September 2012 Print

Book Review: The Young Man of Character by Bishop Tihamer Toth

Book Review: The Young Man of Character by Bishop Tihamer Toth

Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

The enduring failure known as the U.S. education system has for decades provided countless “experts” the opportunity to apply varying fixes to something many people consider unfixable. Most of these attempts are simply a variation on a theme, emphasizing cognitive success (raw intelligence numbers) as the key predictor of success in life and the validation of the education children receive. It’s as though the cold, utilitarian spirit of Dickens’s school master in Hard Times, Thomas Gradgrind (“A man of facts and calculations”), is alive and well in the form of hapless education reformers.

However, recent interdisciplinary research conclusions—inchoate but persuasive—challenge long-held assumptions about not only what education should measure, but what factors taught to us in school actually contribute toward success in life? (See Paul Tough, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character (Houghton Mifflin, 2012).Is it really the numbers on the Iowa Basics or the SAT that best predict success in life? Or are there other, “non-cognitive” factors that are as important as raw intelligence?

According to this research, intelligence is just one of several factors that ought to be measured when assessing the success or failure of an education. There are a variety of words to describe these qualities—fortitude, perseverance, resilience, self-control, obedience, self-denial, etc.—but one word sums them up: Character.

While post-Christians nod thoughtfully, perhaps even warily, at this idea called character and its relationship to success in school and life, generations of Catholic parents will not be surprised by the conclusions of this research. Still, ask any adult—teacher or parent—how difficult it is to instill character, especially in young men, and you will no doubt get a weak smile in return, the kind of smile that says, “Tell me about it!”

Thankfully, there is an easy-to-read book written by a man who knew his subject well, a man who spent decades teaching young men and experiencing the joys and disappointments of seeing hundreds of young men with varying degrees of poverty, intellect, and, most importantly, character succeed—and fail. The Young Man of Character: A Guide to Fortifying and Rebuilding the Natural Foundation of Manhood, by Bishop Tihamer Toth, is exactly the book that should guide the formation of every young man.

Bishop Toth was a Hungarian priest whose life was spent in a supporting role forming the characters of young men. He died young, in his fifty-first year, having written an astounding twenty-two books and numerous sermons which were broadcast on Hungarian Radio. Rarely do accomplished men maintain such closeness with the everyday, ordinary goings-on of young men. But Bishop Toth was special. He knew the mind and psyche of a boy. He knew his temptations, his biology, his “study habits,” his love for action, for doing, for fooling mom with his head buried in a book pretending to study while his thoughts wandered carelessly.

There isn’t a young man who can read who won’t be able to comprehend the gentle, good-natured reasoning of Bishop Toth. A key theme of the book is “Catholic character building does not demand the destruction of passions; instead, it wants to make them your allies” (p. 48). You are impetuous? Control your rash anger like Cesar and “Count to twenty before answering” (p. 21). You wake up in a bad mood? Never mind! Force yourself to smile…and to some extent you have already conquered your emotions” (p. 82). Feel tempted to tell a little lie? Never! “No matter what you do, ask your conscience: Is it right to do so?” (p. 122).

Anyone can lecture a young man. It takes a special gift to present such difficult truths in a way that he will want to continue to read, and this is Bishop Toth’s masterstroke. Sprinkled throughout are anecdotes of great men who faced hardship, persevered, and ultimately triumphed. The young man (or adult, for that matter) who reads this book will receive its wit, wisdom, and honesty as if spoken directly to him. Bishop Toth treats the reader as a young man, not a mere child, and does not back down from addressing some pretty serious character flaws that, in his experience, he has seen lead otherwise gifted students to lives of ruin. Still, he keeps the message on the level that a young man can understand.

This is the perfect book to read first then discuss with your son while he’s reading it. Fathers, this book will make you look like a sage to your young man. Use examples from your own life to give these examples of character-building a concrete reality so that your son does not think these challenges are only for other people but, in fact, confront everyone to one degree or another. Once he hears how you or some great figure in history handled the same challenge, he’ll be more confident and prepared to make the right decisions, “daring to be Catholic in his whole life too” (p. 29). And making the right decisions, Bishop Toth reminds us, will save us from having a “desolate heart” and win for us “the happy invitation from Our Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 175) to join Him in heaven.