21. Character Matters.

We’ve now spent 20 weeks defining the physical and cultural world 5,203 years ago, which is the setting for my novels in the epic Raising Up Pharaoh series. I’ll have much more to say along the same lines, but this would be a good time to pause and consider what it would be like to live in such an environment. Lots of people did. Uruk had more than 50,000 people living inside its walls. Who knows how many lived in surrounding villages and with outlying herds and flocks. And there were other large, contemporaneous cities in Mesopotamia housing similar numbers.

I’m not proposing a sterile, intellectual exercise. I intend to stimulate “the little grey cells,” as Mr. Poirot would say.  Little light is shed on the individual people of that ancient age by examining physical, political, philosophical, living, and other conditions from archaeological evidence alone. Perhaps we can discern some big egos in the monuments and steles, such as the self-congratulatory introduction to Hammurabi’s law code, and the rampaging of Gilgamesh.

But, we really don’t know whether people loved them or hated them. After all, the world was a harsh place away from the cities. The city rulers might be tyrants, but the huge city walls speak to something nasty outside the walls. In fact, we know precious little about any of these people. Even after writing began in 3rd millennium  Mesopotamia and Egypt, most of the records we have were produced by kings, generals, governors, traders, professional scribes, and very little else. It isn’t much different today. The only way the voice of everyman is heard is in novels.

 To write a novel, more than anything else—more than tense circumstances, exotic places, foods, attire, props—the author needs people. A story can be told about people, but if you want to hear a real story, there’s no better way than to be in the story with the characters—to hear them meet events and deal with issues, and reconcile their words and activities with their values.

People’s necessities 5,203 years ago were not much different than yours and mine. They needed to eat, drink, sleep, provide care for their families, and celebrate life. Most of them rose with the sun and worked as others did to meet their needs. A few, 2nd and 3rd watch soldiers, and bakers, might work irregular hours, or go to bed at dawn. These natural needs haven’t changed.

mesopotamian gods

Imprint of Mesopotamian Cylinder Seal of Goddess Inanna. Source.

Whatever they considered to be gods in their age, people valued behavior that they thought would please those gods. They feared retribution from those gods they had disrespected or maligned, and to receive benefits for loyalty to other gods. Man has always recognized that most of life’s circumstances are beyond his ability to control. That being so, he will always need gods to tilt those circumstances in his favor. This alignment with the deity has been a timeless value.


Imprint of Uruk Cylinder Seal. Fourth Millennium B.C. Source.

Nor have man’s needs for defense from other men changed. When a city or political entity is threatened with extermination, the public seeks a leader—not for the size of his body, the power of his intellect, the smoothness of his tongue, nor his political skills. The man who wins the confidence of others must serve them—not just talk a good line. He must be willing to lead from the front, risk everything he has to stand and fight, to protect them. Such a man must have antecedents by which the public knows that he will do what he tells them he will do, has no hidden agenda, and will not abandon them should the situation worsen. What do we call this personal trait, upon which a terrified people, staring into Death’s eyes, will bet their survival?

That word is “character.” There is no such thing as hidden character. If you haven’t seen it in the man, already know it’s genuine, then you can’t bet your family’s survival on it. You’re betting what you have seen in the man will be what you’ll get. You know—not hope—the man has it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I admit I much admire this word “character.” I was 2-years old, living in Washington D.C., when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941. My uncles went off to fly fighters and bombers, and man warships, and our nation and our allies defeated the allied Nazi Germany and Gekokujo Japan, in an all-out war concluded in 1945. Mainland Europe was in ruins. 60 million people were dead. WWII was barely over before the Cold War began between the U.S.-led NATO and their former ally, Stalinist Russia and its Soviet Union (USSR). Then China, whom we and our allies liberated from Japanese enslavement, in 1949 chose the road of communism under Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC). A year later, in 1950, the North Koreans invaded South Korea  and the United Nations counterattacked in the Korean War. In 1952, after General Dwight Eisenhower was elected President Eisenhower, the Korean War ended in an armistice separating North Korea and South Korea by a Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). About 3 million were killed. In 1956, the Suez Crisis started. War was all I knew.


Gen. Eisenhower with U.S. paratroopers of the 502d Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division on June 5, 1944. Source.

In 1957, certain that the Cold War was a long-term, existential threat to the constitutional liberties of my countrymen (USA) and our allies, I wanted to do my part. Upon graduating high school, I signed a 6-year contract to put my life at the disposal of the U. S. Marines to protect my country. After 3 years active duty, most importantly to me in West and East Asia, I went into the reserves and off to a university. I was blessed to serve my active duty years under President Eisenhower, as nobody doubted what he’d do if war started on his watch. Everybody knew Ike’s character. His life history was pretty much an open book to the world. He was strong and honest.


George Washington Praying at Valley Forge. Source.

I view Dwight Eisenhower and George Washington as exemplars of the word “character.” Neither was ostentatious, narcissistic, or dishonest. Rather, they were unpretentious, outgoing, and authentic. They had these virtues for a long time before they were called by their people to counterattack an existential threat. My novel series, Raising Up Pharaoh, requires a man who shares these traits. His name is Patros. As with those two, Patros meets the challenge of his age with diligence, not with ego. As with those other two, other people raise him up.

Character does matter.

2 Responses

  1. Marilyn Janus
    Marilyn Janus at |

    Any reassessment of leadership must include two other words: “charisma,” (similar sounding, but not similar to) and politics. If we are fortunate, men like Washington and Eisenhower combine the best of all three qualities. Make no mistake, though, Washing and Ike were both charismatic, and politicians through and through. In fact, being coalition military leaders, they were politicians long before they sought political office. In the history of the world, they were also exceptions. More times than not, we’re trading off strengths and weaknesses and making the best choices we can. I submit that those who are political and charismatic can be expert in hiding their true character, which doesn’t help.


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