“Well, he has a great personality.”
At one time or another, we have all been in that situation. A friend asks you about another person and you try your best to come up with something nice to say. This back handed compliment is one that we liberally give to others but you certainly never want to receive yourself. But why not?
One could certainly say this aversion to the compliment of one’s personality is due to modern man’s limitation of attraction to the merely physical realm. But, I think it reaches further than that. The modern understanding of personality is really what gives this compliment such a negative connotation. Amidst a plethora of personality tests, we have allowed personality to be rigidly defined in hopes of total self-knowledge. We restrict the backbone of the person often into four letters of a Myers-Briggs test, two words for their temperament, and so on. We seek to define ourselves and others in terms easy to understand and fit into. I am not trying to say all personality tests are bad. There are situations when these tests can be quite beneficial. What is dangerous is that we abandon our individuality for socially constructed definitions. Who wants to be as simple as a textbook definition? Our fulfillment as individuals cannot be in these group stereotypes but only in an individual understanding and appreciation of our own personality.
A definition I find more integral in its understanding is that presented by Dietrich von Hildebrand in his book “Liturgy and Personality”. He says, “A personality in the true sense of the word is the man who rises above the average only because he fully realizes the classical human attitudes, because he knows more deeply and originally than the average man, loves more profoundly and authentically, wills more clearly and correctly than the others, makes full use of his freedom; in a word- the complete, profound, true man” (20). That definition is well-worth being read twice for its abstract and profound character. To Hildebrand, to say someone has a great personality means much more than they have no attractive physical attributes as it does in the modern conversation. Rather, to have a great personality means to be fully alive in one’s humanity. From this point, Hildebrand works to break down what exactly this means.
Evaluating this idea of personality first in a negative sense Hildebrand says, “The average man, the inoffensive, colorless, ordinary man without a clearly expressed individuality is not a personality” (19). Having a personality does not mean to merely go with the status quo. It means to come alive to receive and defend values. To this defending and receiving only an individual can respond for their self. Thus, the person must be content with their own individuality within society. Someone with a personality sacrifices any humiliation and shame that may come with fulfilling their individual call to respond to truth, beauty, and goodness.
The next mark of personality for Hildebrand is acting out of freedom. This is not the modern notion of freedom often understood as license, that is to be able to do whatever you want. Rather, this freedom is one that allows the person to choose good without reserve or enslavement to one’s appetites. Hildebrand says of the person having a personality, “A person is a being who ‘possesses himself’, who does not simply exist but who actively achieves his being, and has the power to choose freely” (19). This does not include the person that impulsively asserts himself over others out of fear of not being seen or trivialized or the person who remains inactive amidst the chance for greatness. Rather, this man reaches outside of himself to those transcendents: to that which promises him fulfillment. The man who fully possesses himself can experience truth, beauty, and goodness in a wholly receptive and present manner. This reception then shapes him into a personality.
Finally, Hildebrand says the man that has truly flourished to the point of having this personality possesses a unity of style. By this he means, “rare harmony between the inner and the outer being in those men whose speech, expression, movements, external style of life are organically molded by their inner attitudes” (23). What happens in the heart of this person transfers to the exterior with organic authenticity. This person does not “fake it” to create a faux self-image but rather naturally reflects his or her interior life. To this, I think of the mother so overwhelmed with love of her child that she cannot help but kiss his sweet face. Or, the viewer of nature who cannot help but gasp in awe. Personality brings with it an incredible ease in the connection between one’s internal and external lives.
This harmony is certainly very attractive. Who does not want to be able to trust another’s exterior intentions and motives as pure? But Hildebrand says there is a qualification of this unity still, it “must be the expression of the true, authentic atmosphere of a life rooted in the metaphysical situation of man, of an attitude open to value and responding to value, and permeated by the supernatural world” (23). Thus, someone who displays their reservation to values and closed off nature does not meet this virtuous unity of style common to those who possess a personality. It excludes the person who cannot help but gossip in spite of their neighbors or who fills up with rage to the degree that they are physically violent. The person of personality reacts to the world in freedom, responding to what is good.
With these marks of personality in mind, I find it very hard to be offended by the compliment of having a great personality. In reality, I find it to be the most attractive of qualities a person can possess. There is nothing backhanded about complimenting someone on this basis of personality as someone who is fully alive and able to respond to values with this unique unity of style. I think what is most tragic in this situation is not how many people we give this compliment to but how so few people possess this personality. As I read Hildebrand, I found so many ways in which I am lacking on these fronts and even had a hard time thinking of others who possessed these characteristics. In its scarcity, personality becomes all the more attractive and important. After all, it is only the true personality that finds fulfillment of their humanity.