Sunday, April 6, 2008

Philosophy of St. Thomas - Habit

I got off track on writing up my notes from reading the Summa Theologica. It has been almost a month! If you, my reader, have been interested in them, I apologize for the unintended hiatus. If, however, these posts do not interest you, then I ask you to indulge me with your patience. While I'd be delighted if they are useful to others in some way, I'm primarily doing them for my own sake: to transfer my notes from 3x5 cards to the computer, and to expand upon them a bit.

Habits are extremely important to St. Thomas' moral theology. I do not pretend to be proficient in either aspect of his thought, but what follows is what I have managed to put together about them.

His definition is somewhat difficult to follow, but as best I understand things he defines a habit as a quality by which one is disposed to action - whether good or bad (ST I-II Q49 A2). The Catholic Encyclopedia definition might be more clear:
[A] quality difficult to change, whereby an agent whose nature it is to work one way or another indeterminately, is disposed easily and readily at will to follow this or that particular line of action.
The virtues and vices are habits whereby we are disposed to do what is right, or to do what is evil. I don't have a reference for this ready to hand, but St. Thomas has said someplace that we could think of habits as a sort of "second nature" - indeed, that notion has found its way into our everyday language when we say of someone that it is "second nature" for him to do a certain thing, because he does it so well and so readily. Of course, to do right (or wrong) in some particular way isn't really a part of our nature: as humans we all share the same nature, and others may or may not share our dispositions to act in particular ways. But when we have nurtured or otherwise developed habits, they seem to become so much a part of who we are that we commonly think of them as "second nature". It becomes part of who I am, and characterizes me to such an extent, that folks often say things like, "That's just his nature."

One aspect of the definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia that's worth highlighting is that habits are "difficult to change." If we can give them up at the drop of a hat, they aren't really habits. If we give them up "readily" but return to them again, maybe they really are habits: we are accustomed to that behavior, so that it's difficult to change them.

I've talked about this before, and I really think it's critically important and a brilliant insight of Catholic moral theology. We sometimes say of older folks that they are "set in their ways". This is habit at work. I have also heard it said that most conversions to Christ occur among the young (sorry, no link; I heard this back in the mid-80s). This makes perfect sense within the context of habits: the young are not yet so set in their ways, and their patterns of thought and action are not so set in stone as they someday will be. This is also the point of Ecclesiastes 12:
Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years approach of which you will say, I have no pleasure in them; before the sun is darkened, and the light, and the moon, and the stars, while the clouds return after the rain; when the guardians of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders are idle because they are few, and they who look through the windows grow blind; when the doors to the street are shut, and the sound of the mill is low; when one waits for the chirp of a bird, but all the daughters of song are suppressed; and one fears heights, and perils in the street; when the almond tree blooms, and the locust grows sluggish and the caper berry is destroyed, because man goes to his lasting home, and mourners go about the streets; before the silver cord is snapped and the golden bowl is broken, and the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the broken pulley falls into the well, and the dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life-breath returns to God who gave it.
I observe in myself how difficult it is to break habits now, and how difficult to build new ones. Far better to do so when young (and I'm not really all that old), when these things are easier. Habits can be a wonderful blessing, but they can also become a curse that we bring upon ourselves.


Anonymous said...

Nice post. Brings to mind passing remark our pastor made in a sermon that continues to haunt me.

The woman, so he told, was in a nursing home. She had worked hard most of her life telling herself that she would have time to pray in earnest when she was older. Well, now she is older and she told our pastor that prayer was even harder in old age. Ailments and weak memory befuddled her attempts to build a prayer life.

I try to remind myself daily that TODAY is my best chance at being a saint.

Sigh, and, again, dear Lord, I have failed You.
- Martin

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hi Martin,

Thanks for stopping by, and thanks for your comment. I appreciate the anecdote very much; it is consistent with what I have observed in people I know who are older and who are having very difficult times with breaking habits that they have had their whole lives.

I have to confess - to my own shame - that as a younger man I sometimes found those difficulties inexplicable or ridiculous. I was a fool. But now, as I learn more about Catholic moral theology, and as I see how true it is to my own experience, I feel nothing but empathy for those who (like me) struggle to undo habits that they wish they had never started and to create new ones that they've never had.

May God have mercy on us.

On the bright side: with God's help there is hope for us to set aside our vices, and with God's grace to replace them with the virtues. And when we have done that, we will find that when we are older, it will be easy (or at least easier!) for us to do what is right, just as it is easy for us now to do what is wrong. It's sometimes daunting, but that hope really helps.

Peace in Christ,


Anonymous said...

Kudos on your reading of St Thomas.

Habit, between being and acting, a channel between the two. We are what we repeatedly do, as the big A said.

Be sensitive in your reading to the notion of analogy, and the various senses in which St Thomas uses words, especially key words like habit. It will greatly enrich your understanding and kindle your love for the beauty of his works.

Habitus as a sort of having (the etymological sense), the habit of the first principles, vs lesser intellectual habits, or the moral habits - distinction rests on faculty.

Analogy is where it's at, for me now, and I've read a bit of Thomas. Not that I'm an expert, but just an admirer. And the Summa, as Thomas says himself, is good for those just starting, or the proficient. Iterative.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Anon,

Thanks for visiting.

Actually I've already read all the Aquinas I was reasonably able to get my hands on - Both Summas, McInerny's Penguin collection, Commentary on the Book of Causes, etc. These posts are drawn from the notes I took while reading - stuff that struck me as somehow noteworthy or particularly interesting.

I intend to re-read the Summas...but there is quite a lot of other stuff to be read first :-)