Category Archives: character

Soviet rule is within us

Dalrymple comes across a sentence by Sergei Dovlatov:

There is no greater tragedy for a man than totally to lack character.

This, says Dalrymple,

is what I encountered every day, when the bureaucrats with whom I had to deal could not look me in the eye. Theirs was a kind of suffering, endured for the sake of a pension.

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The agony of English meals

Gooseberries, writes Dalrymple,

were always served, in the England of my childhood, with custard, a yellow concoction with lumps in it and a skin that sent shivers down your spine. The lumps and skin were regarded in the same light as outdoor team games in inclement weather: they were character-building. Meals in England in those days were treated as an ordeal which had to be gone through.

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Dr Johnson: wit allied to moral seriousness

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 09.35.37Samuel Johnson, writes Dalrymple,

does not object in the slightest to social hierarchy—quite the contrary, and consistent with his profound conservatism, he repeatedly supports it as a necessary precondition of civilisation—and he has no objection to inherited wealth, eminence, or influence. Yet when he feels slighted by a nobleman, he objects to the insult to his worth in the most manly, uncompromising, eloquent, and fearless fashion. Writing to Lord Chesterfield, who encouraged him at first to compile his great Dictionary, then ignored him entirely during his years of almost superhuman toil, and finally tried to pose as his great patron once he had brought his Dictionary to completion, Johnson says in prose whose nobility rings down the centuries:

February 1755. MY LORD—I have been lately informed by the proprietor of the World that two Papers in which my Dictionary is recommended to the Public were written by your Lordship. To be so distinguished is an honour which, being very little accustomed to favours from the Great, I know not well how to receive, or in what terms to acknowledge.

When upon some slight encouragement I first visited your Lordship I was overpowered like the rest of Mankind by the enchantment of your address, and could not forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le Vainqueur du Vainqueur de la Terre, that I might obtain that regard for which I saw the world contending, but I found my attendance so little incouraged, that neither pride nor modesty would suffer me to continue it. When I had once addressed your Lordship in public, I had exhausted all the Art of pleasing which a retired and uncourtly Scholar can possess. I had done all that I could, and no Man is well pleased to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.

Seven years, My lord have now past since I waited in your outward Rooms or was repulsed from your Door, during which time I have been pushing on my work through difficulties of which it is useless to complain, and have brought it at last to the verge of Publication without one Act of assistance, one word of encouragement, or one smile of favour. Such treatment I did not expect, for I never had a Patron before.

The Shepherd in Virgil grew at last acquainted with Love, and found him a Native of the Rocks. Is not a Patron, My Lord, one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

I hope it is no very cynical asperity not to confess obligation where no benefit has been received, or to be unwilling that the Public should consider me as owing that to a Patron, which Providence has enabled me to do for myself.

Having carried on my work thus far with so little obligation to any favourer of Learning I shall not be disappointed though I should conclude it, if less be possible, with less, for I have been long wakened from that Dream of hope, in which I once boasted myself with so much exultation, My lord, Your Lordship’s Most humble, most obedient servant, S.J.

Dalrymple says Johnson’s

integrity (a virtue no more common in his time than now) shines out from a letter that he wrote to a lady who had asked him to recommend her son to the archbishop of Canterbury for admission to a university:

MADAM— I hope you will believe that my delay in answering your letter could proceed only from my unwillingness to destroy any hope that you had formed. Hope is itself a species of happiness, and, perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords: but, like all other pleasures immoderately enjoyed, the excesses of hope must be expiated by pain; and expectations improperly indulged, must end in disappointment. If it be asked, what is the improper expectation which it is dangerous to indulge, experience will quickly answer, that it is such expectation as is dictated not by reason, but by desire; expectation raised, not by the common occurrences of life, but by the wants of the expectant; an expectation that requires the common course of things to be changed, and the general rules of action to be broken.

When you made your request to me, you should have considered, Madam, what you were asking. You ask me to solicit a great man, to whom I never spoke, for a young person whom I had never seen, upon a supposition which I had no means of knowing to be true. There is no reason why, amongst all the great, I should chuse to supplicate the Archbishop, nor why, among all the possible objects of his bounty, the Archbishop should chuse your son. I know, Madam, how unwillingly conviction is admitted, when interest opposes it; but surely, Madam, you must allow, that there is no reason why that should be done by me, which every other man may do with equal reason, and which, indeed no man can do properly, without some very particular relation both to the Archbishop and to you. If I could help you in this exigence by any proper means, it would give me pleasure; but this proposal is so very remote from all usual methods, that I cannot comply with it, but at the risk of such answer and suspicions as I believe you do not wish me to undergo.

I have seen your son this morning; he seems a pretty youth, and will, perhaps, find some better friend than I can procure him; but, though he should at last miss the University, he may still be wise, useful, and happy. I am, Madam, your most humble servant, June 8, 1762. SAM. JOHNSON.

Dalrymple comments:

I don’t think you could read this letter without perceiving in its writer great intellect, eloquence, wit, knowledge of life derived from deep reflection upon experience, and—what perhaps most compels respect—moral seriousness.

Johnson expresses

the necessity for honest self-examination, if avoidable misery is to be avoided. It is one of the most serious defects of modern culture and the welfare state that they discourage such self-examination by encouraging the imputation of all miseries to others. They thus have a disastrous effect upon character.

The essays, says Dalrymple, are

vastly more self-analytically honest and morally useful than anything Freud wrote.

Johnson

saw the exercise of judgment as the supreme human duty; however inviting it is for human beings to avoid judgment, because it is impossible to judge correctly of everything, it is inescapably necessary to make judgments.

Blair: dishonesty and dishonour

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Lack of character plus moral grandiosity, a lethal combination

The grandiose are found out by reality, and left squirming

Tony Blair, writes Dalrymple, exhibits

the most frivolous earnestness. He is given to gushes of cheap moral enthusiasm — cheap, that is, for him, not for others who have to pay for it.

Blair has been

exposed as the frog in Æsop’s fable that puffs and puffs himself up in an attempt to prove himself as big as the cow, until he explodes. But we cannot blame him entirely. He is one of us, the new Britons. The least we can do is to put some teddy-bears by the railings outside his home to help him come to terms with his humiliation.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 09.50.34Britain, Dalrymple reminds us, is

of very slight account, with a population increasingly unable to distinguish the trivial from the important and the virtual from the real. It has over several decades undergone profound social and psychological changes, of which Blair is both a symptom and an accelerating cause.

When moral grandiosity meets lack of character,

no good can result. Grandiosity and lack of character are two sides of the same coin. When someone believes that he is born with Original Virtue, he comes to believe that all his opinions, all his ends and all his actions are pure, moral and right. He is able to change from moment to moment, and to act in a completely unscrupulous manner. He may act in contradictory ways and change his opinions to their very opposites, but the purity of motive remains when everything else has disappeared.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 09.19.39Such a person

can have no honour, for honour implies a loyalty to a fixed standard, even or especially when it is not in that person’s immediate or instrumental interest to uphold it.

The lack of character

derives also from the elevation of sensibility over sense and of personal opinion over personal probity. Purity of sentiment and opinion become the whole of virtue, and the louder one expresses it the better the person is; morality is not a discipline and an abjuration but an opportunity to shine in front of one’s peers.

Screen Shot 2016-07-09 at 10.23.23Needless to say,

purity of sentiment and opinion are not incompatible with our old and trusted friend, the thirst for power, a combination which naturally enough results in a bullying sentimentality and a self-righteous lack of scruple.

The desire to be

both policeman and lady almoner, General Patton and Gandhi, Rambo and Elizabeth Fry, is not conducive to clear thinking or clear policy.

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The qualities needed in a young doctor

Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 17.32.03Dalrymple receives an application for a clinical attachment by an Indian doctor newly arrived in England, a country which, Dalrymple points out, is entirely parasitic on the rest of the world for its medical and nursing staff. The application is written, Dalrymple recounts,

in old-fashioned English, greatly the superior in charm to anything written by young British doctors. There is a touching naivety: despite all the applicant must have seen in his homeland, far grimmer physically than anything to be found in the UK, he is not street-smart in the modern sense, and is much the better for it. He sounds as if he has character rather than its debased and shallow modern equivalent, personality.

The applicant tells Dalrymple that

I have learnt from experience that honesty and diligence always pay off. Reliability, teamwork and love for my fellow beings has been my motto.

Dalrymple comments:

I doubt that this is boasting or mere vanity, of the kind that is now officially encouraged among, indeed required of, medical staff in compulsory self-appraisals, in the government’s plan to reduce the medical profession to its own ethical level.

The applicant writes:

Parents and teachers are my inspirers.

Dalrymple asks:

What young Briton would dare to write such a thing nowadays, even in the unlikely event that he felt it? Yet what civilisation can survive without such modest respect for elders and for the accumulated wisdom and experience of the past?

The applicant is

aware of my limitations but have a strong belief and faith in my capabilities.

That, says Dalrymple,

is just what one wants of a young doctor.

If this is naivety, says Dalrymple,

it is naivety that will lead in the end to far greater mental, cultural, emotional and spiritual sophistication than the trivial, smart-alec culture of modern Britain.

Indian doctors, says Dalrymple, have

  • better manners than their young British counterparts
  • a truer appreciation of life
  • a subtler and deeper sense of humour
  • an attractive sense of irony born of an instinctive understanding of the inherent limitations of human existence, which is now almost completely lost in the British population

How good fortune tests character

Screen Shot 2016-03-04 at 08.49.24Dalrymple writes that he admires people

who struggle through adversity to some considerable achievement; but I also admire those who, born to great good fortune, also achieve something of their own, because such good fortune can so easily have as enervating an effect upon effort as constant ill-fortune.

The English then and now

Screen Shot 2015-12-21 at 09.00.33Once, writes Dalrymple, the qualities of the English population included

  • cool and ironic detachment from its own experience, that permitted it to face adversity with great good humour and modesty rather than by resort to histrionics
  • a polite restraint that was a precondition of depth of character. This restraint seemed to me heroic in an undemonstrative way; it was also the guarantor of an implicit subtlety

Today the chief characteristics of the English, Dalrymple points out, are

  • militant vulgarity
  • lack of restraint
  • arrogant loudness
  • ferocious and determined drunkenness
  • antisocial egotism
  • aggression and quick resort to violence
  • grossness of appetites
  • prideful ugliness of appearance
  • lack of finesse in any department of human existence

Dalrympian meditations

Screen Shot 2015-09-23 at 08.48.36It is accepted without argument today, writes Dalrymple, that a man

is not in the least responsible for his personality or character.

This is, he points out,

a far cry from Marcus Aurelius’s view that a man could, and ought to, cultivate his own character.

Social liberals, he asserts, are too guilty or cowardly to acknowledge the realities of the social universe they have wrought, one in which there is

no place for children or childhood.

Believing that man is the product of his environment, social liberals

have nevertheless set about creating an environment from which it is truly difficult to escape, by closing off all the avenues and bolt-holes. They have destroyed the family and any notion of progress or improvement. They have made a world in which the only freedom is self-indulgence, a world from which—most terrible of all—prison can sometimes be a liberation.

The men of brains shall be slaves — slaves to the men of character

Screen Shot 2014-04-02 at 01.14.21This was the credo of those tasked with recruiting for the Colonial Service. It is the theme of the 1931 Maugham tale ‘The Door of Opportunity’ (to be found in the 1933 collection Ah King).

Dalrymple touches on the theme in a discussion of a newspaper headline he came across that read: ‘Young people’s money woes are down to lack of education.’

He points out:

The problem is not one of education but of character.

The indebted

know that…nothing much will happen to them as a result of their default, nor is there any shame or social stigma attached to living above one’s means. Certainly no government, or no public employee, feels such shame.

The article, he says, was

an example of the overestimate of the importance of formal education by the overeducated. They assume that everyone can be taught to behave in the same way that everyone, more or less, can be taught to read. Prudence, providence and probity, however, are character and cultural traits more than they are intellectual accomplishments. It is not that people don’t know; it is that they don’t care.