This is a chapter from the book:
Psychology of the Private Individual

Chapter 9: Character

The undertakings by which a moral self intends to wrest wealth, and happiness to boot, from the bourgeois world according to its laws bring about, for the few, prosperity and “room to be free” full of every sort of idiocy and, for the many, a very limited and always endangered budget along with a string of personal disappointments. With each new day, the majority become aware that “life is a struggle” that can only be won by those who don’t let go of their high opinion of themselves, who don’t “give up.” One mustn’t let one’s dissatisfaction with the world become practical, either by setting out to fight it on good grounds or by becoming unable to cope with reality.

So the critical subject gets himself a character: he assumes a methodological attitude to everything he does and to the techniques of his submission, which latter are only of limited value as means of success. The scanty repertoire of such “means” become strategies of damage prevention for the individual, which he applies qua experience, of which he is proud, on definite occasions and in the various spheres of his failure. In one area the citizen will set great store on demonstrating his discontent as a matter of principle, in another he will take up the art of showing off, and in a third he will be a stickler for order, thereby enjoying the display of his competence and reliability to himself and others. These individually formed habits, which are guided least of all by arguments for separating the essential from the trivial, are subordinated to the goal of self-assertion. Pursuing the intention to be free to hang on to the ideal of righteousness through thick and thin produces those endearing quirks of modern contemporaries as well as a contentless criticism of one’s close and wider circles, which doesn’t seriously bother anyone any more: “I don’t like that!” or “You should show more understanding for me (for others)!” or “I feel left out!” and so on — these are the phrases in which the world is treated as if it were set up solely to be a personal service to the person talking this way.

9.1. Life is a struggle

Bourgeois individuals cultivate a peculiar kind of realism. They do not subscribe to the illusion of being able to count on their colleagues and employers, on politicians, government agencies and civil servants, even on their family and private circle of friends, as being positive conditions or reliable helpers for realizing their plans. On the contrary: from the job where one doesn’t want to be “ridden roughshod over,” which costs daily effort, to the visit to the authorities and the “informal” exchange of views where the same danger looms and must be fended off, from the children who their parents “can’t cope with anymore,” and the spouse who doesn’t adequately appreciate his or her dearest at all, to completely unknown passers-by who one better steer clear of, a modern person calculates his fellow human beings and circumstances as an accumulation of problems that arise from dealing with them. And this does not even require any particular matter of concern in the face of which the world proves to be hostile in a particular way. From the start, the world is considered from the formal point of view of being a potential obstacle that a person has to “deal with”; an obstacle for realizing the equally formal intention, fixed in advance of every purpose, of not letting the world “get one down” but rather struggling every day to “assert” no more and no less than “oneself.”

It is a circular negative prejudice with which the complete bourgeois individual confronts the world; a prejudice that is not at all meant as opposition to the world condemned in this manner, but ascribes to the world the character of being a problem on principle, which one intends to cope with. So it does not even entail the intention to hold any truth about the purposes that actually prevail and their incompatibility with the needs of the people put into service for them, but solely expresses the certainty that going along with things is definitely no easy matter in this world, requiring instead constant precautions against impending harm. It is the will to comply that here, very much on principle, raises the accusation of “reality” not being of use but actually an impediment to it for this purpose. The logical consequence is the resolve, renewed every day and developed into a habit, to wring, with a lifelong “nevertheless,” one success from the intractable world: that one does not let up in paying attention to oneself, if no one else does, and the world must at least take note of that.

9.2. How one forms a character

This defensive, contentless, methodological insistence on oneself, or, vice versa, the defiant will to go along with things: this is the viewpoint from which a full-fledged member of bourgeois society arranges his everyday existence. He affects manners that are supposed to lead to a purposeless and contentless interest being taken in his person on principle, where no interest in him exists — or at least to his standing up to his own judgment of taste as fancied master of the situation. With the same aim he emulates role models whose attitudes impress him, conversely forming all kinds of ideas about things that embarrass him, and so he sorts his life more or less exactly according to the ways of behaving that he regards as indicated for a given situation: as the slick ladies’ man who, within the circle of his colleagues and friends, celebrates victory over the other sex in his three adventures — and possibly right afterwards, alone with his wife, as the harassed, love-starved problem child or as the misunderstood husband; as the perpetual life of the party at work or else, if this doesn’t work, as the profound misanthropist or the solicitous complaints box for his colleagues; as the smart aleck who doesn’t let anyone tell him anything when it comes to important matters — but as the deferential listener ready to correct his opinion at once as soon as an important person speaks; etc. This continual self-stylizing in all its opportunism does not guarantee the tiniest bit of real success; but it is not intended to. Its purpose is to counteract the failure of one’s intentions and the restrictions on one’s materialism so as not to lose one’s own self-respect — that is, in such a way that there can ultimately be no talk of disappointment and failure. This is the way the average person makes his submission a habit in today’s capitalism: not in the form of resigned abdication, but, even when such a pose is chosen, with unbroken pride in himself. In his deliberate, methodological handling of all barriers that confront him in the circumstances of his life and in his diverse fellow men, a handling that becomes fixed as a habit, he acquires a character. And with all the self-confidence with which he insists that this character of his really is completely his own, he makes himself the fully free and personally responsible fool of the necessities dictated by state and capital under which he leads his existence, achieving with all his voluntary effort only the one dreary trick of transforming the limits of his existence into his own fully autonomous limitedness. After all, the contentless and defensive, i.e., purely negative interest in self-assertion does not offer up any positive purpose; when it is pursued like a positive purpose and made one’s mission in life under such fine slogans as “recognition,” “acknowledgement,” “self-confidence,” “ ego strength,” etc., the necessary consequence is that one subsumes one’s existence under a handful of affectations of insisting on one’s own importance as a matter of principle.

9.3. A character at work

The specific interests that a bourgeois character sets out to pursue are carefully subordinated to his methodology of self-assertion. Their content does not count as a purpose that someone puts his will and his intellect into, but as a quite personal preference, which one does not want to pit against anyone else’s, but which in return one would also like to be conceded without criticism. Such preferences may degenerate into irritating quirks, but never mutate into a well-founded purpose; and when the reason for a strenuous occupation is obvious, an individual equipped with a character never designates it (solely) by the constraints he is obeying. He always claims to be getting a personal advantage from it: bricklayers like to be out in the fresh air, living human material fits teachers best, and everyone else also discovers some aspect or other of his job that matches his character. An individual’s leisure-time preferences are then important to him as opportunities to make it obvious to himself and others how well he knows how to look after himself “in spite of everything” and what extravagances he will indulge in — and that’s also how they are treated in friendly deliberations on whether, and to what extent, this or that inanity might not perhaps be particularly “important” to the person cultivating it. So, in his free activities just as in his enforced ones, a bourgeois character does not simply pursue what matters to him, but rather the ideal that his methods of “mastering” his life embody a most personal value transcending actual occupations by far and lending his self-stylizing tricks weight and significance. Notions of a deeper “meaning of life” are familiar to every contemporary person striving after a felicitous character; and this will to imaginary compensation has so completely taken possession of a civilized nation’s honest populace and intelligentsia that even its immanent opposite, bourgeois nihilism, has died out — while Christianity has become fashionable, and even halfway-grown children master the absurd accusation, so full of character, that “the official church” unfortunately clothes its “offers” to “meaning-starved youth” in an all-too “antiquated, unintelligible language.”

The demands with which a modern, distinctive character confronts the world thus boil down in principle to the most important concern of all: the world ought to give him fine opportunities to effectively showcase his own personality consisting of sundry affectations of self-assertion. He assesses his occasional pleasure in the world on this basis — whether enjoying the quantum of sentimentality he has acquired, or that brilliant performance when he told someone “where to get off” — just as he assesses his discontent. The reason for his discontent and the criterion for assessing it are no longer his own objective purposes, whose non-fulfillment would make it clear how little the purposes of all these individuals matter in the real world. On the contrary, this is in fact just the occasion for the affected individual to develop and demonstrate his character strengths by declaring his failure to be a problem for his formal self-assertion, which he is then actually equal to. The poorest wretch, by coloring in the bourgeois mind’s basic prejudice about the world as an obstacle and threatening problem complementary to his own methods of “coping” with it: even he can have the satisfaction of making the world look bad and himself look good as its fictitious criterion. And if a man’s complaints about the world and his praise of his own manliness do not bring the desired attention, he can draw on longstanding, generally accepted methods of repeating the same contentless and criterion-lacking accusation that others are not letting him “show his stuff to advantage,” in order to prove that he has not by any means let things “get him down” and it’s basically the wicked world that is a disgrace. For a bourgeois character, discontent is thus something quite productive — at any rate, he doesn’t readily see it as a reason for opposition.

9.4. Alternatives of dissimulation: Good and bad character

The habits that a bourgeois individual develops into his character are not only based on his initial resolve to prove himself in the world, despite its being thoroughly judged as hostile; they are furthermore the result of the experience that proving himself doesn’t quite work out, and hence of the lie that in view of this experience he has to appear all the tougher and more steadfast in taking it and dishing it out, and that the show of such strength more entitles him to be proud of himself than the success he doesn’t attain with all this anyway. They are habits of dissimulation, calculated to produce an effective semblance of complete domination of the circumstances. At the same time, this calculation is not even a secret from the point of view of self-demonstration. The suspicion that nobody is banking on the validation-seeking posturing is even handled officially; in special affirmations of the point of view “actually” held — “honestly!”, “seriously…” — tribute is paid to the ideal of a solid character one can talk to, because it is otherwise considered pure folly to trust sham traces of strength of character. It is no accident that reliability has become a special virtue, the attribute of a fine character, and thus a new starting point for many a disappointment, which can forever revive the complaints about the duplicity of people in the world. After all, the fact that the essence of character lies in nothing at all but the method — practiced apart from the interests one pursues — of promoting oneself, of deceptively proving to everyone at large one’s integrity, smartness, superiority, steadfastness, and every other ‑ity and ‑ness — nobody is about to admit that.

The necessity of showing oneself “up to it” and stylizing oneself as a respectable personality is so taken for granted — in all classes and subdivisions of bourgeois society in fact — that it is not criticized; rather, its more or less successful result is expertly appraised.

So someone can earn the distinctive compliment of “knowing what he wants” — but not by being able to cite good reasons for his purposes or the essential conditions for realizing them. This set phrase is meant to praise the semblance of somebody actually being master of every situation and having a determination that (almost) guarantees that his efforts will have the desired success, i.e., a character to whom the assumed success is credited without further ado as his special strength, namely as “assertiveness.” That is why the same semblance can also lead just as well to the opposite verdict: the person admired as being especially “determined” by some is considered “ruthless” by others; where some see a person “making his way in the world,” others make out an “unscrupulous careerist.”

Such opposing judgments of identical characters are not at all due to differing moral standards of those judging; on the contrary, both admiration and condemnation are based on the same criteria. The differences lie in the standards for subsuming the individual case; and each person possesses these standards in the way he has subsumed himself under the principles of prevailing morality. As each one has construed the world in accordance with his own habitually practiced maxims of life, he judges another person’s character as a matter of course from the same point of view but the other way round, i.e., to what extent the other person for his part conforms to the world the way one has envisioned it as the utterly personal problem area for a strong character. And this criterion must unite arbitrariness with sticking to principles. For example, industriousness (thrift…) is without a doubt a virtue; but if someone else’s industriousness is crowned with a success one’s own efforts have not achieved, then besides some admiration, one also has its critical reversal at one’s disposal, by which industriousness actually only proves true strength of character when no success is achieved, otherwise — quite on the contrary — it suggests a calculating character, a climber (miser…). If somebody demonstrates industriousness in an area where one has chosen demonstrative casualness as evidence of the qualities of one’s own person, he is due to be accused of ass-kissing — which however has nothing to do with a call for putting an end to the practice of a calculating submission. Anyone who does such a thing may get to hear by way of a compliment that one wouldn’t have “dared” do it oneself; but he is more likely to be accused of being alarmingly stubborn and “banging his head against a wall,” impudently disregarding the normal order of things and imagining himself as “better” than normal, “ordinary people” who have made a different, i.e., “healthy” mixture of refractoriness and subservience their principle of life at this point.

The general ideal of a “good character” is consequently the silly idea of the “golden mean” — and anyone who unswervingly pursues this has some chance of not being counted among those people with a “bad character,” who allegedly can do nothing but evil according to firm maxims; perhaps some will also regard him as “well-balanced” and, if his harmlessness is beyond doubt, almost everyone will think him “nice.” However, if he asserts claims of any kind with his “golden mean,” he will certainly get to hear the accusation of failing to arrange his life so as to be calculable for others, and therefore of being even worse than bad characters — with whom one at least “knows where one stands”: of being in fact unprincipled, of no character.

Satisfying the character judgments of the bourgeois mind’s reasoning is simply an impossibility. After all, they are not judgments about the purposes a person commits himself to, but instead make use of and cite general moral criteria to announce the intention to respect or reject another person for his manner of “coping” with the world. And this question is decided by a person full of character according to the assessment, as firmly principled as it is coincidental, of whether the other person matches one’s own personally concocted notion of, and position toward, the never-ending problems of life, or instead has the cheek to stand up for completely different evaluations and maxims and thus demonstrate in practice that he considers one’s own “lifestyle” unfit — one can’t let anyone get away with that.

The arbitrariness, subjectivism, and specific opportunism of these reciprocal assessments are of course no hindrance at all for completely subsuming one’s dear fellow man under the character “traits” thus discovered, and for asserting the character asset or — more often — flaw in question to be his incontrovertible “nature.” Everyone is familiar here with the logical mistake of ascribing to a person everything one feels like noticing about him as the expression of a fixed internal “principle” that determines everything he does in the way one has noticed, this mistake entirely serving the interest in lending one’s own opportunism in dealing with others the good conscience and practical impact of an entirely objective, worldly-wise insight into human nature, thereby completing one’s critical interpretation of the world. Anyone presenting the most emphatic judgment about a third party within the shortest time can reap admiration; but the others also only need to make up their mind about whether he is demanding techniques of self-assertion of them, and which ones, and the character diagnosis is all done. The inevitable “misunderstandings” have a tragicomical quality, precisely because in the judgment of character, decisions of general principle about friendship or enmity are made on the basis of happenstance according to principled arbitrariness — an inexhaustible source of material not only for literature, but also for that specific bourgeois art of living consisting in plaguing everyone with character-filled nastiness, as if there weren’t enough plagues already.

9.5. Ignorance as knowledge of human nature

When people, certain that the world is constantly causing them difficulties, put all their pride in self-confidently going along with things, and thus turn themselves into character masks of their submission to exploitation and democratic rule; when they constantly check each other on their characters’ providing a guarantee of harmlessness and willingness to go along; then the actually prevailing purposes, the harsh realities of capitalist exploitation and democratic rule, are subsumed rather completely under each person’s private fantasyland of well-disposed, harmless and hostile characters. Opinion on political machinations of any kind amounts in its entirety to an expression of sympathy for or aversion to the actors involved in political rule, who display their character strengths or defects, as the case may be, in any particular affair. Any absurdity, not only about the Nazi Third Reich, is believed as long as it is apt for making the ruinous aims of national politics disappear into the attitudes of individuals: logically, for the bourgeois mind, there is always above all a big bunch of simpletons with weak characters and a handful of determined villains, alongside would-be revolutionaries and moral cowards, “moderates,” and “extremists,” but never anybody who is actually interested in the political aim itself. When reality all too clearly contradicts the character astrology generally considered to be the ne plus ultra of enlightenment about the world and human nature, a fine head full of character is rather more prepared to deny the interfering world and its well-ordered absurdities from the point of view of “common sense,” with the “argument,” “I can’t imagine that!” than to open his imagination to the real purposes of state and capital, which are not invented by “common sense.”

9.6. Characterology based on the ideal of fitness for real life

For psychologists, character is a matter for which they can make use of all the inventiveness of their discipline — an inventiveness that plays well with character-laden diagnoses of bourgeois characters. In fact, it is joyfully welcomed as confirmation of the pretend puzzle, “Why ever is he (am I) like that?” The appraisal that one practices on oneself and performs on others is supplied by professionals here with reasons, and beauties they are! One psychoanalyst is immediately struck by a “chronic change” of the ego “which one might describe as hardening.”[1] He thinks this allows him to inspect various characters with the help of the theories of drives and id-ego-superego. To him, what an individual with a character does is of no importance, and is therefore a question of degree and above all, in keeping with good psychological custom, an ability which manifests itself and — depending on how much — gives rise to the qualitative difference between “reality-oriented” (the psychologist’s ideal middle course!) and “neurotic” folks:

“The degree of character flexibility, the ability to open oneself to the outside world or to close oneself to it, depending on the situation, constitutes the difference between a reality-oriented and a neurotic character structure.”

And how did the “character armor” come about as a “chronic result”? Of course through the “clash” between “instinctual demands and an outer world which frustrates those demands,” since man in an important part is instinct, the world restricts him in it, so that the ego, which he also is — “precisely that border-region of the personality which lies between bio-physiological instinct and the outer world” — is the “region” in which character forms. Wilhelm Reich in any case realized that with character, he was dealing with “the expression and the sum of those influences of the external world on the instinctual ego which, by aggregation and qualitative sameness, form a historic whole.” As with godfather Freud, the whole thing leads directly to the eternal war between pleasure and reality, a war that is very sexual: “The formation of character occurs as a certain way of overcoming the Oedipus complex.” Sigmund already knew that woman’s envy, jealousy and bodily vanity come from penis envy; “a capacity, for instance, to pursue an intellectual profession can often be recognized as a sublimated modification of this repressed wish.”[2] Nothing at all is recognized here unfortunately, just as little as in the deduction of “orderliness, parsimoniousness and obstinacy” from the “dissipation of anal erotism” and “its employment in other ways” — instead, character virtues and vices have gotten awarded an interesting reason: they are an unconsciously but continuously carried out substitute for sexual exploits to which the subject is actually driven but which he denies himself in his conscious existence. Why he chooses this particular substitute, and is conversely so unfree as to submissively obey his drives when deliberately tackling every kind of activity rather than to simply carry it out, is something psychoanalysts ought to ponder sometime when they are writing another wrong book and sublimating who knows what, when they are making their distinctions and treating logic as parsimoniously as obstinately.

The people appearing under the company nameplate of personality theory get it simpler but nothing righter. The difficulty in getting hold of personality or character appeals to them. Firstly, they claim to be unable to properly distinguish the two: “Neither technical terminology nor everyday language distinguishes with adequate sharpness between the concepts of ‘personality’ and ‘character.’ However, the second word relates less exclusively to the peculiarity of human individuals since certain attributes can also be termed ‘characteristic’ of inanimate objects.” Oh well. Secondly, two researchers list “the following personality factors: 1. general activity; 2. restraint; 3. ascendance; 4. sociability; 5. emotional stability; 6. objectivity; 7. friendliness; 8. thinking introversion; 9. cooperativeness; 10. masculinity vs. femininity.”[3] This likewise has its advantages: the fact that these are supposed to be “factors” of personality instantly spares any thought about what kind of determinations of personality one actually is collecting here in order to differentiate characters, and one has got rid of the point of character as a scientific object. Instead, one may raise the question of whether one has all or enough factors: “This system seems just as little able as the others to really take account of the wealth of personality differences to be experienced today.”

It’s a good thing that Skinner succeeded in radically challenging the question of character as put forth by Freud. He would have us consider whether the character of a “personality” is not in fact merely behavior! How’s that for a falsely abstract question! Furthermore he becomes aware that, in opposition to the psychology before him, it only makes things unnecessarily difficult to “formulate” one “self” as a “response system” for such different behaviors:

“If the environment of which behavior is a function” (again there is no subject in view who knows and wants and acts — no matter how crazy!) “is not consistent, from moment to moment, there is no reason to expect consistency in behavior. The pious churchgoer on Sunday may become an aggressive, unscrupulous businessman on Monday. He possesses two response systems appropriate to different sets of circumstances…”[4]

Indeed, if it is “the environment which takes him to church on Sunday and to work on Monday,” then one does not even need a catalog of features from the real world of characters to present a psychological theory about nonexistent subjects. This is how beautifully modern science can make an object disappear, one that scientists take full note of and like, to boot.


[1] Wilhelm Reich, Character Analysis.

[2] Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis.

[3] Guilford-Zimmerman Temperament Survey, 1949.

[4] Skinner, Science and Human Behavior.