On Habits

Ben Walter
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act, but a habit.”
Aristotle did not in fact write this commonly attributed quotation, which is a 19th century paraphrase of his philosophy. Is it an accurate paraphrase? That depends on our definition of “habit”!
First, let’s look at what Aristotle did not mean by the much used-and-abused word “habit,” by way a Chestertonian-sized digression.
Always the contrarian, G.K. Chesterton was an infamously large and pithy theologian of the early 20th century. He and George Bernard Shaw, his great friend and abstemious atheist rival, bantered frequently to the great amusement of the British public. For example:
Chesterton: I see there has been a famine in the land.
Shaw: And I see the cause of it.
Shaw: If I were as fat as you, I would hang myself.
Chesterton: If I were to hang myself, I would use you for the rope.
Chesterton had a solid understanding of the Christian classical tradition and a scalpel-sharp insight into the flaws of modern culture.
In his essay On Lying in Bed, Chesterton argues that lying in bed all morning is no vice. His provocative assertion is not really about sleeping in. It is about the modern triumph of prioritizing “good habits” over “good morals.”
“Of all the marks of modernity that seem to mean a kind of decadence, there is none more menacing and dangerous than the exultation of very small and secondary matters of conduct at the expense of very great and primary ones, at the expense of eternal ties and tragic human morality. If there is one thing worse than the modern weakening of major morals, it is the modern strengthening of minor morals. Thus it is considered more withering to accuse a man of bad taste than of bad ethics. Cleanliness is not next to godliness nowadays, for cleanliness is made essential and godliness is regarded as an offence.”
Chesterton makes his point further by observing that “misers get up early and burglars get up the night before.” It is not that practical prudence and hygienic habits are worthless, but that to confuse them with matters of morality is a dangerous perversion of priorities. As St. Paul says, “For bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come” (1 Timothy 4:8).
I know a millennial for whom “life-hacking” and “clean eating” is a religion of sorts. Drinking kombucha, optimizing sleep, doing HIIT, and practicing intermittent fasting (not to mention eating organic and supporting local coffee roasters) is practically the ritual of his creed. Optimal productivity is the goal.
And yes, that millennial is me.
There is nothing wrong in ipso about “clean living,” but prioritized above all other considerations, it becomes a self-interested philosophy. “Elevating minor morals at the expense of major ones” places the cardinal virtues of prudence and temperance above the theological virtues of faith and love.
At the end of his essay, Chesterton argues that true morality involves a moral decision and possibly a moral struggle. We don’t die for the sake of others as a matter of habit. Loving a difficult person does not become easier out of mere routine—in fact, it becomes harder, and requires more will power with every encounter! Real virtue can never become routine or custom. It requires constant effort and awareness.
Although it seems that Chesterton is at odds with the paraphrase of Aristotle quoted earlier, he in fact is merely illustrating what habit is not. It all depends on the definition of habit. To find out what Aristotle meant by “moral virtue is a habit,” we need to examine the word hexis, which is often translated from Greek as “habit,” but which carries different connotations.
Hexis implies a condition that is stable, but active. It does not imply passivity or mindless repetition as our word “habit” can. Virtue, for Aristotle, is not something we do until we are so good at it that we don’t even need to think about it. Rather, it is the constant, conscious practice of doing the right thing for the right reasons.
Aristotle writes in his Nichomachean Ethics: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyre players by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts” (Ethics 2.1). Aristotle goes on to say that someone who is habituated in reacting bravely will find it easier to react bravely to danger than someone who has not. In other words, we become what we do. Virtue must be practiced!
So what is the value of conditioning ourselves into healthy habits? Well, habits help us to be socially acceptable (don’t pick your nose, say thank you) and productive (how not to procrastinate, work before play). Habits help us make decisions that are conducive to physical and mental improvement. Good habits well-ingrained make us less likely to act on our natural tendencies to be cowardly, selfish, or cruel. Parents and teachers can help students overcome the impediments to a good life by giving them tools to use against their own worst enemy—themselves.
But habits (in the sense of “conditioned behavior”) are just the first step, not the end goal. Here's an example. My brother is a cellist—head cellist in his music school. He was telling me recently that while he does not have the technical prowess of some of his peers, he has made up for it by thinking. His practice is not by rote (though he practices long and hard). He joins intention to discipline and understanding to memorization. This is what separates a good artist from a great one.
Likewise, I tell my 8th grade literature students that they need to have good habits of study to sit down and write an essay. But if their habit is mindless—just diligently checking off the assignments—they will likely not produce a great essay. Writing a great essay is a mental struggle, a risk, a non-linear process. I have had disorganized students write excellent essays and vice versa. The same is true, I think, of virtue. It is not good enough to go through the motions.
Students trained in obedience, respect, and punctuality have been given the tools, but they must make their futures one of moral excellence. This kind of action originates in the wills and souls of the young persons themselves. The life of virtue is one that is actively pursued for the right motives. It is a life marked by constant, watchful practice, like that of the artist or the musician.
So if I were to rephrase the paraphrase of Aristotle at the start of this essay, it would be:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence results from the practice of virtue.”
Related Reading
On Lying in Bed, G.K. Chesterton

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