[C]haracter is the aim of the educator.
— Charlotte Mason, School Education, p. 98
Charlotte Mason talks a lot about the importance of good character in our scheme of education — she even has a whole volume titled Formation of Character. Rarely, though, do we talk about what she means by “character.” Like anything else in our philosophy, spending a bit of time paying attention to Miss Mason’s definition is a worthwhile expenditure.
So: what is character?
Well, Charlotte Mason has a number of “character is…” statements sprinkled throughout her volumes, but the most thorough and enlightening is this:
His character — the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing — is original disposition, modified, directed, expanded by education; by circumstances; later, by self-control and self-culture; above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited.Charlotte Mason, Parents and Children, p. 23
Let’s walk through this a bit.
“the efflorescence of the man wherein the fruit of his life is a-preparing … “
Fruit comes at the end of the process of life. The Bible talks about trees and fruit: how can you know if a tree is a good one or a bad one? By its fruit. But fruit comes at harvest time. It is only at the end of life that we will know what sort of tree you are or I am or anyone is. During life, we have this “efflorescence” — this constant flowering that hints at the promise of fruit.
We can do things that are good and nourishing, that promote healthy growth of the tree. Or we can do terrible things, things that undermine the tree and make the fruit bitter and unpleasant.
Character is your flowering.
“original disposition … “
To extend the metaphor, you are born a tree with no flowers. Character starts with the raw material — what you are at birth — what we would likely call a personality. Our little babies are so themselves from their very first breaths. Children come to us immature and uninformed, yes, but they also come to us with their own unique collections of temperament and temptations. This in itself is not character. But it is what character is built upon.
“original disposition, modified, directed, and expanded … “
Here we get the idea that character is what we are after a period of time. Character begins when the flowers start to appear. The disposition we come with at birth is affected by the world around us (whether we like it or not). Character is revealed in the kind of person we become over time. We always have a character, but we are also always building our character.
“original disposition, modified, directed, and expanded by education … ”
Ah, here we have the means. What affects our character? How do we grow the right type of flowers? First up on the list is our education. Charlotte Mason cares much about education and one reason for that is because she believes it is a means ordained by God to help students become what they ought. Miss Mason isn’t just concerned with minds — she addresses her philosophy to the whole person, body, mind, and soul.
” … by circumstances … “
Education can never be isolated as the sole influence. Other things also have the power to affect the flower crop. God uses other means. In His providence, He directs our daily lives. Our character isn’t just built by our education, reading good books in our morning lessons. Character never takes the day off; all of life (or maybe I should say how we relate to all of life) determines our character.
” … later, by self-control and self-culture … “
Who is responsible for building character? In the beginning, Father and Mother are! We are the orchardists. God gives children parents and it is the job of parents to help the child develop as a whole person. This includes in his character.
When we are adults, we become responsible for our own characters. How do we direct ourselves in growth of character? Miss Mason lists two primary ways: self-control and self-culture.
There is never a day we are alive upon which our character is done forming. We may have good character at the moment yes, but oh we must take heed lest we fall! It’s amazing what a storm coupled with lack of preparation can do to trees — all the flowers knocked to the ground and the bees no longer interested. If we open the door to our temptations and allow beetles in the bark, it is a short walk to bad habits and resulting bad character and all the petals scattered around.
With self-control, we take command of the actions flowing out of our bodies (including that of our brains — Miss Mason is clear that self-culture must extend to the mind and controlling our thoughts). If we are to build good character, we must take care to make ourselves do what we ought, and keep ourselves from doing what we ought not.
With self-culture, we take command of the content of what is flowing into our minds and souls. If we are to build good character, we must take care to pursue good influences (taking the form of everything from friends to music to books), and keep ourselves from bad influences.
” … above all, by the supreme agency of the Holy Ghost, even where that agency is little suspected, and as little solicited … “
Here is where Miss Mason humbles us. It’s easy to read the list above and feel like we have so much control. I get to determine what kind of woman I am! I brazenly declare. Here Miss Mason reminds us that ultimately our characters are shaped by the agency of God. He didn’t just plant the tree. He controls the weather and the quality of the soil and more. Our Helper is a good Gardener, even when He’s giving us a pruning. He directs our steps, reminds us of what is good and right, and more. We sometimes forget He is there. We sometimes ignore Him. To our shame, we forget to ask Him to help us.
And yet He is sovereign.
He is also good, which is why these ideas are a good reminder to lean on Him in everything, perhaps especially when we are concerned about our own character or the character of one of our children.
What is character? It’s your own flowering. It’s the kind of person you are … and it’s the kind of person you’re becoming.