A Review of Tom Sparrow and Adam Hutchinson’s A History of Habit: From Aristotle to Bourdieu

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At PLNU, we often sum up our mission with three infinitives: “To teach, to shape, to send.” Faculty and staff fully embrace our commitment to “shape” students and alumni, just as they shape us. We teach students excellence in professional skills—but more importantly, we seek to anchor these skills in lifelong habits. That’s the heart of the Christian liberal arts within an intentional Christian community. PLNU’s mission “to shape,” in other words, aims at the formation of good—even holy—habits.

Recently, many media reports and academic discourses on “habit” have reemerged. The topic, in fact, has returned to a place of intellectual importance for understanding human participation in the world around us.

In A History of Habit, Sparrow and Hutchinson offer a collection of essays that display the breadth and interdisciplinary significance of this ancient subject of habits. The book “aims to show how and in what sense philosophers and other thinkers of habit are engaged in a broad, multifaceted dialogue concerning the nature and meaning of habit, its function in human affairs, and its appropriation by speculative thought.”

To develop a habit is to be shaped—both an active and passive verb. The question of this passive-active nature of habit underlies much of the book, raising moral, intellectual, and political issues through a historical analysis of significant Western discourses on habit. The essays range far and wide. You can read how habit relates to intestinal flora or the stress women incur in society. You can renew your knowledge of Aristotle or the Roman elite from your past Phil201 or World “Civ” I classes. You can think with experts on assessing recent work in social theory or political science.

Habit can descend to the depths of human sin, passing them like a virus: hate, mindless conformity to injustice and oppression. At the same time, habit can give rise to the excellence of the human spirit and practice—such as wonderful musical talents that flow from the fingers of PLNU’s professor of music Victor Labenske; the health-giving fingers of assistant professor of kinesiology Nicole Crosby; and the wise fingers of President Bob Brower as he traces an organizational chart.

How do habits both free and enslave human beings? The essays raise this question and others.

The anthology divides its 13 essays into three different historical periods: “Classical Accounts of Moral Habituation,” “Habits of Thought, Action, and Memory in Modernity,” and “the Application of Habit in Contemporary Theory.” Attentive readers will notice how habit becomes progressively secularized in modern and contemporary reflections; nevertheless, the questions of the true, good, and beautiful—and ultimately the question of God—hover quietly in the background.

Aristotle, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas gave John Wesley his early language on Christian Perfection: “It is that habitual disposition of soul which, in the sacred writings, is termed ‘holiness’; and which directly implies, the being cleansed from sin `from all filthiness both of flesh and spirit;’ and, by consequence the being endued with those virtues which were in Christ Jesus; the being so `renewed in the image of our mind,’ as to be `perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect’” (Circumcision of the Heart, I.1).

The collection is an academic work and thus avoids advice such as, “five easy steps to form healthy habits for success and long life.” Though not light reading, the book will help those committed to lifelong learning to keep the discourses of the Christian liberal arts alive, a point of reflection to consider the vital importance of habits in our lives.

BY DR. JOHN W. WRIGHT

Dr. John W. Wright is a professor of Theology and Christian Ministry at PLNU and is also senior pastor for the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City.

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