Pondering the meaning of character one evening, I stumbled upon the much quoted citation from George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Anne Evans) in her masterpiece The Mill on the Floss (1860): “Character is Destiny.” Curiosity getting the better of me, and knowing the exertion would prove effortless, I dug deeper to discover the full context of the quote. It revealed a wonderful irony. It also led to a deeper mystery.
Here’s what Mary Anne wrote:
“Character,” says Novalis, in one of his questionable aphorisms – “Character is Destiny.”
First, let’s get to the beautiful piece of irony. Ol’ Mary Anne apparently didn’t even like this whole “Character is Destiny” thing, calling it a “questionable aphorism” and all. So, seeing her name come up in a “character” quote search under the phrase “Character is Destiny” is simply delicious. Well, it’s yummy if that’s the sort of thing you eat up. I eat this sort of thing up.
“So,” I said to myself, “Who is this ‘Novalis’ guy and what compelled him to bespeak such a “questionable aphorism?”
A quick prance in the world of literature divulged the origin of Mary Anne’s citation. Novalis (whose real name was Friedrich von Hardenberg), wrote of character in his unfinished 1802 poem Heinrich von Ofterdingen. (Heinrich von Ofterdingen is fun to say out loud. Try it. At least once. Now, put a quarter in your eye and pretend you’re Colonel Klink. Fun, right?)
This is was Freddy said:
I often feel, and ever more deeply I realize, that fate and character are the same conception.
Which seals two important conclusions: 1) Germans are lousy poets (does anyone else conjure up the image of one of Douglas Adam’s Vogon?); and 2) Mary Anne was, at the very least, a very concise editor. I could see it now. She’s in her study whiling away the creative hours when she comes up “fate and character are the same conception” in an anthology of dead German poets. “An awfully questionable aphorism,” she muses in her perfect Victorian manner. “And much too wordy, to boot. Ah! ‘Character is destiny.’ I like the ring of that – such a wonderful bite of sound!” (Remember, sound bites weren’t invented until more than a hundred years later when night comics wanted to quickly lampoon a Reagan snippet).
Alas, while a good editor, Mary Anne apparently had a poor memory. The classically trained authoress undoubtedly had some familiarity with Heraclitus (whose real name was Ἡράκλειτος ὁ Ἐφέσιος, but enough of that). Christopher Stray notes her “novels draw heavily on Greek literature” (Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830–1960, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998). Surely, Mary Anne would have known this line from Heraclitus’ On the Universe:
A man’s character is his fate.
Again, it’s not as succinct as “Character is destiny,” but I’m sure if you put a couple creative linguists of Hellenic literature to work on it you’d get the appropriate translation. So, why in the name of all good things did she not properly attribute “character is destiny” to Heraclitus? Perhaps, being a fan of the Greek (Stray says “only one of her books can be printed correctly without the use of a Greek typeface”) she didn’t want to saddle a famed icon with the albatross of “questionable aphorism.”
But, this is all beside the point and fails to change my favorite “character” quote:
Football doesn’t build character, it reveals it.
– Marv Levy