Last week we saw how virtue is “an habitual and firm disposition to do the good.” A virtue is formed by intentionally and repeatedly choosing a moral good so that it becomes a habitual part of how we act and think, a part of our very character.
When we hear the word “habitual,” we tend to think of being stuck in a rut, the very opposite of a sense of freedom. However, that is not the case with virtues. We can see this by considering an analogy with sports or music. As noted last week, these differ from virtues in that virtue is concerned with universal goods, ones that perfect a person’s character. However, they are similar in the way good habits in sports and music lead one to greater freedom.
Consider the question: who is the most free person on the ski slopes, the beginner on his first day of lessons, or the Olympian? Clearly it is the expert skier. He has access to the entire mountain, every slope and even areas considered out of bounds, every type of weather and terrain, and he can navigate these with ease. The beginner has access only to the bunny hill or, if he is a quick learner, maybe even the intermediate slopes by the end of the day. However, it is only done with great effort and difficulty, constantly pausing due to falls and other difficulties.
For the expert skier, correct form, good technique, good slope decision making, etc. are all a matter of habit for him. These habits were created by intentionally choosing to execute good technique, form, etc. Far from enslaving him, these good habits of the body led to freedom on the slopes. Similar analogies can be made with things like music or intellectual disciplines.
The formation of good habits which lead to freedom in athletics, music, and academics is just as true for moral habits—virtues. The more we develop good moral habits, the freer we will be in our daily lives.
We only need to pause a moment to see how this is true. I am sure we have all experienced two different types of situations which illustrate this point. The first is when we face a moral dilemma and authentically struggle to know the right thing to do. Do we feel free to do the right thing? No, we are not even sure what the right thing is.
The second freedom-impairing situation occurs when we do know what the right thing is and we really, really, don’t want to do it. Perhaps it is apologizing to an enemy, returning something we have stolen, losing a friendship because we won’t compromise our principles, etc. In such situations we tend to feel tied up, stressed, bound by indecision. We feel less free.
However, if we have grown in virtue, these situations will not pose such difficulty, for the habit of choosing the good repeatedly, makes it easier for us both to perceive what is truly good and to choose it more easily. Like an expert skier navigating a difficult slope, we will have already done it a thousand times!
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!