On Character: Can We Know the Dancer From the Dance?

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

WB Yeats: Among School Children

The Sutton Trust report A Winning Personality identified:

…extraversion (sociability, confidence, assertiveness), self-esteem, and a positive outlook as particularly beneficial for career success, and an external locus of control (a belief that one’s successes and failures are outside one’s control) to be particularly detrimental.

By examining data from the BBC ‘Big Personality Test’ they decided that:

… highly extraverted people – those who were more confident, sociable or assertive – had a 25% higher chance of being in a high-earning job (over £40,000 per year), with the odds being higher for men than women. We also found that people who scored high for conscientiousness (thoroughness, and a preference for planning and order) had approximately a 20% higher chance of having a high-paying job.

If only everyone danced the dance of the extravert, then all would be successful. If only the poor had big egos then all would be right with the world. But is it the dance of extraversion that makes a successful dancer? Could it be a character trait the successful develop when they look in their mirror: ‘Oh, look at me I’m great…’

Or is this another example of scientism? Science venturing into areas it is ill equipped to deal with.

Nietzsche talked of the ego as belonging to the master mentality rather than the slave morality. He thought Christian values were responsible for a slave morality where all men had the same worth. These slave values, based on envy, were doing a disservice to mankind by championing values of generosity and care for the weak. Nietzsche championed the virtues  of the powerful, the ‘Übermensch’; he thought the master mentality included the imagination, he admired the artistic spirit of Shakespeare, Goethe, Wagner (until they fell out) these figures were: daring, curious, creative and brave and had, what Nietzsche called a ‘will to power’:

My idea is that every specific body strives to become master over all space and to extend its force (its will to power): and to thrust back all that resists its extension. 

…my Dionysian world of the eternally self-creating, the eternally self-destroying, this mystery world of the twofold voluptuous delight, my ‘beyond good and evil,’ without goal, unless the joy of the circle is itself a goal; without will, unless a ring feels good will toward itself— do you want a name for this world? A solution for all of its riddles? A light for you, too, you best-concealed, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly men?— This world is the will to power—and nothing besides! And you yourselves are also this will to power—and nothing besides!”

Nietzsche asks us to live! He sees values as created by man: we are free to choose whatever values we want to have it is this that enables us to be free…. God is dead  but what is a full life in a Godless world? Living your life as if it might be lived again and again. Nietzsche saw man as a process of overcoming conflicts within himself to surpass and become a tragic but noble hero. The Übermensch were both creator and created, they were both dancer and the dance and the next step in man’s development.

Nietzsche saw the need for the elimination of the weak by the strong, a need to replace the stupid with the clever. Some contemporary educationalists delight in this self same idea, instead of indulging the morality of the slave and the values of compassion, the trait of ‘introversion’, and maybe a pessimistic mood, they seem to delight in wanting to seek the stamping out of ‘weakness’ by getting kids to adopt a changing mindset and the character traits of extroverted, confident, assertive optimists.

I must admit that Nietzsche’s list is far more attractive than that of the Sutton Trust, but in a Godless universe in which we can, and must, make our own values the Übermensch can write their own lists but our contemporary lists don’t seem to be about improving the lot of man. Rather than being free our second rate Übermensch need to delight in just earning a spit over £40,000 a year and remain slaves to the workplace. This is hardly the lot of tragic noble heroes. This dance is choreographed by the unimaginative: instead of stamping out the weak, we teach that those that earn below £40,000 do so due to their character flaws and even though teachers have done their best to point these flaws out to them, they clearly have the wrong mindset, poor fools. Mind you how many teachers earn below £40,000 a year?

If you kill God and replace Him with the marketplace, believe character is a measurable quantity and think that all the meek have to do is to dance the same dance as those that wear the smartest suits,  you miss the point. These are not the Übermensch. The cult of scientism seems to think some people are successful due to rather dull character traits. Can success on earth really be attained by dancing this dance? Nietzsche would have recognised that the dance and the dancer are one and the same and in order to join the Übermensch we would have to say NO to the values written for us by the Sutton Trust. Instead we should become the Übermensch by overcoming our burdens, wandering in solitude and roaring at those who step in our way and finally freeing ourselves, childlike to dance our own dances: becoming at once the dancer and the dance, in our circular heaven on earth.

But truly, to celebrate humanity in all its majesty we must celebrate all, both weak and strong, and appreciate our fellow human beings for what they bring to us, not bully them into acquiring the ‘winning personalities’ of estate agents, double glazing salesman and drama teachers due to some dubious science. There are many dances and dancers on the best dance floors.

And we make ourselves stronger by not believing the ultimate worth of man is travelling the tube to another dreary day of servitude in the hope we can all squeeze past £40,000 per annum.






10 thoughts on “On Character: Can We Know the Dancer From the Dance?

  1. Totally agree with your conclusion, however do think that developing a mindset which enables you to be confident in working for and towards being a “happy under 40,000er” is vital in this mad world.


  2. “If you kill God and replace Him with the marketplace”

    You are starting to scare me now. All I was trying to do was to try to boost little Jimmy’s self confidence by helping him with some ideas about how to present his ideas to the class in a more confident way. He did this and has become more confident in school. His folks even tell me that he is more confident at home too and has started to do more stuff in his free time.

    If I had realised I was “killing God” or even “replacing him with the marketplace” I probably would have thought twice.

    On reflection I am glad I didn’t.

    The idea that helping young people to develop in order that they might be more successful, including financially might be killing God would I think have him turning in his grave.

    I hope I haven’t misunderstood the thrust of your post.

    Convincing people that there is more to life than money is what capitalists do in order to make more money. We should encourage all kids to aspire to be capitalists, after that privilege of birth is only 99% of the thing.


  3. Hi Brian
    I’m interested in your thoughts here.
    I may be missing your point (and Martin’s!), but isn’t the issue rather, or isn’t Martin’s point, the danger of extracting ‘confidence’ as a thing? The danger of removing it from all that sustains it?

    A pupil becomes really confident, for example, when they really know their material, when they can link it up with further background knowledge, with such facility and fluency that they are almost unaware of it, when they can therefore see connections and contrasts and so have something to say. They are confident when they feel the thrill of embodied knowledge – that combination of muscle memory, technical knowledge, aesthetic sensitivity and wider informed listening to rich repertoire – that makes them play an instrument well, or hear other players in their ensemble with new ears. They grow in confidence when they feel the power of knowledge (in these broad senses) which BOTH gives them extraordinary new communicative power, as their very language meets so many others in its cultural references, AND makes them realise they’ve now made that knowledge uniquely their own.
    The dancer and dance metaphor seems to me to capture such a thesis well. What do you think.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’d recommend Susan Cain’s excellent work, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking as a supplement to what Martin is saying. Taking things further than him, I’d also suggest some Hannah Arendt–her collection of essays published as Responsibility and Judgment are very influential on me. In a nutshell, one can link the individualistic, extroverted push (aided and abetted by the libertarianism of our ed tech companies) towards a less thinking society. Less thinking means less morality, according to Arendt (building on Kant), thus providing us with more Eichmanns…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am concerned about how the modern society’s view of introverts as somehow lacking or defective will have terrible consequences eventually. I have also read Susan Cain’s work and have the utmost reverence and respect for my fellow introverts because they are life’s thinkers. It will be a thinking, introverted person who one day cures cancer, not a gobby extrovert who likes to talk themselves up in public.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I concur with your sentiments, but in defence of Science, it may be scientism, but it’s not the case that “Science [is] venturing into areas it is ill equipped to deal with.” Quite the opposite. Science is our way, to paraphrase Feynman, of not fooling ourselves. Statistics are not injunctions. Now for a correlation between extroversion and sociopathy…


    1. In any case the definition of “extroversion (sociability, confidence, assertiveness)” is completely wrong. Lots of “introverts” are confident and assertive. They just do it quietly (and don’t want lots of people around, in general). Many people are loudly assertive to cover up their lack of confidence.

      The pessimist-optimist spectrum is also orthogonal to extrovert-introvert. I’m an extremely optimistic moderate introvert (in as much as these words mean anything.) And we’ve all met the loud in-your-face doomsayer, who won’t shut up about how everything is going to the dogs.

      So their definition is all wrong, even by their own terms. What they mean by “extroverted” seems to me to be actually “openly buys into the modern in-your-face way of living”. Many of us are opposed to that, and most certainly will refuse to teach it as a norm. (Quietly, of course.)

      I do think, however, that the locus of control thing has a point. The hardest students to teach are those that think their future is outside their control. They see little point in learning, since it won’t make any difference, and collapse if anything doesn’t go their way. This, not “grit”, with which it is hopelessly confused, is an issue for a lot of students.

      But we can’t teach it away, except by example.

      Liked by 1 person

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