January 19, 2011

The Edge of Virtue; Or, Good Habits

Most men walk along the edge of virtue, the steep precipices of indiscretion, immorality and vice running closely adjacent to their poorly marked paths. How does a man stay on this path, when lurking close to the surface lies the beast, skulking in the corners of the mind, and stalking the outer reaches of conscience, eager to attack? Most men will confess, if they are truly frank, the demons that attract them: a rather too thirsty attraction to alcohol; a depraved sexual appetite; aggressive and angry sentiments and urges; a compulsion to gamble more than can be afforded to be lost; and the enjoyment of procrastination. Strip away the thin atmosphere of civilization, and men are deeply unpleasant creatures. Fortunately, most men only fall by degrees, rather than all the way to the bottom. And most men pull themselves back up the cliff of failure, through shame, contrition, and renewed intent. But how to stay on the path in the first place?

Good habits are our signposts, our guide rope, our safe port in uncertain waters. Routine – not a slavish obsession over the minutiae of life, but a basic regimen of what should be done regularly – is the means by which we continue to find the right path when the animal urges us in different directions. What is in a routine? Whatever we feel like. But it must hold us to things as we would ideally like them, for then we have a notion of when we are beginning to disappoint ourselves. The objects of our routines consciously jar us into steering a steady course. Let’s say I have ten pairs of shoes: wouldn’t it be good if they were always clean, polished and ready to be worn? Wouldn’t it be best if they were properly dried after wearing, stored as the cobbler would have wanted, and kept mended and maintained when necessary? To the outside, it might seem like I have a fetish, but I will know that I am merely keeping up standards. And chances are, if I keep my footwear fastidiously, I will keep more important things with equal care.

One could make similar cases for matters of the body: hygiene, grooming, fitness. A million men resolve to get in shape everyday, but how many of them incorporate that resolution into their daily understanding of what must be done? Probably not many, and that is why they fail. If we elect to do a thing because we see that it is good, then we must practice that thing because it is good. It must become habitual in its execution, but we must be mindful always of why it is important. I knew a man once – a gentle man under great strain – who insisted on simple politeness. At work he would be confronted by angry and anxious Young Turks, barking questions and commands in lieu of ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’. He would stop, smile, and say ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and would then remind them that everyone was behoved to observe the pleasantries if they were to hold on to their humanity. I’m sure the approach irritated people, but it tended to calm them, and him, down a little.

Keep good habits. Not letting this humble blog slide is one of mine.


  1. "Not letting this humble blog slide". A fine habit and excellent cause. Well put.

  2. One of the few things I learned from my father was that a real man shaves each morning and shines his shoes each evening.


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