Becoming Good By Doing Good. Or, Not.

Today has made me turn to Aristotle for comfort. 

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1103b

“We develop virtues after we have practiced them beforehand, the same way it works with the other arts. For, we learn as we do those very things we need to do once we have learned the art completely. So, for example, men become carpenters by building homes and lyre-players by practicing the lyre. In the same way, we become just by doing just things, prudent by practicing wisdom, and brave by committing brave deeds.”

τὰς δ’ ἀρετὰς λαμβάνομεν ἐνεργήσαντες πρότερον, ὥσπερ καὶ ἐπὶ τῶν ἄλλων τεχνῶν· ἃ γὰρ δεῖ μαθόντας ποιεῖν, ταῦτα ποιοῦντες μανθάνομεν, οἷον οἰκοδομοῦντες οἰκοδόμοι γίνονται καὶ κιθαρίζοντες κιθαρισταί· οὕτω δὴ καὶ τὰ μὲν δίκαια πράττοντες δίκαιοι γινόμεθα, τὰ δὲ σώφρονα σώφρονες, τὰ δ’ ἀνδρεῖα ἀνδρεῖοι.

1105b

“It is therefore well said that a person becomes just by doing just things and prudent from practicing wisdom. And, no one could ever approach being good without doing these things. But many who do not practice them flee to argument and believe that they are practicing philosophy and that they will become serious men in this way. They act the way sick people do who listen to their doctors seriously and then do nothing of what they were prescribed. Just as these patients will not end up healthy from treating their body in this way, so most people won’t change their soul with such philosophy.”

εὖ οὖν λέγεται ὅτι ἐκ τοῦ τὰ δίκαια πράττειν ὁ δίκαιος γίνεται καὶ ἐκ τοῦ τὰ σώφρονα ὁ σώφρων· ἐκ δὲ τοῦ μὴ πράττειν ταῦτα οὐδεὶς ἂν οὐδὲ μελλήσειε γίνεσθαι ἀγαθός. ἀλλ’ οἱ πολλοὶ ταῦτα μὲν οὐ πράττουσιν, ἐπὶ δὲ τὸν λόγον καταφεύγοντες οἴονται φιλοσοφεῖν καὶ οὕτως ἔσεσθαι σπουδαῖοι, ὅμοιόν τι ποιοῦντες τοῖς κάμνουσιν, οἳ τῶν ἰατρῶν ἀκούουσι μὲν ἐπιμελῶς, ποιοῦσι δ’ οὐδὲν τῶν προσταττομένων. ὥσπερ οὖν οὐδ’ ἐκεῖνοι εὖ ἕξουσι τὸ σῶμα οὕτω θεραπευόμενοι, οὐδ’ οὗτοι τὴν ψυχὴν οὕτω φιλοσοφοῦντες.

Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

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