When the problem arose for us whether habit or theory was better for getting virtue—if by theory is meant what teaches us correct conduct, and by habit we mean being accustomed to act according to this theory—Musonius thought habit to be more effective.
—MUSONIUS RUFUS, LECTURES, 5.17.31–32, 5.19.1–2
—found in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday
At first, of course…whatever virtue might be, unless fused with practice, theory is blinding.
Following the above quote in The Daily Stoic, Holiday quotes Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
There’s more than a little irony in having Hamlet lecture Horatio about the wideness and vastness of the earth given how often Hamlet is bounded in the nutshell of his own skull, trying to convince himself of its “infinite space” despite the pressure of those bone walls constantly closing in.
I am Hamlet (and the egg man, and the walrus, meaningless) in the worst way: dwelling inside my head, enduring the self-inflicted agony of indecisiveness and inaction and theoretical musing, the pain of which, even in failure, is greater than any action I might take.
But the Hamlet quote doesn’t necessarily mean what everyone thinks it means.
I’ve been part of many discussions of the play in which this line is taken as a directive to open-mindedness, that many things—though not all things—are possible.
That doesn’t go far enough because Hamlet is a true skeptic, demanding proof of every thing and for every action.
Skepticism of this sort simultaneously allows for seemingly infinite possibility while ruling out perhaps the most important possibility of all: faith.
I don’t mean religious faith (necessarily), but belief that transcends—or is at odds with, or comes before—evidence, that by the very logic that makes it possible makes it impossible.
Skepticism would be an easy road were it not for the intrusion of faith, be it in the form of love, divinity or pleasure.
If there is any difference between them.
What does this have to do with Rufus’ lecture on virtue, habit and theory?
To not die twice, as Hamlet does, by inaction and action, I have to let habit at least occasionally lead to virtue and action lead to belief.
This is the only living response to the deepest, darkest waters of depression too: churning and slapping in some semblance of swimming.
Fake it and make it in a reflexive relationship.
I am shot through with the bolts of light and dark, the passage of things I know, without proof, to be true.
Light and dark alike leave rifts and fissures such that when one is transcendent the aftermath of the other is indistinguishable.
What is required, with fail, is that I do without knowing.
Every step a controlled fall.
Forgive myself for not knowing what I do.