Habit. From habeo, to have, as the Greek equivalent
means a permanent though in many matters acquired state, and is opposed
to διάθεσις, disposition. The
latter is temporary and can be removed with comparative ease, the former permanent and removable with difficulty. Thus
the state of accidental intoxication constitutes but a diathesis,
continual drunkenness a habit.
Aristotle defines habit as the act intermediate between possessing and
being possessed, just as when one makes and something is thereby made
there is between the two a making. Also in the same passage he calls it
a diathesis, though elsewhere he makes the distinction between these
which I have just laid down. Further, he says that it is part of a given
Habit, then, may be defined with Sir W. Hamilton, "the relation of the
thing having, and the thing had." (2) It is one of the ten Categories or
Predicaments, though, as is freely confessed in the treatise on these
with which the Organon is opened, it really falls under that of
In physical and medical science, the word is used in its original
largeness of meaning, i. e. not as confined to action, but as embracing
states, modes of being, and we are accordingly familiar with the phrases
"habit of body," "a full" or "a spare habit." Also, medical men speak
of a cachexy, a permanent bad condition of the body.
In another way we both adhere to the etymology, and recognise the
original bearings of the word, when we speak of clothes as habits.
Aristotle, seeking for a definition of virtue, (3)
says that there are in the soul three things, passions, powers, habits,
and the question is to which of the three does virtue belong. After
examination he refers it to the last. In further consideration of the
subject he arrives at a puzzle from which without the aid of revelation
I do not see an escape. Habits, he justly observes, are produced by
repeatedly doing the actions which are appropriate to them.
Ἔθος gives birth to
ἦθος. This is a truth with
which we are all familiar, so familiar that, as Sir W. Hamilton has
observed, we call the cause by the name of the effect, and speak of a
custom as a habit, instead of as that which produces a habit. But to
return to the Aristotelian puzzle. Virtue being a habit, the specific
character of which is laid down by Aristotle,(4) it would seem that it is
to be acquired by doing virtuous actions. But how is an action to be
virtuous if it wants the very essence of virtue, the being habitual?(5)
We must then be virtuous in order that our deeds be virtuous, righteous
in order that they may be righteous. Only in the Christian dispensation
is this riddle solved. Only in the truth that Christ is made unto us
righteousness, can we see our way out of the great difficulty. His
righteousness is by the act of grace made the habit of the believer's
Habits are divided into active and passive. "The determinations
of the will, efforts of attention, and the use of our bodily organs give
birth to active habits; the acts of the memory and the affections of the
sensibility, to passive habits."(6)
Aristotle shows that our habits are voluntary, because they are produced
by voluntary actions. Over and above this, however unmarked may be its
action in that which has become habitual, there may be, I think, an
abiding habit of the will.
Is the law of custom producing habit confined to living agents?
According to Aristotle it is so. No practice, he argues, will make a
stone fly upwards, or flame burn downwards. To this Lord Bacon objects,
and says with his usual felicity of phrase, "Though this principle be
true in things wherein Nature is peremptory, the reason whereof we
cannot stand now to discuss, yet it is otherwise in things wherein
Nature admitteth a latitude. For he (Aristotle) might see that a strait
glove will come on more easily with use; and that a wand will by use
bend otherwise than it grew." (7)
The great authorities on habit as connected with ethics are, among the
ancients Aristotle, and Butler among the moderns.
(1) Met. IV. 20.
(2) HAMILTON'S Reid, 688.
(3) Eth. Nic. II. 5.
(4) Eth. Nic. II. 6.
(5) Eth. Nic. II. 4.
(6) FLEMING, Voc.
(7) Advancement of Learning, book II. De Augmentis, book