“It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.” –Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I Scene 3, Polonius advises his son, Laertes, in the ways of habit- that which he wears, and that which he does: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy/But not express’d in fancy; rich not gaudy/ For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” In this clever wordplay, Shakespeare advantageously embraces the double meaning of habit, as something done and something worn. How may the “apparel” of our habits “proclaim the man” of virtue?

In The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle covers a range of ethical dilemmas. One particular section that could be of direct service in the discipleship and education of Christians is Book II, specifically the idea of habits. Aristotle says, “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference, or rather all the difference.”[1] How is it that habits could make “all the difference?”

A habit, as defined by Webster’s Dictionary, is “something someone does in a regular and repeated way.”[2]  In his introduction to The Nicomachean Ethics, Ross notes that Aristotle may have meant in Greek what we in English understand as “custom,” “not a mere automatic response.” [3] This supposition of thoughtfulness in the clarified term is reinforced in Aristotle’s work, when he says that we choose virtuous habits when we “feel . . . at the right times, with reference to the right objects, toward the right people, with the right motive, and in the right way”[4]  In developing such habits that would create a virtuous man, Aristotle has not the drooling Pavlovian dog in mind, but the well-developed, meaningful, ethical response of a man well-trained in moral discourse and decision.

Aristotle examines the formation of virtue through habits. He says there are two types of virtue: moral and intellectual. The intellectual happens through teaching, experience, and time. The moral is developed through habit, or “repetition of the corresponding acts.”[5] Aristotle believed that we learn the virtues “by doing them.”[6] These virtues do not come from us; we may be born with feelings, but we become virtuous through action. Aristotle explains, “ it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature.” [7] He writes “moral virtue comes about as a result of habit.” [8] We are “adapted by nature to receive [the virtues], and are made perfect by habit.”[9] Interestingly, Aristotle believes we do not have virtue until we use it; “the virtues we get first by exercising them.”[10] He contrasts this to sight, which we have before we fully use it. If, as Aristotle claims, “we become just by doing just acts” and “legislators make good citizens by forming habits in them, then the repetition of such acts, the habit, is vital to both citizen and city-state.”[11]  He pursues an “examin[ation] of the nature of actions, namely how we ought to do them; for these determine also the nature of the states of character that are produced.”[12] What we choose and do, then, forms who we are becoming.

Choice becomes imperative. If a man cannot choose well, he will not become a man of virtue. These choices make the man; “for being habituated to despise things that are fearful and to stand our ground against them we become brave, and it is when we have become so, that we shall be most able to stand our ground against them.”[13] Aristotle sees the virtues as “modes of choice or involve a choice”.[14]  He says, in contrast to the passions, which “move” us, we have formed a “particular” disposition towards our choices. Our “simple capacity of feeling the passions” doesn’t qualify us as good or bad. No habit of feeling would keep a man from virtue. But the habit of poor choice can alter our “state of character.”[15] We aren’t “made good or bad by nature,” but we choose that state.[16]

Aristotle explains his philosophy of choices with vice, virtue, and the mean. The aim of all virtue is “the mean.”  It might be a middle ground between too much or not enough of something. Aristotle calls this the “excess and defect,” the too much and too little. He clarifies, “in which excess is a form of failure, and so is defect, while the intermediate is praised and is a form of success.”[17] He compares it to wrestling; too much exercise and one will be overworked, not enough and one is not prepared to fight. One such example of a virtue in the proper proportion is Aristotle’s idea of the mean of “proper pride.”[18] The excess is “empty vanity” and the defect is “undue humility.”[19]  The puffed up man is just as bad as the one who employs false humility.

This is not just middle ground, per se. It might, as in the case of courage, be the actual act of courage itself; anything else is something other than courage, not a degree of it. Cowardice is not less courage; it is a lack of it. Recklessness is never courageous. It might be completely avoiding something. There are some moral absolutes.  “Nor does goodness nor badness with regard to such things depend on committing adultery with the right woman, at the right time, in the right way, but simply to do any of [those things] is wrong.”[20]

In attempting to discern where the desired mean lies, Aristotle concludes: “it is no easy task to be good.”[21] He tries for some method of pagan grace for those who fall short of the mean. He notes that there will be degrees of goodness and badness in which people participate before they are considered blameworthy: “the man who deviates little from goodness is not blamed . . . only the man who deviates more widely.”[22] Even in this, he notes, “But up to what point and to what extent a man must deviate before he becomes blameworthy is not easy to determine by reasoning . . . the decision rests with perception.”[23] It is also no easy task to judge the good!

Aristotle’s philosophy is pre-Christian. He does not have the advantage of Christ to explain sin, the fall, resurrection, or redemption. Aristotle is left at the difficulty of trying to “be good,” and perceive good, through his own efforts. He does not have the standard of Christ with which to measure the good. He talks around the Christian idea of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, seeing dimly, when he says that we are “adapted by nature.” Something must be at work upon us to make us able to receive virtue; Aristotle can see that much. What it is, he does not know. It is outside of man, not man himself.

Enter Thomas Aquinas, priest who has both Aristotle and Christ upon which to rely in puzzling out this mystery of habit and virtue.  Aquinas picks up where Aristotle left off.  Aquinas extends some of Aristotle’s ideas in his own work, Summa Theologica: Treatise on Habits. He affirms that, yes, “like acts cause like habits” and that these habits can create a life of virtue (or not).[24]  Aquinas also agrees that both ceasing to do the virtue as well as doing acts that oppose the virtue will destroy the virtue. Aquinas uses Plato’s ideas of the forms, writing a habit doesn’t make a new form of a man but perfects the form that is already there.

Aquinas baptizes Aristotles’ works for us; we need only read to witness them rise to walk in newness of life. Where Aristotle had the pagan vantage point, our priest has the light of the Son. In the Summa Theologica: Treatise on Habits, Aquinas defines virtue as“the act of virtue is nothing else than the good use of free will.”[25] In making choices, Aquinas notes that “virtue is the order or ordering of our love;” in other words, we express our love through what we choose when we exercise our free will.[26] He clarifies the relationship between habit and virtue further, “for instance, we give the name Faith to that which we believe, . . . but also to the habit by which we believe.”[27]Aquinas calls virtue a “perfection of power.”[28] Like Aristotle, Aquinas believes this power lies in choice. He says, “it is essential to human virtue to be an operative habit.”[29] This “operative habit,” Aquinas explains, is what leads to the act of perfection in us because of the nature of God himself,

As God’s substance is his act, the highest likeness of man to God is in respect of some operation. Wherefore, as we have said before, (Q3, A2) happiness or bliss by which man is made most perfectly conformed to God, and which is the end of human life, consists in an operation.[30]

In other words, the habits of acting in virtue bring man closer to perfection in God because we are acting like God when we act. This is not to say that we are God, but that we are, as Ephesians 5 admonishes, “ imitators of God.”

This idea of perfection or the perfection of, one that Aristotle is striving for but cannot quite figure out how to achieve, is that thing Christian theology calls sanctification, the “making holy or setting apart” of a man.  Theologically, sanctification is the process by which a man is brought to perfection. According to Philippians 2:12, Christians are supposed to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” In Philippians 3:14: “Not that I am already there,” says Paul, “but I press on toward the goal.”  In Philippians 1:6, we are assured that God will complete the work he begins in us, “until the day of Christ Jesus,”  not immediately, but on an ongoing basis. Sanctification, happening inwardly, should be seen outwardly in some way. A Christian cannot be a Christian without producing works in line with fruit of the Spirit. The book of James tells us, “Faith without works is dead.”[31]  Discipleship should produce something in the disciple.

To begin Christian teaching with the thought that choices have influence, to determine the importance of how one uses a choice, to say that one does not choose in isolation, be it a good or bad choice, but that he affects his neighbors and city-state in his choices, is to go against every tenet of post-modern, self-absorbed philosophy. That one choice may either benefit himself and others in terms of virtue or destroy himself or others in its vice. A grown man demands the use of the girls’ restroom. He discounts the issue of safety, the effects on others; he must have his rights. Closer to home, the non-compliant Christian forgoes his spiritual disciplines, producing little to no fruit — fruit that is desperately needed in his city-state. He must have his own selfish way, his TV time and his comfort zone instead of the sacrifices inherent in sanctification. Perhaps in our world this is the most pressing issue: selfishness. We are sometimes blind to its hold upon us; even as Christians, it is so ingrained in us. Looking into our choices through the reasoning of Aristotle and Aquinas might save us from our selfishness and the repetition of such a bad habit.

In the post-modern world, discipleship is often unheard of. Some one dares to tell us how to live? We are autonomous. We answer to no one. If I don’t like what you’re saying, I’ll take my toys and go home, thanks. There is no right and wrong; certainly nothing so antiquated as vice and virtue! But the wisdom of ancient Greece, the Bible, and the traditions of the Church Fathers tell us otherwise. We are meant to be refined. The works don’t save us but they refine us — they are part of the process of sanctification. We are not meant to remain the same person we were the day that we were baptized. Aquinas says that the virtues are increased or decreased, through habit, by “the subject participating more or less perfectly, in the same form.”[32] The proper repetition perfects. Much like a child repeatedly imitating his parent at work on a particular chore, the Christian should regularly, deliberately cooperate with, and submit to, the work of God. Liturgy, memorization of scriptures, catechism, daily battle with the same sin, group recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the shared hymns, the daily, weekly, and annual rhythm of the church calendar — all of these habits teach and all of these habits perfect. Recognition of the power of such habits, and Church community aid in forming them, is essential in the virtuous Christian walk. Spiritual disciplines require continuity, consistency, and community.

Vice is also a habit, and one that can unseat virtue. Both Aquinas and Aristotle agree that improper repetition or habit can detract from virtue. We must teach disciples not only to choose virtue, but how to discern virtue from vice. In contrast to the world, which sometimes disorders even virtue to the point of vice, Christians are called to have their loves ordered properly.  The extreme environmentalists are a prime example of disordered love; saving the whales or a tree, not bad in and of itself, runs roughshod over any concern for humans, that which should be the higher value. But we should remove the forest first from our own eye; Christians often suffer from the same disorder.

In the event of discipleship and education, we go past the ideas of that classic dramatic salvation moment to the workings of a daily Christian life.  Polonius, Hamlet’s ‘tedious old fool’, through comic relief, speaks truth: the repetition of our habits, both outward and inward, makes a difference.[33] Aristotle and Aquinas provide an education for the Christian on the art of daily discernment and choice, the art of habit cooperating with the Spirit, and the making of the Man of virtue.

Citation Information

Karise Gililland, “Wearing One’s Habits: Aristotle, Aquinas, and the Making of a Virtuous Man,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 3. (Fall 2020), 181-194.

Direct Link: https://anunexpectedjournal.com///wearing-ones-habits-aristotle-aquinas-and-the-making-of-a-virtuous-man/

[1] David Ross, Aristotle: The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), xxvii.

[2] Webster’s Dictionary.

[3] Ross, The Nicomachean Ethics, xxvii.

[4] Ibid., 38

[5] Ross, The Nicomachean Ethics, 28

[6] Ibid., 29

[7] Ibid.,

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ross, The Nicomachean Ethics,29.

[12] Ibid., 30.

[13] Ibid.,31.

[14] Ibid., 36.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 38.

[18] Ross, The Nicomachean Ethics, 41.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 39.

[21] Ibid., 45.

[22] Ibid.,47.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Thomas Aquinas,  “Question. 50 – Of the Subject of Habits (Six Article),” ” Summa Theologica: TREATISE ON HABITS (QQ[49]-54): Question. 50 – OF THE SUBJECT OF HABITS (SIX ARTICLES). accessed February 20, 2016. http://www.sacred-texts.com/chr/aquinas/summa/sum186.htm.

[25] Aquinas, “Of the Subject of Habits.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Aquinas, “Of the Subject of Habits.”

[30] Ibid.

[31] James 2:20.

[32] Aquinas, “Of the Subject of Habits.”

[33] William Shakespeare, ‘Hamlet’, Act II, scene ii