Slowly Growing Virtues

Aristotle famously taught that virtue was a sort of middle point between the extremes of vice. I’ve been wondering lately whether those in our own time who caution against “perfectionism” might have an interesting point to teach us about the pursuit of virtue.

Is it possible to pursue virtue too quickly? Is it possible that the pursuit of virtue must itself move at a pace that is in a middle point between excessive speed and excessive slowness?

In one sense, you cannot grow virtuous too quickly. However quickly a person can become virtuous is a good speed for becoming virtuous.

The challenge, though, is in determining just how quickly that might be.

Throughout history, those who sought virtue have cautioned about the tricks that our thoughts can play on us. Plato himself remarked how, just as our eyes are constantly misrepresenting the world to us in various ways, so our understanding is likewise constantly warped by a variety of factors, resulting in foolish and unjust actions.

One possible metaphor for the pursuit of virtue is the crafting of lenses. In becoming more virtuous, a part of what we are doing is “bespectacling our brains” so that we can correct the distortions that constantly beset our thoughts. We have to find one flaw after another in our thinking and find a way to counter it, and then not forget what we have learned, again and again.

And that takes time.

Well, not always. Some corrections are quick to make. Often our greatest vices can by small changes be improved very quickly, once we are ready to take action. 

Once the obvious flaws are made right, though, the multitude of smaller self-deceptions must be addressed, and this process cannot be hurried.

If you try to move too quickly, if you start thinking like a perfectionist, then the process will likely lead to frustration, discouragement, even despair and defeat. Those who are most pessimistic about the attainment of virtue can be the ones who have tried hardest and still met with failure.

So part of the pursuit of virtue is the cultivation of patience. Becoming virtuous requires persistence, consistency. Count the cost. Enter into the journey being ready to go for the long haul.

If you can be patient in chasing virtue, then you will catch it. Just don’t give up. Make progress as you’re able, and celebrate every step forward with gratitude.

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