The Good Life
The Stoic and the Epicurean Philosophy on the Good Life
Section E. Modern Society and the Ancient Greek Idea of a Virtuous Good LifeWhich moral tradition fosters subjectivism? How comes it that most of the students are subjectivists? What is the future of the ancient Greek moral tradition in modern societies? Could we base our morality on virtues and habits?
Bibliography (Section E)
The Pragmatist 'Habitual' Good Life. Could we base our morality on virtues and habits?by Deborah Ashley Frison, University of Notre Dame, Psychology/Art History
William James' chapter on habit found in Principles in Psychology, is guided by Dr. Carpenter's phrase, "our nervous system grows to the modes in which it has been exercised" (Dr Carpenter,'Mental Physiology', 1874, Archives de Bilogie, vol. I, Liege, 1880). Carpenter calls the reader's attention to the fact that "every kind of training for special aptitudes" is more effective and longer lasting in the growing brain over the adult. Organs are molded by what is habitually rehearsed. The increased size, power, and flexibility of specific muscles and joints of gymnasts, are used as an example.
As humans, we have developed habits common to the race in general (e.g. walking) and others unique to the individual (e.g. process in which one brushes their teeth). Carpenter says it is an admitted fact that "any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself' so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, with out any consciously formed purpose or anticipation of the results" (112). In accordance, very strong and/or habitually repeated actions leave an impression on the cerebrum that under similar circumstances are often recalled. "It is in this way that what is early 'learned by heart' becomes branded in (as it were) upon the cerebrum; so that its 'traces' are never lost, even though the conscious memory of it may have completely faded out."
The first of James' practical application of this philosophy of habit to human life is: Habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate, and diminishes fatigue. When a piano player first learns, he may move his hand, elbows, torso, and entire body in search of the keys. As he becomes more skilled and familiar with the art of the trade, his movement will become confined to his fingers. The simplifying of tasks through habit and repetition is a basic function of man. In explaining why practice should make perfect in man, James quotes Dr. Mauldsley. "If act did not become easier after being done several times, if.consciousness were necessary for its accomplishment on each occasion, it is evident that the whole activity of a lifetime might be confined to one or more deeds, that no progress could take place in development." If basic acts, such as the of washing ones hands, were as difficult to achieve every time as a child's first, all the time and energy of the day would be lost to simple activities.
Considering this, the second application is: Habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed. The chain of events that complete an act can be represented by A B C D E F G. When A is triggered, it leads to natural progression of B, which leads to C, etc. Such a routine is created so that "our lower centers know the order of these movements, but our higher thought-centers know hardly anything about the matter." It is difficult for one to verbally recall many daily routines such as the order in which one brushes his/her hair, teeth, or ties his/her shoes with out at least mentally rehearsing the act. Often times one has to actually perform the ritual to remember, in spite of the fact that it may be a common sequence of events performed often and usually in the same order. This habitual chain of events maintained by the lower centers, frees the attention of the higher thought-centers. It is therefore possible for a pianist to be able to carry on a conversation, and to say prayers or repeat the alphabet with our attention far away.
Finally, James applies the: Ethical implication of the law of habit. Habits are conservative agents that shape our society. James sites rider-less cavalry horses that continue to respond to the bugle call, an escaped tiger that willfully returns to its cage, and prisoners to be readmitted. By age 20, many personal habits are formed. After this, habits of gesture, pronunciation, and dress seem to be embedded in a person and hold them to their particular place in society. It should, however, be noted the mind does not essentially forget anything. Every action and act of character has the potential to become habit. After all, "It is therefore possible for a pianist to carry on a conversation while playing and for one to say or recite the alphabet with his or her attention far away"
W. James, Pragmatism, Dover, 1995
W. James, The Principles of Psychology, 2 Vol., Dover, 1918
W. James, Essays in Pragmatism, "The Moral Philosophers and the Moral Life", 65-88, Hafner, 1948