The sophist Protagoras believed, and most of us would agree, that each normal individual is taught right and wrong by the community. Such knowledge isn’t the privilege of genius. All of us, from illiterate peasants to college professors, have our share of moral wisdom. This poses a couple of interesting questions. The first is: how does this process work? The second stands at the heart of all morality: what must I do to become a good person?
I previously posted my ideas on how we internalize the rules of morality. In brief, we don’t use the rules as a menu of solutions, but rather integrate them into what I called an ideal person or type, against whom we measure the moral worth of real-life persons. We apply the rules as a whole, not piecemeal, and we judge a person’s character in the same manner. On the other hand, we learn and judge right behavior in relation to specific situations, never generically or abstractly. Right behavior in church, for example, differs in substance from right behavior on a football field.
How much of this journey is under individual control? Some portion of each human life (50 percent, estimated Machiavelli) is the product of luck and happenstance: not least, the family and community one is born into. Since Marx, social scientists have looked to vast impersonal forces (social, economic, psychological) to determine the rest.
Yet the flow of causation between the individual will and such forces appears uncertain. Social science is nothing like mechanics. We are never surprised by eclipses, but we are forever surprised by sudden changes in, say, crime or fertility rates. I assume, on the best evidence, that impersonal forces are merely an aggregation of personal wills, rather than a law over them.
Nature provides an undertanding of right and wrong, and an inclination to behave correctly. The community teaches the specifics. Moral self-education begins with acceptance: I must willingly become a moral actor, with a personal relationship to the moral rules of the community, and a personal accountability for my failings. Once I accept my part in the moral drama, the question becomes how to play it best.
To become a good person I must first choose the right persons to emulate. Character is measured whole, yet is revealed in specific situations. Good character, therefore, can only be learned by taking note of how the best in our community have behaved across a range of trials and circumstances. Who “the best” are is known to the community: for example, St. Francis, if one lived in the High Middle Ages, or George Washington, if one lived a century ago in the U.S. Tradition and religion are all-important to this process, but it is up to the individual to choose.
The Imitation of Christ was a popular book two centuries after the death of St. Francis. It assumed that we learn by imitation. Today, people sometimes ask questions like “What car would Jesus drive?” The appeal may be less compelling, but the assumption is the same. We learn how to behave correctly by watching and imitating others. The life of Jesus, for this reason, is far more important than the Sermon on the Mount.
Between the grand ideals of religion and the business of everyday life stand any number of intermediary objects of imitation, starting with one’s parents and neighbors. Here, of course, luck plays a part. Exposure to persons worthy of imitation depends on fate as much or more than on will.
It should be understood, in any case, that such worthies aren’t “role models,” interchangeable with Hollywood actors or football players: good character isn’t a part we play or a skin we put on, but a person we become. Imitation requires observation at length and in depth.
How does one go about imitating someone else? Here Aristotle had it right. The life of virtue is a matter of habituation to the right routines. “By doing the acts that we do in our transactions with other men,” he wrote, “we become just or unjust, and by doing the acts that we do in the presence of danger, and being habituated to feel fear or confidence, we become brave or cowardly.” I might add, the good husband is one who structures his life as such. The honest worker is one trains himself against all temptation. It really is as simple as that. Self-rule is mastery over one’s habits.
Simple doesn’t equate to easy. The formation of right habits is a life-long struggle for most human beings. This struggle is precisely what is meant by “the life of virtue.”
Self-rule is a high attainment, the triumph of integrity over selfishness. It is not the highest. The loftiest form of morality is the application of self-rule to the assistance and protection of others who are less fortunate. Nobility in matters of virtue is the inverse of nobility as a social class: only those who value and exalt their neighbors more than themselves possess it.
How can one achieve moral nobility? In any extreme form, the bulk of the human race would shun it. The price is simply too high. Perfect generosity of spirit, total openness to friend and stranger – such traits are rare because to less flawless types they appear indistinguishable from weakness and gullibility.
One can be trained to virtue, but I suspect that one must be born to sainthood.