How would you describe day-to-day life with children? Although my children are wonderful and beautiful creatures, I find that most of my day-to-day interactions with them consist of me telling them, rather frantically, either what to do, or what not to do. For instance, on any given day I can be assured that I will say the following things at least 50 times: don’t shout, don’t reach at the table, don’t call names, don’t slam doors, don’t tell lies, don’t chase your sister around the house, don’t be sassy, get off your ipod, stop whining, stop making your brother cry, do your chores, do your homework, clean up your mess, brush your teeth, make your bed, tidy your room, turn off the TV, come the first time I call you, and so on and so forth.
It seems that throughout the day I am focused on their actions. Life with children is hectic, and this usually requires me to employ a ‘parenting moment-to-moment’ mode, where I’m so busy thinking about whether my children are doing the right things, that sometimes I forget the bigger picture about what sort of person I want them to become.
Now, maybe you are saying: ‘but surely if they are raised doing good things, then that will lead them to become good people’, and that is certainly my hope. Indeed, Aristotle thinks that when we repeat good actions, that enables us to develop a good character. However, being a good person is about more than doing the right things. According to Aristotle, the good person has a certain ‘internal condition’ that not only leads him to act in the right way, but also enables him to be happy while doing it. Aristotle thinks that this internal condition is virtue.
Doing the Right Thing vs. Wanting to Do the Right Thing
A few months ago, I had an experience with my son which reminded me that he, indeed, is not yet virtuous. His younger sister, who had only recently started playing the violin, had a concert one Saturday afternoon. He and I had a conversation before the concert that went something like this:
‘What are we doing this afternoon?’
‘We are going to your sister’s violin concert.’
‘What?! I’m not going.’
‘Yes, you are. In our family, we support each other. This is her first concert, and we are going to be there to cheer her on. Remember, she has gone to all your cello concerts for years now.’
‘Yea, but she only went to my concerts because she wasn’t old enough to think for herself! I am old enough to think for myself, and I don’t want to go.’
‘But don’t you want to go and support her?’
‘Not really. I’d rather stay at home.’
‘Son, if you don’t go, I’m taking away all your allowance.’
So, he went to the concert. He did the right thing, but he only did it because I threatened him with financial sanctions. He was pushed by an external force (me) to go; he had no internal motivation to do it. And he certainly was not happy about going.
Does it really matter if my children grow up to have this internal condition of virtue? After all, my husband doesn’t really like going to children’s violin concerts, either. Is raising them with an aim to become virtuous asking too much of a human being?
Aristotle thinks that the majority of people will never become virtuous, but that’s only because they haven’t been taught properly how to become virtuous. And although it’s difficult, he believes that to become a virtuous person is the highest achievement for a human being.
As I have mentioned before, Aristotle believes that if a human being is to be happy, he needs to have a certain kind of life, one where he governs his soul, and therefore his actions, according to reason.
Now, there are many passions and desires in the human soul. If a person governs all these parts of his soul according to reason well, that means he is good at doing what is unique to humans. Aristotle says that we call this man the ‘good man’ because he is good at being human. This is the man who is virtuous. The Greek word for virtue is arête, which can also be translated as ‘excellence’. So, the virtuous person is the person who excels at living the kind of life human beings are meant to live.
The concept of virtue is at the very heart of the Nicomachean Ethics. The human good, which up until now we have identified with happiness, turns out to be virtuous action. So, the virtuous man is the man who achieves happiness. And if we want to find out what it means to be happy, we need to find out what it means to be virtuous.
What Is Virtue?
So, what does Aristotle think it means to be virtuous? That question can’t be answered quickly, but a good way to start answering it is to note that Aristotle thinks of a virtue as a habit, or a disposition. If you have a particular virtue, that virtue inclines you to act in a certain way. For instance, if you have the virtue of courage, then you are able to do courageous things more easily than someone who does not have courage. And, with the virtue of courage, not only are you more able to do courageous things, you actually want to do courageous things.
This, I think, is what is most interesting about Aristotle’s concept of virtue – and what makes it especially relevant for us as parents. The virtuous person is the one who wants to act as her reason directs. Consider again Aristotle’s division of the soul into rational and irrational parts: we have our reason, and we have our passions, desires and impulses. Now, Aristotle thinks that human action always incorporates both our reason and our desires. Desire is what ‘moves’ us toward action, but reason is what guides and judges that movement so that we act in the right way.
The problem is that many people experience conflict between their desires and their reason. Someone may have a particular desire – say to tell a lie to get out of trouble – and, with her reason, she understands that desire to be bad. Yet, she still wants to act on that desire. So, either she struggles to act according to reason, or she just lets her desire overwhelm her reason and tells the lie. Either way, this person’s irrational side is not inclined to follow her reason.
By contrast, the virtuous person has a harmonious relationship between his reason and his passions. His reason correctly identifies what is truly good, and he also desires what is truly good. His desires are ‘aligned’ with his reason. So, doing what is good, for him, is not a struggle. He has no internal conflict when it comes to doing the right thing.
In fact, not only does he want to do what is right, he also finds pleasure in it. By the same token, he feels pain in doing the wrong things. According to Aristotle, a person finds pleasure in that which they love. If you love justice, you will find pleasure in just actions; if you love compassion, you will find pleasure in being compassionate. So, the person who loves virtue in general will find pleasure in doing virtuous acts.
Parenting toward Virtue
Think of it: a child who wants to do housework, who finds pleasure in attending a sibling’s concert, who takes great delight in always telling the truth. These things do happen, but more often, they are the stuff of legend.
Actually, according to Aristotle, we cannot expect our children to be virtuous, at least not in the full sense. Developing a virtuous character is a process that starts in childhood, but can only culminate in adulthood. As I will discuss more in subsequent entries, full virtue requires knowledge, experience, and years of practice which children do not have. So, perhaps it was unrealistic of me to expect my son to come along happily to his sister’s concert.
Yet, I find that Aristotle’s notion of virtue still plays on my mind as a parent. The concept of loving justice, compassion, courage, honesty, industry, kindness, unselfishness, respect and all other truly good things seems to me a recipe for success in life.
If I think of my children, I can see that what motivates them to action is what they want to do, what they love to do. If I can teach them to love what is good, then I have given them the most powerful motivator possible to do what is good.