Lent is a time for growing in virtue, and what better author to read on the pursuit of virtue than the Greek philosopher Aristotle? After all, he was the first Western philosopher to give a systematic account of virtue in his "Nicomachean Ethics."
How do we acquire virtue, and how do we become virtuous? Aristotle wisely begins his ethical discussion by asking this question (no doubt something he learned from his teacher, Plato).
There are only four possible answers. Virtue is:
Something we learn (knowledge);
Something with which we're born (natural power);
Something we gain through practice (habit); or
Something God gives us (divine gift)
So which is it? Is virtue something we learn the way we learn multiplication tables and history and all other academic studies?
No, because if virtue is just knowledge, then once you know it, you've accomplished your goal. Once you learn the Pythagorean theorem, you're done with Euclid's first geometry book.
But that's not true about virtue. We don't call somebody "virtuous" who knows what's right but doesn't do what's right. Clearly, the goal of becoming virtuous isn't to know what's virtuous — that's only the beginning. The goal is to live virtuously.
If virtue isn't knowledge we learn, maybe it's something we're born with, like the ability to touch, or see, or smell? The problem here, as Aristotle notes, is that clearly nobody is born virtuous. Instead, we see people struggle to become virtuous over time.
The saints also testify that they had to grow in virtue over time; they weren't born saints. They started as sinners, like everyone. Rather than being born with virtue, it's clear we acquire it through training, because virtue, as Aristotle wisely identifies, is a habit.
When you do something out of habit, it means you do it skillfully; it's second nature to you. A skilled quarterback knows when to pass, and to whom, and when to run; almost without thinking he's developed the right playing habits. And according to Aristotle, that's what the virtuous man is like.
From a Catholic perspective, this should be a sobering thought. Being virtuous doesn't just mean you choose to do good; anyone, even the most helpless sinner, can do that. Having virtue is a much higher bar; it means you do good habitually, as St. Thomas Aquinas says: "If a man do what is just, what he does is good: but it will not be the work of perfect virtue unless he do it well."
And this is the whole point of Lent. Just as the pre-season is the time of physical training for sports players, Lent is a time of spiritual training for Catholics.
That's why during Lent, Catholics are supposed to engage in penitential fasting and special devotions, like the Stations of the Cross, or meditations like Thomas A. Kempis' "Imitation of Christ," or St. Francis de Sales' "Introduction to the Devout Life."
The point is that if you don't practice being virtuous, you will never become virtuous. Hence, virtue is a habit. As Aristotle notes, the very word "ethics" implies habit (it comes from the Greek word "ethos," meaning "habit").
But what about the possibility that virtue is a divine gift? After all, isn't God's assistance needed to become virtuous?
Here, Aristotle shows his humility as well as his wisdom: "If there is any gift of the gods to men, it is reasonable that happiness [living virtuously] would most surely be god-given ... for it is the best thing. But this question would be more appropriate for another inquiry."
Aristotle recognizes that the question of divine inspiration is outside the realm of philosophical inquiry, and therefore he leaves open the possibility that virtue could in some way be a divine gift.
There is much wisdom to be gained from Aristotle's ethical works, and Lent provides a fitting opportunity for Catholics to learn from the philosopher whom Dante called "the Master of those who know."