I recently attended a remote presentation by Boston University students about how to thrive in the COVID-19 setting. One student rightly stressed the importance of creating good habits and structure. In the chat window, one attender said that advice reminded her of “Aristotle’s quote” that “We are what we repeatedly do.”
That is not a quote I had heard cited before, and it piqued my interest. It sounded quite in keeping with Aristotle’s thought, but seemed like a different idiom from Aristotle’s. Of course, one of the joys of the internet is it is quite easy to look up quotes. So within seconds I found a short essay from a writer named Caelan Huntress who was crushed to discover that, as far as we know, Aristotle did not in fact ever say this.
Huntress was crushed because he had deeply admired not the quote not only for its content but also for its poetic cadence – especially in the expanded form, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” As it turns out, my instinct about the quote’s form and content was correct: while Aristotle never said it, the one who did say it was saying it as a way of explaining Aristotle. Will Durant said it in his The Story of Philosophy, but did so as a gloss on two actual quotes from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, in sections I.7 and II.4. Aristotle’s actual quotes do not have the beauty in English that Durant’s do. I doubt they have that beauty even in the original Greek, since – unlike Plato’s dialogues, which are intended as polished literary works – Aristotle’s extant works are believed to be merely the collections of his lecture notes.
Still I think the content of these quotes are really helpful for Aristotelians like myself as we think through the nature of virtue, and I want to spell them out here at more length than Durant did. What is particularly interesting about them is that they contrast: one to some extent downplaying the importance of individual actions, one stressing the ways in which those individual actions are indeed important. The quote from section I.7 says that
the Good of man is the active exercise of his soul’s faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue, or if there be several human excellences or virtues, in conformity with the best and most perfect among them. Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy.
Here Aristotle is reminding us that human flourishing, eudaimonia, should be judged at the level of an entire life, and so must the virtues that contitue it: the most important question, contra much analytical ethics, is not “What should we do?” but “What should we be?” The important thing is the larger patterns of action over a life, not individual actions taken discretely. Yet having said that, when we get to the other quote, from II.4, it turns out that the individual actions do matter:
virtue results from the repeated performance of just and temperate actions. Thus although actions are entitled just and temperate when they are such acts as just and temperate men would do, the agent is just and temperate not when he does these acts merely, but when he does them in the way in which just and temperate men do them. It is correct therefore to say that a man becomes just by doing just actions and temperate by doing temperate actions; and no one can have the remotest chance of becoming good without doing them.
Individual actions matter because they add up to virtue, partially constitute it – and they do so specifically from their repeated performance. The emphasis on repetition is crucial, for the kind of actions that matter are not the isolated and rare hard choices that trolley-problem thought experiments lead us to consider, but the less spectacular everyday actions that constitute the daily flow of our lives. The ones, that is, that we do so often it is easy not to think about them; thus they form habits, or dispositions (hexis). When those habits are good, they are virtues.
This emphasis on repetition of action is another way in which Aristotle’s eudaimonism is generally in harmony with Buddhism. One of the most central words in currency among modern Western Buddhists discussing their Buddhism is practice. “What’s your practice?” most often means “What sort of meditation do you do?” But the English word “practice” has the broader connotation of doing things repeatedly until you get good at them – which is exactly Aristotelian habituation. And we do find just such a usage in classical Buddhism in the Sanskrit word abhyāsa, which literally means repetition, and is therefore often used to mean habit, practice, discipline – including but not only in a meditative sense. In one of my favourite verses (BCA VI.14), Śāntideva gives us this great tip on practising patient endurance (kṣānti): “Nothing is hard to do if it is an object of abhyāsa. Therefore, from the abhyāsa that is mild suffering (mṛduvyathā), one can tolerate even great suffering (mahāvyathā)”. That is, one can view mild suffering as itself a practice, whose repeated exposure can lead one to tolerate great suffering.
Having said that, it is noteworthy that Aristotle never speaks of anything like meditation, though some of his Stoic and Epicurean foes might. Nicolas Bommarito in his “Imaginative moral development” (Journal of Value Inquiry 51: 251-62) argues that this may constitute a lack on Aristotle’s part. For Aristotle, becoming good at acting is just a matter of acting over and over until you get it right. (“Men become builders by building houses, harpers by playing on the harp. Similarly we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.”) By contrast, Bommarito argues that imaginative mental exercises, such as those where Śāntideva to imagine ourselves as being others, allow for a development of virtue in ways that go beyond practising the actions themselves – in unique or unexpected situations, or in “morally dangerous” situations: “If I want to avoid getting angry with a friend who is very annoying or who has very different political views, once I’m face to face with them it will be too late.”
I suspect that Bommarito is right about this. Virtue is hard, really hard, and we can be our own worst enemies while trying to develop it. “Practice” shouldn’t only mean trying the actions themselves over and over to get them right – though neither should it only mean practices like visualization and sitting meditation that are detached from action. For such practices are aimed, at least in part, at making us act better. One way or another, Buddhists and Aristotelians can agree that a great deal of the good lies in repetition.