Virtue as a Craft
Live Like an Aristotelian
In a word, then, states come about from activities that are similar to them. That is why the activities must exhibit a certain quality, since the states follow along in accord with the differences between these. So it makes no small difference whether people are habituated in one way or in another way straight from childhood; on the contrary, it makes a huge one—or rather, all the difference.
– Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics II.1
Aristotle considered it essential to living virtuously that we habituate ourselves to act virtuously. Just as we acquire skill in a craft or a sport through constant practice, we acquire the virtues “by first engaging in the activities” (NE II.1, 1103a). According to this view, intellectual activity does not have the outsized role in living virtuously that it does for Plato. What’s more essential is action. And while Aristotle doesn’t believe that everyone naturally has these virtues, he does think that each of us is capable by nature of acquiring them. Your task for today and for the rest of this week, then, is to activate a few virtues through habit.
Choose one virtue from your table yesterday. This should be a character strength that you don’t currently possess, but which you identify with at some level and believe it would be worthwhile to develop. To do so, you’ll need to work on exercising this virtue every day this week. In many cases, this will mean reminding yourself in a relevant situation to respond with your chosen virtue.
For example, if you’ve selected acceptance as a virtue you want to cultivate, you may need to respond with that virtue this week to some disappointment you experience. Or if you’ve selected honesty as a virtue, you may need to respond with that virtue if a friend or loved one needs to be given some hard advice. You should adopt this stance throughout the week on each occasion you’re presented with to display your selected virtue.
However, it’s important to note that taking a passive stance in cultivating your character isn’t enough for a training regimen in virtue according to Aristotle. To fully complete your exercises this week, you’ll need to actively put yourself in situations where you have to display your selected virtue.
So if the virtue you wish to develop is courage, you’ll need to put yourself in situations where you would normally feel (unreasonably) afraid: e.g., if you have a fear of public speaking, you could take the opportunity to speak up more often in class. Or if the virtue you’ve chosen is kindness, you’ll need to put yourself in situations where that virtue is called for: e.g., taking time out of your day to assist someone in need of help.
It will be a good idea at this point to devise some activities for yourself today that will allow you to exercise your chosen virtue. Throughout your day, keep a running list of the actions you complete—you should do at least three. Log the time of day on a list resembling the one below and explain what you’ve done to turn your chosen virtue into a habit. In the same way that anyone who develops skill in a craft must engage in active practice to perfect their abilities, Aristotle thinks it’s by these means that you’ll end up developing a virtuous character.