Habits in History

The word habit has been used since ancient times, and its root is derived from the verb “to have.” Artistotle considered this meaning in the sense that a man may be said “to have a coat or tunic” or to have “a piece of knowledge or a virtue.” So habits in the psychological sense are qualities which a person possesses, and can be judged for their fitness.

Acquired Second Nature or Instinct?

A habit is not original in nature and an ancient remark has become a common expression: “habit is second nature.” Unlike clothes which are added externally, habits as second nature are nature itself – transformed or developed. Aristotle quotes an ancient poet: “habit is but long practice, and this becomes men’s nature in the end.”

In Aristotle’s “The History of Animals” the habits of different speces are discussed. Here the word “habit” is used not as an acquired pattern of behavior, but as a predisposition to act in a certain way. These are now called instincts.

So there are clearly two distinct and opposite meanings of the word “habit.” First, habits represent something that is added through experience, training or activity. Alternatively, they can be identical with instincts and thus belong to nature itself.

Thomas Aquinas clears up the question by stating that what animals do by instinct man does by reason. Habits, in his opinion, can be formed only by acts which involve reason.

Vice or Virtue

Both Aristotle and later Aquinas consider virtues – both moral or intellectual – as good habits, and vices as bad habits. So habits must be formed with a moral quality associated with either virtue or vice. Virtue is praiseworthy and vice blameworthy only if the possessor is responsible for the original act which created either. Human habit is conceived as rising from freely chosen acts.

Consequently, there are intellectual habits of thinking and knowing; and appetitive habits, or habits of desire, which involve emotions and the will, and usually entail specific types of conduct. There are therefore good and bad habits.

This report is not a diagnosis. We hope this information can guide you toward improving your life.

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