In his essay “On Cruelty,” Montaigne wrote of Cato and Socrates, “We see in the souls of these two men and their imitators – for I very much doubt whether they had equals – so perfect a habit of virtue that it has become their common complexion.” How can we get to the point where virtue is a habit? If it could only come more easily to us, we could avoid the struggle that comes in resisting temptation or the effort needed to be warm and generous to people all the time, and instead skip ahead to reaping the psychic rewards of having overcome that temptation or of having treated our neighbor well.

The ancients spoke of ethismos, which is translated variously as practical exercises, training, or habituation. As Brunt and Crawford write in Studies in Stoicism, “Ethismos would be a process whereby the soul is physically changed and becomes better if it is duly exercised in the control of desires and the performance of kathēkonta [duties], and on this basis it becomes helpful to ordinary men that they should be encouraged or directed how to perform kathēkonta.” They cite Seneca, who compared perfection to a piece of cloth that is being dyed; the perfect, fast color is achieved only after repeated dippings. The concept of ethismos has within it a similar spirit of progression.

I’ve been focused lately on Stoic exercises, and I’m not sure yet where ethismos fits in. It seems that this spirit of progression could be applied to any specific Stoic exercise.

Plutarch keeps coming up as I research ethismos. Pierre Hadot notes that the ethismos described in many of Plutarch’s works entails training oneself to accomplish smaller tasks first and then proceeding to things that are more difficult. Lieve van Hoof writes in Plutarch’s Practical Ethics: The Social Dynamics of Philosophy:

In On the Control of Anger . . . Plutarch suggests that the reader should try to abstain from anger for increasingly long periods of time. And in On Compliancy, he even presents the reader with a fully-fledged therapy consisting of a series of gradually more difficult practical exercises that are to help him overcome excessive shame.

We all hear that habits are not formed overnight, which is frustrating when we try to make a change in our habits for the better–but the upside is that means bad habits are not formed overnight, either.

Montaigne wrote that “there can be no doubt that it is finer by a lofty and divine resolution to prevent the birth of temptations, and so to shape oneself to virtue that the very seeds of vice are rooted out, than to arrest their growth by main force and, after being surprised by the first onset of the passions, to arm and brace oneself to stay their advance and conquer them.” Regular attention would enable “vice” to be rooted out while still in seed form. Why wait until it takes root?

For me, the obvious analogy is to my garden. If I monitor the weed situation weekly, I can uproot unwanted guests while their roots are rather short and weak (if I could only figure out what weed seeds look like). Dandelion roots never seem to be weak, so it helps to yank those out after it has rained and the earth is more pliable. It still helps to remove those when they are smaller. If, out of laziness, I should happen to go several weeks without weeding, not only does the garden look disheveled and somewhat angry, but weeds grow fiendishly to look like their non-weed rivals.


I may be going out on a limb, but it seems that to create a good habit, ethismos is very useful; start small and work up to more difficult things until a habit is formed. But to eliminate bad habits, how can ethismos play a part? Eliminate the minor bad habits first, and then the bigger ones? Or is elimination of bad habits simply a matter of prosoche, or mindfulness? My weeding analogy has more of an element of mindfulness than progression (I don’t start with small weeds and work up to the bigger ones, but rather attack the garden in swaths). Then again, as a prokopton, I am always a work in progress.

So am I talking about dyeing fabric, or about weeding? Montaigne or Plutarch? Prosoche or ethismos? Good habits or bad? Maybe you can tell me in the comments, because I’m damned if I know. I like these ancient Greek words, though.


3 thoughts on ““Ethismos” and good habits

  1. Thanks for the great post! I like your weeding analogy–it’s definitely easier to uproot bad mental habits before they take root. I’ve been working on this, as well, and I’ve found that the most important step is just forcing yourself to get started. If you start with a small step it’s not as intimidating, and then you can move on to bigger steps. Epictetus also says you should change your habits by practicing new habits (Discourse 2.18). “Get into the habit of doing something else instead,” he says. Obviously, that’s easier said than done!
    Since it’s been a few months since you posted this, I’m wondering if you’ve had any more thoughts on this mental process? Have you found anything that works well to weed out negative emotions?


    1. Thanks for your comment. Epictetus was on to something there…
      Lately, I’ve been trying to be aware of how much time I spend on an unproductive mental track. If it’s more than a few minutes, I ask myself if there isn’t a different way of looking at the situation that’s not quite so negative. I remind myself that I don’t want to waste time going in the wrong direction, and then backtracking just to get back where I started.


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