HABITS OF HAPPINESS
- Two ways of considering a finished product:
- That of the busy genius, equipped with secretaries and assistants.
We men and women of today have lost something very precious. As so often happens, the tragedy of that loss is increased by the illusion that the loss is itself a gain. It is bad enough to lose a friend, but to rejoice in the loss of a friend is tragedy! This modern tragedy is vividly exemplified in the story of a famous novelist who made it a practice to rise very early every morning, and write madly for three or four hours, sweeping the numbered sheets off his desk on to the floor. Then, while he took his morning stroll, his secretary gathered up the manuscript, arranged the numbered pages and packed the finished product off to the publishers.
- That of the leisurely craftsman:
- Gathering up the shavings, putting things in order.
Somehow that appeals to our love of the efficient, of speed, of accomplishment. Creative genius cleaning up after the work is done, sweeping up the shavings, arranging the loose ends, putting things in order is genius wasting its time and gifts; it is as incongruous a picture as that of a prima donna washing her own clothes or the mayor of New York dusting the furniture every morning before going to the city hall.
I wonder if our familiarity with machines has not begun to warp our vision, to make us see all things, even men, in terms of a machine. Surely we are inclined to forget today that man, like God, stamps his image on his works. Something of our personality, something that no other force in the universe can contribute, goes into our labours and makes them really a part of ourselves. This is the foundation of the pride, the affection, even the tenderness of the true craftsman for the finished product of his labours. The wrecked safe bears the mark of the particular expert who ransacked it, as the perfectly rounded, clear note of the singer, the products of the carpenter, the bricklayer, the lawyer or the surgeon, all tell an intimate story of their authors as the universe tells an intimate story of God.
Remembering, pondering the labour, the aims, and results of work.
What we have lost is that exquisite joy of the old craftsman puttering about his shop, putting things in order in an easy, leisurely fashion that gives him time to stop a moment and run a hand over the smooth perfection of his work. What a time he had getting this particular part of the work done, how he planned, dreamed, worried; how eagerly he went back to the job as his dreams began to take shape; what secret pride there is in this child of this genius, even though none of his works seem quite to catch the elusive beauty and breath-taking grace of his dreams! He has not forgotten that when God finished His work of creation He surveyed His creatures and saw that “they were good”. This is the way Adam would have worked naturally if sin had not distorted the very nature of work.
The finished product of virtue is second nature at its best
And that is the way we are going to work in this chapter. We have spent several chapters painting the picture of second nature at its best, laboriously painting in every detail of the structure of good habits in man. Now the work is done and of course things are scattered about. Let us stop and put things in order, pick up the odds and ends, pausing every now and then to steal a glance at the beauty of that painting, to remember smilingly the effort which went into it and the pride there is in it even though there is always a pang of disappointment that the reality never measures up to the dream.
The labour of producing second nature
It is well to remember that it was necessary to build in a second nature for man because of the paradoxical combination of imperfection and perfection. Because only the infinite can measure up to human powers, to tie those powers down to the finite and particular would be like holding down a spirited thoroughbred to a sedate pace. Or, to put it in another way, the tremendous energies of man’s appetites, the tremendous horizons of his mind, had to be applied to particulars. Man’s intellect and will are great power-houses from which the power flows along the power lines of habit. They are like a great reservoir from which channels must lead in different directions, according to the ends for which the water is to be used. the se modifications of man’s powers, these feed-wires, these channels, are the habits of man; and when they are good habits, they are virtues.
We have said it was important that these channels or grooves be built into man. He could not get far without them. Yet they had to be built in; they were not furnished by nature like a set of teeth, strong lungs or a pleasant smile. The best we could hope from nature was a nudge, a push in the direction of second nature. Or perhaps it would be better to say a shove; nature is never over-delicate and has definite notions about what man must construct within himself to make the most of his powers.
Nature is not over-delicate; to some she must appear niggardly. The natural inclination to know first principles instantly, the natural inclination to desire good, seem, from one point of view, slim foundations for our whole intellectual and moral life. Even granting that each individual has positive leanings, by his very physical constitution, towards this or that good habit, towards justice, or temperance, or fortitude, those leanings are inevitably balanced by others that make the acquiring of other virtues extraordinarily difficult. All in all, nature did not monopolize the task of producing man’s second nature.
A child puzzling over her homework probably feels hurt that the family will not tell her the answers and she feels she is neglected because she must work out the problems herself. the family is niggardly with its knowledge. But when she has solved the problems, not only the answers but the principles from which she proceeded will be hers. The case is the same with the niggardliness of nature. It is because man’s acts are to be his, not nature’s, that the immediate principles of those acts, the habits, must also be his. We are not mere animals with tough hides, long sharp teeth, and no hope; our goal is our own, our acts are our own, and we fashion those acts through the medium of the virtues or the vices.
This, then, is our part in the building of second nature. We are trying to make our powers respond to a command like a squad responding to a drill sergeant’s whistle. The whole purpose of virtue is to conform action to a rule; and human nature has the double rule of its own reason and the reason of God. What falls under the rule of human reason, falls under the rule of divine reason. The one is in perfect accord with the other as the teaching of a bishop is in accord with the teaching of a pope. But it does not work conversely, for God is not limited to the capacities of human reason any more than the powers of a pope are limited to one diocese. We cannot bend our energies to all the mysterious goals of the divine reason; that is God’s work. But we can, and must, cut grooves within ourselves along which our actions will flow to the goal of human reason.
We start from the push given by nature, much as the pioneer started from the push given him by the crowding of later immigrants. And like the pioneer we blaze the trail along which all other acts will follow, follow more quickly, more easily, more perfectly. The demand that our actions produce the habits from which they will proceed ever more easily may seem like asking the kitten to produce its mother before it can be born. But that is because we are underestimating that impulse of nature. The act produces something more perfect than itself — its very principle — only because it is supported by the powerful forces of nature itself, much as a physically timid king can rule whole races because of the backing of his army and navy. For just as the principles of intellectual knowledge arc higher, wider, deeper than the conclusions which follow from them, so the broad inclinations of nature are more powerful than the habits which proceed from them through the agency of acts. Each act cuts the groove just that much deeper and makes the next act go just that much more surely to its appointed goal.
All this every man can do, must do. But only God can steer man to a goal above all nature; so only from God can come the habits which will give our actions that supernatural significance which enables us to penetrate the walls of heaven. The theological virtues, coming immediately from God, give us a start towards the supernatural goal of all men, much as nature starts us off towards a natural goal; to enable us to cope with the detailed means to that supernatural end, God infuses in us a complete set of moral virtues — supernatural prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
However, a coin tossed down in the name of supernatural justice makes exactly the same clink as a coin which is given from natural justice. The temperate acts of a pagan give no clue by which they can be distinguished from those of a Christian. But they are distinctly different, as different as time and eternity. Even though it is impossible to detect the difference in the actions themselves, it is very easy to see that the infused virtues directing man’s acts to the eternal vision of God, are very different from the acquired virtues ordering human acts to a conformity with reason. the re is a difference even in regard to the immediate object of the different virtues, even though that difference is not immediately seen in the acts. So, from the acquired virtue of temperance, a man might curtail his too ardent desire for food for the sake of the health of his body or for the better operation of his mind; while, from the infused virtue of temperance, his aim would be to reduce that body to further and further subjection to the soul.
In other words, these infused virtues are not called supernatural merely because they come from God. They are above all nature, they cannot be acquired by any activity of ours, and their goal is no less above nature than their origin. Even their immediate object and the mode (of charity) in which they proceed place them in a class infinitely above the acquired or natural virtues. This is God’s part in the production of this second nature of man to give us with grace the infused theological and moral virtues; and an enormous part it is.
The aims of second nature: The ultimate aim
We have all heard thousands of times that virtue consists in a happy medium between excess and defect. Somehow, we have difficulty in being proud of that fact. It seems strange that we should demand such intimate and powerful activity on the part of God to make a man respond prudently by saying “harumph” instead of “yes” or “no”. Actually that is not prudence at all; it is diplomacy or timidity. A happy medium is not a statement of a policy of straddling, of perching our soul on the topmost bar of the fence and taking good care we do not allow it to drop on one side or the other. It is not walking backwards down the middle of the road in order to confuse everyone, including ourselves, as to where we stand. It is not a dedication to an anemic life of grey mediocrity where nothing must be allowed to happen which is out of the ordinary.
The immediate aim — mediocrity and the mean of virtue:
We make these mistakes by forgetting that “happy medium” is a technical term with a technical meaning. Virtue, as we have seen, is the one possible source of the extraordinary. By its nature it guarantees a steadily better, easier, more perfect result. In its supernatural form it is the secret of the mad romance with divinity itself, the hidden spring from which bubble up those impossible accomplishments, incredible hopes, and that constant reaching for the stars that give heroic proportions to the dullest of human lives. There is a huge difference between mediocrity and the medium of virtue, as great a difference as between the blustering cowardice of Pilate and the wide-flung courage of Paul.
This difference is vividly clear when we say quite simply that the medium of virtue is that demand which a man must meet to be worthy of his manhood; the medium of supernatural virtue is what a man must meet to be worthy of the friendship of Christ. Excess and defect, too much or too little, always have reference to some rule, to some norm which is the standard. A manufacturer has produced small whisky glasses which are graduated: the lowest mark has over it the caption “ladies”, the second, “men”; the third, near the top of the glass, has no word at all, merely the picture of a very fat pig. Those lines are norms laid down to guide or shame the drinker into taking just enough. The rule of virtue is the rule of reason; excess is going beyond the bounds of reason; defect is offering less than reason demands. In matters of temperance, for example, excess is the glutton’s gorging; defect is the miser’s starvation. In either case there has been a defect of conformity to the rule of reason; the individual in either case has been somewhat less than a man.
The mean of the moral virtues
In fortitude and temperance particularly this excess and defect, as far as quantity itself is concerned, is a matter to be judged with reference to the individual himself; to what is excess or defect for this particular man. But of course the other circumstances of the act, the “when”, “why”, “where” and so on, must also be considered. In matters of justice, on the contrary, this happy medium of virtue is definitely objective. Justice does not deal with the passions, which vary in every man, but with external actions and words, with the means of communication among men. The material of justice always has reference to another, it is the altruistic, the social virtue, its medium is not proper to this or that man, but to all men. Even though I have not acted unjustly because of my ignorance, the thing I have done is still unjust, for it falls short of the objective rule of reason determining what is due to another.
As a matter of fact a “happy medium”, in this technical sense, goes far beyond the field of the moral virtues. It is indeed universally true of anything that can be gauged or measured, that its good, its perfection, consists in a happy medium which does not go beyond the rule by which it is measured but which nevertheless meets the requirements of that rule. So an architect’s plan is the rule according to which a house is built; it would be an odd house, indeed, which would astonish its own architect by its bizarre arrangement of rooms.
Of the intellectual virtues
In this sense, then, the immediate aim even of the intellectual virtues is to establish a happy medium, to conform to the rule by which the intellect is measured, to avoid going beyond it and at the same time not to fall short of it. That rule of intellect is the world of things as they are. The intellect is measured by the reality of things: when it attributes reality to fiction it fails by excess; when it denies reality to fact it fails by defect. Here we have again that beautiful gradation of thought, being and action which anchors all three to the world of reality and, ultimately, metaphysically, to the supreme reality. Here there is no possibility of endless vicious circles, of being lost in a subjective fog of value that is valueless; every step of the way our feet are on solid rock. The rule or measure of human actions is the reason of man; the rule or measure of the reason of man is the world of things as they are; and “the rule or measure of the world of reality, the world of things as they are, is the mind of the God of things as they are. Or, coming down the steps instead of climbing up, the mind of God is the architect’s model to which the reality of things must correspond; the real world is the model by which the mind of man is measured; and the reason of man is the model to which the actions of man must conform.
Lack of a mean in the theological virtues
This is important for any slightest insight into that extravagance peculiar to human relations with the divine — the faith that walks gaily through impenetrable darkness, the hope that no defeat can beat down, the love that is for ever doing impossible things. By this grasp of how things, and actions, and men are measured, we can see that the theological virtues are beyond measure. There is no excess or defect in faith, hope and charity; they have no rule, they have no measure. Rather they go straight to the rule and measure of everything, to God Himself. Any degree of these virtues exceeds all created rules; their perfection is limited only by the unlimited possibilities of the human mind and heart. A man who thinks he will reach heaven without sorrow for his sins is guilty of presumption, not because he has too much hope in God but because he overestimates himself, as the victim of despair underestimates himself. the re is absolutely no limit to the flight of the human soul to God.
- The result of second nature, the co-ordination of parts:
- Connection of the moral virtues.
The modern contempt for some of the virtues was brought home to me in a conversation with an aviator whose sympathy for religious under their strict vows and for the sad plight of an unmarried clergy was touching. Eventually he confessed that he had never before talked to a priest; and for a very good reason. He lumped priests and ministers of all kinds in one delicate pink class whose chief avocation was gossiping with idle women and drinking tea. His attitude had been very much that of the precocious columnist who remarked that he would like to be present when the meek inherited the earth — to see the not-so-meek take the earth away from them.
Both of these men would be astounded to know that a man cannot have the virtue of meekness and not be strong, that sanctity and effeminacy are mutually exclusive terms, that in fact a man cannot have any virtue without having them all. Yet that is precisely the case.
Connection of the moral and theological virtues
We can put this briefly by saying that prudence, in the natural order, and charity, in the supernatural order, tie the virtues together very much as the soul binds together the powers of a man. Destroy the soul of a man and every one of his lesser powers ceases to exist; destroy those lesser powers of man, corrupt his body, and the soul departs. Prudence is the form of the natural virtues giving them life and movement to reason’s end, just as charity is the form or soul of the supernatural virtues, giving them supernatural efficacy and movement to the end of charity, to God Himself.
The inter-connection of the virtues is as intimate and necessary as the union of soul and body. Let us consider the cardinal virtues (as do many of the Fathers) merely as general conditions of virtue: then discretion belongs to prudence, rectitude to justice, moderation to temperance and strength or constancy to fortitude. To attempt to picture any one of these virtues without the others and still call the resultant acts the strong, smooth, goal-gaining acts of virtue is ridiculous. The Jews, for example, with extraordinary righteousness flung the woman taken in adultery at the feet of Christ — but without discretion, without moderation, even without strength, for it was a cowardly thing to do.
Or let us take these cardinal virtues strictly as virtues, each busy with its own proper object. Then we have prudence as the chauffeur of the moral life, steering every action to the goal of reason; an act of fortitude, justice or temperance without prudence means that such acts are without order to the goal of reason, they blindly slam into the world of men and women regardless of results. And prudence is no less dependent on justice, fortitude and temperance. Whether it is a question of making things or of moulding human actions, in the field of the practical the starting-point is always the goal, not every goal, not a vague universal goal, but the immediate particular goal, as definite as the architect’s goal of a house. These particular, immediate goals of human action are furnished to prudence by the moral virtues. In other words, the very principles from which prudence proceeds come from the moral virtues; while the whole direction of the moral virtues comes from prudence.
It is quite true that a famous criminal operated soup kitchens for the poor. Some champions of temperance have been notoriously imprudent, some of them quite unjust. A woman of the streets might be, indeed usually is, generous to the poor, the neglected, the weaklings. All these are facts. But they are not facts that militate against the strict connection of the virtues. At the very most these things can be called “imperfect virtues”; usually they are not virtues at all, but rather inclinations flowing from the physical make-up of the individual or from pity generated by personal experience. The criminal, the imprudent reformer and the woman of the streets produce these imitations of virtue to please themselves, because they like to do those things; not because reason dictates these acts, not because they are striding swiftly to the goal of reason. For, as a matter of fact, their contempt for other virtues is itself a contempt for reason and the goals of reason.
These are imitations wearing a false face of virtue, uninvited guests at the party of human respectability. They might escape detection in the crush at the height of the party; but if we watch them on their way home, if we notice the direction they take, what their goal is, it is immediately evident that they are impostors.
Connection of the theological virtues
We can, indeed we must, carry this connection of the virtues much further, even up to the heights of charity. Prudence is the form that breathes life into the moral virtues in the natural order; and in the natural order that living moral organism is quite independent of charity. It is at least possible that a pagan without charity should have a very high degree of the four cardinal virtues. But evidently the supernatural moral virtues are something else again. They come with grace and charity, exist only for the goal of charity and are lost completely with the loss of charity. Charity in the supernatural order occupies the same place as is occupied by prudence in the natural order: its task is to steer every activity of man, every other virtue, to the supreme supernatural end of man. Without that helmsman there is no possibility of any member of the crew reaching port. We can put this even more strongly by saying that life goes out of these supernatural virtues with the passing of their soul, which is charity; they are dead, and, with regard to the infused moral virtues, that means that they are non-existent.
With the other theological virtues, it means that they are dead in the sense that without charity they cannot move a step towards the goal of life which is the goal of charity. The directive power is missing. But they are not non-existent as are the infused moral virtues. A man tears down his whole spiritual structure by mortal sin; but the foundations of faith and hope are still there for the work of rebuilding. It is only by presumption, despair and infidelity that man can totally destroy the work of God in the building up of his second nature. Faith and hope remain but imperfect, crippled, ineffective virtues which bring man no nearer to the goal which is the reason for all virtue.
Of course all this is true the other way around. To postulate charity without the moral virtues is like expecting a painter of miniatures to produce perfect specimens of his art with a whitewash brush. It is an insult to God, making the inference that He works much more clumsily in the order of grace than in the order of nature, for in nature He furnishes not only the drive to the goal but the means by which that goal can be realized. The same is true of the relation of charity to faith and hope. Charity is love. That a man has charity means that he is in love with God, that he has a love that is in a very real sense divine. Could that love exist without faith in the Lover, without hope in His strength and fidelity?
Balance of the whole structure of virtue: Equality
This is the high standard of perfect virtue. This is the closely-woven fabric of man’s second nature; not a thread can be pulled out without the whole unravelling. But this does not make the second nature of man a standardized unit like the product of a mass-production factory. Saints do not come tumbling out of the workshop of virtue as alike as two cigarettes tumbling out of the same machine; nor do the virtues themselves follow one another about looking as much alike as identical quintuplets. Of course one is greater than another, charity, for example, and temperance; that is perhaps why they fit so beautifully together. And of course one man can be more virtuous than another, or more perfectly virtuous at one stage of his life than at another. There is a certain latitude in virtue, as there is in all things human, a scope which stretches from minimum requirements to full perfection, the distance between the humble Catholic barely squeezing between the closing doors of purgatory and the saint rushing directly into the arms of God. But there is too a certain equality, an inevitable equality, in the growth of the virtues in any one man, an equality of proportion like that of the growth of the fingers on a man’s hand in spite of the difference in size between those fingers. A man may have more inclination to one virtue than to another, whether that inclination has its roots in his physical nature, in long hard practice, or in grace. But the actual increase in virtue is not a race that leaves some of the virtues trailing far in the rear, gasping for enough breath to keep them alive.
Within the great clan of the virtues there are varying degrees of beauty, excellence, perfection. One branch of the family has a clear claim to nobility: the intellectual virtues perfect the highest faculty of man. In a sense they have a right to be a little superior; but they are a sterile branch, limiting their activities to the perfection of that one faculty — producing good mathematicians or good carpenters, but not good men.
Still, remembering the high place of reason and the preeminence of reason in the direction of human life to its goal and even in the actual possession of that goal, it is as easy to graduate the moral virtues as it is to trace a family likeness. Justice stands at the top — it comes closest to reason, it resides in the rational appetite, and like reason it is not content to stay within man himself but extends to all his relations to others, even to God. Next comes fortitude, again because it has more of reason, it brings greater realms under the sway of reason and bows down to reason the very appetite that has to do with life and death. At the bottom of the scale is temperance, regulating the appetite for the things that contribute to the life of the individual and the life of the species.
Within the intellectual branch of the family of virtue, wisdom stands at the very top because it aims at the highest perfection of the highest faculty, it includes within and reserves to its own judgment the far-flung fields of all the intellectual virtues. In the same way charity stands at the summit of the theological virtues, as aiming at the highest goal of all goals, directly at God. We can extend this perfection of charity further and say quite accurately that it is the absolutely supreme virtue, for its object is the goal which is the very reason for the existence of all the other virtues; the others are steps on the way to the final resting-place which has belonged to charity from the beginning.
Durability of the finished product: In time,
It is a beautifully balanced product, this second nature of man. One part blends into another with all the delicacy and unobtrusiveness of twilight fading into darkness. But it has all the sturdiness of hard, solid stone. True enough we can blast away the whole supernatural structure by mortal sin; and we can undermine the edifice of natural virtue by neglect or by serious cultivation of the vices. But short of all that, virtue carries on indefatigably up to the very gates of Paradise. What then? How much of all this laboriously wrought second nature will endure into and through eternity ?
Of course the saints in heaven do not have to repress inordinate desires for food or drink, they do not have to steel themselves to endure suffering and death, or to resist temptations to theft. The material of the moral virtues is missing in heaven, except justice’s constant rendering to God the things that are God’s; but the perfect order those virtues strove to impress upon our lives is there in all its perfection. Much the same is true of the intellectual virtues. Their formal element, the ideas we so laboriously acquired during life, will certainly remain, for they are part of the intellect’s equipment; but just as certainly, until the general resurrection, all the elements of our act of understanding which have a measure of dependence on physical nature — the phantasms, the process of abstraction from the phantasms, the recurrence to phantasms — cannot remain.
There is certainly no room for faith, hope or charity in hell; and in heaven what need is there of faith when we are seeing God face to face, or of hope of attaining His blessed presence when we are eternally united to Him? Charity alone, of all the virtues, remains in its full and perfect operation; for in this life its work is to unite us to God, and that is a work which it will continue to enjoy through all the long stretches of eternity.
Conclusion: Virtue and pride of accomplishment
Let us go back to the workshop from which we started this chapter. It is all cleaned up now, the odds and ends have been gathered up, things put in order, the shavings swept off the floor. There is the finished product of man’s second nature before our eyes. Humanity has every reason for a great pride in that product. It represents the slow, careful, minutely detailed labour of many years. It has been built up, stone upon stone, by patient hands, by hearts that refused to be discouraged, by hands and hearts such as flung the medieval cathedrals against the sky even though the daring gesture took hundreds of years. It is like a path through a wilderness that only thousands of steps by feet that were too often weary could ever beat into such smooth hardness. Its progress was like the conquering of a wide empire which allows no slackening of command, of discipline, of vigilance or of alert devotion to the emperor, reason. It is what a man can become, must become, if he is to be worthy of his manhood, if he is to make the most of those tremendous energies, high hopes and keen vision that are his peculiar gift.
Virtue and humility of the craftsman
Yet we must stand amazed before it like the craftsman before the beauty of his work, wondering if after all we could have produced it. If we are completely frank with ourselves as we look at that completed product of man’s second nature, we realize that actually we are looking upon the inner workings of sanctity — for sanctity is the goal of virtue as it is the goal of life. In the face of sanctity the most thoroughgoing egoist is reduced to humble wonder. Is it not an incredible thing that man should be lifted up to the heights of God and live the life of God? Yet what else does sanctity mean? And we understand better why God takes such a personal interest in this work, why He throws all the force of His divine ingenuity into the making of that supernatural second nature by which man can come to God now that God has come to him.
Virtue and gratitude
It is an incredible thing, this personal interest of God. Even more incredible is the set of tools He has delivered into man’s hands, the almost miraculous instruments that turn the passing gesture of a man into eternal music, the yearnings of human love into a divine fruition, the vague gropings of a stumbling mind into the vision of the face of God. But all this is incredible only because we try to measure the generosity of God in terms of the generosity of man. Only because we are so very small is it difficult for us to believe that there can be One so very big.
The finished product — second nature at its best
There it is. The finished product of the united efforts of God and man, second nature at its best, an array of habits of happiness that marches stoutly to the goal of man, the vision of God.