Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Meaning and Means of Habit Formation

When pondering what habits to form and how, I found this article by an Australian Catholic philosopher, AM Woodbury. It is called Natural Means of Character Formation and here is a list of the key points:










While looking through these means I could see some that coincided pretty directly with some of the methods CM used -- such as a foundation of bodily health (like her, he says that intervention of God's grace can supply what is lacking in this, but we should do our part too). Also, a liberal education, good companionship (she warned several times against bad company) and control of moods.

I can see several things we have done that seemed to have helped build good habits without much need for formal training, and several more things that I could do better or more intentionally now that they are brought to my attention.

While I'm talking about character I like this article by Laura Berquist called Character Formation. It is based on the book by David Isaacs by the same title, and gives a nice chart of the virtues and the ones particularly to be focused upon at certain ages.

For example, obedience and order and sincerity are the virtues to focus on in the ages from four to seven. Encourage them to obey out of love.

I could write a whole post about that, because I think it's important to understand what obedience is about at that age.

As to what forming character has to do with training in habits -- to me, the answer is "everything."

Mortimer Adler says in Habits of Mind and Character:

Turning now to the moral virtues, and associating the one intellectual virtue of prudence with them because it is inseparable from them, we must ask what they are good habits of doing. The answer is that they are good habits of desiring, as contrasted with good habits of knowing. Desiring has for its objects (1) the goods we aim at -- the ends or goals we seek, and (2) the means we choose in order to attain those ends or goals. Our desiring may also consist in (1) acts of will on our part, or (2) emotional impulses or drives. It may combine both at the same time. When it does, both mind and body are involved. Since desire is the ultimate root and spring of all action, as understanding, knowing, or thinking by themselves are not, the moral virtues, as good habits of desiring, give rise to morally good conduct. The moral vices, as habits of desiring, result in morally bad conduct.

Moral virtues, and also vices, are like the arts or skills. They are habits formed by repeated acts, morally good acts or morally bad acts. A single good or bad action does not give an individual a morally good or bad character, does not make him or her a virtuous or vicious person. Not even a few such acts do so. Only many repeated acts, all aiming in the same direction and carried out in the same way, will have that effect.

Charlotte Mason often talks about how important it is that the child WILLS to do right. Mechanical habits -- the little habits that make life and social communication go more smoothly -- are useful but not the essence of what a "habit" is. Father Hardon writes in The Meaning of Virtue in Saint Thomas:

St. Thomas defines virtue as "a good habit bearing on activity," or a good faculty-habit . Generic to the concept of virtue, then, is the element of habit, which stands in a special relation to the soul, whether in the natural order or elevated to the divine life by grace.

The soul is the remote principle or source of all our activities; faculties are the proximate sources built into the soul by nature; habits are still more immediate principles added to the faculties either by personal endeavor or by supernatural infusion from God. Consequently the soul helps the man, faculties help the soul, and habits help the faculties.

Habits reside in the faculties as stable dispositions or "hard to eradicate" qualities that dispose the faculties to act in a certain way, depending on the type of habit. If the habit is acquired it gives the faculty power to act with ease and facility; if it is infused, it procures not readiness in supernatural activity, but the very activity itself. Natural or acquired habits result from repeated acts of some one kind; they give not the power to act, but the power to act readily and with dexterity. Thus in the natural order, the faculty without the habit is simple power to act, the faculty with the habit is power to act with perfection. Since custom is parent to habit, it is called second nature. Faculty is like first nature, and habit the second.

Not every habit is a virtue, but only one that so improves and perfects a rational faculty as to incline it towards good -- good for the faculty, for the will and for the whole man in terms of his ultimate destiny.

There is a broad sense in which we can speak of the natural dispositions of any of our powers as innate virtues, but this is a loose rendering and leads to confusion. More properly the infused virtues should be contrasted with the acquired habits, in which the autonomous will of the individual plays the dominant role. My consistent effort to concentrate on a given course of action, repeating the process over a long period of time and in spite of obstacles, gradually develops a tendency to perform the action spontaneously and almost without reflection, yet to a degree of perfection that someone else without the virtue cannot duplicate.
That is very philosophical, so I'll paraphrase it in simpler terms, no doubt losing something in the translation. Habits are qualities we acquire as opposed to those we are born with. Habits are good insofar as they improve and perfect our reason. Custom gives rise to habits -- an act done once is not a habit, but one repeated many times until it becomes "second nature" is a habit.

I notice that Fr Hardon (and Jesuit Catholics in general) often talk about "faculties", a term Charlotte Mason dislikes. I have googled and found nothing much to explain her dislike.

Here are the traditional Catholic faculties -- I do not think these were the ones she disliked, because she uses similar terms herself. Here's another list -- it gets sort of complicated and perhaps this was her objection -- that we start dividing up and compartmentalizing different traits and trying to strengthen this one here, that one there -- sort of like cognitive skills are compartmentalized nowadays -- at the expense of the integrity of the child's personality.

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