The Great Conversation:

By Matt McKeown

Habit, Cicero warned us, is second nature. But what does that mean?

Ordinarily, habit is a clear enough word. It means something that a person does frequently and somewhat reflexively (as opposed to needing to plan it out or make a special effort to accomplish it)—brushing one’s teeth, cracking one’s knuckles, using a particular greeting.

The slightly confusing fact that the word habit can also refer to a few types of clothing comes from the origin of the word. Habit is ultimately derived from the Latin habēre, “to have”; clothing and, well, habits are both things we have, so for a long time the word was used in common of both. Obviously we don’t “have a habit” in the same way we “have a hat,” but there is more in the parallel than one might suppose at first. Clothing serves our bodily needs by protecting us from the elements; you might almost call it a second body, one that we use in place of the tough hide or thick fur other animals use for similar purposes. Likewise, our habits serve as an alternative to coming up with a fresh, untested response in every possible situation. (Indeed, considering that so many of our habits have to do with health and cleanliness, they often serve literally the same purposes clothes do.)

Habits are sometimes contrasted with instincts, which we also “have” but have, as it were, by default. Making a sandwich is the work first of training and then eventually of habit, but no one has to train to be hungry. Both instinct and habit are usually understood to mean some tendency to behave a certain way, but habits are more commonly associated with formation over time, usually based on some rational purpose that has since become all but instinctive through practice. Instincts, we have by nature.

The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt, until they are too strong to be broken.

The realm where habit typically enters the Great Conversation is that of ethics, whether approached through philosophy, moral theology, or psychology. St. Thomas, following the ideas of the soul and its powers laid down by Aristotle, defined the virtues as habits—dispositions or tendencies to act in a particular way, acquired by deliberate choice and strengthened by repetition. In this respect, he treats the virtues very “classically,” almost as skills. A parallel example would be dancing: two girls might have the same physical strength, dexterity, etc., and thus the same intrinsic capacity to dance, but the one who has learned to dance and practiced has the “habit” of dancing; in the same way, on the Thomist view, the person who has chosen to be courageous, hopeful, or temperate, and done so repeatedly, has acquired the habit of courage or hope or temperance. Virtue is understood in terms of these qualities, and the moral code, the list of thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots, exists to foster the choices that lead to virtuous habits. (This stands in contrast to the two other mainstream theories of ethics in Western thought: deontology, or the idea that virtue consists in fulfilling duties rather than in qualities of the soul; and utilitarianism, which defines virtue in terms of whatever conduct brings about happiness for the largest number of people.)

One of the other philosophically interesting aspects of habit is its relationship to free will. The concept of a “tendency to act” applies equally to impersonal objects and to beings that have, or are presumed to have, some level of consciousness and responsibility. Habit is normally thought of as, in some degree, interfering with freedom, especially those habits called addictions; the great Anglican poet W. H. Auden once said that “All sin tends to be addictive, and the terminal point of addiction is what is called damnation.” J. R. R. Tolkien‘s depiction of Gollum’s obsession with the titular object of The Lord of the Rings is closely comparable: “He hated it and loved it, as he hated and loved himself. … He had no will left in the matter.”

Nonetheless, few people would go so far as to describe habit as extinguishing free will. This is partly because habits are usually formed precisely by repeating free actions over and over, but also because breaking habits is possible; all recovery from addiction is essentially a long process of learning to break a habit. This may be why stories that are not actually about that long process tend to have corrupt characters either remain corrupt throughout, or redeem themselves through a single, sweeping act of heroism. Of course, the latter sometimes comes off as unrealistic, and some works take the first option—either out of moral severity (as in the excellent if melancholy film The Emperor’s Club), or just because it is after all fun to see villains get defeated! But abrupt breaks from habit can be written well. From Edmund in King Lear to Julia Marchmain in Brideshead Revisited, these sudden reversals are satisfying precisely because they capture a hope almost all of us cherish.

Suggested reading:
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiæ IIA.49
Dante Alighieri, Purgatorio
Sigmund Freud, Instincts
Flannery O’Connor, The Violent Bear It Away


Matt McKeown is a staff writer for CLT and a proud uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, take a look at some of our other pieces on the history of ideas, like this fourpart series on love or this discussion of universals and particulars. Or check out the Great Conversation being conducted in real time on our podcast, Anchored.

Published on 31st March, 2022.

Share this post:
Scroll to Top