Real Virtue Is “Second Nature”
In a sense, then, to become virtuous is to internalize the law (and the good to which the law points) so that you follow it more or less automatically. As Aristotle put it, when you’ve acquired a moral habit, it becomes second nature. Why do we call things “second” nature? Our “first” nature is the hardwiring that characterizes our biological systems and operates without our thinking about it. At this very moment, you are not choosing to breathe. You are not thinking about breathing. (Well, maybe now you are. But 99.9 percent of the time, you breathe and blink and digest your breakfast without thinking about it.) “Nature” simply takes care of a process that hums along under the hood of consciousness. Those habits that become “second” nature operate in the same way: they become so woven into who you are that they are as natural for you as breathing and blinking. You don’t have to think about or choose to do these things: they come naturally. When you have acquired the sorts of virtues that are second nature, it means you have become the kind of person who is inclined to the good. You will be kind and compassionate and forgiving because it’s inscribed in your very character. You don’t have to think about it; it’s who you are. (In fact, if I have to deliberate about whether to be compassionate, it’s a sure sign I lack the virtue!)
A key question then: How do I acquire such virtues? I can’t just think my way into virtue. This is another difference between laws or rules, on the one hand, and virtues, on the other. Laws, rules, and commands specify and articulate the good; they inform me about what I ought to do. But virtue is different: virtue isn’t acquired intellectually but affectively. Education in virtue is not like learning the Ten Commandments or memorizing Colossians 3:12–14. Education in virtue is a kind of formation, a retraining of our dispositions. “Learning” virtue—becoming virtuous—is more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory: the goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play “naturally,” as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.
• Smith, James K. A..
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, (pp. 17-18)
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