“We become just by the practice of just actions”

Aristotle and Aquinas rightly argued that the virtues are acquired through habituation and, in particular for Aquinas, the habituation of the passions. The habits we acquire necessary to make us not only do what justice requires but to become just in the doing are complex responses learned over time. Therefore to become just means acting as the just act; but you cannot become just by slavishly imitating what the just do. Rather, you must feel what the just feel when they act justly. The virtue, therefore, can only be acquired through our actions if what we do is not different from what we are. The virtues can be learned through doing, but the “doing” cannot be a product separate from the agent. Aristotle observes, “men become builders by building houses, and harpists by playing harp. Similarly, we become just by the practice of just actions, self-controlled by exercising self-control, and courageous by performing acts of courage.”

Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith, page 156.

I really like this explication of acquiring the virtues from Hauerwas, because I think it captures the a lot of the problems inherent to progressive justice-obsessed spaces online. A lot of progressive political life is lived on social media, whether that be Twitter, Facebook, or more recently, TikTok. Clearly, among these folks, there is a yearning for justice, and an ever present call for action and to “do better” at a personal level. These calls come paired with the irony-laced mockery of political foes, showcasing the contempt those foes are held in. These two things are often inseparable: a desire for a more just, loving and inclusive world, and an attitude of derision for those not as committed to such a vision.

But, as Hauerwas reminds us, Aristotle and Aquinas taught us that the doing of virtuous deeds cannot be separated from a character of virtue. And the making of such character cannot be done by oneself; it requires a community, the real presence of other people, who hold us accountable and teach us what it means to have character, who show us the virtues required for such a life, in action. In turn, those people learned from others before them, on and on down through the ages, from those who first learned them. If we want a better world for everyone, then we cannot expect it to be forged amongst a disparate collection of atomized individuals who have only a vision of the world shaped by the demands of Progress. No, it takes people trained and practiced to identify the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, not just to understand them, but to feel those things deep in their soul. As Hauerwas says above, its not about a pale imitation of a certain way of life; its a Knowing deep in the soul, a Knowing that can only be given as a sort of Grace, that will really change the world in any real way.

And if that isn’t a compelling case for the importance of the church, over and against the wasteland that is the modern technoculture, then I don’t know what else is.


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