Tuesday, February 7, 2023

The Virtuous Reader

Some weeks ago I found myself in a Christmas celebration in Aldona and in conversation with a young man from the village. “So,” I asked him, “how you do spend your time?” “I read” he responded. I was delighted! Here was evidence that while the reading habit among the young may be dying, it is not, in fact, dead. There was another reason for my delight at this young man’s response and this has to do the argument for the cultivation of the virtues which I extended last month.

As I indicated in my earlier argument, the cultivation of virtue and the cultivation of the intellect go hand in hand. One cannot determine what is prudent or not, if one is unable to develop a wider (and deeper) appreciation of the world within which one is living. This appreciation of the world can be obtained through experience, but reading, as we well know, offers one an insight into the experiences of others, persons who are distributed over time and space, and thus one develops a knowledge of the world.

But there is something else about reading that makes for a good base for the virtuous person and this pertains to what we call the reading habit. Those who have this habit will know that reading is not something that we simply do for the pleasure it affords us; indeed ,at times the pleasure of reading is not immediately apparent. On the contrary, when we first begin it takes some amount of effort to stick with the text that is being read. One develops that habit of reading through persistence in the act of reading. One reads, especially in one’s earlier years, despite other distractions that come up. This is precisely the understanding of habit that the classical philosophers had when they discussed the virtues. To their mind, habit was associated with habituation, which is the repetition of the act so many times, in spite of inconveniences and distractions, such that the act eventually becomes second nature to us.

Too often in contemporary society we assume that knowledge is everything. One has only to provide people with information, or the facts, of good or virtuous behaviour and they will then act on them. This belief clearly represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the human being operates. Knowledge itself is not sufficient, one has to act on this knowledge, and then act on it again, and again, and again such that it becomes so part of our nature that we can go ahead and act virtuously even though there are plenty of opportunities for us to act to the contrary.

What the development of a habit does is not only does it make a certain practice second nature to us, but also that it develops our will to stick with an activity, resist temptation to do otherwise. In other words we develop the virtue of perseverance. When we reflect on this, we realise that perhaps this is the reason why the studious excel. Not because they are smarter than others, but because they persevere long enough until they succeed.

It was for these reasons that when I heard this young man share that he had the reading habit that I was overjoyed, for it was clear in the way he spoke that this was a young man who knew what perseverance was.

My joy was somewhat diluted though when I asked him what exactly it was that he read. “Non-fiction” he responded confidently, and I soon realised that he was referring to that genre I have some misgivings about; self-improvement.

One of the reasons I dislike the genre is the way it embodies the utilitarianism of our times. It is interested in the human being primarily as an economic unit, of bringing in the most, or maximizing the utility, or efficiency of the individual. The human person, as the Catholic Church teaches, is worth more than the amount of value s/he brings to society. They have an inherent dignity and must be respected and valued even if they do not bring in an economic value. Reading self-improvement literature, I believe, seeks to prepare us for the market, as a high-functioning unit, focussing on the contemplation, not externally, on the world around us, but on solely on ourselves.

The (dis)connection between efficiency and beauty, or the Christian way, became obvious to me one evening in the course of a conversation with Fr António Martins, the current chaplain of the historic Capela do Rato in Lisbon. “Beauty is offering something more than is absolutely necessary. The moment you do something a little more than is absolutely necessary,” he said, “you enter the realm of beauty.” Having said this, I realised what he was also driving at, that the beautiful and caritas, or charitable love, are intimately related. Put less poetically than he did, efficiency, or doing only what is necessary is opposed to the pursuit of beauty, and eventually is contrary to the virtue of caritas, or love. Efficiency is concerned with the necessary, the beautiful and caritas are concerned with the giving of more than is necessary, an overflowing, born from love.

This overflowing is also captured in the famous saying attributed to St. Iranaeus, one of the Fathers of the Church: “The glory of God is a human being fully alive”. Looked at from a purely material perspective, this business of being fully alive involves a developing and reaching out to more than is absolutely necessary. In the case of my young friend from Aldona, and indeed young persons everywhere with the reading habit, a true development of the self, the business of being fully alive, would go beyond self-help books that look to developing elements of the personality that would make the more desirable to the market. It would embrace the habit of reading for the sake of satiating our curiosity about the world, for no obvious purpose. Reading things which have no obvious economic value. In this way the habit of reading would also embrace the virtue of charity, eventually transforming the reader, into the virtuous reader.

 (A version of this text was first published in the O Heraldo dated 11 Jan 2023.)

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