Personality and Character

This is an extract from Self and Unself, sections 81 to 83 (of 212). Many of the key concepts here — quality, unself, noetic etc. are explained in earlier sections.


character is self’s qualitative meeting place with unself. As such, it is partly, or essentially, synonymous with quality. Character does not appear as a measurable thing, but as a flavour, tone, vibe or ‘aura’, an unselfish, and therefore timeless sense of individuality. It is that in a girl of six which remains the same in the same woman at 85, the qualitative essence of her that remains even as her personality radically evolves, even if we subtract the entire measurable substance of her. An amnesiac in a sensory deprivation tank, unable to access even language, might experience confused noetic impressions or visceral echoes of the past, but underneath those would be the pure witnessing I, ‘felt’ at the subtlest level of feeling, or ‘known’ at the subtlest level of knowledge, as character.

Although the two blend into each other, we can speak of qualitative character and quantitative personality as distinct; of qualitative character-honesty and quantitative personality-honesty, for example, or qualitative character-beauty and quantitative personality-beauty, or qualitative character-sensitivity and quantitative personality-sensitivity. The former is an elusive but constant state, while the latter is definable and variable. When we say ‘William Morris is honest’, for example, we might be referring to an essential sense of integrity about the man (his character), not about how much truth he tells in any particular situation (his personality). He might have cheated at school, for example, lied to his wife about how much he loved her and deceived himself about his poetic gifts, but we still trust him, sensing an essentially honourable core. Resentful egos automatically conflate the two, counting up and pointing out the ‘hypocrisies’ of a personality—the indignities of a noble soul, the plagiarisms of an original artist, the errors of the great mind—which doesn’t live up to a big ideal.

In the unselfish self, character and personality are fused, with the latter subordinate to the former. The essence—the individuality, originality or uniqueness—of character is reflected in the substance of personality, which gives the former voice, gait, gesture, story, song, armchair, t-shirt and cake. Without character, personality may appear individual and advertise itself as such—as the stones of its caddis-fly case are novel, strange and unlike anyone else’s—while the case is, like everyone else’s, empty, or the pupa is dead. It is possible to uncover one’s own character, by peeling away personality, and this in turn builds a new personality—our fascination with this is reflected in many a great story—but it is no more possible to bolt on a new characterful personality from the outside, through therapy, for example, or positive thinking, or life-style change, or, most ridiculously of all, deciding that ‘from now on I’m going to be honest (or friendly, or courageous, or interesting)’, than it is possible to become a concert cellist if one has never picked up an instrument, or give literal birth if one is a man. It may appear, in such cases, that the personality has changed, but a slap round the head and the mask flies off.


The natural subordination of personality to character means that the latter cannot be understood by the former, for to do so demands that no quantitative element from one’s own experience, no noetic concept or somatic percept, can be employed. Just as I must give up what I ‘know’ in order to experience who I am, so I must to know who you really are. In the first case—in the endeavour known as self-knowledge—because all-encompassing character is seen by personality as fragmented traits, there is no way of perceiving what these traits then have in common. That my restless lack of conscious attention might be connected with my obsessive nose-picking, attacks of paranoia and an inability to ever really get on with anyone, or the fact that I am continually betrayed and my needling feeling that something is lacking might both be connected with my bad dreams, frigidity and lock-checking mania; all such dot-drawing is impossible when there is nothing conscious to hold the pen or see the shape that forms.

Likewise, the character of other individuals can only be understood by letting go of the egoic urge to ‘know’ or ‘understand’ the various surface bits of them that reach my attention. That there are so few unique individuals on this earth that must be understood in this way—that most people can be understood by grasping their socio-economic background, their sexuality, their job, their haircut and their shoes—makes it not just difficult to practice such a skill, but actually painful. Try letting go of your emotions and desires, your concepts and percepts, and looking directly into the hearts of those around you. It’s very often like putting your head into a sewer.

Essence can only be experienced by essence; a communion which is, by virtue of its unselfish quality, direct. We call this transmission empathy; the source of morality. Your consciousness and mine are unselfish and therefore, ultimately, the same. As they manifest in character I experience your quality as my own, and wish your good as I would my own. I can even feel myself, in your company, becoming more like you, a rare pleasure for two characters, a complete impossibility for two personalities and a total agony for a character in the company of a personality, towards whom empathy brings suffering; and so mere sympathy (or care or pity)—trying to understand or learn who you are—must take its place.

Sympathy does have its place, for we all have personalties that, to come to know, do require effort, time, patience and all the other things that we’re told we need to live with people. Coming to know personality also requires explicit instruction. Unlike my direct experience of your character, which naturally shows itself, you have to tell me you don’t like aubergines, or your ears being nibbled, or I’ll dissatisfy you. I need to ask you about your past, your pleasures and your pains, and care about the answer. From egoic personalities, there’s nothing but answers, and so it’s a waste of time listening to their opinions, beliefs, anecdotes, likes, dislikes, complaints, memories, fears and desires—and, oh Lord, they are many—but for personalities which manifest character, a charming journey through personality unfolds—not free of dangerous chasms and stagnant ponds—but worth taking; even if, after ten minutes together, or sixty years, we never leave the place we first met. For all I was ever really saying, and all you ever really heard, was my character.


Where character communes instantly, or directly, personality must use techniques and tricks to communicate with other people, because it is effectively imprisoned in its own representation. Just as it has to ‘understand’ other people, and ‘learn’ who they are, so it has to reach across to others via method. There are several consequences to this:

i. conversations with personalities can feel like interrogations. They begin with a sense of, ‘oh, this might go somewhere interesting’, but it’s just question after question after question, nothing developed or ever really shared, while, the whole time, you get the feeling that your answers aren’t really being listened to, as the interrogator is just thinking of the next question to ask. Some conversations feel like talking with a sophisticated computer; all language, no meaning, everything taken at face value, no shared under-truth, and so no way to play with its form, all gestures beyond the literal meaning of what we are talking about—metaphor, comedy, implication, irony—hitting a wall. In fact, talking with the literal ego is far worse than talking to a wall; at least things bounce back from walls. Still other conversations feel more like listening to a daytime radio soap opera that you can’t escape from. Conversations with such people, like sex with them, become enhanced masturbation, like giving yourself a dead arm so you can use it to pretend someone else is feeling you up. Egos do little more than share likes and dislikes, fears and desires, memories, facts and theories. They learn that they cannot speak unless they allow others to speak, so they patiently wait until you are done, offering the requisite number of head-nods and uh-huhs—possibly a functional question or comment—before cutting through you and launching into a self-gratifying monologue which you are expected to endure in the same manner.

ii. Conscious selves care about those who are listening to them. They continually check, directly and indirectly, to see if you find the conversation interesting. Not just once or twice, but over and over again, always adapting. Egos do not. They either indiscriminately pour words over their listeners, without caring what’s going on inside them, or they passively withdraw from the interaction, having learnt that this is what conversation entails, being an audience member for second-rate tribute acts.

iii. Ego is socially inept, and inapt. It has no social graces, it doesn’t know what to say, or what to do, or how to hold itself, and either relies on a laughably fake series of conversational routines or it hides behind its shyness, its fame or its classic bone structure. There is, in the egoic group interaction, no passive awareness of non-participants, no stopping the train of information or anecdote to welcome a new passenger, no checking to see who is not participating in a conversation and whether the topic should be changed so that they can, no social sensitivity whatsoever. Or there is, if the group is made up of hyper-sensitive masochistic selves, no-one willing to take charge, change the channel of communication entirely or flat out entertain us.

iv. Ego cannot concentrate. Fuelled by restless emotion it skids over the surface of language, looking for anything it can get, or anything which might threaten it, both of which stick out from the flow of speech (or text) like flashing signposts saying ‘one way only!’ ‘sale now on!’ ‘click here!’ Any idea in a conversation which points off piste, into the unknown, and any meaning which requires time and patience to reach, are invisible to ego, as are the tonal shifts, play of expression and, above all, silences that breathe through meaningful exchange as air passes through a room, making it habitable. For ego all is solid and graspable, yet, founded on the ever shifting sand of emotion, uncertain, confusing and forever on the edge of collapse. Talking with extremely emotional people is like trying to swat a fly in a thunderstorm; in order to get across an idea it needs to be brief, self-contained, emphatic and shoved into their minds while the light is on, because it’s not on for long.

v. Conscious conversation is conducted in an atmosphere of contextual awareness, sensitive to where the river of meaning is taking us, guiding it here and there, sometimes even damning it or driving it over a cliff, but essentially egoless, allowing the natural flow to take us somewhere else. Egoic conversation is more like a plane trip; strap yourself into an antiseptic tank for an hour or two before landing somewhere identical to the place you left.

vi. Conscious conversation is like a game of tennis between two pros; a range of powerful baseline strokes, delicate drop-shots, lobs, volleys and smashes. Egoic conversation is more like two people firing cannons at each other.
The default state of ego is a bored, tense, aggressive or dead expression; the resting hate-face of the armoured woman, the empty-eyed lassitude of the distracted man. These are permitted with underlings, who can stare straight into the void, but strong feelings, being selfish, are suppressed in the presence of power or in the company of those from whom ego stands to get something. In their place the face broadcasts a crude series of flag-waving approval-signals; ‘oh wo-ow! really!?’ and ‘uh-huh-uh-huh, so fascinating’ and ‘oh my God that’s hilarious!’ Not so much participating in a conversation as twiddling whatever knobs are most likely to win a jackpot. After a lifetime of this kind of conversation, the face resembles a sack of potatoes with a clown’s face painted on it.

vii. There is the curious sense, when talking to a personality, that you are not really talking to a human being at all, but to a projection, as if the words and gestures and facial expressions are being operated by a homunculus sitting in the control room of the mind. Smile now, pull the ‘amazed’ lever, press the ‘worked-up and indignant’ button… until its attention wanders and it turns on the autopilot so it can go off into the television room, leaving a face before you working away by itself, but with nobody at the controls. This is registered first of all as appearance or expression, and then, over time, as the armoured facial features of the personality armour. We call this physiognomy.

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