Habituation, Habit, and Character in Aristotle’s Ethics

In Tom Sparrow (ed.), The History of Habit. Lanham, MD 20706, USA: pp. 19-36 (2013)
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The opening words of the second book of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics are as familiar as any in his corpus: Excellence of character results from habituation [ethos]—which is in fact the source of the name it has acquired [êthikê], the word for ‘character-trait’ [êthos] being a slight variation of that for ‘habituation’ [ethos]. This makes it quite clear that none of the excellences of character [êthikê aretê] comes about in us by nature; for no natural way of being is changed through habituation [ethizetai]. Equally familiar, unfortunately, is the characterization of Aristotle’s notion of character formation as a form of habituation by means of the repetition of actions which results in a “habit” in the same way that a weight lifter produces muscles through the repetition of exertions. As a 19th century commentator remarked on the passage above, “[insert Grant].” From a Socratic perspective, such a view of becoming good seems hopelessly rigid and unconnected to the intellectual development which knowledge of the good requires. Habit and habituation in Aristotle seem eminently familiar and eminently unphilosophical. Such a view would be mistaken on at least three counts. First, the notion of character formation (to use the broadest possible term for the phenomenon of habituation) in Aristotle is significantly more complicated than the notion that through habituation one develops good habits which are what we mean by ethical virtue. Although character formation includes the development of proper emotional responses, such as taking pleasure in what is fine and being repulsed by what is shameful, it is equally concerned with cognitive development independent of the intellectual virtues. Second, although Aristotle’s terms for “ethics” (êthica), character-trait (êthos), and habituation (ethos, ethismos, or ethizetai) are linguistically and conceptually interrelated, his notion of “ethical state” (hexis) is both linguistically and conceptually quite distinct from the notion of “habit,” at least as we use that term today. As one Aristotle translator has put it, “A hexis is not only not the same thing as a habit, but is almost exactly its opposite.” For Aristotle, a hexis is a dynamic equilibrium which, although always productive of virtuous actions, is nonetheless the basis for being virtuous in varied circumstances. Thirdly, once Aristotle’s notion of a character state is retrieved from its false association with “habit” and repetitive habituation, one sees that its apparent divorce from practical reason is more a fixture of Aristotle’s analytical method and its connotations of inflexibility or fixedness are in fact antithetical to Aristotle’s description of ethical virtue. Rather than view ethical “character” in its Greek etymological sense as an indelibly fixed or engraved mark or stamp (charactêr) upon one’s soul, Aristotle’s notion of ethical character (êthos) or virtue (aretê) captures the notion of a virtuoso who is responsive in an excellent fashion to what reason perceives in particular and changing circumstances.
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