Posted on: January 18th, 2022 Running & Hexis

Like a lot of folks, I grew up with a parent who frequently emphasized to us kids the importance of habits, both good (like brushing your teeth) and bad (like picking your finger nails).

Habit. Its meaning seems obvious: some repeated action that ends up become second nature, or perhaps—to invoke a contentious adjective—rote. That word “rote” connotes something unthinking and lifeless, mindlessly habitual.

I suppose that many in the West have assumed they grasp the sense of “habit” ever since Thomas Aquinas, following older Latin translations of Aristotle (William of Moerbeke?), made habit a bedrock virtue of Christian maturity. The term they used, habitus, was their Latin translation of choice for the Stagirite’s original hexis.

But is hexis, in Aristotle’s mind and usage, really what we mean by “habit,” with it connotations of static lifelessness? With Joe Sachs, I think not. Sachs, in his introduction to his English translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, writes

… what defines hexis is that it is not a passive state but an active condition, a way in which we hold ourselves, having taken hold deliberately of the feelings and dispositions that are in us merely passively….

An example comes from my decades-long experience of long-distance running. While on a long run, say 10 or 12 miles, I embrace a variety of postures and attitudes. For example, I frequently give myself “permission” to run slowly. (In fact, sometimes I will see how slow I can possibly run, in a runner’s version of the “slow cooking” movement.) Other times I run at a very comfortable pace. Sometimes I sprint. But sometimes

I try to hold a moderate pace, maybe for a specific number of minutes, or perhaps for a specific distance. For me this is probably just under an eight-minute-per-mile pace. When I do that—not exactly “pushing myself to the limit,” but also not lackadaisically “coasting”—what am I doing? I’m “holding myself” actively in a certain, constant state. It requires intentionality; it requires exertion. And if one engages in this activity for months, years, decades, it can become kind of, sort of, automatic, although never simply passive.

When I run in this way, I often meditate on Aristotle’s notion of hexis.

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