Aristotle, from Nicomachean Ethics 3.5
“Still they are themselves by their slack lives responsible for becoming men of that kind, and men are themselves responsible for being unjust or self-indulgent, in that they cheat or spend their time in drinking bouts and the like; for it is activities exercised on particular objects that make the corresponding character. This is plain from the case of people training for any contest or action; they practice the activity the whole time. Now not to know that it is from the exercise of activities on particular objects that states of character are produced is the mark of a thoroughly senseless person…but the end appears to each man in a form answering to his character. We reply that if each man is somehow responsible for the state he is in, he will also be himself somehow responsible for how things appear”
In Aristotle I see a causal story: there are three elements in Aristotle’s account: training (repetitious encounters with objects), character (soul status) and long-term goals (ends). Training causes character which causes ends. But isn’t what I have repetitious encounters with itself determined by my ends and my character? If that were true then character causes ends which cause training.
Ultimately my sense is that there is something like reciprocal or cyclical causality. A full-being, its directedness, internal character and what it runs into repetitiously are all tied up. We haven’t even introduced the complication that so much of what a person runs into is out of a person’s control, not only for the adult but for the deep formation of character in infancy and toddlerhood.
Training can be understood either as relatively thoughtless repetitious choice (the training that takes place as I pursue my end goal of rest and build sloth), intentional bad choice (the training that takes place as I pursue the art of seduction, manipulation and lying) and intentional good choice (the training that takes place as I pursue the art of virtuous living by building temperance or courage).
It is the latter that interests me the most. How do I move from “bad” training to “good” training? Let’s say that I desire temperance. Temperance has become for me an end. How does that come about? Would that be the result of my character which is not yet temperate, and would that character be the result of training?
Let’s say I repetitiously encounter porn, sugar or marijuana, or all three. Interactions with those particular objects repetitiously (according to Aristotle) further forms (or malforms) my character which further shapes my goals of achieving whatever I am seeking those things for. Can you feel the death spiral? I can feel it in my character. To acquire brings pleasure, to avoid brings pain and is difficult to bear willingly, to avoid unwillingly brings anger at that which stands in the way of acquisition. From whence the desire for temperance?
What must happen is that I become dissatisfied with the training. Is it that it disrupts other parts of the complex web of life and relationships? Let’s say that such can be an explanation. Though the limited end is achieved a larger more systemic end (“happiness”)is not. What I have to do is to say, “Hey! Even though I am getting everything I want I am not getting everything I want. Something is missing.” Where does such a voice come from? Whose voice is it? Is it “mine”? How can I both get what I want and not? Have I misjudged what particulars will enable me to reach my more ultimate end? Why can I not see more clearly what in the world my end is that resulted in this misjudgment?
I do not think the voice necessary. It is at best a voice crying in the wilderness. “Prepare the way…”. And what does it call for? Repentance. It calls for a recognition that something in the “now” is not according with the ultimate larger systemic end. The voice can be either listened to, attended to, strengthened or it can be ignored, squelched, maybe even relatively permanently.
What causes the worse me to give ear to such a voice? “He who has ears let him hear”. How does the worse me hear well what he needs to hear? And, so far, the voice has only produced the negative “something is not right”. How is it converted into the “positive” identification of porn, marijuana, sugar as the culprit?
The only answer I can give is that the expectations of satisfaction laid on the object have not been met and thus the object is deemed unworthy (I leave aside, for now, the question of misjudgment about my own end). At this point one is left in quite a pickle. One has produced a tendency to move toward an object which one now judges as unworthy. The judgment however does not alter the tendency. It is deeper and stronger.
To change tendency is only possible through repetitious choice and action (according to Aristotle). It is at this point that will-power becomes something of a hero. And I have written at nausea about what I take to be the experience of the transformation of character. I think it best described by existentialism, and the best existentialist is Kierkegaard. The road to the alteration of character and the changing of tendency is the road of moving in a direction without tendency which means resisting what appears and feels natural and moving toward what appears and feels unnatural. The insecurity and suffering of the actual individual who voluntarily starves some tendencies in order to develop others should not be under estimated.
But at the end of the valley of the shadow of death is the new birth. It is the second nature. When? How long? The one who takes the journey is not usually given such security inducing information. If it feels like death it is likely the right path. And this is dangerous. To talk this way is to find oneself speaking eerily in a way that would support all manner of evil. This is precisely why Kierkegaard warns the priest who dares to preach on the story of Abraham and Isaac (obviously it looks like child-sacrifice). If the father of faith is misunderstood, catastrophe.
But listen to how Socrates affirms the heightened value of that which risks much in misinterpretation: “I only wish that ordinary people had an unlimited capacity for doing harm; then they might have an unlimited power for doing good, which would be a splendid thing, if it were so. Actually they have neither. They cannot make a man wise or stupid; they simply act at random.” (from Plato’s Crito). The power to do good is matched by the converse power to do evil. He who is capable of great good is thereby capable of great evil.
Maybe that faith (walking toward the good that appears evil…not the evil that appears good) can be misused or misappropriated most is evidence of its inestimable positive value in its proper use.
For the addict, for the mal-developed, for he who is burdened by his own bad habits and feeling enslaved to the monsters of his own making there is much work, and work alone is difficult and painful to the human animal. But that the work involves, to some degree, the burial of the old self and the care of a new self (who will begin young as all new selves do) is all that such has to look forward to. For him I recommend faith.
That there would be a period where it almost feels like no self would be, phenomenologically, expected. A voice crying in the wilderness…