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Forming Good Habits and Breaking Bad Habits: Aristotle's 4 Levels of Virtue

Learning from Aristotle's four ascending categories from vice to virtue

Have you ever tried to build a good habit or break a bad one but gave up because it wasn't worth the pain? Maybe it was exercise, diet, waking up early, or chastity. Maybe it was quitting an addiction. Perhaps you found that you could maintain your change for a while, even a few weeks. But doing so drained you of so much energy that you knew you couldn't do it forever.

What if I told you that the struggle doesn't have to last forever? You can get to a place where it suddenly becomes easy.

The great philosopher Aristotle had a lot to say about this. He defined 'virtue' as a good habit and 'vice' as a bad habit. Then he divided men into four ascending categories: the vicious man, the incontinent man, the continent man, and the virtuous man.

The vicious man

The vicious man is at the lowest level of virtue, which is to say that he has none. 'Vicious' here does not mean ferocious as in modern language, but rather the original meaning of filled with vice: vice-ious. This kind of man confuses good and bad and happily does bad things thinking that they are good for him. He looks at others struggling to control their behavior and thinks they are fools missing out on a good time, or suckers being exploited. He probably doesn't recognize that his behavior is a bad habit. For example:

  • Bob smokes a pack of cigarettes a day and loves doing it. Cigarettes are good, he says.
  • Steve is a college frat boy who gets drunk and sleeps around every weekend. He thinks he is clearly a king, at the top of his game. When someone tells him what he's doing is bad, he rolls his eyes and says, "you're just jealous that you can't compete with me. I have everything I could want!"
  • Tom never goes out of his way to help others. When he sees someone struggling to shovel snow off the driveway, he chuckles to himself and thinks, "That guy should try getting off the couch sometime! What a loser."
  • Bart watches pornography every night, sometimes for over an hour. He thinks it's the world's greatest invention; unlimited pleasure and variety on-demand.

The incontintent man

The incontintent man is very different. He knows what he's doing is bad, but he just can't help it. He tries and fails. He acknowledges that changing his behavior would be good, but it seems an impossible task. He might feel depressed and ashamed of himself. For example:

  • Bob knows cigarettes are bad and are destroying his lungs. His family tells him to quit and he looks down at feet, saying, "Yeah, I know. I'll try again tomorrow." He tries not to smoke and maybe he goes for a few days. But then something stressful happens and he just can't take it. He gives in and falls back to his old ways. He might try to hide the fact that he started smoking again. Maybe he'll lie about it, too. He just doesn't want to let his family down.
  • Steve has realized the frat boy life isn't actually making him happy. He sees other guys on campus who are different. He thinks he should be more like them. But when he gets an invite to a Friday night party with all his friends, he knows they'll make fun of him if he doesn't go. So he goes. And once he's there and drinking, he can't stop himself.
  • Tom sees his neighbor struggling to shovel snow and thinks that he probably should help. But he's just shoveled his own driveway, he's tired, and he wants to sit on the couch and warm up. Maybe someone else will help anyway. He turns around and walks inside.
  • Bart has started to realize that he's addicted to porn and that it isn't good for him. He can't maintain relationships and got fired from his last job for watching it at work. He wants to quit, but he can only go a day before his hunger gets the better of his self-control at night when no one's around. He feels gross and disgusted with himself afterward. But at least this way the shaking stops and he can get some work done.

The continent man

The continent man is very similar to the incontinent man, but he has more self control. He can do the right thing and control himself, but it takes an incredible amount of effort. He's constantly tense and irritable. He can't stop thinking about what he'd rather be doing. He barely makes it to the end of the day, and feels like his life sucks. What's the point of struggling through this kind of life? Sometimes he thinks he should just give up and go back to how he was before, but he knows he wouldn't be happy with that for long, now that he has seen a glimpse of a better way. For example:

  • Bob made a firm commitment to quit smoking. He threw away all his cigarettes and lighters. He takes the back way to work so he doesn't drive past the gas station where he used to stop every day. His hands keep shaking and floating back to his shirt pocket where he used to keep a pack. When he sees someone else smoking he clenches his fists and walks the opposite direction because he knows he isn't strong enough to refuse if offered a smoke. Without his customary way to handle stress, he takes it out on others and feels guilty.
  • Steve decided he doesn't care what his old friends think. He hasn't been drunk or slept around in a few weeks. He likes this vision for what his new self could be, but turning down invitations is very difficult for him; the parties were so fun! He studiously avoids his old friends because the peer pressure would pull him back in. He feels depressed, alone, and left out. But he knows that if he ends up at a party again then he'll lose control.
  • Tom goes to help his neighbor shovel snow, but he grumbles about it the whole time. It puts him in a foul mood. "Why can't this guy manage his own business?" he thinks. "I wish I didn't have to help him all the time. Shoveling two driveways really sucks." But Tom can't just go inside anymore because he knows helping is the right thing to do.
  • Bart is serious about fighting his addiction because it's destroying his marriage. He installed filtering software to block porn sites, keeps his computer and phone out of his bedroom, and goes for a run down the street when the temptation is strong. Anything to resist. His life feels miserable.

The virtuous man

The virtuous man is the final, highest stage of the moral life according to Aristotle. He does what is good, and it is easy for him to do so. There is no struggle anymore; it's automatic. He may not even remember why it used to be so hard—after all, that experience is far in the past. As a result he may not adequately sympathize with others who are going through similar struggles. For example:

  • Bob hasn't smoked a cigarette in two years. The very sight of one is repulsive to him. He could hold a cigarette in his hands and he wouldn't feel tempted; they have no power over him.
  • Steve has moved on from college and now has a stable life. He doesn't get drunk, and he maintains his chastity. He has new friends who are also responsible. He can even drink in moderation now. Life is good.
  • Tom always helps his neighbors. If he sees someone in need, he'll run over quickly. It's a joy to be able to help and connect with someone else over common work. The thought of just walking by would never even occur to him anymore.
  • Bart has been porn-free for a full year now. He's built healthier habits for managing stress, and prioritizes real human connection. It's not a struggle anymore; he's just not the kind of guy who goes there. His marriage is stable. Yet, out of prudence, he still keeps web filtering software installed and avoids those temptations.

What can we learn from Aristotle's four levels of virtue?

Of course, these categories describe a gradual process, so you may not be 100% in one category. Maybe you're 70% the continent man and 30% the incontinent man because you give in 30% of the time. Second, you can be in different categories for different habits. Maybe you've never struggled with sexual morality but gluttony is a big thing for you.

In the journey from vice to virtue, it's the two middle stages that are most difficult---when you're trying to make a change to a deeply-embedded habit. These men want to be different than they are, and that causes pain. But both the evil vicious man and the good virtuous man have it easy; neither of them struggle! What they want to be and what they are are aligned. This has two big lessons:

First, it means that the end points of vice and virtue are stable---meaning that once you're there it's difficult to change because why would you want to? You're likely to get "stuck" there. The middle stages, on the other hand, are unstable---meaning that you can't stay there forever. It's too difficult. It wears you down. Eventually you'll change your beliefs to match your behavior or you'll change your behavior to match your beliefs. You'll either make it to the top or you'll fall back down the ladder.

This fits in nicely with Christian eschatology: eventually you'll be in Heaven or Hell and completely unable to change. It's not that God prevents you from changing. You can't change because you won't want to change. The man in Heaven would never consider doing something evil, and the man in Hell is such a spiteful, hateful, devil of a man that he would never consider anything outside himself. Thus, both men are "stuck" where they choose to be. Something that Christians should talk about more is that while Heaven and Hell are real places, they both start here on Earth. Are you forming yourself to vice or to virtue? Your misery or happiness in this regard is a foretaste of what's coming.

The second lesson is that the struggle gets easier. Most of us are in the middle stages of the incontinent man or the continent man. We want to do good, but we keep falling short. It's easy to give up hope and fall into despair. "Every day sucks! I can't keep this up! I can't live like this!" No, you can't. But you don't have to. Not for long, anyway. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you can just get there, it becomes easy again.

My experience breaking bad habits and building good ones

In my experience breaking bad habits, it requires frequent confession (for sinful habits), a daily Rosary, and lots of other prayer and meditation: as a Christian, I know I can't do anything without divine help. The habit of continually acknowledging God's presence throughout the day is a valuable habit to have.

For my part, I have to stop "playing with temptation" and avoid it like the plague whenever I encounter it. If I allow myself to be in situations where I'm likely to exercise a vice or bad habit, I'm only setting myself up for failure. The struggle to change habits is real, and sometimes it feels like I'm not making progress, or that it will go on forever. But you really can get to a place where the bad habits are broken and the new good habits are deeply ingrained and easy. And the more virtuous you become, the easier it is to form new virtues. The fewer vices you have, the easier it is to break them.

What I've realized is that every moral action, no matter how small, pulls us down toward vice or up toward virtue. There's no such thing as, "I'll just do this one little thing, give in this once. It won't matter." That's a lie. Every little decision like that makes the next one either easier or harder. If you really want to go from vice to virtue, you can't tolerate the slightest slip up. And you can't ignore the value of the tiniest victory. Every little step brings you closer to your goal. The virtuous man is the only one who can be truly happy.

So get going! What's your biggest vice and what are you going to do to change it this year?

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