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Building Character: Then and Now

There are periods in history when it is especially challenging to be a New Thoughter. Lately, it seems that every time we turn around, we see another example of an unpleasant or even tragic event caused by a major moral lapse on someone’s part, or even by the failure of our society to teach morals to our children. New Thought teaches us to turn the other cheek metaphorically, to look for the more positive side of the individual or the situation, and to know that if we can rise in consciousness ourselves, all will turn out for the best. This is sound advice as far as it goes, but the time has come for us to place this approach into a broader perspective. Another good New Thought teaching is that denials must precede affirmations. Rather than paper over moral weaknesses with a thin covering of positive thinking, we need to make sure that everything we think, say, or do is resting on a sound moral foundation. This foundation is known as the Character Ethic, and before we can establish it as our foundation, we must clear the ground by denying the elements of moral weakness that interfere with the development of sound character.

What is the Character Ethic? It is the governing of one’s life according to universal principles that have proven themselves to be good and useful in every culture throughout human history. Jesus taught these principles, but they are also found in other religious traditions. To live by the character ethic means that one has good character: one is loyal, trustworthy, persevering, and honest, keeping one’s promises. Stephen Covey, in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, states, "The Character Ethic is based on the fundamental idea that there are principles that govern human effectiveness—natural laws in the human dimension that are just as real, just as unchanging and unarguably "there" as laws such as gravity are in the physical dimension." Good character includes "things like integrity, humility, fidelity, temperance, courage, justice, patience, industry, simplicity, modesty, and the Golden Rule. . . . People can only experience true success and enduring happiness as they learn and integrate these principles into their basic character."

How did Covey, a highly successful business consultant and former professor of business management, get interested in the character ethic? As part of his doctoral dissertation, he researched 200 years of American success literature, from Benjamin Franklin through the early 1970s. His search took him down a trail previously blazed by a journalist, Richard Huber, who had written a book titled The American Idea of Success. Covey included Huber’s book in the bibliography of his dissertation.

Huber and Covey both discovered that for the first 150 years or so, as Covey puts it, "almost all the literature focused on what could be called the Character Ethic as the foundation of success. . . . Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography is representative of that literature. It is, basically, the story of one man’s effort to integrate certain principles and habits deep within his nature." Then, shortly after World War I, "the basic view of success shifted from the Character Ethic to what we might call the Personality Ethic. Success became more a function of personality, of public image, of attitudes and behaviors, skill and techniques, that lubricate the processes of human interaction. This Personality Ethic essentially took two paths: one was human and public relations techniques, and the other was positive mental attitude (PMA)." Although some of this literature continued to pay lip service to the importance of good character, "reference to the Character Ethic became mostly lip service; he basic thrust was quick-fix influence techniques, power strategies, communication skills, and positive attitudes. Little by little, emphasis on good character has all but disappeared from American society. As a result, success for many people has become elusive or, if achieved, hollow and unfulfilling or short-lived. Some people have even come to believe that it is not spiritual to prosper, because they equate prosperity with this shallow Personality Ethic.

What does all this have to do with New Thought? Everything! Huber pointed out that most of the success literature from the last third of the nineteenth century onward was founded squarely on New Thought teachings. Several chapters in his book deal exclusively with New Thought, or which Huber is scathingly critical, largely for its increasing emphasis on the Personality Ethic rather than the Character Ethic on which it was originally founded. Although Huber’s criticism is unjustifiably harsh, it contains a valuable lesson for New Thought, which with the best effort to welcome people coming from other, often toxic, religions that overemphasized rules of conduct.

Huber offers no remedy for the loss of the character ethic; he merely points the finger of blame. Covey, on the other hand, subtitled his book Restoring the Character Ethic. His remedy is simply to put it back. He has organized the principles that constitute good character into seven habits that one can commit to building into one’s life.

The time has clearly come for New Thought to restore the Character Ethic to its former place of prominence. The Personality Ethic is valuable and necessary, but good character must come first. Building on the Character Ethic is building on rock; building on the Personality Ethic is building on shifting sand.

The erosion of the moral fiber of our society has gone far enough. New Thought is exceptionally well qualified to lead society back to the path laid down by Jesus and by our founders. By the beginning of the next millennium in 2001, or even sooner, we can have a society that is once again the envy of the rest of the world because of our blend of individual freedom under the rule of law, spirituality, prosperity, and good character.