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Aristotle and Lent: The art of building virtuous habits


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Daniel Esparza - published on 02/17/24

Aristotle’s concept of 'hexis' offers a framework for understanding habit formation. Lent provides a fertile ground for putting this framework into practice.

Ancient Greek philosophers understood the question of character and its formation as being central. This concern is not at all alien to Christianity. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle explores the concept of hexis (often translated as “habit,” a steady disposition of one’s soul) as a foundational element of our ethical being.

This Lenten season, reflecting on Aristotle’s insights can offer valuable guidance on cultivating virtuous habits.

Aristotle argues that hexis, as habits, are not just simply repeated actions. That is, he is not referring to one’s everyday activities – as in habitually going to the park to feed the pigeons. Hexis refers to ingrained qualities that shape our desires and decisions. They are formed through practice, repetition, and (hopefully) intentionality. Just as a blacksmith becomes skilled through constant forging, so too do we develop courage by habitually facing our fears, or grow in generosity by practicing acts of giving. These habits become second nature, shaping our responses without conscious deliberation.

Lent is obviously a powerful training ground for cultivating virtuous hexis. The 40-day period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving provides a structured environment for practicing good habits. Things as simple as resisting the temptation of chocolate cake strengthen our moderation (temperance), while acts of charity cultivate generosity (justice). Each small act, repeated daily and intentionally, contributes to shaping our desires and aligning them with the Gospel values.

Intentionality is key

Now, Aristotle warns against mistaking mere repetition for true hexis. Mindlessly going through the motions without genuine intention or reflection will not yield lasting change. This resonates with the Catholic emphasis on the inward transformation of the heart. Lenten practices are not simply external rituals, but opportunities for self-examination and conversion. Reflecting on our motivations and aligning them with Christ’s love deepens the impact of our actions.

Both Aristotle and Catholic teachings acknowledge the role of external influences in shaping habits. We are social creatures, shaped by the communities we belong to.

Aristotle emphasizes the importance of virtuous friends and mentors who guide and model good behavior. Your local parish and other Catholic organizations and groups can provide a supportive community that encourages and celebrates growth in holiness. Participating in communal prayer, service projects, and spiritual direction fosters accountability and strengthens our commitment to virtuous living.

In short, Aristotle’s concept of hexis offers a framework for understanding habit formation, while the Lenten season provides a fertile ground for putting this framework into practice. By intentionally practicing virtuous acts, reflecting on our motivations, and seeking support from our communities, we can cultivate habits that shape us into people who contribute to a more just and compassionate world.

Remember, as Aristotle reminds us, that “excellence (that is, virtue) is not an act, but a habit.” May this Lent be a time for cultivating habits that lead us closer to that excellence.

Catholic LifestyleLentVirtue
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