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Ravaisson on the Formation of Second Nature

As soon as the soul arrives at self-consciousness, it is no longer merely the form, the end or even the principle of organization; a world opens within it that increasingly separates and detaches itself from the life of the body, and in which the soul has its own life, its own destiny, and its own end to accomplish. It is this superior life that the incessant progress of life and nature seems – without being able to attain it – to aspire, as if to its perfection, to its good. This higher life, in contrast, has its own good within itself; and it knows this, looks for it, embraces it, at once as its own good and as good itself, as absolute perfection. But pleasure and pain have their grounds in good and evil; they are the sensible signs of good and evil. Here, therefore, in this world of the soul, the truest good is accompanied by the truest form of sensibility; such are the passions of the soul – that is, feeling. Feeling is distinct from the spiritual and moral activity that pursues good and evil, though it gathers their impressions.

Continuity or repetition must therefore gradually weaken feeling, just as it weakens sensation; it gradually extinguishes pleasure and pain in feeling, as it does in sensation. Similarly, it changes into a need the very feeling that it destroys, making its absence more and more unbearable for the soul. At the same time, repetition or continuity makes moral activity easier and more assured. It develops within the soul not only the disposition, but also the inclination and the tendency to act, just as in the organs it develops the inclination for movement. In the end, it gradually brings the pleasure of action to replace the more transient pleasure of passive sensibility.

In this way, as habit destroys the passive emotions of pity, the helpful activity and the inner joys of charity develop more and more int he heart of the one who does good. In this way, love is augmented by its own expressions; in this way, it reanimates with its penetrating flame the impressions that have been extinguished, and at each instant reignites the exhausted sources of passion.

Ultimately, in the activity of the soul, as in that of movement, habit gradually transforms the will proper to action in an involuntary inclination. Mores and morality are formed in this manner. Virtue is first of all an effort and wearisome; it becomes something attractive and a pleasure only through practice, as a desire that forgets itself or that is unaware of itself, and gradually it draws near to the holiness of innocence. Such is the very secret of education: its art consists in attracting someone towards the good by action, thus fixing the inclination for it. In this way a second nature is formed.

Félix Ravaisson 1838: De l’habitude in the English translation by Clare Carlisle and Mark Sinclair, Of Habit, 67-69.

Félix Ravaisson (23 October 1813—1900 May 18) was a French philosopher influential in the latter half of the 19th century, particularly in the school of French Spiritualism and particularly as a “spiritual realist”. He exhibits in Of Habit, his most influential and enduring work, a familiarity with Aristotle and the Peripatetic tradition. He is also known for his influence on Henri Bergson, whose theory of the élan vital would likely not have been without Ravaisson.

What Is Wrong with the World?

“What’s wrong with the world?”  Countless thinkers have asked this question, especially over the past century-plus, and they have asked it over and over again; to the point that few in recent years seem to ask it any longer, even for the purpose of adopting the thinnest veneer of rhetorical posturing.  No. Today, almost everyone seems pretty well-decided about what is wrong in the world. As such, their questions aim at means to rectifying those wrongs rather than at understanding what they are.

Taking such an aim ignores, however, that most hold only opinions about what is wrong, for very few hold any knowledge about what is right.  Not knowing what is right—and by knowing is meant not merely “feeling” something to be right or wrong, but being able to articulate what causes the act or practice to be good or bad—we can only react to certain things as wrong.  The reaction might be correct (that is, appropriate) or incorrect (inappropriate).  Someone might react, for instance, with disgust at exposing children to sexually-suggestive performances.  Someone else might laud this exposure.  The former is correct; the latter, not.  But if the former reaction cannot be explained, cannot be grounded in a causal explanation, it will have difficulty justifying itself in a world where the sense of the natural has been evaporated in a cultural confusion, in a culture which has grown increasingly separated from the ordination of nature itself.

Aristotelian Revival

To ask, then, “what is wrong with the world?” one will receive a myriad of answers based on feelings—some of which answers may be correct, others which may be incorrect; but the grounds for both will appear almost equally instable in efforts at communication.  The only means of resolution, then—when confronted with the inevitable conflict between opposed reactions—becomes violent conflict.  But such a resolution is, at best, temporary.  New differences of reaction will arise, even under (perhaps especially under) the most totalitarian and authoritarian of regimes.

What then, are we to do?  Where does the answer lie for our cultural conflicts?  It lies, as suggested, in an understanding of the good (i.e., that in accordance with which a course of action is right).  We can do no better than to begin by returning to Aristotle. We must rediscover his wisdom, and strive as best we can to understand the truths he reveals as they illuminate our struggles today. Chiefly, Aristotle teaches us the necessity of virtue. This rediscovery of virtue should not, as some would understand it, require a “strategic retreat” from the world. Rather, the rediscovery teaches us how to live in a world that might hate us for our virtues—and love us in spite of that hatred.

Virtue of Community

Last year, I read (among many of his works), Byung-Chul Han’s Disappearance of Rituals. At the very outset of the text, Han writes:

Rituals are symbolic acts.  They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based.  They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.

2020: Disappearance of Rituals, 1.

Doubtless, we can observe the absence of ritual readily in the prevalence of communication without community. Such communication, arguably, fails even to be communication in truth. Indeed, Han here evokes the specter of paradox. There cannot be community without communication. A community coalesces around something common, which does not come into being without communication.  But the exaggerated point remains valid: that distinct, particular acts of communication are not needed when there exist rituals which contain that commonality and communicate it to the community. Explicit linguistic communication finds itself required less when ritual has already established commonality.

Ritual requires definition, of course—and defense of such a definition exceeds the intent of this post. But succinctly, we might say that every ritual comprises an external habit. There may be private or internal elements as well, of course; but rituals are performed. As such, they concern a holding of oneself with respect to the world.

I believe it would do much good if we could see that good rituals result from virtue. Perhaps we can identify—causally—that the absence of true community constitutes something wrong with the world today. Perhaps, recovering virtue, we can recover true community.

Virtue: Ethics

What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.

[2023 Winter] Ethics: Virtue

What does it mean to be good as a human being? Modernity, all too often, has treated this as a problem to be solved. That is, we tend to view moral failings as simply in need of the right solution, the right education, the right program. Morality, however, is something that belongs to the individual. It is a matter of internal habit, not a matter of an external system.

Put in other words, we might say that the ethically-righteous course of action consists in how we hold ourselves. There is no checklist. There are no solutions. Actions of moral consequence are all unique, unrepeatable. No one is confronted with the same moral difficulty twice. In order to deal with them rightly, we must ourselves be good.

It is precisely this—being good—that Aristotle pursues in his Nicomachean Ethics. This great masterwork, which will be read in its entirety across this 8 week seminar, develops the concept of virtue (that is, in this context, human excellence) through understanding the characteristic activity which is proper to the human being. We will pursue Aristotle in this course with some supplemental readings, expository and provocative lectures, and weekly discussions.

The Aristotelian approach to the question of moral righteousness stands in contrast to many of the presuppositions of today. This seminar will challenge many of our preconceived notions about what it means to be good and how this is achieved.

This is an introductory seminar. View the syllabus here and learn more about Lyceum Institute seminars here. Participants will be challenged but need no prior experience. Participants are required to use a copy of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Preferred translations: Bartlett and Collins or Joe Sachs.


Discussion Sessions
10:15am ET
(World times)
Study Topics &

Week 1: Happiness and the Good
Lecture: The Work of a Human Being
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1.
Week 2: The Nature of Virtue
Lecture: Action and Affection
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 2—Book 3, c.5.
» “On Moral Philosophy”, Yves Simon.
Week 3: The Moral Virtues
Lecture: Moral Greatness
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 3, c.6—Book 4.
» “The Virtue of Courage”, R.E. Houser.
» “The Virtue of Temperance”, Diana Fritz Cates.
Week 4: Justice
Lecture: Due Proportionality
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 5.
» “The Virtue of Justice”, Jean Porter.

Week 5: Intellectual Virtue
Lecture: Prudence and the Unity of Virtue
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 6.
» “The Intellectual Virtues”, Gregory M. Reichberg.
» “The Virtue of Prudence”, James F. Keenan, S.J.
Week 6: The Struggle for Virtue
Lecture: Striving for a Coherent Life
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 7.
Week 7: The Good of Friendship
Lecture: Hierarchy of Friendships
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 8—Book 9, c.6.
Week 8: The Hierarchy of Happiness
Lecture: Unitive Goods of Human Life
» Nicomachean Ethics, Book 9, c.7—Book 10.


Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, priced according to likely levels of income. If you wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the suggested rate, it is acceptable to sign up at a less-expensive level. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Benefactor

Recommended for those with fulltime employment in well-paying professions and sufficient resources to provide a little more.


Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Patron

Recommended for those in professions that do not pay as well as they ought and for whom continued education is especially important (including professors and clergy).


Ethics: Virtue

[2023W] Ethics: Virtue – Participant

Recommended for those who are currently students or with part-time employment.


On the Value of Rhetoric

An excerpt from Edward P.J. Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student on the value of rhetoric as needed in the modern age, accompanied by a brief commentary.

Selection from the Text:

Grammar, logic, and rhetoric are the three arts of language. Skill in the language arts is more important today than it used to be. Technological improvements in communication and transportation have brought us into more frequent and crucial converse with the inhabitants of our own country and with the peoples of other nations. It is important to our welfare that we learn how to ingratiate ourselves with others, how to express our thoughts and desires, how to allay their fears, and how to conciliate our differences. Rhetoric can help here… It behooves us now to withhold [violent means] of settling the tensions that exist in the world and exploit the possibilities of settling those tensions by the use of the powerful weapons of words. Rhetoric is the art that shows us how to hone that weapon and to wield it most effectively…

The road to eloquence is a hard road and a lonely road, and the journey is not for the faint-hearted. But if, as we are told, the ability to use words to communicate thoughts and feelings is man’s most distinctively human accomplishment, there can be few satisfactions in life that can match the pride a man feels when he has attained mastery over words. As Quintilian said, “Therefore let us seek wholeheartedly that true mastery of expression, the fairest gift of God to man, without which all things are struck dumb and robbed both of present glory and the immortal acclaim of posterity; and let us press on to whatever is best, because, if we do this, we shall either reach the summit or at least see many others far beneath us.”

Corbett 1965: Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student, 31 and 33.


While Corbett handles rhetoric much better than most who have written on it since these words were first published, I nevertheless have a bone or three to pick here. The first, and least consequential, is his use of the term “language arts”, particularly in close conjunction with the word “skill”. My objection, simply stated, is that these words seem to muddy the waters. Is logic a “skill”? Grammar? Rhetoric, perhaps, at least entails practices that we could call skillful: diction, timing, theatricality—but these seem rather incidental to what rhetoric is in itself. Certainly, the three parts of the Trivium are arts—and perhaps it is the cheapened experience of my own public school education—but the phrase “language arts” seems somehow inadequate; especially if the command of those arts is equated to skill.

My second objection concerns his claim that the road to eloquence is lonely. It may be counter-cultural, today. But it is not, and never should be, a lonely endeavor. Eloquence—the virtue of rhetoric—is relational. I cannot be eloquent except to someone else. Moreover, I could never judge my own eloquence without an audience that reacts to my words.

My third objection concerns the manner in which he characterizes the importance of rhetoric. It is true that rhetoric helps us ingratiate ourselves with others, express our thoughts, allay others’ fears, and conciliate our differences. It is also true that it may dissuade violence and war. But all this is rather utilitarian. It says what we may gain from rhetoric as a tool. It says nothing of what we may gain from rhetoric as a habit.

Thus, while we use Corbett’s book in our own Rhetoric course, for he gives an accessible insight to the ideas of classic authors, I believe he misses the spirit of antiquity. Rhetoric, that is, should be seen as part of the integral habituation of a whole human life. Gaining mastery over persuasion changes how I relate to others, to be sure. But more fundamentally, it is—or ought to be—a perfection of my own faculties. Good character antecedes being a good rhetorician, as Quintilian argues extensively. But being a good rhetorician ought also to reinforce one’s character.

[2022 Winter] Introduction to Philosophical Thinking

What is philosophy?  Is it something we study—as subject, like biology or literature?  Is it something each of us has, individually—as in, “my personal philosophy”?  Is it a relic of history?  An intellectual curiosity?  A means to impress at cocktail parties and on social media?

Or perhaps—as this seminar will attempt to demonstrate—philosophy is a way of thinking relatively easy to identify but very difficult to practice.  Mere description of the practice does not suffice for understanding it; one must, rather, engage in the practice itself.  This engagement requires discipline of the mind and the consistent willingness to pursue philosophy not merely as a hobby, but as a habit.  For those who have the will, this seminar will provide the means: namely through a schedule of carefully-selected readings and persistent dialogue—both in the seminar discussion sessions and through the Lyceum Institute platform.  This incipient practice of philosophy will not make you a philosopher; but it will engender in those who seize it the germ of a true philosophical habit.

In this seminar, lasting 8 weeks (with a break at the halfway point–see here for more information on all Lyceum Institute seminars), we will investigate what it means to think philosophically and develop this practice into a habit. The instructor for this seminar is Brian Kemple, PhD, Executive Director of the Lyceum Institute. You can read more about Dr. Kemple here.

January 15–12 March
Saturdays, 1:15-2:15pm ET /
6:15-7:15pm UTC

Lyceum Institute digital platform run on Microsoft Teams

Lyceum Institute seminar costs are structured on a principle of financial subsidiarity. There are three payment levels, with discounts for those who are professors and clergy (whose continuing education is not sufficiently prioritized by their institutions) and for students (who are already taxed excessively by the educational system). However, if you are part of the working world and wish to take a seminar but cannot afford the “standard” rate, it is acceptable to sign up at one of these discounted prices. The idea is: pay what you can. Those who can pay more, should, so that those who cannot pay as much, need not. Lyceum Institute members receive a further discount (see here for details).

Registration is closed.