December 5, 2020

Real Virtue Is “Second Nature”

Butterfly. Photo by Conal Gallagher

Real Virtue Is “Second Nature”

In a sense, then, to become virtuous is to internalize the law (and the good to which the law points) so that you follow it more or less automatically. As Aristotle put it, when you’ve acquired a moral habit, it becomes second nature. Why do we call things “second” nature? Our “first” nature is the hardwiring that characterizes our biological systems and operates without our thinking about it. At this very moment, you are not choosing to breathe. You are not thinking about breathing. (Well, maybe now you are. But 99.9 percent of the time, you breathe and blink and digest your breakfast without thinking about it.) “Nature” simply takes care of a process that hums along under the hood of consciousness. Those habits that become “second” nature operate in the same way: they become so woven into who you are that they are as natural for you as breathing and blinking. You don’t have to think about or choose to do these things: they come naturally. When you have acquired the sorts of virtues that are second nature, it means you have become the kind of person who is inclined to the good. You will be kind and compassionate and forgiving because it’s inscribed in your very character. You don’t have to think about it; it’s who you are. (In fact, if I have to deliberate about whether to be compassionate, it’s a sure sign I lack the virtue!)

A key question then: How do I acquire such virtues? I can’t just think my way into virtue. This is another difference between laws or rules, on the one hand, and virtues, on the other. Laws, rules, and commands specify and articulate the good; they inform me about what I ought to do. But virtue is different: virtue isn’t acquired intellectually but affectively. Education in virtue is not like learning the Ten Commandments or memorizing Colossians 3:12–14. Education in virtue is a kind of formation, a retraining of our dispositions. “Learning” virtue—becoming virtuous—is more like practicing scales on the piano than learning music theory: the goal is, in a sense, for your fingers to learn the scales so they can then play “naturally,” as it were. Learning here isn’t just information acquisition; it’s more like inscribing something into the very fiber of your being.

• Smith, James K. A..
You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, (pp. 17-18)

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Photo by Conal Gallagher at Flickr. Creative Commons License


  1. I was extraordinarily fortunate to be reared in a Biblically based “virtuous” household where my parents actually lived out their beliefs.

    I have not always followed in their footsteps but I surely know their paths.

    Right and wrong was pretty clear in my household growing up. It was all predicated upon Scripture.

  2. Virtue has its own reward. It is more blessed to give than to receive is no empty platitude. Thinking and feeling find a smooth complimentarianism when exercising virtue. In other words, we experience an inner wholeness or equanimity in the sometimes scattered psychological economy. Showing mercy or generosity will, at least momentarily, spontaneously create on the feeling side a sense of warmth, satisfaction and connectedness. On the rational side it will inspire a sudden synthesis and clarity of meaning. Feeling and intellect in union is a beautiful thing. It really is “more blessed”.

  3. Not trying to be redundant, but what we are talking about here is getting our elephant to drive toward the goal of our rider( even saying the rider has the seven cardinal virtues as a goal). The second nature aspect is harder then Smith implies, and yes senecagriggs, environment is a big part, as is being very clear about our humanity. We are trained to think we can build community through pride. Think of schools, sports, business, even church….while Jesus says blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is it. We are trained to think about comfort as kicking back, taking a vacation, relaxing in the hammock. Jesus says, blessed are the mourners(they are the faithful) for theirs is it. We are trained to think that using all the resources and the working at it will get us ahead. Jesus says the gentle will. We are trained to think eating will satisfy us. Jesus says it’s righteousness. We are trained to think that the wrath of God can deter us from wrong, when it’s actually mercy. We are lustful, who can deny? When its purity that makes us whole and wholesome. And God knows we are a violence prone people. And Girard has shown us that we have always hidden from ourselves the real reason for it.

    All this to say that the second nature aspect of virtue takes much focus long term. Our elephant is about instant gratification. And our humanness can ride along with that and get off the long term paths(paths as senecagriggs used it, again). Isn’t it at least interesting that when the geography students at Kansas State published the map of the seven deadly sins……that the area( other than largest metro’s) that was highest in the seven deadly sins was the Bible Belt.

    • senecagriggs says

      “Our elephant is about instant gratification.”

      How true is that.

    • Good points. It helps me to think of virtue becoming second nature in the same terms as mastering a musical instrument, such as the piano. In that light, I think one can see how daunting and long term the process is.

      And even then, only sustained practice keeps one’s “skill” level high and sharp.

  4. Christiane says

    One of the best Christian ladies I ever knew was named Sue Bushey and she befriended me and invited me to a Bible study at her Church, which was wonderful. One day, she came over, and I gave her coffee and cinnamon rolls (fresh baked) and when it began to rain, I asked to to ‘stay here’, I’ll be right back’ and I ran out the back door to bring in the wash off of the lines. Well, instead of staying dry and enjoying her coffee, Sue came right out the back door behind me and started helping take the laundry in.

    Small thing? No. Not to me.
    I never forgot the kindness . . . . it was a ‘small’ thing maybe to her or maybe even to most people, but I saw something more in the simple grace of an act of helping. 🙂

    I think it WAS her nature. And many years later, I learned (sadly by reading her obituary) that Sue’s husband Dwayne had become the Master Chief of the Navy, and Sue became in charge of Navy Ombuds-persons. And she was good at it, too.

    I’m thinking about ‘integrity’ in the character of someone like my friend Sue. She was ‘that way’ to everyone all the way through. She helped people. When it rained, or when their tears flowed. Some people are touched by grace and it shows up calmly and kindly and in simple ways . . . . . but there it is . . . . the listening ear . . . . the dry laundry in the basket on a rainy day . . . . . there it is. 🙂

    Sue died of breast cancer. And she is remembered by me, not for her importance later in life and her recognition by the Navy brass, no . . . . . I remember her laughing with me as we hurried to get the laundry in out of the rain.

    Two ladies, laughing in the rain with their hair getting wet . . . . . It’s a beautiful memory and I wish her God’s peace until I see her again in ‘the world to come’.