“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” — Aristotle
The idea that excellence is a product of training isn’t surprising. Athletes, musicians, and those who achieve preeminence in other areas requiring superior personal performance are well-aware of the necessity and value of continuous training. The point that may not be as obvious is that training and habituation are prerequisites for areas of excellence beyond developing physical skills and individual talents. They are necessary for emotional excellence, moral excellence, interpersonal excellence, as well as intellectual excellence. The point that may be even less obvious is that Aristotle also said that training and habituation are prerequisite to virtue. People have the capacity to be virtuous but become virtuous people only through training and habitually acting rightly. One becomes virtuous by acting virtuously.
How does one act virtuously? Cicero advised, “It is our special duty, that if anyone needs our help, we should give him such help to the utmost of our power.” Confucius said, “To be able to practice five things everywhere under heaven constitutes perfect virtue… gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness, and kindness.” Although how one practices “gravity” is less than obvious, the other four requirements need no explanation. John Wesley was even clearer when he said, “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.” Now that leaves little room for doubt or negotiation.
The message has not changed over the millennia. Dante said, “He who sees a need and waits to be asked for help is as unkind as if he had refused it.” Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Is virtue the path to personal joy and fulfillment? Probably not. George Bernard Shaw said, “Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness, but it is greatness.” Why? As George Eliot put it, “Our deeds determine us as much as we determine our deeds.” Remember Aristotle’s message, “We are what we repeatedly do.” The choice is to habitually act rightly or to act wrongly. At that level, it’s not much of a choice. The key is remembering that acting virtuously is an essential part of one’s ongoing excellence training.
Now you know so there you go.