Heraclitus meets Shakespeare: Character is Destiny and The Past is Prologue

Heraclitus, ca. 500 BCE (image public domain)

By Walter A Borden, M.D. –

“Character is destiny”, simple, enigmatic, written by the Pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus in the 6th to 5th century BCE. It is a powerful message for all peoples, a message for then—and now. The ancient Greek word for character was Ethos, meaning ideals, but derived from and related to customs and morality. One word with a depth of meanings reflects a sophisticated psychological understanding of human nature 2500 years ahead of his time. There is still much to learn about “character”. 

The term character is not personality. “Personality” refers to behavioral traits, ways of expressing feelings and thoughts, all of which may tell us something about the person, but which can be deceptive. It is well to keep in mind that the origin of the word personality comes from the Latin persona, a theatrical mask that served to express a role rather than real identity. Heraclitus also said “nature hides”, meaning appearance can be misleading, the real nature is deeper. Some persons project a wished for “personality” or role to the public.  Character is another matter.

During antiquity, mythology and the supernatural was the popular understanding of nature’s fluctuations. Heraclitus, however, reflected his neighbor, Thales of Miletus’ scientific bent applying the revolutionary concepts of natural law to human nature. Thales proposed that storms, tides, weather and natural disasters were neither chaotic nor due to the gods’ distemper. Thales said that true understanding of nature could only come from realizing that nature had underlying laws. To Heraclitus, character referred to deeper psychological laws that shape a life. He equated character with personhood. 

At the heart of personhood are the beliefs and values held dear that direct the nature of choices, not by chance but spring from the heart. Over time, the choices become a pattern of behavior. We can think of repeating patterns as themes and have come to identify and name themes as character.  The life course of a person comes from within the person, his/hers values and how they are lived through daily choices. That determines the nature of a life. There is no fate.   

Anticipating the consequences of our choices is also part of character. The context of any one choice can be complicated, and results not always foreseen. As an example, the American founding fathers had to make a choice about slavery when creating our Constitution. They believed they had to choose between one nation, or a split into two, one free, the other slaveholding. They chose inaction, just shutting their eyes to the disturbing humanitarian issues, and left them to future generations to resolve. They chose on the basis of a glorified sense of humanity, that future generations could and would solve slavery’s after math.  They also chose on the basis of greed, tribalism, and racial-caste, three wounds that continue to fester. Can we as a nation now face these wounds and do the hard work to heal? That takes empathy, courage, and resolve. The jury is still out. 

Who and what we are, character, is formed by daily living, not the result of grand actions. A “good enough”, character takes time and patience to create, step by step, day by day, week by week, month by month. There are no shortcuts, and missteps are bound to occur. Add patience to the list of requirements. What we do is who we are. It takes effort and courage to really face inner feelings, to know thyself and the impact our choices have on others. The two essential ingredients are empathy and respect. Both are double edged swords. Much as in a dyad relationship it takes work. Relationship is often the medium in which character can grow or fade. The past as prologue and character meet when we look at the developmental history of character. The history of the child-parental-community relationship tells the story.

 In college, I learned the importance of history to understand our civilization and culture. In medical school, I learned the importance of the medical history. Illness, too, has a developmental process. History is prologue holds true. Hippocrates said it is just as important to understand, know, the person who carries the disease as to know the disease. As character develops over time, this is often expressed in a relationship history. One way of understanding a character is a detailed relationship history. Character issues tend to get acted out in personal relationships.                             

Human nature endows us with at least the potential for deeply held values that bubble up through our psyche and confront situations that challenge those values. We then choose, character being the theme of our choices. The history of our day by day actions (or inactions), and the consistency with which we hold to our theme is character.  

Biological evolution can be witnessed in the embryo as a map of our biological development. We can start at the end of the map, trace back and come to an understanding of how we began’and, following the map forward, evolved. 

Psychological development is analogous, starting with an internal genetically determined structure, and then influenced by a variety of external factors over a lifetime. 

Social and cultural development, what we call civilization, is analogous. The history of civilization is social evolution, a roller coaster of an historical map. If we paid attention to that map we might learn about obstacles and how to prevent repeating problems. 

Embryology, evolution, and history have a common conceptual core: The history of a tree begins with the seed, as does the embryo. History, too, has seeds. Discoveries of agriculture, writing, printing press, of dynamite, the wheel, the internet are examples. In nature, causative factors in one stage leads to the next. This is development, evolution, history. While “destiny” implies a pre-ordained fate, Heraclitus, like other scientifically minded natural philosophers, believed the idea of predetermined fate was myth.

Shakespeare – J. Swaine engraving, image in public domain

The phrase “The past is prologue” comes from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Act 2, Scene I. Antonio uses it to suggest that all that has happened before that time, the “past,” has led Sebastian and himself to this opportunity to do what they are about to do: commit murder. Shakespeare was not the first to articulate historical causation. That goes back to antiquity, of causative linkages over time. The tragic theatre device of the trilogy, three plays thematically linked setting the stage for the next play, constitutes dramatization of history. As Robert Fagles, translator (Aeschylus, TheOresteia, Penguin Classics,1977) said, “the Oresteia is our rite of passage from savagery to civilization”, interpreting the Oresteia as a history of the development of democratic justice. 

The Harper Magazine article by Wyatt Mason, ‘”You are Not Alone Across Time: Using Sophocles to Treat PTSD,” describes the use of Greek tragedy to treat the trauma of military combat. This is part of “The Theatre of War”, a five-year Pentagon-sponsored program initiated by Bryan Doerries that has staged more than 250 dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Ajax or Philoctetes at military installations and veterans groups all over the world. These plays echo the rage, agony, grief and terror that smolders in the unconscious minds of witnesses to combat tragedy, connecting repressed emotion with the memory of the event that brought it about.  Tragedy is rehabilitation through catharsis. When an audience of veterans witness tragic drama, there is emotional resonance, identifying with the actors, frozen emotion is thawed, exhumed, allowed to be felt, suffering is given expression, an outlet. These tragedies are excellent examples of “history is prologue”, and served basic psychological needs. Whether in an individual or a people, pain needs to cry out in order to begin healing.

The psychological consequences of trauma are not confined to physical trauma or combat. Our culture has difficulty accepting psychology where emotions are involved. I sometimes think our culture is made of concrete. It seems there has to be bullets, bombs, blood on the floor broken bones or bruising to qualify as traumatic. Emotional abuse is much more easily hidden; words hurt, damage, may not leave visible scars, but the psychological impact can be devastating. Humiliation, abandonment, rejection, betrayal leave deep emotional scars. Yes, nature hides.

Our cultural blind-spot to emotion may explain why it has taken so long to realize that being a witness to other’s trauma has such a meaning full effect. This occurs in military combat, but also in domestic combat where child witnesses are also victims

There is also the trauma of grief. Unfortunately, our culture seems to have a blind spot about the strength of loss on mind-body. Grief has been and remains a major cause of emotional pain, mental illness, acting out, from suicide to homicide, and a variety of bio-psycho-social expressions. 

There is controversy about the relationship of Shakespeare and Greek ancient tragedy with some scholars pointing to direct connections and others claiming any connections to be coincidental. More relevant is a broader perspective considering periods of fundamental cultural upheaval resonating with prior such earthquakes triggering the human nature response of self-healing through tragic drama. It does seem like such eras bring forth worthy drama.

We are currently in a perfect storm of cultural earthquake with the aftershocks of slavery, racism, wars, and regression to primitive thinking with flourishing cults, anti-science, social injustice, climate change, and pandemic, desperately in need of healing. Half a million dead and counting  amounts to a massive burden of grief. Shakespeare et al., where are you?

Editor’s Note: Walter Borden, M.D. is a Distinguished Life Fellow, American Psychiatric Association; Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and Diplomate, American Board of Forensic Psychiatry.