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Aristotle 101

We are what we repeatedly do.
       Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit
.”
                           – Aristotle, 4th Century BC

He was, perhaps, the wisest human in a thousand years. He got an amazing number of things right for his time, which was when Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world 2,300+ years ago. For me, Aristotle’s insight quoted above is one of those things, and a profound one.

It works both ways. 

A person who is kind as a rule is kind, despite the few exceptions that make us normal people and not saints. My friend, Peg, comes to mind.

One who acts on wholesome principle rather than expedience seven times out of eight or more is a principled person and worthy of my respect, whether I agree with him or not. Here, my mother and father both leap to mind.

Someone who defames another at the outset of a disagreement and shuns argument on the issues is contemptible to me, regardless of the few occasions when his behavior may appear otherwise. Any number of politicians and media people slither forward to embody this example.

When, as a rule, anyone lies, distorts or fails to report a fact to manipulate my thinking in a particular direction, that puts them beneath contempt in my mind. Rabid propagandists, from the editors of Pravda to Joseph Goebbels’ personification of the ‘Big Lie’ through the China Peoples’ Daily to the New York Times all qualify in spades.

So, excellence and perfidy are habits, or a personal philosophy, as my Dad would have put it. As are the norms of behavior in between. For example, a chronically indecisive person, or a person swayed by the last thing she heard, or a loud-mouthed boor who has a lot to be modest about but isn’t, all are habitual behaviors that define these people to the world.

Can people change? Of course, with enough motivation and stick-to-it-ivity. I read somewhere long ago that it takes 23 regular repetitions of a new behavior to make it a habit. For me, that’s been pretty much true. After 20-ish times, I feel like I’m not measuring up to my personal yardstick if I don’t continue. That’s until I slack off for twenty or so times in a row, of course. Then, my new bit of self-improvement has to be re-acquired. But, fortunately, it seems a bit less difficult to get it back the second time.

If we accept Aristotle’s insight then, true heroes and true villains make themselves known, along with flakes and the reliable, charlatans and fanatics, the wise and the foolish.

What they do repeatedly is who they are. And wishing it were otherwise won’t change what is.

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