Arnold Siegel on “Character is Destiny”

By Arnold Siegel

“Character is Destiny,” is a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus (535 BCE – 465 BCE). It implies that destiny, or fate, is not a predetermined outside force, but that one’s future or destiny, is determined by his or her own inner character.

Yet, while the character or substance of our autonomy is a crucial asset and its absence painfully felt, the need to acquire it is often overlooked. If our goals for a personally rewarding life remain out of reach, it is to this character we should look. The good news: even if nothing else about life is equal, we do have a fair shot at acquiring character. The destiny you envision for yourself remains a possibility—something you can shape and control—and transcendence is your means. 

Think about it. Don’t the men and women you admire possess this quality—this substance? They’re in control of their minds, their words and their actions. They can sustain their responsibilities and spirits through troubling times. They are thoughtful. Compassionate. Esteemed. In popular parlance, they walk their talk. They get over inhibition or failures of nerve. They transcend immature emotional dependencies and reflexive antagonism. This ability to transcend their biological fates is something that they have mastered. They are autonomous—in charge of how they show up in the world.

Still, how they got this way is not a mystery. What they have in common is a never-quit, tough-it-out responsibility for their condition and circumstance.  They recognize, accept and respond creatively and effectively to the pragmatic and moral demands of autonomy.

Some of the elements of character are obvious. Take the marketplace, for example. There, the substance of your autonomy probably has a good deal to do with your ability to compete and cooperate. To accommodate and adapt. And to work effectively and produce results.

Still, life is not fair and you know it. Intelligence, talent, opportunity, sex appeal and energy are not equally distributed. Millions live in conditions too impoverished to pretend that they have access to any of life’s bounty. Even efforts to level the playing field are unfair, subject to shifting circumstances, partisan politics and the cold hard facts of competitive life in America.

So here we are today. In the fast lane. And the demand made on us to produce results, the demand for innovation, flexibility, accommodation and adaptation, for effectiveness, productivity and expedience never ends.

The key to this substance, of course, is discipline. But a very interesting, soul-satisfying discipline. All animals are host to a reflexive, seething mass of impulses.  What distinguishes us from other animals is our disciplined capacity to transcend this unexamined visceral immediacy in favor of practices that are rational and decent.

At first, these transcendent practices were not prompted by substance or intellectual conviction, but forced on us. Fear of punishment or the promise that we’ll be given good stuff is usually what drives our early learning, and in fact we may still be at the effect of this stimulus/response version of authority.

However, when we recognize that transcendence itself is a powerful determining choice, perspective and standpoint it enables us to begin anew, to recreate and to leverage our ways and means of being in the world. Certainly, we enjoy a much more personally rewarding life when we’ve taken responsibility for and can transcend the brute fact of immediacy. And certainly, the manner in which we articulate, frame and address our problems has a good deal to do with whether or not we solve them.

The decisive stand-up character of those we admire is erected upon this insight and resource. Think about it. Doesn’t the desperate feeling that we live in a world gone out of control and to shallow purpose reflect an immediacy-driven mindset more than it reflects a static circumstance for which there is little hope of reform?

The immediate gut reaction to uncertainty, fears and appetites is only an age-old piece of the many intelligences that inform the modern human being. Yes, raw feelings are a first-order core-shaking experience. But the human-made desire to see a bigger picture, be a bigger person and make a bigger contribution is also authentic and can be the backbone of our existence.

However, if we’ve not spent enough time perfecting a stand-up personhood that can resist not only its own internal primal immediacy but also the immediate temptation of its conditioned habits, this resource is largely unavailable. And we suffer for it.

Certainly, we enjoy a more rewarding life when we have the autonomy to transcend the brute fact of reflexive (and usually antagonistic) immediacy. Happily, autonomy (and life) is my subject. And transcendence as the means to substance—to the fulfillment of your envisioned destiny—is one of the crucial subjects that I teach.