Perkins would burst into tears in frustration and boredom, but later expressed appreciation for the enforced discipline: “For the first time I became conscious of character.”
Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue. It is important to start by saying what it is not. Moderation is not just finding the midpoint between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there. Neither is moderation bland equanimity. It’s not just having a temperate disposition that doesn’t contain rival passions or competing ideas. On the contrary, moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict.
Like many people, Day’s mood was darker in her journals than it was in her daily life. She didn’t write when happy; she was engaged in the activities that made her happy. She wrote when she was brooding about something and used her diaries to contemplate the sources of her pain.
The stoic ideal holds that an emotion should be distrusted more often than trusted. Emotion robs you of agency, so distrust desire. Distrust anger, and even sadness and grief. Regard these things as one might regard fire: useful when tightly controlled, but a ravaging force when left unchecked.
“The only way to reduce ugliness in the world is to reduce it in yourself,” Rustin would say.
For most of this time, Mary Anne had nobody close to her intellectual level with whom she could discuss what she was reading. She invented a word to describe her condition: “non-impartitive.” She received information but could not digest it through conversation.
Like a few other people in the world, he is much better than he seems. A man of heart and conscience, wearing a mask of flippancy.
By another definition, pride is building your happiness around your accomplishments, using your work as the measure of your worth. It is believing that you can arrive at fulfillment on your own, driven by your own individual efforts.
One key paradox of pride is that it often combines extreme self-confidence with extreme anxiety. The proud person often appears self-sufficient and egotistical but is really touchy and unstable. The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity. The proud person is competitive.
Augustine suddenly came to realize that the solution to his problem would come only after a transformation more fundamental than any he had previously entertained, a renunciation of the very idea that he could be the source of his own solution.
Or, as he most famously put it, “our hearts are restless until we rest in Thee.”
This is the process that produces an inner transformation. One day you turn around and notice that everything inside has been realigned. The old loves no longer thrill. You love different things and are oriented in different directions. You have become a different sort of person. You didn’t get this way simply by following this or that moral code, or adopting a drill sergeant’s discipline or certain habits. You did it instead because you reordered your loves, and as Augustine says again and again, you become what you love.
For Augustine, that’s the crucial change. Knowledge is not enough for tranquillity and goodness, because it doesn’t contain the motivation to be good. Only love impels action. We don’t become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves. We don’t become what we know. Education is a process of love formation. When you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love.
His entire destiny—his financial security, his standing in his community, his friendships, his opinions and meaning as a person—were determined by the ideas that flashed through his mind. The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit—loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness.” This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.
Johnson tried to lift people up to emulate heroes. Montaigne feared that those who try to rise above what is realistically human end up sinking into the subhuman. In search of purity they end up burning people at the stake.
Children are incessantly told how special they are. In 1966, only about 19 percent of high school students graduated with an A or A– average. By 2013, 53 percent of students graduated with that average, according to UCLA surveys of incoming college freshmen.
Lurking in the shadows of merit-based love is the possibility that it may be withdrawn if the child disappoints. Parents would deny this, but the wolf of conditional love is lurking here. This shadowy presence of conditional love produces fear, the fear that there is no utterly safe love; there is no completely secure place where young people can be utterly honest and themselves.
But the whole situation is more fraught than it appears at first glance. Some children assume that this merit-tangled love is the natural order of the universe. The tiny blips of approval and disapproval are built into the fabric of communication so deep that it is below the level of awareness. Enormous internal pressure is generated by the growing assumption that it is necessary to behave in a certain way to be worthy of another’s love. Underneath, the children are terrified that the deepest relationship they know will be lost.
The parental relationship is supposed to be built upon unconditional love—a gift that cannot be bought and cannot be earned. It sits outside the logic of meritocracy and is the closest humans come to grace. But in these cases the pressure to succeed in the Adam I world has infected a relationship that should be operating by a different logic, the moral logic of Adam II. The result is holes in the hearts of many children across this society.
The things that lead us astray are short term—lust, fear, vanity, gluttony. The things we call character endure over the long term—courage, honesty, humility.
The humble person understands that experience is a better teacher than pure reason. He understands that wisdom is not knowledge. Wisdom emerges out of a collection of intellectual virtues. It is knowing how to behave when perfect knowledge is lacking.
Maturity is not based on talent or any of the mental or physical gifts that help you ace an IQ test or run fast or move gracefully. It is not comparative. It is earned not by being better than other people at something, but by being better than you used to be.