The lost hope of self-help: Habits – good or bad – were once a matter of ethical seriousness

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen in Aeon:

Benjamin-franklinSo what is a habit? There is consistent agreement throughout this long tradition that a habit is a learned behaviour repeated so often that it becomes involuntary. When it is a repeated behaviour that comports with ideals of health, righteousness, and wisdom, it can go by other names such as ‘spiritual practice’, ‘ritual’, and ‘routine’.

…If we are looking for the origin of the voracious American appetite for self-improvement, however, we have to go back two centuries before Covey, to Benjamin Franklin. For Franklin, cultivating wholesome habits was as crucial as discarding bad ones for the ‘bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection’. Franklin warned that those very behaviours that cunningly ‘took advantage of [our] inattention’ would keep us from ethical improvement. In his Autobiography, the 79-year-old Franklin recalled his youth when church services seemed to hold no promise for his moral perfection. So he took matters into his own hands. He developed a hierarchy of 12 virtues he wanted to become second nature: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity. When a Quaker friend gently reminded him that he had left out one virtue he could use a little more of – humility – Franklin conceded and added it to the list to bring it up to 13. He then figured out the habits that would help ingrain these virtues. For temperance: ‘Eat not to dullness, drink not to elevation.’ For tranquillity: ‘Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.’ And for the elusive humility he pulled out the big guns: ‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates.’ Franklin invented what he described as a ‘method’, and what the French philosopher Michel Foucault two centuries later would characterise as a ‘technology of the self’, to track his habits. Today’s habits writers would simply call it a chart. He put the days of the week along the X-axis, the virtues he sought to habituate on the Y-axis; a black dot meant he had slipped up on that day in that virtue, while a column of clear blocks meant a virtuous day – a clear conscience. He included mottos from Cato, Cicero, and the Proverbs of Solomon to inspire him and encourage his practice of particular virtues.

More here.