On Wisdom: Practice: Habit

Music: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor.
By J.S. Bach. Sequenced by George Pollen.

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Nicholas Gordon

1. Virtue cannot be pursued except through habit, since in most situations the need for decision is too immediate for thought. So, for example, one is likely to forget to say something courteous if courtesy is not habitual, or may tell a lie to avoid some slight humiliation if one has not made a habit of being honest.

2. If one attempts to make a habit of a virtue, there will be many times, if not most, when one falls far short of the ideal. But each error that prompts a resolve to do better will serve to strengthen the habit rather than weaken it.

3. The strongest habits are inculcated early in life, which is why upbringing and education are such powerful shapers of the person-to-be. Since as children we learn principally by imitation, to form the right habits we must have good models in the people we love. Also, our inherited temperament predisposes us to various qualities; for example, self-centered or empathic, passionate or reserved, rough or gentle, and so on.

4. But however strong an influence fortune may have on who we become, we are always free at any stage of life to set out on the path of virtue. For although the difficulty may be greater, so may the determination, especially in those who have been lost or confused and who long for inner peace.

5. As with most qualities, virtue ought to be pursued in moderation. The excess of earnestness is rigidity, as the excess of virtue is self-righteousness, and both are to be avoided.

6. Even so, to make virtue habitual one must care very much how one behaves. Good habits can be attained later in life only through self-knowledge, self-criticism, and experience. Virtue itself, however, can never be attained, since there is no virtue in considering oneself virtuous.


Next: The Practice of Wisdom: Character
Previous: The Practice of Wisdom: The Golden Rule

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