Character Defects: The Concept of Character

Henrietta Seiberling's Gate Lodge

In our introduction to “Character Defects” in the portal page of this section, we gave a summary of the understanding of character defects which PTP has drawn from the Big Book and the 12&12. We placed this understanding in its historical context, outlining the classical view of what constitutes character, how it goes bad and becomes defective, and how this relates to defective emotion and harmful action. We concluded with the process of spiritual growth and character building—represented by the 12 Steps—by which we change, replacing our defects with the spiritual virtues which enable us to live as it is the will of a loving God for us to live, best exemplified perhaps by the St. Francis Prayer in Step 11 of the 12&12.

Here we supplement this summary with a selection of quotes, spanning over two millennia, which may add to our reflection on the subject. A review of these quotes will reveal a number of consistent themes. Character defines who we really are as people (King, Wooden); differs from personality (Maugham, Letterman); is the product of habit (Plutarch, Ovid, Covey), not of fate or circumstance (Democritus, Dyer); reflects as well as shapes our perceptions (Lewis, Emerson) and our hearts (Augustine); largely determines the course of our lives (Democritus, Beckwith); should consequently be our highest concern (Euripides, Socrates, Goethe, de Montaigne, Spurgeon); and can be transformed (Confucius, Dewey, Frank, Nin) gradually (Heraclitus) through a process of pain and effort (Seneca, Paul, Keller) which replaces its defects with their virtuous counterparts (courage and honesty for Roosevelt, perseverance for Michener and Vonnegut, self-control and forgiveness for Carnegie).

These are of course only quotes, and to get at the substance which, in the case of some of the great thinkers, may lie behind them, we would have to read their works. But even after we do we’ll find that no one even comes close to offering the kind of extensive, systematic, and practical program of action for the transformation of character that is available through the 12 Steps of AA. Nor is there a program of action that has been tested more or yielded better results, in ours an in other 12-Step fellowships. The program works in this very specific and all-important way of making better men and women of us who once were given up for—and thought ourselves—hopeless. We need only work it.

[Image: Gate Lodge, home of Henrietta Seiberling, site of first meeting between Bill W. and Dr. Bob, May 12, 1935.]

As Bill Sees It"We can achieve no liberation from the alcohol obsession until we become willing to deal with those character defects which have landed us in that hapless condition." – Bill W., As Bill Sees It    

Big Book
"We pocket our pride and go to it, illuminating every twist of character, every dark cranny of the past." – Big Book  

"Learning daily to spot, admit, and correct these flaws is the essence of character-building and good living." – 12&12  

Life Recovery Bible"Suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” – Romans 5:3-4
"Don't be fooled by those who say such things, for 'bad company corrupts good character." – 1 Corinthians 15:33

"All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” – Sophocles 

"Wealth stays with us a little moment if at all: only our characters are steadfast." – Euripides  

"Everywhere man blames nature and fate, yet his fate is mostly but the echo of his character and passion, his mistakes and his weaknesses." – Democritus  

"We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.” – Socrates    

"Character is that which reveals moral purpose, exposing the class of things a man chooses and avoids." – Aristotle  

"Difficulties strengthen the mind, as labor does the body." – Seneca  

"Habits change into character." 

Cato the Elder
"After I'm dead, I'd rather have people ask why I have no monument than why I have one." – Cato the Elder  

"Character is simply habit long continued.” – Plutarch    

"It is true that we shall not be able to reach perfection, but in our struggle toward it we shall strengthen our character. – Confucius  

"In order to discover the character of people we have only to observe what they love."  –  St. Augustine 

"Every man, as to character, is the creature of the age in which he lives. Very few are able to raise themselves above the ideas of their times." – Voltaire  

John Locke
"We are like chameleons, we take our hue and the color of our moral character from those who are around us." – John Locke 

Michel de Montaigne"To compose our character is our duty, not to compose books, and to win, not battles and provinces, but order and tranquility in our conduct. Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately." – Michel de Montaigne  

George Washington
"It is better to be alone than in bad company." – George Washington 

Abraham Lincoln
"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power." – Abraham Lincoln  

Ralph Waldo Emerson
"People do not seem to realize that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character." – Ralph Waldo Emerson  

"The formation of one's character ought to be everyone's chief aim." – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe   

Charles H. Spurgeon"A good character is the best tombstone. Those who loved you and were helped by you will remember you when forget-me-nots have withered. Carve your name on hearts, not on marble." – Charles H. Spurgeon  

Joseph Le Conte
"The essential thing is not knowledge, but character." – Joseph Le Conte  

John W. Beckwith
"Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” – John W. Beckwith * 

Charles E. Hughes
"A man has to live with himself, and he should see to it that he is always in good company.” – Charles E. Hughes  

Theodore Roosevelt
"Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual and of nations alike." – Theodore Roosevelt 

Helen Keller"Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved." – Helen Keller  

Albert Einstein
"Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character."  – Albert Einstein  

Anaïs Nin  "What we call our destiny is truly our character and that character can be altered. One is not in bondage to the past, which has shaped our feelings, to race, inheritance, background. All this can be altered if we have the courage to examine how it formed us." – Anaïs Nin  

W. Somerset Maugham
"When you choose your friends, don't be short-changed by choosing personality over character." – W. Somerset Maugham     

Dale Carnegie
"Any fool can criticize, complain, and condemn—and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving." – Dale Carnegie  

Anne Frank
"The final forming of a person's character lies in his own hands." – Anne Frank  

Dwight L. Moody
"If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself." – Dwight L. Moody  

Eleanor Roosevelt
"People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built." – Eleanor Roosevelt  

Alfred Adler
"Men of genius are admired, men of wealth are envied, men of power are feared; but only men of character are trusted." – Alfred Adler  

John Dewey
The good man is the man who, no matter how morally unworthy he has been, is moving to become better." – John Dewey 

C. S. Lewis
"What you see and hear depends a great deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are.”– C. S. Lewis  

Martin Luther King Jr."I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  – Martin Luther King Jr.  

John Wooden"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." – John Wooden  

James A. Michener
"Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” – James A. Michener  

Gail Carson Levine
"In books and in life, you need to read several pages before someone's true character is revealed." – Gail Carson Levine  

Kurt Vonnegut
"Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance." – Kurt Vonnegut 

Billy Graham
"When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” – Billy Graham  

Wayne W. Dyer
"Circumstances don’t make a man, they reveal him." – Wayne W. Dyer 

Katherine Hepburn
"To keep your character intact you cannot stoop to filthy acts. It makes it easier to stoop the next time." – Katherine Hepburn  

John Ruskin
"What we think or what we believe is, in the end, of little consequence. The only thing of consequence is what we do." – John Ruskin  

Les Brown
"In the end, it is the person you become, not the things you achieve, that is most important.” – Les Brown  

Stephen R. Covey"Our character is basically a composite of our habits. Because they are consistent, often unconscious patterns, they constantly, daily, express our character.”
– Stephen Covey  

Joyce Meyer
"Character is doing what you don't want to do but know you should do.” – Joyce Meyer  

Elmer G. Letterman
"Personality can open doors, but only character can keep them open." – Elmer G. Letterman  

"People with good intentions make promises, but people with good character keep them.” –  Anonymous 

Alfred Armand Montapert
"Personality is what you seem to be. Character is what you really are." – Alfred Armand Montapert 

Jordan Peterson"There’s almost nothing better than character development. Aiming at having a good character is the highest aim, and it’s the aim that will provide the most meaning in your life." – Jordan Peterson

"A person shows what he is by what he does with what he has." – Anonymous 

John Luther"Good character is more to be praised than outstanding talent. Most talents are, to some extent, a gift. Good character, by contrast, is not given to us. We have to build it piece by piece—by thought, choice, courage and determination." – John Luther 

"Character is like the foundation of a house: it is below the surface.” – Anonymous 

"Don’t be impressed by money, followers, degrees and titles. Be impressed by kindness, integrity, humility and generosity." – Anonymous 

"Your life only gets better when you do. Work on yourself and the rest will follow." – Anonymous 

Rwandan Proverb
"You can out-distance that which is running after you, but not what is running inside you." – Rwandan Proverb 

Daily Reflections
"All my character defects separate me from God’s will." – AA’s Daily Reflections 

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "As time passes, we will become progressively better able to identify our own character defects, calling them by their true names.” – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts 

PTP123"Our character is the product of our moral choices, the choices that we make for good or ill over the course of our lives: as we act time and again, so do we become." – PTP123 

PTP4"Our character and emotional defects issue from the interaction of these two things: what we care about and how we perceive it to be negatively impacted. The stronger the concern and the construal, the stronger the defect and the emotion." – PTP4  

* This quote has been attributed to a number of people, including Emerson. Our research indicates the earliest and most complete version of it can be credited to Beckwith.

Abraham Lincoln

For more PTP123 passages on character, please see Chapter A. These Principles, “Virtue and Character Development,” pp. 31–36, and Chapter B. In All Our Affairs: Emotional Sobriety, “Character and Emotions,” pp. 52–55. For a full discussion, see PTP4, Chapter 13: Character: The Concept, pp. 257–267; Chapter 14: Character and Personality, pp. 269–304; Chapter 15: Character and Temperament, pp. 305–328; and Chapter 16: Character Defects, pp. 329–360.  For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search character and defects. See also entries under Character Defects in As Bill Sees It. On this site, see PTP 1, 2, 3 Excerpts Virtue & Character  and Character & Emotions, and PTP4 Excerpt Character: The Conceptas well as Appendix 4: Character Defects. See also Aristotle & Virtue Theory: Crash Course Philosophy, in PTP's YouTube Channel – Character, Defect, & Virtue.

Additional Resources

  1. Ethics: The Art of Character, by Gregory R. Beabout
  2. “Character” (p. 8) and “Personality” (p. 9), entries in The One-Minute Philosopher, by Montague Brown 
  3. The Crown, Netflix television series about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, seasons 1 and 2. Screen Actors Guild Awards won by Claire Foy for Best Actress (Queen Elizabeth) and John Lithgow for Best Actor (Winston Churchill). 

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