JMC : Four-Square / by Joseph Rickaby, S.J.


A Course of Addresses to Young Men


There are infused virtues and acquired virtues. These addresses deal with the latter, with the acquired virtues. Of infused virtues we shall have something to say at the end. A virtue is a habit of doing right; a habit of doing wrong is called a vice. A habit is a made thing, made by the free human acts of the individual. It results of acts whereof he is master, to do or not to do, and he chooses to do them. No one is born with habits. A young child consequently has neither vices nor virtues. But it has propensities both virtuous and vicious. These propensities are partly common to all men, partly peculiar to individuals, depending in the latter case on the bodily nature inherited from parents and ancestors according to what is called the law of heredity. Habits and acts answer to one another; but a person may do an act, good or evil, without having yet formed the corresponding habit, be it of virtue or vice. Clearly, a man may get drunk without being an habitual drunkard, or give an alms before he has mastered the virtue of liberality. Otherwise no virtue could ever be acquired; for the act must precede the habit, and the habit of virtue, or of vice, is the gradual result of a series of virtuous, or vicious, acts. But, done without habit, an act is done fitfully, irregularly, with difficulty and uncertainty and much imperfection.

The best way to understand a habit, and thereby to understand what a virtue is, is to consider what we understand by skill. Skill is a habit of proficiency in some art. Skill comes by practice. We are not born skilful, we are born clumsy creatures; but this native clumsiness adheres to some natures more than to others. We are born with predispositions which may be turned into skill by practice. Practice presupposes power; you can not practise running unless nature has gifted you with the use of your legs. Skill, therefore, and virtue, and every habit, presupposes power. Habit is the determinant of power, not the maker of it. The skill of a trained singer is a habit. The voice is there from the first; the most accomplished vocalist was once a squalling baby; if the baby had had no lungs and vocal chords to squall with, never could the singer's voice have been trained to melody. Every habit is in some power, and perfects that power to act equally, surely, readily, to good effect. A strong man, seizing a billiard cue for the first time, may make a cannon and pocket the balls; but he will not do that again. Only a practised and skilful player ever makes a break at billiards. The unskilful player, till his skill begins to come, makes only occasional flukes. Nor will a man who has not acquired the virtue of meekness succeed in keeping his temper, when provoked at all hours from Monday to Saturday. His is not the skill so to command himself. That skill is the virtue, which he has not yet got.

The sum of a person's habits is called his character. Education is the foundation of character. Education is chiefly of the young, because young natures are in all things more plastic. Older people are "set," as in bone and muscle, so likewise in habits. Nevertheless, habits go on growing, to a greater or less degree, throughout life; thus education itself becomes a lifelong process. Whatever we do consciously and willingly, we are apt to do it again; that aptitude goes to build up habit. And not only what we do, but what we wilfully omit to do, when there is occasion for doing it, goes to make habit also -- a habit, that is to say, of omitting. The immediate author of all a person's habits is the person himself, for habits come of personal acts, of which he is the doer. Every man thus makes his own character, -- we must add, out of pre-existent materials, which he did not make, and under the influence of a surrounding atmosphere of circumstances, which he has not created. Still, though influenced and conditioned, he is not absolutely controlled by present circumstance and pre-existent fact; he acts for himself, and his acts make him the manner of man that he becomes. Hence it is possible, indeed, it not uncommonly happens for a youth to be educated in one way by his parents and guardians, and meanwhile to be educating himself in a diametrically opposite direction. His masters put him to study; if he did study, he would grow studious and, possibly, learned; as it is, he "cuts" his lessons day by day, and is forming to himself the character, one degree worse than that of an ignoramus, the character of a misologus, hater of books and learning. Or worse still, he has to be much in chapel, for so his companions are; he hears many prayers recited, he not unfrequently goes to the Sacraments as those about him do; but because he inwardly repines at all these things, and has little or no heart in him, the virtue called religion, whereby we worship God, is not being formed in him at all, but rather the contrary vice of impiety; and so he will prove himself, when he goes out his own master, impious and irreligious, for thereunto is he self-educated.

Once acquired, a habit is not necessarily kept. An inanimate thing may be kept indefinitely, but a habit, particularly a good habit, requires the food and exercise of frequent acts, as occasion arises; if such occasions are missed, and the acts called for are not elicited, the habit droops and goes near to dying. A habit enables us to do a thing easily. At the same time it would appear that acts which we have learnt to perform very easily go very little, if any, way toward strengthening the habit. A swimmer who could almost swim the Channel is not much improved by taking a few quiet strokes in a bath. Nor does a very meek man grow particularly in meekness by enduring the shrill cry of the newsboy in the street. A habit grows, on ground wherever it is not yet perfectly formed, by our doing that which we have not yet got thoroughly into the way of doing. Virtue is strengthened only by being exercised under trying circumstances. Virtue grows strong in conflict, and is enfeebled by ease.

No one needs to be told that bad habits are easier to form than good ones. A bad habit comes of a succession of bad acts; and to do a bad act, commonly, we have not to exert ourselves, but simply to let ourselves go. It is so easy to be wicked that one wonders how anyone could ever be vain of it; yet some people are. A bad habit is otherwise called a vice. A bad act is a sin. The sin passes, though its guilt (or liability before God) does not pass; the vice remains. Nay, when the sin, that is, the guilt of the sin, is taken away by penance, the vice, or evil habit, is not taken away. The vice does not put us out of grace or favor with God; only sin does that. Nevertheless the vice comes of sin, done in the past; and predisposes us to sin in the future. A pardoned sinner, one who has made a good confession, if he has committed the same sin many times over, must expect a hard struggle with the vice, or evil habit, thence resultant, still remaining in his soul. Often he will sin again and again in consequence. The only thing for him is to repent again and again, and to repent promptly. Repentance gradually will destroy not only the sin but also the vice. Not only will he be pardoned the repeated acts, but the habit will be cured. One of the commonest temptations of the young and inexperienced is the thought: "There's no use trying, I can not be good!" But you must be good, or you will lose your soul. You must swim out of this abyss of evil, or you will be drowned there and die for ever. And with God's grace, and your own good will, and God's Sacraments, you can swim out of it.

Strictly speaking, it is not the same thing to do a good act and to do an act of virtue. To do an act of virtue, I must have the virtue in my soul; but virtues (we are speaking now of the "acquired virtues") are not in the soul to start with; we start with doing good acts laboriously, fitfully, with effort and attention that does not always succeed, as we learn to play a game; gradually the good habit is formed, the virtue, or skill in doing good, is acquired; and thenceforth good acts are elicited with fair ease and regularity, --acts which are at once good acts and acts of virtue, this or that virtue according to the nature of the act.

An act of virtue is always done on principle, from a proper motive, not on blind, unreasoning impulse, not under mere stress of passion, -- very often, indeed, in the very teeth of an impulse of passion. Still, when it can be got to work in the right direction, passion lends force to virtue and is a valuable adjunct to virtuous action. It is the office of the selective eye of reason to set passion to work in the right direction. The passions are something like the elephants that used to be employed in the ancient battles. Often in rage and terror those beasts would break from all control, and trample upon the men who had brought them into the field; at other times they did good service against the enemy, mostly, I imagine, by frightening people who knew no better, as the Romans were frightened at first sight of what they called the "Lucanian ox." It is very well to act under passion, if you are sure you are going the right way and are not going too far.

From all that has been said it will appear that it is not enough for man to have powers; he must further acquire habits, residing in and perfecting his several powers, else he will use his powers to no good effect. Some powers, indeed, in man, do not need perfecting by habit; these are the organic and animal powers, such as circulation, respiration, digestion; these powers need no education. But all the five senses fall under the discipline of habit, as taste in a cook, hearing in a musician, touch in a pianist or a surgeon. It is not enough for a gymnast to be strong, he must acquire muscular habits of skill by dint of practice. Even walking is a habit, an acquired thing. Articulate speech is a habit founded upon that power which in a baby comes out in squalling. A baby that could not squall could never speak. There are habits in the intellect, habits of knowledge, got by study. These habits of intellect, sense, and muscle, make for the physical perfection of a man, not for his moral perfection. In other words, they perfect him toward certain particular ends, not toward the last end and final reason for human existence. In front of that final end these habits may be misdirected and abused, and are daily and continually abused. We see knowledge, skill, art and science put to the vilest uses. These habits, therefore, are not commonly called virtues. Virtue, as St. Augustine says (De lib. arbit. I, c. 18, n. 50) is "something that none can put to ill purpose." Put it to ill purposes, and it ceases to be virtue; thus what would be an act of liberality is not an act of that virtue if it be done, not for the proper motive of the virtue, but out of sheer ostentation. You may abuse any other habit or skill, you can not abuse a virtue.

Mere knowledge and intellectual appreciation of the right thing to do is not virtue. Thus they were foolish philosophers who defined fortitude, "an understanding of the things that are to be feared and the things that are not to be feared." A virtue is a guarantee for the performance of the act corresponding, when occasion arises. But such knowledge is scarce any guarantee at all. The hour of danger paralyzes the knowledge in the man who has never been exercised in the act to face danger. He knows that it is foolish, even shameful, to get into a fright and fly; yet away he runs and all his philosophy with him. Virtue, indeed, supposes knowledge; it is not mere routine behavior, mere knack and rule of thumb: it is a habit acquired by practice of acting up to one's knowledge. Virtue in this resembles other habits. Skill, too, is something more than knowledge. For example, there are certain rubrics to be observed by a priest at Mass. They are comprised in quite a few pages; you might know the little book by heart, but you would blunder dreadfully if you had never practised. Nor could one ever operate as a surgeon who had simply read books on surgery. So for virtue you must understand and appreciate and keep well in your mind's eye the motives for virtuous conduct; but further you must put your hand to the work; try, and fail; blunder, and begin again; do the virtuous thing in a lame and imperfect way, with effort and difficulty, overcoming yourself to do it. In time the act will grow easy, the habit will have been acquired.

A virtue acquired is a guarantee of the corresponding act of virtue being forthcoming when called for. Not, however, an absolutely unfailing guarantee. The meekest of men has his meekness ruffled by sudden gusts of unreasonable anger. The prudence of the most prudent deserts him at times; he is taken off his guard, and behaves not altogether wisely. Stoics and other ancient philosophers expected too much of human virtue, thinking that it should never fail to act. The mere fact of man having an animal body, liable to perturbations from within and without, is enough to threaten always and sometimes to upset, the perfect equilibrium of his virtue. For this and other reasons, as we shall see later, natural virtue needs to be eked out by the grace of God.

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