“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.”
Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), one of ancient Greece’s most revered philosophers, was from northern Greece, and probably the most famous of Plato’s students. He tutored Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedon who united ancient Greece. That connection allowed him the means to publish many books on different topics – that survive to this very day! He is revered among Christian and Muslim thinkers alike.
Although I studied some of Aristotle’s works while in university philosophy classes, I do not find him to be easily understood. He is a deep thinker, so I tread softly through this quote. His topic seems to be about excellence, but really, he’s teaching us how to live our lives. Before I explore Aristotle’s words and likely intent (from my perspective), I want to discuss the meaning of this term ‘excellence’.
We are talking about a descriptor of quality and that is a very subjective judgement. What appears as an excellent outcome to me, will appear disastrous to someone else. For example, Liberal Party supporters in Canada saw the October 19th election results as an excellent outcome – the continuation of the Trudeau dynasty in the Prime Minister’s Office; while Conservative Party supporters viewed it as a terrible result.
Why did I use the term ‘excellent’? Why not just call it a good or very good outcome? The word comes from the Latin verb excellere – which means to surpass. My expectation and hope was that the Liberals would oust the Conservatives from power. They did and I saw that as good. But the scale of their victory was unexpected as they won a clear majority, hence, they surpassed my hopes.
Aristotle is telling us that in our lives we will not surpass a standard or a set of expectations because that ability is built in. We are not born with the ability to excel. It comes only with “training and habituation”. I discovered this as a teacher back in 1975. Although the Ontario English curriculum for Grade 7 English forbade the teaching of formal grammar, I did it anyway, and submitted plans for ‘creative writing’ lessons for supervisory approval. Then I went ahead and taught the grammar. The curriculum allowed us to teach grammar points informally as the need arose. Balderdash! So I taught a full period of grammar on Monday each week and then I drilled that lesson on the other four days. I’d put a sentence on the blackboard (how quaint, eh!) and the students had to copy it as soon as they entered the room and do a graphic analysis while I took attendance. Then we took three minutes to correct it. This went on every day for the school year – and the daily sentences became more difficult and complex as time marched on. One day I got a call from a high school teacher across the city who wanted to meet with me to discover my secret. By polling her grade 9 students she discovered that the ones who really knew their grammar were my former students. Training and habituation.
So what does this mean to me and you as we navigate through our lives outside of an academic classroom? Perhaps I’d like to be more disciplined about how I relate to others. Do I take the time to measure my words or do I just blurt out my feelings? Maybe I’d like to be more disciplined in my approach to my work – especially if I find myself easily distracted. My level of discipline will not become excellent until I train myself, or get the training elsewhere, to improve my performance. Once I’ve learned how to perform better, I can keep repeating that formula until it is habit. I do it almost without thinking. It is no different than an olympic or professional athlete who learns the necessary skills for their sport and then they practice to the point of exhaustion and beyond.
It seems clear that for Aristotle, excellence is the natural outcome of good training and habitual practice – which adds up to a lot of dedication and work. Again, there is no easy button where excellence is concerned. There is no such thing as excellent performance without a focused plan and a good deal of time and effort invested. What I find interesting is that he refers to ‘excellence’ as an art. Normally, we reserve the term to refer to works made by creative skill. As I think about this, I can see that how we go about the training and habituation in achieving excellence can certainly be labelled as creative. Therefore, excellence is an art: planned training and practice to arrive at a beautiful product that stands out above the norm!