Effort Habit: Keep the Faculty of Effort Alive in You

William James on the Effort Habit

One of my favorite selections from James’ psychology text book is about developing an effort habit:

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin. So it is with the man who has daily inured himself with habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast. – William James, The Principals of Psychology, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 130.

William James

William James, his self-mastery was developed by the effort habit of not shaving.

That little paragraph has been very helpful to me. James makes the excellent point that exercising yourself in self-denial until it becomes a habit for you to handle discomfort is an an incredible down payment on handling trials. I agree. Self-mastery of this sort is practically a super power.

Your Bad Habits are a Hell on Earth

He also notes later that “the physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally in hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to themselves while in the plastic state (James, 130).”

In the Christian conception hell is an experience in life and post-mortem. Even if you reject the existence of God and of eternal judgment, you cannot reject the existence of hell if you’ve seen the state people get into because of their own awful habits.

You must develop good, challenging, creative habits in for your mind, body, spirit, career, and relationships and you’ve got to do it little by little every day. And if you don’t want to, imagine for a moment the hell you’ll be in if you let yourself continue down the path of your worst possible self.

Develop Christian Habits

Thanks be to God that in Christ we have available forgiveness of sins. Not only so, but we have spiritual disciples, graciously given by the Lord: Lord’s supper, weekly worship, prayer, fasting, giving our possessions, memorizing Jesus’ teachings, meditating upon the Scripture, etc to transform us. And on top of that, we have help from God’s Spirit to supply what lacks in our character as we go.

A Parting Quote

As we become permanent drunkards by so many separate drinks, so we become saints in the moral, and authorities and experts in the scientific and practical spheres, by so many separate acts and hours of work. Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education…If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working day, he may safely leave the result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count of waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation in whatever pursuit he may have singled out ( James, 131).”

Abraham’s Virtues

Yoram Hazony makes the case that in Genesis, Abraham is painted as a paradigmatically virtuous character because while not perfect, God has confidence that Abraham will “command his children and his house after him, and they will keep the way of the Lord, to do justice and right.”[1] His case is bolstered by Genesis 24:1, “And the Lord had blessed Abraham in all things.”

Hazony gives a list of Abrahams most apparent virtues (paraphrased below):

  1. He can be generous to strangers.
  2. He is troubled by injustice to the point of taking great risks to obstruct it (he even argues with God).
  3. He insists on only taking what is his and paying for what he gets.
  4. He is pious.
  5. He is concerned to safeguard his own interests and his family’s.

Without looking at Hazony’s list, I made my own based on the Abraham story. It nearly matches:

  1. Abraham’s willingness to enter covenants is both altruistic (bless the earth) and self-interested (make a great name, you’ll be blessed, etc)
  2. Abraham rejects human sacrifice (see Genesis 22).[2]
  3. Abraham believes in right and wrong as absolute categories and challenges God’s actions on their basis.
  4. Abraham doesn’t fear conflict, or rather, shows great courage in the face of battle (when it comes to the power of giant cities, he has a harder time, but in his defense fighting tribal kings is a different animal that opposing the might of emperors in their walled megacities).
  5. Abraham insists on hospitality.
  6. Abraham trusts God (Genesis 15:6).

Anyway, the problem with virtues is that they are mean between extremes and can easily devolve without circumspection. And in Abraham’s story, we see time and again where his self-interest conflicts with the well-being of his wife (letting her into a royal harem!) and his trust in God (having a child with Hagar). Hazony makes these exact observations as well.[3]

I think that for many, particularly in academic Biblical studies, we tend so much to focus on the apparent evil committed by this or that Biblical character that we can fundamentally miss the idea that the authors are trying to paint portraits of the good life. Because of this, they highlight the necessarily difficult task of making wise and just decisions in light of a hierarchy of goods which are often in conflict.

The idea that Abraham was virtuous despite nearly killing his son and that he was deeply concerned with his family’s riches and reputation is intellectually difficult. While I take the story of Isaac as a rejection of human sacrifice, most people I know think Abraham was really going to do it. With those to caveats, I still anybody could read back through the Abrahamic narrative (Genesis 12:1-24:1) asking, “what does this say about being happy or blessed in the Biblical sense?” I think the food for thought that the story provides will be well worth it.

References

[1] This is Hazony’s translation of Genesis 18:19. The Philosophy of the Hebrew Bible, 112.

[2] In my mind, Genesis 22 makes it clear that Abraham, never for a second, was going to submit to the demand to kill Isaac. The New Testament has readings of the story implying that perhaps God could raise Isaac from the dead if Abraham did it. That may be true, but in the story, Abraham tells Isaac that God would provide an offering for the sacrifice.

[3] 113

A Medievalist’s Take on Milo

Over at Fencing Bear at Prayer, Dr. Rachel Brown comments on Milo Yiannopoulos:

But people like Sarsour’s supporters are not willing to debate Milo with facts, reason, and logic, as the protestors who showed up to protest his talk this afternoon proved by blowing whistles and yelling throughout his remarks. Milo is not going to change anybody’s mind with his arguments if his audiences are already provoked.

So what does he think he is doing? I think I know. He is embodying a myth. More precisely, he is embodying the myth at the heart of Western civilization: the myth by which, as Professor Peterson puts it, articulated truth brings the world into being. He is embodying the Word.

Milo describes his campus talks not just as speaking, but as doing something. Other conservatives, he insists, think that they can change people’s minds by writing a column or publishing a book, but that isn’t doing anything. And yet, it would seem, all Milo does is talk. (Or, occasionally, sing.)

Why give the talks on college campuses? Partly, because Milo cares about education. And partly, because college campuses are the place where students are introduced to the arguments Milo is trying to expose in their most articulated form. But mainly because college campuses are the one place in our contemporary culture (other than places of worship) where people come together to speak in person….

Milo understands this [that one must risk the attacks of chaos to speak into it and make order]. Seriously, it is why he wears a cross. Every word that we say matters because every word we speak either moves us closer to the truth or entangles us further in lies. Truths about the basis of our civilization, whether in the divinity of the individual or in the submission of the individual to God. Truths about the proper relations between women and men. Truths about speech and its effect on the world. We can choose not to speak and become, as Professor Peterson puts it, miserable worms. Or we can choose to speak, take the consequences, and bring a better world into being.

Now, Milo represents himself as a moral degenerate along several domains, he particularly enjoys attempting to trigger the disgust response of the very conservatives on whose behalf he argues. Nevertheless, viewing him as intentionally appropriating the archetype of Christ as one who speaks the truth or an approximation of it at personal risk is an interesting interpretation from a university professor, since most professors appear to endorse the violent student responses to him. In other words, professors view Milo as so dangerous as to justify the destruction of campus property to prevent his presence (look up the Berkeley riots).

Of course, I doubt that in the case of anybody who knows about Milo there is any chance of moving your picture of him from negative to positive or positive to negative. He’s an example of Scot Adamstwo movies theory of reality. It’s as if we were watching the Dark Knight and one group of individuals was primed to think of it as a movie in which a clown, disfigured by a totalitarian vigilante is seeking revenge through a series of games meant to psychologically break with narcissistic and megalomaniacal figure. And the others just heard it was a sequel to Batman Begins.  The contrast in analyses of the film would be stark.

But an important question is this, can a non-Christian figure with admittedly degenerate moral tendencies be an archetype of Christ for the world? I don’t know. Paul would seem to say, “No.” (Romans 1:31) But is that final or is it just generally true? Or does it matter if you’re approving of the person for his sins or for his virtues? And is Milo virtuous, self-serving, both, just a disagreeable jester who loves trouble?

 

 

Neurotic worldviews and their cure

An Anxious Worldview

In Alfred Adler‘s essay, The Neurotic’s Picture of the World: A Case Study, he describes the pampered lifestyle of the neurotic:

Extreme discouragement, continuing doubt, hypersensitivity, impatience, exaggerated emotion, and phenomena of retreat, and physical and psychic disturbances showing the signs of weakness and need for support are always evidence that a neurotic patient has not yet abandoned his early-acquired pampered life style. These show that a patient endowed with a comparatively small degree of activity, and not possessing sufficient social interest, has pictured to himself a world in which he is entitled to be first in everything.

Later, when such a favorable situation does not obtain for him, he is not prepared to render any response other than a more or less spiteful accusation of other people, of life, of his parents. This limitation of his activity to a small circle results in his leaving important questions unanswered, and when he is brought face to face with a problem which he is not prepared to cope with, he suffers a shock and responds with a shock reaction. (Superiority and Social Interest 98)

The Neurotic in Scripture

Adler describes the man who won’t accept reality because he has a worldview in which he is secretly the best, the secret king. Sadly, he is unaware that this reality is purely imagined. When contrary evidence arises, he blames everybody but himself. While this constellation of traits can be associated with personality, it can also arise from poor habits of thought and action.  It reminds me of Cain‘s approach to life in Genesis 4, the disciples wanting Jesus to put them in charge, the various potential disciples who would only follow Jesus if Jesus did things their way, or Nabal when he discovered that his wife protected him from David. When we want the world to bend to our will without accepting it first as it is, then it will break us. Not only so, but if we want excellence without effort, we will be frustrated at every turn.

The Neurotic Today

In modern life, political pundits or protesters who cannot emotionally cope with evidence against their ideas (even if they’re right despite that evidence!) seem to fit this type. It’s similar to the student who resents the need for effort to achieve excellence, the parent who resents their children for being imperfect, and so-on. I suspect that the hyper-reality of the internet exacerbates this personality type and develops it in those who otherwise would not experience these negative traits. Dallas Willard once defined reality as, “What you run into when you’re wrong.” The secret king won’t change his mind when this happens, but doubles down. It’s a sad way to live, but it’s a temptation most of us face.

How to stop resenting the world

Those who resent the world do so because its truth doesn’t align with their beliefs about how it ought to function. The tendency is to act on the basis of how we wish the world was before we see what it actually is. Like Abel in Genesis 4, we have to accept that there is chaos, understand fully what that chaos is, and then use it to our advantage to create order (there are weeds…sheep eat weeds!).

According to Proverbs, wisdom is acquired by being exposed to the truth of the world, accepting that truth, and then acting:

  1. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.
    (Proverbs 15:2 ESV)
  2. The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly. (Proverbs 15:14 ESV)

The wise seeks to understand the world, the fool needs falsehood. Adler, I think, helps us understand why? The fool feeds on folly to maintain his self-image. To overcome this state of being, you must seek and speak the truth as far as you understand it and be open to criticism every single time.

 

 

Vengeance is Good?

One of my biggest critiques of Aristotle as a young man was his assumption of the essential goodness of vengeance. As a Christian, all I could think was that such a notion could not be more at odds with divine revelation:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”[1]

But reading Aquinas helped me see a method of reconciling the two points of view:

We should look to God for nothing save what is good and lawful. But we are to look to God for vengeance on His enemies: for it is written (Luke 18:7): Will not God revenge His elect who cry to Him day and night? as if to say: He will indeed. Therefore vengeance is not essentially evil and unlawful.[2]

In other words, vengeance. Now, Aquinas goes further and elaborates a theory of governance and punishment, I’m not interested in that. But rather in the idea that vengeance is a good to be desired by God’s people. It’s a frightful good, especially in light of St. Stephen’s prayer that his evil murderers be forgiven. But are there circumstances, perhaps after Christians have prayed for their enemies to repent, showed them mercy, and even fasted on their behalf that it becomes appropriate to ask God to do justice, and if they hold an official position, to distribute that justice (read: vengeance is the distribution of justice for wrongs done)?

A few verses later in Romans, Paul makes clear that human beings can justly punish from the perspective of governing officials:

For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.[3]

Not only so, but King David prayed:

11    Malicious witnesses rise up;

they ask me of things that I do not know.

12    They repay me evil for good;

my soul is bereft.

13    But I, when they were sick—

I wore sackcloth;

I afflicted myself with fasting;

       I prayed with head bowed on my chest.

14        I went about as though I grieved for my friend or my brother;

       as one who laments his mother,

I bowed down in mourning.

15    But at my stumbling they rejoiced and gathered;

they gathered together against me;

       wretches whom I did not know

tore at me without ceasing;

16    like profane mockers at a feast,

they gnash at me with their teeth.

17    How long, O Lord, will you look on?

Rescue me from their destruction,

my precious life from the lions!

18    I will thank you in the great congregation;

in the mighty throng I will praise you. [4]

 

References

[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 12:19.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 13:2–4.

[4] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ps 35:11–18.

Atheists and Toleration

 

John Locke famously argued that atheism/atheists ought not be tolerated in a religiously free society:

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated.

While this makes me uncomfortable, I am reminded of what Rosenberg wrote, of atheists, in his book The Atheist Guide to Reality:

The interesting thing is to recognize how totally unavoidable [the answers to the questions below] they are, provided you place your confidence in science to provide the answers.

Is there a God? No.
What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
Why am I here? Just dumb luck.
Does prayer work? Of course not.
Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
Is there free will? Not a chance!
What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.
What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.
Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.
Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.
What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.
Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.
Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with.[1]

Aside from the hilarity of an Atheist writing ‘ THE guide to reality’ for other atheists while decrying as stupid those who believe in sacred literature, in what you read above there are two major incoherencies:

  1. If you can learn nothing from the human past, then you can learn nothing from science for every experiment was done in the past.
  2. If there is no difference between any opinion, moral or otherwise, and no meaning to human history, then it makes no difference to believe in illusions or not, so the book is frivolous and without meaning.

But aside from atheism’s ability to inject such incoherencies into one’s thoughtspace, it also does precisely what John Locke feared: it devalues the keeping of promises because the reason to be moral is that “it makes you feel better than being immoral.”

There is no valuation attributed even to the individual life nor to the project of civilization. Even evolution, for all its transfer of data and information and the thousands of years it took for luck to yield beings who experience the universe as a series of ecstasies and horrors, has no point and the information given to offspring through culture and DNA has no meaning (this is false on the surface because our cells find plenty of meaning in DNA).

Anyway, if human contracts, human civilization, and human life have no meaning in this worldview, then Locke was right to be suspicious of those who held it.

References

[1] Alex Rosenberg The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions (Digital Edition), 22.9/669.

What planet am I on?

I’ve always had an eye for the bizarre or sensational. I love conspiracy theories, cold cases, and paranormal  hoaxes. I even love reading about strange scientific theories, weird math quandaries, retrowave music, and decrepit programming languages.

Anyway, in all of that strangeness, I never could have imagined living in a timeline in which a famous film director makes an advertisement for Planned ParentSpinsterhood which is promoted with this tagline (archived to avoid giving them traffic):

Watch. Share. Slay.

pp slay

Now, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a group which uses notions of women’s rights in order to help women slaughter their children and end up lonely with cats and regret would be shameless. But what is interesting is that Joss Whedon, the alleged master of optics who made the video also Tweeted this gem:

whedon tweet

Now, it’s obvious that Joss isn’t actually confessing to the murder of his mother with the hope of plausible deniability due to the nature of Twitter as a medium, but to not catch the obvious implication is a sign he may be losing his touch. The only other interpretation is that he is so obsessed with politics that he literally cannot fondly remember his mother without immediately referring to political frustrations, which is a sign of a weak and sad mind.

But to create an advert for an organization that recently came under fire for selling baby parts, using your credibility as the director of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the following quote on the webpage boggles my mind:

“it’s our responsibility to use our super powers to slay”

What is the implication? Are unborn children the vampires in the analogy? I don’t normally toss words like degenerate around, but seriously, what a bunch of degenerates.

Of Saints and Serpents or the Christian and Inner Darkness

La_tenture_de_lApocalypse_28Angers29_28229

In Revelation 20:2, the dragon is the Serpent, both Satan and the devil. Why did Jesus say to be as wise as serpents when the connotation of the day was frequently one of evil cunning? 

Part of my work as a teacher is to help students acquire good habits which ultimately become dispositions. To do this, I’ve been studying the cardinal virtues. To study courage, I’ve been reading up on fear, evil, and the psychology of both. On the popularly level, I found Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear. In the book, I ran across this old quote from Nietzsche that I hadn’t heard in quite a while:

146. He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee. – Friedrich Nietzsche Beyond Good and Evil aphorism 146

This line took me to Matthew 10:16. I wondered, “Why on earth does Jesus say ‘wise as serpents’?” He could have said, “As wise as Solomon” or “clever as a fox.” By the time of Jesus, the serpent of the Old Testament had pretty well become associated with Satan or some demonic personification of evil. So, why be clever in that way? I’m speculating below, I don’t presume to know what Jesus was thinking, but things are written to be understood and “be wise as serpents” has a reference point. This means it was chosen for a reason.

In the passage, I see several layers of potential meaning:

  1. Jesus says to beware of people and “behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.” So for his disciples to avoid being the victims of predation, he challenges them to think like a more dangerous sort of predator.
  2. The fact of the matter is that we are all sinners. The mistake we make is that we pretend not to be. Admittedly, pretending to be put together is very important in polite society. But we too often lie to ourselves about just how evil we really are. In doing this we make ourselves more likely to fall prey to the evil of others. De Becker observed that, “the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognized by the naked eye. (De Becker 47)” Thus, in order to be safe in a dangerous world, we have to be aware of what we’re really like in order to predict what others are really like. Finding the evil in ourselves and the ease with which we slip into sinful behavior protects us from others.
  3. There are more reasons than avoiding evildoers to look at our own sin. We must also look at the direction our own sinfulness and our cunning at sin may take us in order to run away from it. In The Hammer, Father Brown was asked if his apparently supernatural knowledge of sinful motivations was indicative of a demonic identity:
    “Are you a devil?” “I am a man,” answered Father Brown gravely; “and therefore have all devils in my heart.”
    So, perhaps the reason Jesus says to think like the serpent is that in Genesis, the serpent is the cleverest of all the animals and we could easily, find circuitous routes to justifying, planning, hiding, and calling others along with us in our sins. And so Jesus uses the image not only for its predatory imagery, but also for its demonic imagery. In our very efforts to preserve ourselves, we’ve also got to be aware of ourselves. This is why he says, “be wise as serpents and as innocent as doves.” Jesus is reminding us of the temptation faced by those who fancy themselves clever. And this, tragically, is a sin which befalls members of the churches in Ephesus when travelling teachers use their abilities to seduce neophyte Christians into sexual sin (2 Timothy 3:6).

Your thoughts?

Adler’s Moral Axiom

As far as I can tell, there are three major problems in ethical thinking today:

  1. Disconnecting ethics from happiness and therefore thinking that personal well-being and pleasure have nothing to do with ethics.
  2. Hedonism: The idea that right and wrong is only a matter of what leads to the highest personal pleasure. In social ethics, this means allowing people to do whatever they think/feel will make them feel the best. We might call this unscientific utilitarianism (because it isn’t based upon actual knowledge of what is good for the individual or collective human organism.
  3. The is/ought problem: That since knowledge is all descriptive, no understanding of what is can lead to a conclusion about what one ought to do.

In my opinion, all three of these problems are solved in one way or another by Mortimer Adler’s one self-evident moral premise: We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

Below are the paragraphs where he introduces the axiom in his book, 10 Philosophical Mistakes:

The two distinctions that we now have before us, distinctions generally neglected in modern thought—the distinction between natural and acquired desires, or needs and wants, and the distinction between real and merely apparent goods—enable us to state a self-evident truth that serves as the first principle of moral philosophy. We ought to desire whatever is really good for us and nothing else.

The criterion of self-evidence, it will be recalled, is the impossibility of thinking the opposite. It is impossible for us to think that we ought to desire what is really bad for us, or ought not to desire what is really good for us. The very understanding of the “really good” carries with it the prescriptive note that we “ought to desire” it. We cannot understand “ought” and “really good” as related in any other way.[1]

While Adler’s claim is presented as an axiom, a truth about which one cannot accept the opposite proposition, it can probably only be accepted once it is properly understood. For instance, is it possible for there to be desires that are bad for us? Are there desires that are good for us but desired wrongly? Are there desires that are more important than others? For instance, we desire food, but is there a reason to desire food? We desire to live, but is there a reason we desire to live? We desire pleasure, but is there a reason we desire pleasure? We desire sex but is there a reason for sex? If Adler’s axiom is indeed axiomatic, we have a proposition upon which to build our ethics, have disputes as our understanding of human nature advances, and upon which to build theological ethics for those who accept the availability of supernatural testimony as to the purpose and nature of humanity.

References

[1] Mortimer Jerome Adler, Ten Philosophical Mistakes (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 90-91

 

Virtue Building: How to Grow Any Habit

Why Pursue Virtue?

It’s hard to say exactly what makes any particular person want to become virtuous or develop a good habit.

For many it is a religious conversion.

For others it’s a realization that debt, porn, or drugs have ruined their lives, as bad habits can become a hell on earth.

Some people conclude that virtue truly is a worthy goal because they know that human beings are supposed to seek that which is good. They come to agree with Teddy Roosevelt,

Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.1

Ultimately, of course, the desire for virtue has to do with how to become happy and how to flourish.2

So you want virtue, but what then?

But once somebody wants virtue (good habits, moral and otherwise), they have to start taking real-world steps to get there. If they don’t they’ll regularly feel defeated or inadequate or worse, they’ll actually become morally worse. Roosevelt observed this in a paragraph about idealistic statesmen:

But the possession or preaching of these high ideals may not only be useless, but a source of positive harm, if unaccompanied by practical good sense, if they do not lead to the effort to get the best possible when the perfect best is not attainable— and in this life the perfect best rarely is attainable.3

So, what does it take to get virtue? Well there are two obvious things to say. First, we need to know what virtue is and the virtues are. Then, we need to know specific actions that will lead to good habits. From these two obvious matters there’s an important mental trick for learning any new thing:

Imagine the most virtuous person you know and act as though you were this person in your shoes.

In other words, fake it till you make it. Now, I don’t mean that you should emulate their interests, sense of humor, or other mere personality traits. But rather their honesty, discipline, kindness, mindset, spirituality, and prudence.

What I’m saying is counter-intuitive. Faking virtue seems like hypocrisy, the polar opposite of virtue.4 But this isn’t exactly true. When one does math problems or basketball drills before they fully understand them, they are “pretending” as they go through the motions until they acquire understanding and skill. The hypocrisy would be claiming basketball expertise while still faking it. With virtue, hypocrisy would be claiming to have traits one secretly does not have or worse, that one secretly despises.5

C.S. Lewis, a classics scholar and no stranger to the study of virtue academically and personally observed this:

“Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. That is why children’s games are so important. They are always pretending to be grown-ups— playing soldiers, playing shop. But all the time, they are hardening their muscles and sharpening their wits so that the pretence of being grown-up helps them to grow up in earnest.”6

Similarly, in his essay on compensation Emerson wrote:

The law of nature is, Do the thing, and you shall have the power: but they who do not the thing have not the power.7

So, how do you become a good person? A virtuous person? I’d suggest that you first admit that you’re not. But then start acting like a virtuous person.

Two Case Studies

If you want to get out of debt, find the things people who have no debt do and then do those things. If you treat your life, temporarily like a movie, think of it as a story where in the third act you suddenly realized how stupid it is to have negative money and became a financially wise person because you realized how much you wanted to help others by investing in small businesses. So, you start living like this different person until you are out of debt and have a surplus of cash for investments. At this point, the temptation is to start living like Act 1 again, but this got you into debt. So you continue living in the montage that changed your life, but the point being that your “faking it” until it becomes who you are.

Think about the amount of fake outrage people have over politics. They often pretend to be angry, offended, and deeply morally concerned on an emotional level on the internet about all of these people who don’t know them, that they will never meet, and who don’t care if they live or die. But what is so interesting is that this election has brought the emotional moral posturing of the hyperreality online into the real world. People go into hysterics over politics as though disagreeing or agreeing with this or that idea is a deeply offensive issue. In this case people have taken the vice of intemperance and pretended to be emotionally unhinged until it weakened their minds in the real world.

Similar strategies work for overcoming porn addiction, losing weight, starting to tell the truth, and controlling your emotions. Negatively “do the thing and have the power” works for bad habits as well.

References

1 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Location 941). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition. Read Ecclesiastes to see how an ancient man saw that bodily, sensory, and intellectual vigor still lead to dissatisfaction without ethical vigor.

2 Virtue is not opposed to happiness. Weirdly, even when many modern authors in favor of virtue ethics write about virtue ethics, they have very little to say about individual human beings or their families experiencing happiness, contentment, prosperity, or success.

3 Roosevelt, Theodore. The Strenuous Life, Essays and Addresses (Kindle Locations 1100-1102). Vook, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

4 This is especially so in a modern world where the Socratic ideal of self-realization and personal growth in education has been subsumed under the head of an ethics of authenticity wherein being “true to yourself” as you are in the moment without consideration of the fact that you’re an instance of a larger category of humans with a shared nature is considered paramount to happiness. So people are stuck with no ideals except those which they feel are ideal regardless of whether they correspond with the very essence of being human.

5 I suspect that nearly every politician despises most of their voters as well as the values they themselves espouse. A weird example in another direction is the “nice guy” who feels that being so nice doesn’t help him and secretly resents his niceness and the people by whom he feels rejected but desires so much to be seen as nice that he can never assert himself. It’s a pretty sick way to live, but it appears very common especially among college students who ask me for advice at work or in relationships.

6 Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 188). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

7 Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Essays by Ralph Waldo Emerson (p. 33). . Kindle Edition.