinctual. The Apostle Paul says in the book of Romans two verse fourteen that actions of people not exposed to the rudiments of Christianity ‘show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another’.
It would seem that the death of character has no mourners. There are no regrets, that is. Those who understood/understand character are no more, at least not in the public space. The rules of social engagement have been and are continually being rewritten. Let me assert that in our private lives, we still meet people of character, both men and women. Somehow, these do not get into the public sphere to exercise their virtues in support for and in defence of the common good. John Locke says that ‘the discipline of desire is the background of character’. In this quotation, Locke elevates character to the highest requirement for character development- self-discipline. The capacity to say yes or no based, on sound ethical principles is part of character.
We grew up respecting certain persons on account of what they stood for through their actions and words. Some were local persons while others thrived on the national stage. So, I’m going to mention some local and national characters I can remember. Some may not ring a bell; yet in their areas of influence we could see principles. Tai Solarin. Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. Obafemi Awolowo. Justice J.I.C Conrad-Taylor. Gani Fawehinmi. Ebenezer Otomewo, one-time GKS President. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Pa Imoudu. Justice Kayode Eso. Justice Yahaya Jinadu. Justice Emmanuel Araka. Murtala Mohammed. JP. Clark. Wole Soyinka. Chinua Achebe. J.F. Ade-Ajayi. I.O. Izeogu, my secondary school principal. These and many more were men and women who stood for something and were ready to defy all the odds. “Character” writes J.C. Watts “is doing the right thing when nobody’s looking. There are too many people who think that the only thing that’s right is to get by, and the only thing that’s wrong is to get caught.” To get by! People just get by. The cost of standing on principles is very high these days.
But the real question is whether people of character can thrive in a society that does not encourage good character. It is true that good character is a constant because according to Heraclitus, ‘good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character’. What this means is that in spite of the environment and all other factors, good character must remain constant like ‘Lot in the city of Sodom’. The dominant narrative across the world now is that it is okay to be ‘characterless’ as long as one is not found out. This then is the real dilemma. There are too many people in the public arena who display the power of being unprincipled. And they seem to thrive. It is a sad situation.
What is the way out? I am afraid that there is no way in the near future. Short of an ethical revolution, I do not see any glimmer in the horizon. We are in a freefall that could only end when we hit the bottom. An implosion that splits the world into bits may be the answer. Not very comforting. Time will tell!
Eghagha can be reached on 08023220393 and firstname.lastname@example.org