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Dear Socrates

Dear Socrates

Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.

Dear Socrates,

I am a university student. For some while I have been going through tough times in my life, personally as well as academically. My near and dear ones tell me that it’s because of some of my habits, which they consider to be weird. None of this bothered me until recently, when I had a major academic failure. This led me to introspect, and after long hours of pensiveness I have realized that some of my traits could be seen as abnormal behavior. But this just makes me confused. I think habits are habits and can’t be classified as good or bad ones. Such classification would be prejudicial in its very nature. What do you think?

Nejou Ressana Ahluwalia

Dear Nejou,

Not knowing what your habits are, I find it impossible to say whether they are good or bad. My knowledge is much limited in any case. Perhaps you ought to consult someone wiser. You might find guidance from the sage Thales, who when asked, “What is very difficult?” replied, “To know oneself”; and when asked, “What is very easy?” replied, “To give advice to others”.

Thales claimed to know the material nature of the cosmos, though I never quite understood what he meant, and unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to question him on the matter. However, I do not know of his saying much about habits, so would it not be good for us to inquire into the nature of habits and ask what they are before we may say they are good or bad, or neither good nor bad, or sometimes good and sometimes bad? Or do you feel that ‘habits are habits’ is already a definition?

You could be playing a ruse like Meno, who insisted I define figure and color. But I will attempt to define ‘habits’. Do you know what we mean by change? Some may call it motion or action or becoming – Prodicus may say these are distinct – but you do understand generally what is meant by change, don’t you? – a coming into and going out of being of sorts? When people exercise their bodies, do they not go through a change when they become one who is exercising, and then one who has ceased to exercise? And is there not a great deal of change in-between also, as they move their arms and legs about? So too, when someone reflects, do they not become one reflecting, and then later cease to be so, and do the thoughts not change in their ways?

And do you not also know what we mean by repeating? Surely your definition displays as much. Therefore, I will define habits as repeated change. But I am afraid this definition may not satisfy, so I will draw an image. It is as if we sat in the center of a circular track, facing in one direction, and watched a runner race by. He would appear to come and go and come and go, as if by habit. However, I am afraid that this picture is but a distraction, for the definition is, I believe, better.

As to the question of habits being good or bad or neither good nor bad or sometimes good and sometimes bad, is there any reason to suspect they are not like other things? Drinking water is at times good – when one thirsts – and at times bad – when one is sated or has dropsy. Exercising is good when it helps the body and bad when it does harm. So too, is not the habit of giving money to beggars sometimes good, for they are special to the gods and need food, and sometimes bad, for they may use the money to harm themselves or others? Is not the habit of engaging in battles likewise something good when the cause is just, and something bad when it is unjust? Therefore I think your old belief, “that habits are habits and can’t be classified as good or bad”, was one cause of your confusion.

Now let us examine another cause of confusion. Did you not also say that “some of [your] traits could be seen as abnormal behavior”? But I ask you, does this matter? Ought not we be concerned more with how we are, rather than how we are seen? Further, what does it matter if an act is normal or abnormal? Does not the only importance lie in that it is good and just? Walking barefoot may seem abnormal, but is it necessarily bad? Should we trust in the opinion of the majority, who so often corrupt all they have – horses, clothing, and the like – or should we only care for the opinion of the one who knows?

To return to our habits of giving money and engaging in battle, is it not that these are good and just when guided by wisdom, and bad and unjust when guided by ignorance? So would we not seek to guide our habits as much as possible by knowledge? I have long believed that this act, called ‘recollection’, which involves looking into oneself for answers, is the path to knowledge. Might this be what you do when you ‘introspect’? At the least, it seems that questioning yourself often leads to better opinions. For do we not discover the falsity of hypotheses by testing them? And once recognizing our error, are we not better off for knowing that we do not know, rather than believing a falsehood?

Yours as ever,


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