Often times students will put off homework, essay writing, and studying until they, “feel like” doing it. We all know that at some times we are more disposed to activity compared to other times. Often we find after class that we need a break, some fresh air, more coffee or a cigarette. In the Ethics Aristotle tells us that the virtuous man, the man who does things well also does them easily and with happiness. Wouldn’t it be nice if our homework was done easily and made us happy?
Lets take up a different example than homework. It is easier to talk about habits and virtues that one actually wants to build, like being able to do 100 pushups or write every day, rather than read texts books which are poorly organized and barely referenced by teachers who do not always follow them. It may be that we never aquire a habit of trigonometry, God knows I never have, simply because it was painful and difficult.
What happens while we build a habit is that we acquire an inclination toward that activity. If we write ten pages a day or do 100 pushups a day, it will at first be difficult. We might have to scale the habit – 25 pushups or 2 pages – and build up. After doing these scales or the entire goal repeatedly it becomes easy. Aristotle likens this to a tree that is pulled in a different direction then it naturally grows. Eventually there comes a day when the tree no longer needs the stake or ropes to pull it, but will of its own accord grow in the new direction. So too we who at first are pained by pushups and writing will after some repetition find joy in these acts.
The added benefit to acquiring an inclination toward activity done well is that we are made happy. Happiness is a resting in a good. We are not happy by the sight of tiramisu but by its consumption. So too we are made happy by the virtue when it is established not by the thinking about it. We are made happy by moving toward a virtue and making measurable gains. Becoming the man we want to be is a slow journey and is often never begun because it is initially accompanied by pain. St Thomas uses the metaphor of fire to describe our progress in virtue, at first our virtue is very small and grows slowly, often it is threatened by winds of fortune and has difficulty consuming the fuel we have started with. Over time however our virtue becomes an incredible force capable of taking on anything in its path.