Frederick Douglass: The Habit of Virtue and Vice
This is the third installment in a series on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The last post, on the importance of liberal education, can be read here.
In his account, Douglass reflects on the character of one of his former mistresses, saying:
Slavery proved as injurious to her as it did to me. When I went there, she was a pious, warm, and tender-hearted woman. There was no sorrow or suffering for which she had not a tear. She had bread for the hungry, clothes for the naked, and comfort for every mourner that came within her reach. Slavery soon proved its ability to divest her of these heavenly qualities. Under its influence, the tender heart became stone, and the lamblike disposition gave way to one of tiger-like fierceness.
Virtue is a habit.
These observations reaffirm Aristotle’s view of virtue and warn readers against the danger of vicious action. For those unfamiliar, Aristotle argues that virtue is developed over time and every unique instance of virtuous action builds up virtuous habit. Rather than a one-off qualitative statement about an action, as Kant would declare, virtue is a functional state of character. The virtuous man is made virtuous by virtuous habit.
This makes sense of things like diet and exercise. There are very few things more difficult than the drudging second week of a new work-out plan. Once the excitement of beginning a new thing has worn off, there is very little left to keep you focused on your goals. The habit of reaching for a cookie or hitting the snooze button in the morning when you should be getting up to run is ingrained in you. Over time, however, new habits develop, and eating healthier and exercising become much more natural and easy.
Vice is a habit.
Unfortunately for Douglass’ mistress, vice is habituated just like virtue. From the section provided, we see that the habituation of vice is such that it can even overcome habituated virtues. While Douglass’ mistress began her slaveholding career as a kind, virtuous woman, she ended it full of cruelty and hardness of heart.
The vicious quality necessary to hold slaves does not need much elucidation. One must callous himself to the suffering of his fellow man, think of himself as that human being’s rightful master, and ignore the protests of his conscience against the act of slaveholding. These continuous actions over time cannot but lead to an overarching change of character. To practice cruelty over and over again makes one cruel, and to pretend rightful authority over the very will of another human being makes one proud and haughty.
Just as you can learn to be kind until kindness becomes an automatic reaction, you can learn to be cruel until cruelty is part of your character.
The soul cannot be fractioned.
Ultimately, Douglass’ mistress falls into the trap of thinking vice in one area of life will not affect the virtue in another. Throughout the slave-owning South, ministers and men of the church held slaves with wanton cruelty and yet preached Christ crucified on Sundays. They, like Douglass’ mistress, tried to section off the slaveholding part of themselves from the rest of their character, consoling their consciences by saying they acted in the name of business in order to provide for their families.
This is not how vice works. You cannot justify your wickedness in one area of your life by utilitarian pragmatism and expect it not to make its way into the rest of your existence. Aristotle does not distinguish between man as businessman, man as statesman, and man as family man. There are no special exceptions to the rigid dictate of moral formation through the habituation of virtue. Wickedness makes its way into every part of the soul, corrupting its virtues and replacing them with vice.
This is why vice must be rejected in all forms. We cannot put up with some of it, arguing that it is for the greater good or to fulfill a grander purpose. We cannot nurture secret addictions, secret hate, secret greed, and expect it not to worm its way into other areas of our lives. The soul is one, and the virtue or vice with which we habituate it affects every facet of our lives.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.