Cultivating Great Character

“When a man can say of his states and actions, ‘As I am, so I act,’ he can be at one with himself… and he can accept responsibility for himself even though he struggles against it.”

“…for when we come to believe that we are the mask we wear, we will have sacrificed all the good of our character that does not align with the trends of conformity…and we become a mirror of what we think others want us to be.”

“…embrace our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness… it is a process by which a man becomes the definite, unique being he in fact is.”

“There is no path we can set before ourselves, no life project we can adopt, that is more rewarding than the cultivation of a great character.”

~ Carl Jung
Painting: Roman Egyptian from the 3rd century; artist unknown
Illustration by Henry F. Kletzing


  1. John says:

    What a lovely blend of such seemingly distinct manifestations of this subject. I’m particularly struck by the visceral resonance triggered and built on by the sequence of the painting, illustration, and words. Thank you for the heartening progression of your previous piece on Compassion Burnout through this.

    1. trueblue says:

      “Visceral resonance triggered and built on by the sequence…” That’s an illuminating angle.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Amen to that.

  3. Dana says:

    I am heartened to be reminded that it is never too late to engage in the life project of knowing thyself. I really like the idea of studying others, and simply noticing when I feel “goosed” by someone else’s bad or good behavior. It’s a moment of opportunity. A moment to say, “AHA! Let me turn the mirror on myself and explore (more deeply) what’s hidden there.”

  4. J.R. says:

    Yesterday, a good friend and I sat down and explored your post together, talking through each part by part. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The subject of character, in this classic sense! Many (if not all?) real conversations lead to and end on this, I notice… The set up from the painting, old print, quotes, to Jung’s book and finally the fantastic video was a fortifying class.

    I loved stumbling onto this great hidden list of character traits, positive and negative – there’s a lot there alone. Jung’s “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” – I like how it’s the “search” of a soul, as in we are not given one; we have to search to get one.

    On another subject, I was surprised going back through old posts, stumbling on articles as if they’re new. The painting on your Conflict Resolution post is gorgeous. Interestingly, encountering a painting you share (like this one) can be better than going to a museum for me. You give each work context; it’s framed with conversations that give it meaning. It is a different, satisfying way for me of viewing and engaging art. It brings me into potentially a closer relationship with the original creator, as well. Many thanks for this free educational material.

  5. Galahad says:

    Absolutely brilliant and fascinating post (really made me smile) and so many little jewels to be found in the card, the stunning lady’s real face and the video (with more stunning paintings of characters there too). I love this idea of cultivating great character as a life project, discovering who we truly are and not getting stuck/ too defined by our limited persona (“a more collective view of who we are”). It seems to me that the cultivation of a great character is linked with the cultivation of virtues and qualities and how we interpret or even play with obstacles and adversity.
    I’m also quite fascinated with this mostly unknown world of the unconscious and how much more of that world needs to be integrated/understood if we want to find real wholeness or ” self realisation” and be more in charge of our destiny.
    Lately I’m often left with this question : are you mostly content with what you are becoming?

  6. Mihai Tudorascu says:

    This post brings excitement about rediscovering Jung and about the link made from great character to wholeness and to shadow integration, which makes this somewhat unattainable ideal of character very practical.

    If I may include two Socrates quotes from your book which point in the same direction:

    “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

    “O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all?”

    It also makes a link for me to where you left off in the last article – simple presence and steadfast intention are plenty. In moments of restlessness, worry, fear the main preoccupation is for defense against enemies (outside and inside). Nothing is permitted in and I will find the “right” justifications for them to stay out of sight. While when the mind is calm, there is more availability to look at undesirable parts of myself maybe with humor or maybe with care for them not having had their turn to speak in the deeper inner conversations.

    Thus the preoccupation for knowing how to intimately manage my state, emphasized in some articles here and elsewhere in many creative ways, seems to be key in this ongoing endeavor.

  7. Thank you everyone for these waves of comments and reflections. A few responses…

    I’m particularly glad for the intuitive comprehension of the individual parts of this post and how they connect, including with the previous post (a pleasing example of the first two words and definitions here:)

    Concerning Jung’s shadows – my hope and intent on this blog is to, from the first sentence I wrote on it back in 2014:: “provide some compelling insights into human potential, and personal and communal development, through a wide variety of resources and angles of perception.” There are over a hundred (if not many hundreds if one follows all the links and where they lead to) of different voices throughout this blog, and no doubt each of them has their shadows and flaws, including myself. But they also have a gift for shining light on a particular subject or theme, bringing an idea closer to understanding and application from a particular angle of expertise. (Every title on this blog except one is of an idea.) I’ve always been fond of this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”

    On these various threads of practical application that a few of you have brought into the fold here, which do fall under the auspices of what you mentioned, Dana, “knowing thyself.” The idea is of course to make a thoroughly honest accounting of the full spectrum of one’s being. And that should include parts of ourselves that are less attractive or likable than others. And yes, too, Mihai, those need some form of expression, even if that is just personal acknowledgment and graceful acceptance of their existence. Still, it is the process of choosing from “one’s superior self” or grander vision of life that allows for and makes possible evolution, including the development of the intrinsic greatness that already lives in each individual.

    A last note on the science of “personal development” (psychology itself is considered to be a science) that has become so popular in various schools of therapy and elsewhere… I’d argue that what is often missing is not a belief in science as much as a belief in art. That is, we don’t lean into art as a means to internal or external resolution (of issues, anxiety, discontent, burnout, whatever). A well developed, aesthetically intelligent person (“self-realized,” if you want) could probably just see the different faces and titles from ‘Compassion Burnout’ and ‘Cultivating Great Character’, recognize and have a direct experience of resolution of the one through the other, and not need to read the associated texts at all.

    I do appreciate the commentary here, and thank you for taking on the subject with some character.

  8. Mihai Tudorascu says:

    A chapter in Jung’s book mentions physical and psychic transformations that usually come up between the ages of 35 and 40. After this age, if I understand well, he says that people are exposed to bigger changes than before that they meet with already diminished perceptive capacities resulted from the way life had been previously engaged.

    “The worst of it all is that intelligent and cultivated people have these leanings without even knowing of the possibility of such transformations. Wholly unprepared, they embark upon the second half of life. Or are there perhaps colleges for forty-year-olds which prepare them for their coming life and its demands as the ordinary colleges introduce our young people to a knowledge of the world and of life? No, there are none. Thoroughly unprepared we take the step into the afternoon of life; worse still, we take this step with the false presupposition that our truths and ideals will serve.”

    Maybe glimpses of such education are available here, for instance, in the noticing of this subtle distinction of (artfully) acknowledging parts of ourselves that have been kept hidden, without losing sight that “it is the process of choosing from ‘one’s superior self’ or grander vision of life that allows for and makes possible evolution”.

    1. Well, that’s the hope at least.

      Check back to the next post to come soon and I’ll respond more completely.

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