Thursday, July 31, 2008

Richard Reeves on Character

Richard Reeves, author of John Stuart Mill: Victorian Firebrand and newly appointed director of Demos, a British think tank for "everyday democracy," recently published a fascinating essay in Prospect Magazine on the importance of character in a successful society. He writes:

"The three key ingredients of a good character are: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one's own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification. Progressives are realising that, thus defined, character is intimately linked to many of their social goals—and also that it is unevenly distributed. Indeed, inequality of character may now be as important as inequality of economic resources."

Reeves's biography of John Stuart Mill pays great attention to the influential thinker's strong character. Mill, who always practiced his progressive policies, sometimes to a fault, certainly fulfills the three key ingredients mentioned above. Reeves brings Mill up later in the essay:

"British Enlightenment thinkers from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill placed a huge emphasis on character development. Smith and Mill knew that good character is about successful self-regulation—without which the case for a strong state or stifling religious guidance becomes harder to resist."

John Stuart Mill is currently available from Overlook.

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