True and false charisma

     The previous post on celebrity naturally leads to a discussion of true and false charisma.  True charisma is internal, it is intrinsic to the person and based on personality, while false charisma is external and based on persona.  

    Personality is natural: an individual's personality is expressed in almost anything he does, while a persona is an artificial construction.

    Here is an example from Tom Simon, quoting a passage from G.K. Chesterton's Autobiography

    "I can still remember old Yeats, [the father of the famous poet] that graceful greybeard, saying in an offhand way about the South African War, 'Mr. Joseph Chamberlain has the character, as he has the face, of the shrewish woman who ruins her husband by her extravagance; and Lord Salisbury has the character, as he has the face, of the man who is so ruined.'  That style, or swift construction of a complicated sentence, was the sign of a lucidity now largely lost.  You will find it in the most spontaneous explosions of Dr. Johnson.  Since then some muddled notion has arisen that talking in that complete style is artificial; merely because the man knows what he means and means to say it.  I know not from what nonesense world the notion first came; that there is some connection between being sincere and being semi-articulate.  But it seems to be a notion that a man must mean what he says, because he breaks down even in trying to say it; or that he must be a marvel of power and decision, because he discovers in the middle of a sentence that he does not know what he was going to say.  Hence the conversation of current comedy; and the pathetic belief that talk may be endless, so long as no statement is allowed to come to an end."

    The idea here is that Yeats pere and Johnson's eloquence was an expression of their own personality and understanding; they were speaking for themselves.  It is one thing if someone is naturally articulate, but what Chesterton is writing about here is inarticulateness as a persona, pretending to be overcome by emotion or pretending to be less fluent than one naturally is. 

    Another example would be Pythagoras.  There is a story of Pythagoras that he had traveled to Phonecia, near Mount Carmel.  A ship came by and Pythagoras asked if the sailors were going to Egypt.  They replied that they were and so he went aboard the ship.  The sailors then had the idea to sell Pythagoras into slavery when they got to Egypt.  But Pythagoras simply sat silently meditating without drinking or eating.  The sailors then worried they might have picked up a god and so decided not to sell Pythagoras into slavery.  When they got to Egypt, they fed him fruit and he simply walked away.  This story is taken from Iamblichus's Life of Pythagoras.  Other stories about Pythagoras also indicate that he was an impressive person, in his bearing and demeanor. 

    Bruce Charlton has discussed Charles Williams and Ralph Waldo Emerson, stating that their personal impact, the influence of meeting them personally was more influential than their writings.  Another Transcendentalist of whom this could be said is Bronson Alcott, who was, incidentally, a vegetarian because he wanted to emulate Pythagoras.  Here is what Thoreau had to say about Alcott in Walden

    "I should not forget that during my last winter at the pond there was another welcome visitor, who at one time came through the village, through snow and rain and darkness, till he saw my lamp through the trees, and shared with me some long winter evenings. One of the last of the philosophers,—Connecticut gave him to the world,—he peddled first her wares, afterwards, as he declares, his brains. These he peddles still, prompting God and disgracing man, bearing for fruit his brain only, like the nut its kernel. I think that he must be the man of the most faith of any alive. His words and attitude always suppose a better state of things than other men are acquainted with, and he will be the last man to be disappointed as the ages revolve. He has no venture in the present. But though comparatively disregarded now, when his day comes, laws unsuspected by most will take effect, and masters of families and rulers will come to him for advice.—

'How blind that cannot see serenity!'

A true friend of man; almost the only friend of human progress. An Old Mortality, say rather an Immortality, with unwearied patience and faith making plain the image engraven in men’s bodies, the God of whom they are but defaced and leaning monuments. With his hospitable intellect he embraces children, beggars, insane, and scholars, and entertains the thought of all, adding to it commonly some breadth and elegance. I think that he should keep a caravansary on the world’s highway, where philosophers of all nations might put up, and on his sign should be printed, “Entertainment for man, but not for his beast. Enter ye that have leisure and a quiet mind, who earnestly seek the right road.” He is perhaps the sanest man and has the fewest crotchets of any I chance to know; the same yesterday and tomorrow. Of yore we had sauntered and talked, and effectually put the world behind us; for he was pledged to no institution in it, freeborn, ingenuus. Whichever way we turned, it seemed that the heavens and the earth had met together, since he enhanced the beauty of the landscape. A blue-robed man, whose fittest roof is the overarching sky which reflects his serenity. I do not see how he can ever die; Nature cannot spare him."

    Contrast this to the modern idea of charisma, which is almost entirely persona.  Alcott, Emerson, Williams, Pythagoras, Johnson all interacted with other people and the world organically based on their own personal qualities and capabilities.  In contrast, many in the modern world who are called charismatic interact with the world through the media.  Their entire interaction is mediated and situations are carefully constructed to portary a certain image.  Furthermore, in the modern world, charisma is often viewed as inherently concerned with manipulating people's instincts.  It's within the modern social context, which unfortunately is viewed as a Machiavellian free for all.  

    In contrast, real charisma can inspire and movtivate others.  Furthermore, in the modern world it will not be found primarily in the media or public discourse and will be primarily local and personal.  Also, varieties of true charisma are as varied as individual personalities.   


  1. I've been stimulated to think by this, and the previous, post.

    A difference between Emerson and Charles Williams was that Emerson seems to have been naturally charismatic and never to have 'used' the trait - if anything it seems to have embarrassed him.

    Charles Williams seems deliberately to have trained himself and practised techniques to fascinate and manipulate people to his own ends - probably during the decade when he was active in ritual magic. This was probably a reason for his success as a lecturer (he brought the audience into a kind of trance) - and eventually became habitual and pervasive so that he seems almost never to have been 'natural' with anyone (even when he wanted to, he remains self-conscious and could not drop the 'act').

    This is confirmed in many reports (covered in the biographies, especially Lindop) - but especially in the "Letters to Lalage" episodes, dating from the last couple of years of his life when CW was in Oxford and attending the Inklings.

    By that time CW seems to have developed a standard operating procedure for fascinating and recruiting young women to his Tantric rituals to stimulate sexual excitement and redirect it into poetry.

    I have once or twice met people of this kind, men who made a huge impression at first meeting - who seemed to cast a spell and dazzle; but (in retrospect) who were obviously using a standard, polished routine to fascinate, recruit, manipulate. There are plenty such among the New Age teachers and therapists; and indeed in many walks of life (teaching, priesthood, media...) where disciples can be gathered and deployed.

    1. Great Comment.

      Do you think Williams's also had positive, inspiring charisma, such as when he interacted with the Inklings?

      Another example of a similar situation to Emerson and Williams would be Henri Bergson and his sister Mina. Henri Bergson seemed to have a great deal of natural charisma (at least, his lectures on fairly abstruse topics were very popular). Here is what this article has to say (

      "The press was quick to pick up on this, regularly reporting the weekly riots that occurred whenever he lectured at the Collège de France in Paris. Bergson attracted a bigger audience than his lecture theatre could contain. On average, 700 people would attempt to squeeze into a room designed for 375. It was suggested that his classes be moved to the Grand Amphithéâtre of the Sorbonne or even to the Palais Garnier. Abroad too, Bergson drew huge crowds. The talks he delivered in London in 1911 filled venues to their ‘utmost capacity’, and he was greeted to the sound of ‘loud cheers’. Two years later, a visit to New York caused the first ever traffic jam on Broadway."

      On the other hand, his sister, later known as Moina, married McGregor Mathers of Golden Dawn fame. I don't know a lot about her, but she did seem to be a somewhat domineering personality, so I think Moina used her charisma in a rather different way than her brother.

      The technical, forced charisma also seems to be almost always malign in effect as opposed to that which wells up naturally from the person such as with Emerson.


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