HAPPINESS AND HABIT
So far throughout this volume we have done nothing but renew our acquaintance with the homely, familiar elements of our daily lives. The subject-matter of this chapter is no exception to this mode of procedure. Indeed we are going to rub elbows with what we usually consider the most humble, the most homely and disappointing of all the servants in our individual kingdom — our habits.
The very name “habit” calls to mind a whole series of homely, simple pictures, as the chance hearing of a consecrated phrase will bring up visions of a comfortable old chair, a sweet tired smile, or a bright curly head. “Habit” makes us think of umbrellas and rubbers forgotten because we so seldom used them, of people putting matches in their mouths and throwing cigarettes away, of absent-minded professors, worried mothers, and distracted sales girls.
Man of action and habit — an unjust contrast:
Animal “habits”; Absence of habit in God
Habit has the air of routine about it. It seems to belong most fittingly to those of us caught in a grey circle of sameness, drudgery, unromantic, unexciting, prosaic life. Quite the opposite is true of action, of danger, of the unusual, the extraordinary. We picture the man of genius as the man who steps out of this ceaseless round of the ordinary, who escapes from habit and startles the world by an unexpected, unprepared, singular action. Habit seems to cut us off from the class of genius and associates us with thc plodding, cud-chewing cow, the puppy curling up in its accustomed corner at its accustomed time. The spark of divinity seems much brighter in genius than in the rest of us; we cannot even conceive God’s being a victim of habit, perhaps principally because we cannot think of God mislaying His glasses.
This chapter is no exception to our policy of fraternizing with the apparently unimportant, familiar elements of our lives. And our notion of habit is no exception to the astonishing mistakes we make about the things that are closest to our own lives. We do make a truly astonishing mistake about the very nature of habit. It is strictly true that God cannot have habits, but it is no less true that an animal cannot have habits, while the man of genius is precisely the man with the most fully developed, most perfect habits.
Basis of habit in human nature: The limitations of human nature
Habit is something distinctively human. God does not have habits because His infinite perfection precludes them; the animal cannot have habits because its growth in perfection is completely arranged and wholly limited by the principles of its nature. But man cannot get along without habits and all his human powers are perfected only in proportion to the habits which he has developed. We can contrast human and animal nature as we would one of the Great Lakes and a small town reservoir; the possibilities of one as a source of drinking water depend on the pipelines that are run from it; the other has the pipelines already in and the slightest investigation will tell us immediately what its possibilities are. Or, looking at it from another angle, animal nature is a small cup full to the brim; human nature is an expanding vessel whose capacity grows with the amount poured into. it; while God can have nothing more added to the infinite sweep of His divine nature. These additions, these modifications, these capabilities by which human nature alone grows are habits.
The limitless possibilities of human nature
It is the imperfect, created character of human nature which makes habits necessary; it has not as yet all the perfection it can have; something can be added to it. And at the same time it is because of the indetermined, indefinite possibilities of human nature that habits are possible. Concretely, three conditions are necessary for the possession of a habit: first, that the subject of the habit have a potentiality still to be realized, and this makes habit impossible to God; second, that this potentiality be not to one determined object, as the nose is to smell; third, that this potentiality is capable of being realized, not in one definitely determined way but in different ways. The last two conditions make habit impossible in the animals.
Essential notion of habit
An essential notion, then, of habit is determination. It is a limitation of a limitless faculty, a pipe-line from an immense lake. Our minds and our wills are capable of universal truth and universal goodness; that they get to work on particular truths, particular kinds of truth and goodness, it is necessary that they be pinned down, determined. Our acts are definitely determined, concrete, going towards definite objects; yet why should a mind or a will that is of its very nature indifferent to particular things and forced to action only by the universal, choose this action rather than another? The determination certainly did not come from our faculties, yet here it is in the act produced by these faculties, because of a further determination of those faculties by way of habit.
The work of habit is precisely to modify a man, to give a definite channel along which his limitless powers will flow. It is a determination, a qualification of a man disposing him well or badly either as to his nature itself or to the operations for which that nature exists. It is evident that here we must step out of that indifferent, amoral atmosphere which clings to the passions. Habit has quite frankly to do with the end of nature, and we insisted that human things were good or bad morally as they led man to his end or led him away from it. So habits are definitely moral. They are morally good or morally bad. They help a man to his end or they lead him away from it; they contribute to the perfection of his nature and of his operation or they detract from his nature or hinder his operation.
It would be an error to confuse habit with a mere passing disposition. It is of the very nature of habit to be permanent, or at least, looking at its causes, difficult to uproot. Habits are really capabilities that have been developed by hard, repeated effort, consciously, deliberately until these capabilities are as deeply embedded in nature as a grafted branch on a tree. They become second nature to us and, like the operations of nature itself, the habits at work give us that joy which comes with easy, dexterous, masterful action, there is joy in living, breathing, walking, and seeing; and there is much the same joy in every craftsman’s skillful labour, in the artist’s long concentrated efforts, in the singer’s ringing notes, in the thinker’s clean-cut incision through error to truth, in the saint’s insanely daring love of God.
These habits are our very own, developed under our command. They never escape that command. It is unjust to associate habit with traits of forgetfulness, as though habit had betrayed us and run off with the command of our lives. lt is not because habit is beyond our control that we pour soup on the table, not noticing that no soup-plate was laid out; that is because we did not give any attention to the operation of that habit. In the beginning of habit, our alert attention and forceful will are necessary; as the habit grows stronger, less and less of that intellectual effort is needed but always habit is the perfect servant of the true master of human life. Its task, like the task of every perfect servant, is to make the work of the house easier, more quickly, unobtrusively, joyfully accomplished.
If we keep clearly in mind the distinction between habits ordained directly to operation and habits ordained directly to nature itself and only indirectly to operation, the actual location of habits within ourselves is a fairly simple matter.
Location of habits in man. Physical side of man; Body
The type of habit that is immediately aimed at the perfection of nature itself, such as beauty or health, the so called “entitative habit, ” in distinction to “operative habit,” is really more of an habitual disposition than a true habit After all, beauty can be quickly lost, as can health; the causes from which beauty and health flow are themselves quickly and easily changed while a true habit has a hard, grasping durability. The entitative habits can be located in the body of man; that is, they can dispose the body of man more perfectly in accordance with his soul, his form. But the operative or working habits belong primarily to the soul, for the soul is the source of all human activity.
This is more clearly seen when we remember that the body, like all material things, run. along a one-way track that has been laid out to the last inch by nature itself. A habit in material things is no more necessary than a steering wheel in a locomotive. No more determination is necessary; indeed, no more determination is possible. The part the body plays in the operation. of the soul, a secondary, ministering, disposing part, is an accurate picture of the claim the body has to habits — a secondary, dispositive claim which would have no meaning whatever without the perfection of habit in the soul.
This will be true also of all our sense faculties, our hearing, sight, smell, memory and all the rest. Indeed it will hold true of the whole world of sense life. An official tea-taster, a piano-tuner, a pickpocket and a surgeon all have developed operating habits in their sense faculties. They can do what an untrained man cannot do. The same is true of the dog who has learned to fetch the evening paper at four o’clock. But actually these sense developments have a claim to habit only by reason of their relation to the command of mans reason. In other words, if men left them alone, the animals would never develop even such traces of habit; and if men did not steer their touch, hearing, or taste along these particular lines there would be no pickpockets, surgeons, piano-tuners or tea-tasters. Animals and sense faculties operate along lines strictly determined by the instincts of nature; of themselves they can go no farther, they need no greater determination. It is only the creative vision of man which sets up new ends and trains both animals and sense faculties to serve these ends.
Spiritual side of man: Essence of the soul.
It is, then, in the spiritual side of our nature that we must primarily look for habits in their full perfection. It is true that no natural entitative habit, i.e. no disposition whose end is nature, can be had in the soul, for the soul is the active principle of our nature, the source of all perfection, of activity; it disposes rather than itself bg the object of disposition. A match is a great help in a dark room, but we do not hold it up to a burning electric bulb to increase the light. Yet because man reaches for things as high above himself as God, the soul can be disposed for this higher, supernatural life; and the disposition or entitative habit perfecting, disposing the soul for that supernatural life is called sanctifying grace and its perfect complement is the light of glory in heaven.
The operative habits of the soul belong, of course, in the faculties by which the soul operates, in the spiritual principles of action which are intellect and will. Here habits are not only possible, they are desperately necessary. The intellect does not run along a determined track, nor does it start out on the trip of life with a knapsack full of ideas. It is a blank page capable of receiving every truth; it can seek truth for truth’s sake alone, or with the end of action in view; it can judge by first principles, or from immediate things of the world. Determination is essential if there is to be action; such determinations are habits and are called intellectual virtues.
The will is in much the same position. It is capable of all good, real or apparent; it can move towards its end or away from it; it can be good or bad; it is the great power station of human life, but feeder lines must lead its power in determined directions. And on the direction of these lines depends the results of that immense power; as the electricity coming from a power-house can kill a man in an electric chair or save the life of a man on a surgeon’s table, so the power coming from the will is quite capable of blasting man to hell or snatching him up to heaven. Habits in the will are the moral virtues and the vice.
It must be noted that habit occupies a strange intermediary position between what the Scholastics called potency and act. Relative to the faculty, the intellect or will, habit is an active, perfecting principle which brings that faculty one step nearer to its ultimate perfection of action; yet looked at in relation to the act of intellect and will, habit is itself perfected, completed, and in this sense is potential. So a person who had a collection of good habits and never used them would be like a man who had a collection of powerful automobiles but who never left his house. Neither one would get very far. The habits would be as useless as the cars. The difference is that the very possession of habit is itself a good guarantee of the acts following from those habits.
Habits, then, are very necessary; we simply must develop them, and develop them we will. How do we go about it? Where do they come from? Perhaps these questions would be more exact if we put them in this form: “What can we do about habits?” and “What has nature done without our having any say about it? ” The answer to these questions vitiate a great number of comforting excuses. We have heard of the “born musician”, the “born worker”, the person who is “naturally” patient, wise, humble, and so on. We say that because nature was not so kind to us — we appear lazy, or irritable, proud and all the rest. Nature at times is a solid comfort to our self-respect.
Nature does have a hand in habits, but to identify habit. with the efforts of nature is to identify the full-grown plant with the seed from which it sprung. Habits have their roots in nature, but only their roots. The rest of their growth demands some explanations that only we can give.
Cause of habit: Nature and the seeds of habit; Intellectual habits.
On the intellectual side we can really trace much to nature. One habit, common to all men, has substantial beginnings in nature, and that is the habit by which we understand first principles. Every man, once he knows what a part is and what a whole is, recognize the whole as greater than the part. More indirectly, nature lays the foundations of intellectual habits in the perfection of the senses. Because we need the sense organs in the work of understanding, keen, alert sense organs are a decidedly good start towards intellectual habits.
On the side of the will the start given by nature is really the sowing of seeds. Our natural tendencies, natural inclinations, are the slight push which starts us off on the long voyage of life. From our physical constitution, too, we have just such a nudge in definite directions; go one man, from physical reasons, will be more inclined to meekness than to zeal, another more to chastity than to patience, and so on.
All of this natural equipment very often goes under the name of “temperament”; a word used to cover a multitude of sins. The finished product, after the habits are built in, is usually called character. And really an artistic temperament, a bilious temperament or a choleric temperament is a very poor excuse for an utterly disagreeable character. Father Jarrett once said that a thoroughly nasty temperament was really a big help in the building of a very fine character, because it made us realize early the need of hard, earnest effort in the building of the right kind of habits.
Earnest effort is the solid cause of habit. No one but God can slip a habit into our souls as a handkerchief is slipped into a pocket. There is only one way to get a habit and that is by our own personal acts. A habit, after all, is a perfected disposition, a well-developed groove down which our activities slip easily, quickly, directly to their objects. Our acts wear that groove deeper and deeper, smoother, surer. The golfer’s tireless practice, the athlete’s training, the singer’s scales are all faint pictures of this from the physical side and bring out the fact that by our every act we are determining the course along which our powers will flow.
It has been pointed out significantly that a habit really starts with the first act, at least the surface is scratched and there is a faint beginning of a groove. Even more significantly, every habit is charged with the past and full of meaning for the future; it is an accurate history of past acts, an assurance of swift, easy, pleasant action in the present, and it offers good grounds for a prediction of the course of future acts, for habit is not to be snuffed out in an instant.
Repeated acts: Possibility of habit produced by one act.
Nor is habit to be called into existence in an instant. Grim warnings are given that bad habit. are often produced by one act. It simply cannot be done. True enough, on thc intellectual side, a truth can be so clearly presented that the intellect at once grasps it and never relinquishes it; the result is an intellectual habit by just that one act. But outside of the intellectual order we need both time and effort to build up the solid structure of habit. So from the side of the appetite it is clear from daily experience that reason cannot dominate the will or the sense appetite as truth dominates the intellect. Our reason can show us that this one act is eminently desirable under these particular circumstances; but if we remember that our will and sense appetite can reach out to many desirable objects and in many different ways, it becomes clear that the domination of one grooved way of doing things is not to be brought about with one gesture. The entitative habits of the body might be produced by just one act, as health might be restored by one dose of powerful medicine, but these after all have not the enduring qualities of true habits but are rather habitual dispositions resting on easily hindered or helped causes.
All this is in the purely natural order. In the supernatural order we have a whole group of habits — grace and the infused virtues — which are caused instantly by God and not gradually by our acts. In fact, they could not be caused in any other way. They are dispositions or determinations to acts which are above all the powers of nature and they themselves are beyond the reach of any combination of natural forces. Because they lie completely outside the scope of the entire natural order they can come only from the one Being Who is not included within that circle of nature — God Himself.
Some theories: Physical
Someone who looks on a man as smoothly sly can always hear insincerity in his voice. The same attitude makes supporters of a political candidate swell with pride at his remarks, while his opponents growl with disgust. This, of course, is the result of one-sided views; the other side also must be seen to discover truth. Modern philosophers have been occupied with a one-sided view of man; so much so that they are now convinced that only that one side, the animal side, exists. In all of man’s actions they note with delight the overtone of a snort, a growl, a grunt or a whinny. When such champions of the material look at habit, they see just what they are prepared to see a purely physical, at most an animal, phenomenon. To some, habit is merely a chain of mechanical reflexes (Behaviourism); to others, stimulus and response do not quite sum up habit, there must also be a consideration of the history and present dispositions of the organism but merely the physical history and disposition (S.O.R. of Dynamic Psychology); still others insist it is mercy a case of stamping in and stamping out physical associations (Thorndike). But to all of them it seems apparent that habit, like the rest of man, is not to be allowed to go above animal powers.
Perhaps some trace of this animal-worship has found its way into the writings of those who hold fast to man’s spiritual soul; as though, because there are no muscles to kink, no co-ordination of parts involved in the operations of intellect and will, there is really no place for the kind of habit we have been describing, the habit which is really an accidental form determining and perfecting the faculty as the substantial form determines and perfects the body. They would prefer to have habits mere associations, but, of course, spiritual associations; or they quite frankly do away with habit altogether, at least in the will, reducing the whole differentiation of the will’s acts to the power of the motive that is held before it. Unfortunately in this matter no compromise is possible; it is not merely that the facts will not allow it, the very indeterminate nature of the intellect and the will demands the determination offered by the accidental form of habit.
Increase of habit: Physical and spiritual magnitude.
It is important to hold fast to the notion of habit as form, as simple active principle, if we are to understand its increase. As a simple form, a principle without parts, there can be no question of increasing it as, we would increase a physical thing, by piling on quantity as though we were preparing a fat man for a circus side-show. Magnitude in spiritual things is not measured by poundage but by perfection; one angel is greater than another because it has more of being, more of excellence; one soul is greater than another supernaturally because it has approached closer to the source of all perfection, because it has more of charity; in the natural order, one soul is greater than another because it has more of the accidental perfection, the added forms of habit. Habit is made greater because somehow it is more perfect, either by extension to more things or by deeper penetration into the subject itself.
This sounds complicated but actuary thc extension of habit is as simple as the extension of health to more and more parts of the body, as the diffusion of love to more and more objects worthy of love, or as the discovery of more and more conclusions in a principle. Intensively a habit increases as it cuts its groove deeper and deeper, as, for example, the love of a married couple gets deeper, more solid, more a part of the married couple themselves with the intimacy and companionship of the passing years. Habit seeps into the marrow of our being as the heat of the morning sun seeps into the bones of the drowsy Italian sunning himself on one of the great rocks hanging over Amalfi.
Means of increase — intensity of acts
Either way, true habits are increased by only one medium. That medium is our own acts; not by every act, but acts which are more intense, more earnest than the habit itself. Playing golf or tennis against excellent competition improves one’s game, not only then but later; the thinker who limits his reading to detective novels or his conversation to mere gossip is on the down grade. One of the great virtues of good books is precisely that they keep us in the company of intellectual giants. A lazy, slouchy act, less intense than its habit, does the habit no good, in fact does it positive harm. After all, if the act is to be the cause of perfection to the habit, it must itself have something to give beyond the perfection of the habit. The act cannot just run along the groove, it must cut the groove deeper; it cannot itself be imperfect and hope to confer perfection on its habit.
This has the appearance of a contradiction — the act proceeds from the habit as from an immediate principle, yet must be greater than the habit to increase it. But think for a moment of what the habit has already done. It has made the act more natural, easier, more pleasant; so that with the same amount of effort our next act is immediately better. In other words, it has done away with much of the strain which was necessarily present in the first action, removed much of the resistance, cut a pathway through a forest, like the pioneer settlers of the early West. Of course the next settlers can travel the same trail much more easily and faster, and they improve the trail. Eventually the trail becomes a road, then a paved stretch along which cars can roll with practically no difficulty; eventually it becomes a four-lane highway which almost drives the car for us.
From the notion of habit as a simple form, a perfecting principle, it is fairly easy to see that a habit is corrupted by a contrary habit. Just as we cannot have a human body both living and dead at the same time, for life is the result of its form or soul and death is the expulsion of that form, so contrary habits cannot exist together. One destroys the other. The channel of a river cannot carry that river in opposite directions at the same time; our habits are the channels of our activity. And of course these contrary habits, like all habits, are built up by individual act.
Decrease and corruption of habits: Means of corruption — absence of acts.
It is not even necessary to go to the length of opposite acts and habits for the destruction of already existing habits. Mere laziness or sluggishness will weaken a habit; complete disuse of a habit will itself destroy that habit. This is particularly true of the moral habits, or habits of the will. They deal with the regulation of external acts and the passions; and of course if these are not being regulated they are proceeding without regulation, for they do not stop. In more simple terms, a man who is not producing good acts is producing bad acts; when he is not using his good habits, he is building up bad habits as well as neglecting the good habits, for no human action is morally indifferent.
In the intellectual field, mere disuse very much weakens and sometimes totally corrupts a habit. So the man who continually moves in a circle far beneath him intellectually is rapidly retrogressing; the man who spends his time daydreaming is decreasing his powers of thought and concentration; the man who spends his time reading trash is rendering himself less and less capable of reading anything but trash.
There are some few habits which no corrupting influence can ever reach. These are the intellectual habits which nature has had so nearly ready made from the very beginning, the habits of first principles, both speculative and practical. Upon this inviolable basis rests the perpetuity and validity of human thought and the absolute universality of moral principles. It would take a complete destruction of human nature itself to drive out of man the principle of contradiction, for example, and thc distinction and obligatory force of right and wrong.
Distinction of habits: Specifically — by objects, matter and principles.
We have a great variety of habits. But it is relatively easy to distinguish them. They are, after all, principles of action; they are pointed to definite action, for they themselves arc definite determinations. To avoid confusing them we have only to follow the direction in which they point. In other words, thc objects of habits distinguish them as neatly as the different destinations announced for trains enable us to pick out the right train from the confusing number in the railroad station. So the habit of justice is easily distinguished from that of temperance; and both are different from the habit of prudence. In a general way, we can distinguish groups of habits according to their location, the habits of thc intellect, of the will, and so on. But remembering that one faculty can have many habits, that its habits may be either good or bad, we can easily see that this is sufficient only to distinguish groups of habits, not the individual habits themselves. The same is true of the matter with which habits deal; it may serve very well to mark off groups of habits one from another, but we must go to the objects to which the habits are determined if we are to discover individual distinctions.
And habits are distinctly individual, as individual as the trains that look so much alike and pull out in the same direction from the same station. They are going to different places. It is as impossible to link habits together to make one long habit, as it is to couple trains with different destinations to make one long train. The case is different if parts are to be dropped at way stations; then the final destination gives unity to the train. Exactly the same thing is true of habits.
What has all this to do with happiness? Recall that in the early stages of this volume we insisted that the tools by which we carve out our happiness are our own human actions. By nothing else do we make a success or a failure of our lives. And habit’s whole task has to do with action, human action.
We have seen in this chapter that habit is a graft whose fruits are produced in a way so similar to that of nature that we rightly call habit “second nature”. Like nature itself, habit makes our acts flow ever more easily, more quickly, more pleasantly. Look behind that statement. If that statement is true, which incontestably it is, then habit has actually increased our natural powers. It has removed much of the resistance to our action, made much less effort necessary, offered an inducement to action in the very ease and pleasure of the effort. It has been said truly that if the will always had to make the same effort to produce its acts, to direct the hands, feet, etc., man would never advance; if no trace of the exertion put forth yesterday were evident to-day, man would stumble through life like an infant that has never learned to walk. It is optimistic to say that man would stumble through life. He would collapse very early in life, he would give up the struggle altogether, through sheer exhaustion.
Habit is the condition of all progress, as it is a necessary condition for activity. Indeed it is progress itself. The man of genius is capable of his extraordinary contributions exactly because so much perfection has been added to his natural powers by way of habit, so much of his energy has been saved by his “second nature”.
Significance of physical theories of habit
Habit is the condition for activity, the condition of all progress. From our habits flow our acts. What, then, if we limit the possibility of habit to the animal level? Why, of course our acts are limited to that level. And as our acts are the steps by which we approach our goal, our goal itself must be an animal goal. Then the high aspirations of will, the great visions of intellect crash down and there clang shut thc prison gates of the material, sensible, measurable which confine us at the level of the brutes. And that is the finish for the creature formerly known as man! All this is not an exaggeration; it is the commonplace denial of the spiritual nature of man put forth by the proponents of the physical theories of habit.
Responsibility of parents.
It seems hardly necessary to point out the terrific responsibility of those who guide youth in the formation of their habits. What is this but to choose their destination, put them on the train and stamp their ticket? This is what it means to be a father or a mother — to have entirely at the mercy of your careless neglect and ignorance or of your zealous love and intelligent effort, the failure or success of your children’s lives. It is a responsibility that cannot be shrugged off in the name of a bridge game or a set of nerves; nor is it work for a faint or cowardly heart.
Responsibility of educators.
This gives an insight into the tremendous contribution of the religious Sisters to the Church in America in the training of Catholic youth. Only God himself can compute the number of successful lives that must trace thc powerful beginnings of their success to this source. It also gives us an insight into an entirely different picture, a picture whose background at least breathes of despair. I mean the picture of American education under the influence of physical theorists, the naturalistic psychologists of education. It is doubtful if ever before in history has so much damage been done to humanity itself as has been done these last few years by the dominance of such a school with its tremendous influence over the teaching body of American schools.
What we have seen in this chapter makes immediately clear the importance of example. What influences the actions of others influences their habits and so goes far in determining their future actions. And from the hero worshipping boy to the no less hero-worshipping man, example has been proved by long centuries of experience to be a powerful influence on the actions of others. The man in authority, the man or woman constantly before the eyes of others, the Catholic whose very Catholicity makes him stand out from the crowd, all carry this terrific responsibility, whether they like it or not.
Relative importance of intellectual, moral and physical habits
Habits furnish the element of unity in our actions. They are the record of the past, the force of the present, the prediction of the future. They bind the past to the present and future, tell us what we have done with the past, what we can expect of the future and what must be done if we do not particularly care for that prediction. In other words, for an evaluation of life up to the present moment, we must look to our habits; if we desire to improve, again we must look to our habits, but always with the realization that of all the habits, by far the most important for the success or failure of human life are those precisely which have to do with the goal of human life, with leading a man to or away from his end. Physical habits may improve the body; intellectual habits improve the mind; but it is only the moral habits that improve the man.