The Daily Logos XVIII
“Now some people think one becomes good by nature, others think it is by habit, and still others think it is by teaching. As for what comes from nature, it is clear that it is not up to us that it is present, but by some divine cause it belongs to those who are fortunate in the true sense; and argument and teaching are perhaps not powerful in all people, but it is necessary for the soul of the listener to have been worked on beforehand by means of habits, with a view to enjoying and hating in a beautiful way, like ground that is going to nourish the seed. For someone who lives by feeling could not hear words that would turn him away, nor could he even understand them; when someone is in that condition, how is it possible to change his mind? And in general, feeling seems to yield not to reasoned speech but to force. So it is necessary for a character to be present in advance that is in some way appropriate for virtue. Loving what is beautiful and scorning what is shameful. But it is difficult to hit upon a right training toward virtue from youth when one has not been brought up under laws of that sort, for living temperately and with endurance is not pleasant to most people, and especially not to the young.”
-Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (X.9)
How is it that man becomes good? Obviously, there must first be some agreement as to what it means for man to be “good,” but even then, it remains a question as to how it is affected. In what does human goodness consist? In Greek, there is a word—arete, areth–which is oftentimes translated as “virtue” but has a broader connotation, including general excellence in the sense of perfection and completion; an internally possessed complementary accident. Too often in the English-speaking mindset there is a tendency to consider virtue, articulated universally, as a power in the sense of a faculty, and, when articulated specifically, as an isolated part of man’s goodness: e.g., “there is great virtue in his intellect,” or “that man possesses much courage but lacks in the other virtues.” Such hypostatic division of the virtues lends to a poor conception of virtue itself, and consequently of man’s goodness. To be virtuous, man must be not merely proficient in so many virtues, but must be continually achieving a higher state of excellence in regards to perfection, from the day he is born until the day he dies—and thus it is only by the graces of Christianity that most men do so.