The immense importance of personal character is a subject which does not enough draw the attention of individuals or society, yet it is to the power of gaining influence, what the root is to the tree,—the soul to the body. It is doubtful if any of us can be acquainted with the infinitely minute ramifications into which this all-pervading influence extends. A slight survey of society will enable us, in some degree, to judge of it. There are individuals who, by the sole force of personal character, seem to render wise, better, more elevated, all with whom they come in contact. Others, again, stand in the midst of the society in which they are placed, a moral upas, poisoning the atmosphere around them, so that no virtue can come within their shadow and live. Family virtues descend with family estates, and hereditary vices are hardly compensated for by hereditary possessions. The characters of the junior members of a family are often only reflections or modifications of those of the elder. Families retain for generations peculiarities of temper and character. The Catos were all stern, upright, inflexible; the Guises proud and haughty at the heart, though irresistibly popular and fascinating in manner. We see the influence which men, exalted and powerful, exert on their age, and on society; it is difficult to believe that a similar influence is exerted by every individual man and woman, however limited his or her sphere of life: the force of the torrent is easily calculated,—that of the under-current is hidden, yet its existence and power are no less actual.
This truth opens to the conscientious a field of duty not enough cultivated. The improvement of individual character has been too much regarded as a matter of personal concern, a duty to ourselves,—to our immediate relations perhaps, but to no others,—a matter affecting out individual happiness here, and our individual safety hereafter! This is taking a very narrow view of a very extended subject. The work of individual self-formation is a duty, not only to ourselves and our families, but to our fellow-creatures at large; it is the best and most certainly beneficial exercise of philanthropy. It is not, it is true, very flattering to self-love to be told, that instead of mending the world, (the mania of the present day,) the best service which we can do that world is to mend ourselves. “If each mends one, all will be mended,” says the old English adage, with the deep wisdom of those popular sayings,—a wisdom amply corroborated by the unsettled principles and defective practice of too many of the self-elected reformers of society.