How to Build Character: Learning from Ancient Greek Wisdom

Have you ever wondered how you can develop your character to become a better, more fulfilled individual? How do we become who we want to be?

Character is abstract, and we aren’t often taught what it means. Many of us struggle in this area and are looking for ways we can improve. Fortunately, there is an abundance of advice available from our ancestors.

Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle offer key insight into the nature of moral character. For thousands of years, their wisdom has stood the test of time and many people have utilized it to help themselves reach new depths of self-fulfillment.

In this blog post, we’ll explore the Ancient Greek views of character, what we can learn from them, and how we can reach a state of fulfillment by working on ourselves.

The Ancient Greek Attitude Toward Personal Character

In Ancient Greek thought, the concept of character was viewed as a web of virtues and vices, which together comprised the character of an individual. Not all of our choices involve our character; for example, if your favorite color is green, that doesn’t make you more or less of a bad person. It’s just a preference.

When we’re talking about character, we’re talking about morals. We’re talking about doing the right thing. Character involves a choice: do we do the right thing, and display virtue, or do we do the wrong thing, and display vice? These choices are like building blocks for our character: we can build on our character, or sabotage it with wrong choices.

Aristotle thought the best way to understand how to make the right choices was something called the Golden Mean. Developing your character means knowing how to hit the right target between too much and too little of a trait.

Take a soldier going into battle. You don’t want someone who’s a coward, but you also don’t want someone rash and impulsive. Courage is the proper middle point between those two things.

Virtuous people are courageous, generous, honest, patient, and modest, among other things. It takes time to develop these virtues, and they can sometimes conflict with one another, so it’s important to find the right balance.

Your character is made up of all the choices you make, and you change your character by making the choices. You build character by making the right choices, and you know how to make the right choices when you have good character. Unfortunately, there aren’t straightforward rules for life. That’s why we need practice.

You never know what situation you’re going to face. Every struggle we have is uniquely our own. Nobody else is you, so nobody else has your feelings, your thoughts, or your experiences. When you face a challenge, you rely on your life experience to make good choices. We build our character through each choice we make, and so building character is a matter of habit.

Building Strong Character Through Practice

Building character through practice is an invaluable, life-long skill that everyone should strive for. Building characters means repeating the right actions over and over until it becomes second nature. However, every situation is different. Character isn’t a set of rules that you can look to in order to figure something out, it’s a state of being.

We have to develop our character well enough to the extent that we trust ourselves to do the right thing. We aren’t going to be perfect, but that’s why practice is so important. Find opportunities in your life to be brave, kind, or generous. The more you do it, the more second nature it becomes, and the more your character develops.

Go volunteer at a soup kitchen, or call a friend who’s struggling. Create chances to be good. If you can do that, you’ll become the sort of person who just does those things naturally. That’s the goal of building character: doing the right thing instinctually. We want to build our characters up so that we want to do the things we should be doing.

A good person wants to do good things, and that’s something we can all strive to become. Building character is a skill, like any other. Just like you would practice the violin, practice building character. Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics all thought virtue was a habit. Plus, you are what you do. Since you make yourself by the habits you cultivate, cultivate good ones!

Developing a Harmonious Life

Aristotle thought that a person with a good character was able to develop inner peace. Good character applies to all aspects of life. You gain self-confidence when you’ve practiced doing good in the world.

If we do bad things, we experience conflict in ourselves. We don’t want to hurt other people, usually, it’s just expedient. Sometimes in the short term being a jerk might seem to have benefits. But there are a few things wrong, Aristotle thinks, if you keep being a jerk.

First, is that you’re not going to feel good about yourself. You’re not going to have a cohesive self-image that makes you feel good if you’re mean and vicious to everyone around you. Secondly, you’re not aiming at the right goal for a human. Humans are social animals who build society together. If we reject that, we reject our inner peace. There will be something missing from us.

The third is that we won’t get as far in life. Some people make it to the top by being total jerks, but they usually do this despite that, not because of it. When you practice being a good person, sometimes the contexts get harder, yet they become even more critical to the development of our character.

Living with internal harmony, with character, sometimes means making hard choices out in the world. Having good character doesn’t mean being a people pleaser. It doesn’t mean making everyone happy all the time. It means doing the right thing when you need to and having internal harmony with your choices.

Having good character means living your values, and your values won’t be the same as everyone else’s. That’s why there’s no one recipe for how to build character. You have to learn who you are by building your character and learning your values. You create yourself through your actions, so do what the person you want to be would do.

Character in Yourself, Character with Others

Being an active and engaged character in the community can have a far-reaching effect on the collective well-being of those involved. We cannot build good character by ourselves. We can be healthy or good in other ways, but building character is about doing the right thing, and if we want to do the right thing, we need people to treat well.

Context is key in any aspect of building character. No action is right in every situation. You have to learn what works and what doesn’t, just the same as utilizing any skill. Friends, family, neighbors, and any sort of community you have is not the same as any other community. You have to learn your community’s needs before you can serve them.

You don’t build character just for yourself. Humans are social creatures. You have to have people to be generous to. You have to have people to be honest with. A person in a cave by themselves wouldn’t be virtuous. We wouldn’t say they have good character. They might be healthy, wise, or happy, but you can’t have good character in a vacuum.

When you take your personal development out into the world, it is a force multiplier. Inspiring others and inspiring yourself can create tons of opportunities for cultivating character. A good person does not exist outside of their community, because there’s nobody to call them good. It’s hard to mix with others sometimes, but it is necessary that we put ourselves out there in our community when building character. It’s how we grow.

Character and Happiness

The word happiness in our current time usually means something like a good mood. While it feels good to be in a good mood, that’s not something you can be doing all the time. We’re all human. We’re all happy sometimes, sad sometimes, angry or apathetic, awake and asleep. Life is complicated, and daily living takes up a lot of our energy.

Ancient Greek philosophers didn’t think of happiness as we do. They called it eudaimonia. While it means happiness, it means more about how we think about fulfillment. Living happily is one thing, but living a fulfilled life is something different entirely.

Happiness is something we treat as a feeling; fulfillment is a state of being. This is exactly how Aristotle thought of character: not as a feeling, but as something you are. It takes work.

So it’s helpful to think of happiness as something that takes work, too. Working at our happiness is the same as working on our character. Our goal isn’t to find fleeting superficial moments of happiness. Enjoying them when they come up is all good, but our goal shouldn’t be just pleasure. Our goal is to develop our potential as humans to live up to our potential.

What does it mean to be a good person? That’s too big of a question for a blog post, but Aristotle thought it meant following your telos, or purpose. The purpose of a bridge is to be the best possible bridge: holding weight and not falling. The purpose of a bee is to be the best bee it can be: making the most honey, helping the hive find flowers, and so on.

Human purpose is more complicated than that. There’s no one straightforward answer, just like there’s no one best character. Our best selves will look different for each person. But our happiness only be true, enduring contentment when we focus on living up to our potential as good people and building our character.

Although understanding the Ancient Greek view of character is helpful for living a life of ethical fulfillment, building character need not be a complicated task. Through practice, both in our daily behavior and through regular reflection upon aspects of our personality, we are capable of making real, sustainable progress in building our character.

It’s important to remember that it isn’t only individual prosperity that makes our lives valuable, but rather flourishing through forming harmonious relationships with those around us and fulfilling our roles within the greater community fabric. At the end of it all, forming good character leads to plenty of happiness and satisfaction for ourselves, as well as those closest to us.

Living a life in balance with ourselves and the world delivers far more rewards than any idea of striving solely for money or wealth. Let’s remember to prioritize our character development if we want to live up to our true potential.

If you want to learn more about how to build character, watch or listen to Wes’ monologue episode How to Build Character: The Process of Personal Development, where Wes shares his struggles with changing his maladaptive behavior patterns and growing into a more developed and compassionate person.

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