Fridays with Fred: How Habits Shape Us
If you have spent any time with Christians or attending church then chances are you have heard about ‘hypocrisy’—perhaps you have even been called a ‘hypocrite.’ This emphasis, however, is not entirely the church’s fault. While an unhealthy fixation on hypocrisy is unbecoming, Jesus did speak harshly against it. In fact, in one Greek lexicon, Matthew 23:28 is cited as an example of the word’s third definition: “playing a part, outward show.” This isn’t actually too different from the second, supported by citing Aristotle, “playing a part on the stage.” Both refer to theatre. But Jesus spoke about life. By now I’m sure you’re wondering: what does any of this have to do with Friedrich Nietzsche and habits?
In his Aphorisms on Love and Hate, Nietzsche explores “how seeming becomes being.” To paraphrase, we might say that what a person does determines who they are. Most of us would agree. But our understanding usually emphasises the fact that how someone acts reveals who they are. This is true. However, Nietzsche’s point is different. He writes, “The hypocrite who always plays one and the same role finally ceases to be a hypocrite. Priests, for example, who are usually conscious or unconscious hypocrites when they are young men, finally end by becoming natural…If someone wants to seem to be something, stubbornly and for a long time, he eventually finds its hard to be anything else.” Note the italics in that quotation: seeming to be something results in eventually becoming that thing. I am convinced that what we do reveals who are. But how does what we do shape who we become?
A few pages on, Nietzsche considers the effect that habit has on people, enforcing morality and customs to the point that we take pleasure in them. For the time being I will not offer even a tentative summary on Nietzsche’s views of morality, for fear of being found out to be a fraud. But linking back to the relationship between seeming and being, or doing and becoming, he writes, “All customs, even the harshest, become more pleasant and mild with time…even the severest way of life can become a habit and thus a pleasure.” Referring specifically to habit, Nietzsche says, “One does habitual things more easily, skilfully, gladly; one feels a pleasure at them, knowing from experience that the habit has stood the test and is useful.” There is a note of expediency here, which we will pass over. Instead, I want to highlight the point Nietzsche makes here, as it relates to the title of this post. Habits change us. To use a popular expression, ‘practise makes perfect.’ Furthermore, what we do shapes us not only externally but also internally.
Nietzsche writes, “The man who always wears the mask of a friendly countenance eventually has to gain power over benevolent moods without which the expression of friendliness cannot be forced—and eventually then those moods gain power over him, and he is benevolent.” I’m not sure what you think about this point, as Nietzsche develops it. But one frightening and unavoidable conclusion is that you become the person you choose to enact. There are no coincidences of character. Those traits we dislike in ourselves - those we tend to identify far more easily in others - are chosen. For habit begets being. Effort spent in seeming to be a certain person ultimately shapes us into becoming that person.
This leaves little room for the predictable mitigations offered up when we are confronted by the undesirable and unpleasant parts of ourselves. To sum them up, ‘I can’t change who I am.’ Apparently we are all victims of both nature and nurture. But one thing few of us will admit is that neither nurture or nature excuse us. Of course, every one of us is subject to an almost infinite number of moulding influences. I am not denying that. However, Nietzsche’s point means that we are as individuals culpable for our character. We must own what we’ve become.
I could leave things there but that seems unnecessarily pessimistic. So I will make one more point by way of conclusion, before a final quote from Nietzsche. Recognising our responsibility is also to recognise our power. If it is true that we determined who presently are, then it is also possible to shape who we will become. We are not bound to our vices. You need not remain harsh, hurtful or hateful. Sure. You can choose to be a horrible person. And when people are critical you can rush to your own defence. Or you can pursue becoming a different person, through habit and determination. Alternatively, as Nietzsche writes, “Hatred must be learned and nurtured, if one wishes to become a proficient hater: otherwise the germ for that will gradually wither.”