Character Training: From Solomon to Erasmus

There’s never been a civilised society that didn’t train its subjects to abide by a code of ethical behaviour. This regime of moral instruction and folk philosophy has traditionally been transmitted through collections of adages and wise saws. Solomon, the king of Israel, was noted for his wisdom, which he passed down to his kinsmen in a series of maxims which form what we know today as the Old Testament book of Proverbs. Many of these instructions are as valid today as they were at the time of their writing nearly three thousand years ago. These include: “A man without self-control is as defenceless as a city with broken-down walls.” Similar messages of inspiration were provided a millennium later by Confucius, who handed down a collection of ‘Analects’ which encouraged his fellow countrymen to act with moderation and dignity. One of these precepts was: “What you don’t want done to yourself, do not do to others,” a saying which was adopted by so many different cultures across the globe that it became known as the ‘Golden Rule’. After that came the Apophthegmata Patrum, or “Sayings of the Desert Fathers”, which were the words of wisdom offered to the youngsters who sat at the feet of the Christian hermits living in the Egyptian desert during the 5th century AD. Three centuries later people treasured the maxims garnered by Jesus ben Sirach, better known by his Old Testament name of Ecclesiasticus. These include: “There is no new thing under the sun” and “Better is a poor and wise child than an old and foolish king.” The task of putting this multitude of epigrams into some sort of order was the life time work of Erasmus, the Dutch humanist philosopher who worked at the height of the European Renaissance. He collected and published an Adagia, which by the time of his death contained 4,151 separate maxims, including “Make haste slowly”, “What’s done cannot be undone” and “God helps those who help themselves.”
One thing is clear from even a cursory study of these eons of humanist scholarship: that character training must begin at an early age if it is to be effective. This was recognized by St Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who famously said: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” This had also been the conviction of the Sophists in ancient Greece, who had no doubt that human ‘excellence’ was not an accident of fate or a prerogative of noble birth, but an art that could be taught. This is the one of the primary tasks of parents and grandparents more so than that of teachers, for education is far more than the teaching of reading and writing. This was stressed by Anthony Seldon during his days as headmaster of Wellington School, when he set out to imbue his pupils with five core attitudes – courage, integrity, kindness, respect and responsibility. As he said in a public lecture: “The development of good character is more important than examination success.” One of the finest ways of conducting this training is by teaching children adages from the earliest possible age, so that worthy conduct becomes their default setting. This is in keeping with the teaching of Bishop Westcott who said “Sow a thought and you reap an act. Sow an act and you reap a habit. Sow a habit, and you reap a character. Sow a character and you reap a destiny. With this aim in mind a new collection of over two hundred adages has been compiled. The collection is suitable for the digital age, for each adage is less than 120 words long, which means it can easily be sent by text message or through Twitter. They can be accessed every week by visiting Here is the first:

“Do What You Love and Love What You Do”

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