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Habitus, Character, And Growth – Romanus Cessario, O.P.

August 20, 2013

The Christian faith maintains the unique claim that such moral development occurs only in the one who actively seeks continued conformity with Christ, who for our sakes took the form of a slave. The Eastern mystical tradition expresses it simply: "The eye cannot see without light; without Christ souls cannot have true life or peace."

The Christian faith maintains the unique claim that moral development occurs only in the one who actively seeks continued conformity with Christ, who for our sakes took the form of a slave. The Eastern mystical tradition expresses it simply: “The eye cannot see without light; without Christ souls cannot have true life or peace.”

 

Habitus And Christian Kenosis
Aristotle’s account of hexis, especially in the Nicomachean Ethics, provided Christian theologians with some of the psychological undergirding required for a complete discussion of virtue theory. [Nevertheless, theological literature on habitus remains scant. Some attempt to indicate their value to moral theology may be seen in an early apologetic work by Cardinal Satolli, Dehabitibus. Doctrina S. Thomae Aquinatis in I—II, qq. 49-70 Summae Theologiae (Rome: Propagation of the Faith, 1897). In this century, see Placide de Roton, O.S.B., Les Habitus. Leur caractere spirituel (Paris: Labergerie, 1934) and George Klubertanz, Habits and Virtues (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1965). Some popular spiritual authors attempted to explain the importance of habitus, for example, Walter Farrell, O.P., and Dominic Hughes, O.P., Swift Victory (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1955). However, when Aquinas calls sanctifying grace an "entitative" habitus of the soul, he obviously suggests an analogical use of the concept. See Ia—IIae q. 50, a. 2.]

Recently theologians of the reformed tradition, usually reluctant to employ non-biblical categories in theology, have come to accept the value of the concept for theological ethics. [Hauerwas, Character and the Christian Life, for example, signaled renewed interest in the use of Aristotelian concepts, especially hexis, among Protestant theologians. He argues "that Christian ethics is best understood as an ethics of character since the Christian moral life is fundamentally an orientation of self" (p. vii).]

While interpreters differ about the precise philosophical meaning Aristotle intended for this elusive reality, it is usually translated as a “state of character.” [See Nicomachean Ethics Bk. 2, chap. 6 (1106b36); Eudemian Ethics Bk. 1, chap. 10 (1227b8). Hutchinson, Virtues of Aristotle, esp., chap. 6, provides a succinct exposition on Aristotle's teaching that virtue is a hexis of character. See also L. A. Kosman, "Being Properly Affected: Virtues and Feelings in Aristotle's Ethics;' in Essays on Aristotle's Ethics, pp. 103-116.] This concept goes far to guarantee a full measure of importance to the principal psychological capacities of human nature. As a result of the refinements which Christian philosophy gives to hexis, moral realism can emphasize the connection between how these capacities are formed in a given individual and what sort of behavior he or she will manifest.

By definition, habitus, to use the more familiar Latin term, embodies a definite ability for growth through activity. [St. Thomas develops his views on habitus in a small, well-crafted treatise in prima-secundae, qq. 49-54. Anthony Kenny, Dispositions for Human Acts (la2ae.49-54), vol. 22 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), chooses to translate the Latin term habitus as "disposition." Although he offers reasons for his choice (pp. xix—xxxiv), it seems preferable simply to accept the original Latin term habitus as serviceable for English usage.]

The scholastic theologians understood the important function that habitus has in shaping human conduct. A person without any habitus lacks what is required for sure comportment, and finds any kind of purposeful activity difficult and burdensome. Accordingly, they described habitus as holding a middle position between potency — the capacity for action — and full actuality — actually doing something. Voluntary activity, then, always remains a realization of one or another habitus.

Moreover, as long as our psychological capacities persist in this underdeveloped state, human potential goes unrealized. [For example, the scholastic adage, "habitus medio modo se habet inter potentiam et actum purum." D. W. Hamlyn, `Behavior;' Philosophy 28 (1953): 132-145, makes the same point. Movement, he writes, "arises out of a potentiality and may lead to a hexis (a state or disposition). The activity is the realization of that hexis. Perfect activity would be quite independent of any potentiality but human activities only approximate to this state of affairs which is characteristic of the divine" (p. 132). Aristotelian scholars generally share this view.]

Such a conception of habitus implies a dynamic view of the human person. Aristotle clearly identified the causal relationship between habitus and free choice (prohairesis). [See G. E. M. Anscombe, "Thought and Action in Aristotle," in Articles on Aristotle 2, Ethics and Politics, ed. Jonathan Barnes et al. (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1977), pp. 61-71, for a discussion of some of the technical issues of interpretation involved in this statement.]Certain authors, however, failed to take proper account of Aquinas’s explicit appropriation of this important feature of Aristotelian ethics, [See Ia–Ilae q. 49, a. 3: Utrum habitus importet ordinem ad actum. In the sed contra, Aquinas writes: "Augustine says that a habitus is `something which permits action at need' [De Bono Conjugali chap. 21, 25; PL 40 390]. And Averroes says that a disposition is `something which a man can exercise in action at will’ (Commentary on De Anima Bk. 3, 18).”

Bernard Ryosuke Inagaki also discusses this question in The Philosophy of Habit (Tokyo: Sobunsha, 1981), and in his article “Habitus and Natura in Aquinas;’ in Studies in Medieval Philosophy, ed. John F. Whippel (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 1981), pp. 159-175: “The central thesis of my paper is that in his mature thought, Aquinas understood habitus in its essential relationship to human nature qua end. Another thesis, in support of the central one defended in this paper, is that according to Aquinas the cause of habitus is not acts or the repetition of acts, but some preexisting natural principle — in the final analysis, human nature itself” (p. 159).] and thus, the opinion that realist theology imprisons human nature in an abstract and inert shell enjoys a certain currency. But if one fully grasps the existentialist implications of the classical doctrine of habitus as Aquinas developed it, such a supposition finds little justification.

The eighteenth-century British moralist Joseph Butler attests to a correct understanding of what habitus means for Christian life. In his Third Sermon at the Rolls Chapel, he says that “when virtue has become habitual, when the temper of it is acquired, what was before confinement ceases to be so, by becoming choice and delight.” Nevertheless, we find writers who still present the notion of habitus as nothing more than an acquired pattern of behavior which results, principally, from repeated actions of the same kind, like putting so many creases in a starched linen cloth. [Joseph Butler (1692-1752) developed his moral philosophy principally in response to the theories of Hobbes. See his Fifteen Sermons in The Works of Joseph Butler, ed. W. E. Gladstone, vol. 2 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1896), p. 63.]

Some moral theologians, un-alerted to the dangers inherent in identifying morality with the merely habitual, concluded that habitus would serve nicely as a concept for training in morals. And philosophers can point to certain texts in Aristotle which lend support to this partial interpretation. [See the discussion in the Nicomachean Ethics Bk. 2, chap. 2 (1104a23-25), especially the importance Aristotle assigns to early character formation: "It is not unimportant, then, to ac- quire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth; rather, it is very important, indeed all-important."]

As the image of creased cloth suggests, these same theologians talk as if morality amounts simply to developing the proper routines of a Christian life, such as keeping the commandments. In order to underscore the gross misunderstanding implicit in this view, one contemporary theologian published an article, “Virtue is Not a Habit;” wherein he insisted that habitus in the authentic scholastic sense means, above all, openness to creative activity, not stilted repetition. Even so, the notion of habitus fell out of currency among post-conciliar theologians, who, seeing the dangers in presenting too mechanical a view of Christian growth,” rejected the concept as an unsuitable category for handling all that a fully personalist moral theology required.

Despite this general trend, other authors, especially from within the Thomist tradition, understood the advantage which a more sophisticated interpretation of habitus held out for moral theory. [For example, Vernon Bourke, The Role of Habitus in the The Thomistic Metaphysics of Potency and Act, in Essays in Thomism, ed. R. E. Brennan, O.P. (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), 103-109, offers a magisterial presentation on this subject.  In addition, Bourke's unpublished doctoral dissertation, Habitus as a Perfectant of Potency in the Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (University of Toronto, 1938) provides the textual study which supports his conclusions.]

Habitus supposes a conception of the human person as open to development and modification from both natural and divine causes. Furthermore, habitus points up the difference between what derives from authentically personal activity and what remains rooted in the biological givens of temperament or personality type. Aquinas himself clearly understood that each human person possessed certain natural endowments, as distinct from habitus, which establish, within the limits set by common nature, the range of expression achievable by personal effort.

To take a simple example, the capacity for bravery common to all men and women develops one way in the soldier of fortune and another way in the person who, for reasons such as physical stature (which do not result from voluntary choosing), constitutionally shuns all physical conflict. Still, barring abnormal biological defect, each personality “type” possesses the radical capacity for developing the major habitus of action. In fact, habitus development can even compensate for natural imbalances in a person, for instance, when the soldier of fortune, having discovered the meaning of restraint, practices meekness.

In sum, a realist anthropology recognizes that this man or that woman, i.e., individual instances of human nature, exhibit different aptitudes for moral development. This recognition does not lead to Pascal’s pessimistic observation, Verite au-deca des Pyrenees, erreur au-dela — What’s true on one side of the Pyrenees is false on the other.13 Why? The true distinction of the human person lies in the common inbred capacities proper to the species, even though each individual embodies these in different ways. Since this native potential originally exists in a pure state of indeterminacy, the same person experiences a certain poverty. As a result of this indeterminacy, the moral life involves an educative and developmental process. And the progress of virtue or the growth of vice depends upon how successfully an individual can modify these indeterminacies into qualities of excellence.

Given its charter as a divine science, Christian moral theology must seek to sound the harmonies that exist between human psychology and revealed truth. In his treatment of habitus, Aquinas was influenced by St. Augustine as well as by Aristotle and Averroes (these latter being the experimental psychologists of their respective periods in history).14 On the other hand, faith can also cast an explanatory light onto matters of human science. Accordingly, the Christian moral theologian may choose to illumine the Aristotelian doctrine of habitus with a theological truth, such as the Christological doctrine of kenosis.

The New Testament reports that Christ “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Philemon 2: 6-7). Standard theological interpretation of this passage affirms that the Eternal Son, though maintaining his full divine status, accepted what alone remains impossible for God, the actual condition of possibility.

Christ did this inasmuch as he assumed a full and complete human nature and accepted the personal history implied in living out a human existence. In the case of Christ, meritorious acts of love and obedience form the center of his life of preeminent virtue. By this kind of life, ultimately expressed in his salvific death on the cross, Christ makes complete sanctification possible for the whole human race.

In order to make the comparison of this central New Testament doctrine with a habitus, it should be observed that the life of Christ the Head moves contrapuntally to that of those who are joined to him as members of his Body. For Christ, the movement entails abandonment of his divine prerogatives, although not his personal excellence as the Second Person of the blessed Trinity, and the taking on of every human deficiency compatible with the uniqueness of his divine personhood and mission.

This kenosis, as the patristic writers remind us, allows Christ to embrace the salvific life and death which establishes once and for all the salvation of the human race. By contrast, the life of the believer begins in a state of natural kenosis, what amounts to the poverty of indeterminacy, and from there moves towards the perfections which constitute a virtuous moral life. All this follows a pattern of gradual, progressive development which evolves, above all, in accord with the providential dispositions of divine grace.

The Christian faith maintains the unique claim that such moral development occurs only in the one who actively seeks continued conformity with Christ, who for our sakes took the form of a slave. The Eastern mystical tradition expresses it simply: “The eye cannot see without light; without Christ souls cannot have true life or peace. ” [The fourteenth-century Byzantine mystical writer, Niholas Cabasilas (b. c. 1322) writes: "Continual union with Christ is necessary for souls if they wish to live fully and enjoy perfect rest. The eye cannot see without light: without Christ souls cannot have true life or peace." See his Interpretation of the Divine Liturgy, trans. Joan M. Hussey and P. A. McNulty, (1960), chap. 54. Unfortunately, the actual fragmentation of theology segregates moral theology from instruction about the dynamics of the participated divine life available to each believer through union with the Risen Christ.]

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