National character: exploring the virtue of honesty


Before we dwell on honesty the virtue we explore in this entry, let us revisit the matter of character this time related not to the nation but to leaders and to governance.

According to Warren Bennis, character is about personal drive, determination, self-discipline and willpower developing through conscientious adherence to moral values. Character it is ethics in action!

William Bennet, on the other hand, argues that it is character that supports and promises the future of nations much more than government programmes or politics.


But how does character develop?

Hellen Keller, as do many experts, says character cannot develop in ease and quiet; only through trial and suffering is the soul strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.

How so true when one reflects on Nelson Mandela’s nobility of character, the sacrifice of Mahatma Gandhi, the resilience of Winston Churchill or the servile humility of Mother Teresa!


There are traits of character which leaders in every situation should possess, among them wisdom epitomised by maturity of judgment; moral courage to decide and admonish and temperance in dealing with other people.

But courage should come with humanity, humanness, uMunthu or else it degenerates into violent intemperate behaviour. Leaders with character are humble enough to accept fault, to forgive and to learn from failure. They exercise justice in how they decide and relate with all manner of people, strong or weak, rich or poor.

Past leaders themselves exalt character as being fundamental to all forms of leadership. Calvin Coolidge once said “character is the only secure foundation for both good leadership and the State”.

Character fears not the consequences of the right action. Lord Milner says “if a leader believe that a thing is bad and if they have the right to prevent, it is their duty to prevent it and damn the consequences”.

While broad issues of personal character are vital and expected in times of reform such as Malawi is passing through the major value for the people of Malawi to cultivate is honesty, the virtue of being truthful.

Our nation is besieged by dishonesty. Far too many Malawians are pathological liars, literally surviving on half-truths and untruths. Far too many youth celebrate and exploit dishonesty and yet far too few families have the moral motivation to tackle dishonesty in their children.

Worse, too many a leader lies and misinforms without compunction, without shame. But as Bernard Shaw points out, the more things a man is ashamed of the more responsible he becomes.

I believe it is Thomas Jefferson who said honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. On becoming first President of US George Washington prayed: “I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue to maintain what I consider the most enviable of title, the character of an honest man” and to President Gerald Ford “truth is the glue that holds government — and I dare add people — together”.

There is nothing nobler expected of leaders and citizens alike than to defend truth with honest diligence. In the words of James Merkel “the absence of honesty is a great liability to an individual, to government or to business”.

The plain truth is that honesty is critical to the moral fibre of very individual; it is from honesty that so many other desirable virtues spring forth, advises Betsy Brown Braun. And there is a lot to gain!

Honesty liberates, it sets people free, as honest people fear neither the light nor the dark. Honesty leads. One German proverb declares “a clean mouth and an honest hand will take a man through any land”.

Honesty not only builds people but whole nations and societies too; the spirit of truth and the spirit of freedom are the pillars of any society. Honesty, says Oprah Winfrey, allows one to live with integrity.

Through honesty comes success. Successful cultured people express their true feelings and attitudes. They have no need for pretences or distortions. After all truth never damages a just cause — so what is there to fear?

But honesty is not just in speech or deeds. Mahatma Gandhi says to believe in something and not live it is dishonest and yet that’s what thousands do. They have condemned vices without discarding them themselves. The case of preacher of salvation by day, serpent under darkness!

People lose their honesty just to be politically correct; to massage the fickle egos of insecure people; to feel comfortable. They basically lie because of fear and opportunism. On fear and lying John Gotti, a world famous gangster, once challenged: “I never lie because I don’t fear anyone. You lie when you are afraid.”

There is only self-deception and moral destruction in dishonesty. Lies get people into trouble, observes David Huddleston, but honesty is its own defence. No man has a good enough memory to make a successful liar, but the greatest advantage of speaking the truth is that one doesn’t have to remember what one said.

Truth is spontaneous, lies have to be invented and then gag the master’s conscience, if there’s any left. The truth doesn’t have to be created because it exists in its own right. Therefore truth cannot be crushed for it resurrects with time. Truth is as indestructible as it is un-concealable.

Martin Luther King provides a succinct summary when he says “if we are to move forward, we must go back and re-discover those precious values — that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that reality has spiritual control”.

Malawi needs honest citizens who won’t hide their deeds or become touchy on matters of trustworthiness. As Cromwell says a few honest men are better than numbers. Malawi needs honest constant men who will remain standing when surrounded by evil people.

Malawi is under reform. Let us begin by committing ourselves to truth — to speak and live the truth with proud diligence for the good of Mother Malawi.

“No legacy is as rich as honesty”, declares William Shakespeare.

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