The Virtue of Stability

The Virtue of Stability

I was commiserating with a friend recently about our conditions as early-career academic researchers, stuck in the limbo of fixed-term postdoc positions that rotate every, say, 1 to 2 or 4 years or something. He had just moved to Denmark for a new position after living in Ireland for six years, between his PhD and having been one year into a postdoc there. In turn, I moved to Vienna in Oct. 2019 after five years in Munich—three for the PhD, two in between with teaching, working a side/non-academic job, working (somewhat) on publications, and applying for academic positions. Though I’ve been longer in Vienna, we were both talking about finding ourselves in common circumstances: we don’t really know the place or the people of the place we live in; we don’t really know the language (still, for me); we aren’t connected with any specific community (or barely, if so). More or less solitary lives. Of course it’s not as if there are no external mitigating factors that severely enforce this state of existence: the pandemic (and government policies, however rational or irrational) freezes any attempts to branch out and make connections in a place. Even without this, the latter takes time—quite a bit of time—as well as all other factors, like language, knowing people, knowing a place, and so on.

To take a step back, why do we talk about these things—the desire for connection, knowing a place, seeing people, etc.? Are they just for survival—just to feel perpetually not terrible—or are they with an eye toward human flourishing? Survival, most people may recognize, doesn’t seem to be an end in itself, but a means to a better life. I suppose that qualifies for “flourishing” in a common sensical way, perhaps Aristotle’s sense of eudaimonia, commonly translated “happiness”, but when cashed out, also implying a fulfillment or completion, so a life well-lived (and “happy” in that sense) that implies complete fulfillment. For Aristotle eudaimonia implies the possession of virtues (ἀρεταί) and their exercise in the appropriate circumstances or contexts one finds oneself in. Developing and perfecting those virtues then ultimately depends on being in the right circumstances for their development and perfecting: for example, to play a flute well requires playing the flute first; for a real moral virtue, like courage, that requires ideally being in battle, in the face of imminent death, acting appropriately without either being rash (one extreme) or cowardly (the other extreme).1

Anyway, this reflection on virtue was a theme in my conversation, and we kept coming around to it in asking the question of what good it is to be in a place for more than, simply, one or two years: stability seemed like a necessary factor to be able to do the things we hoped to do, which seem like things that would be real concomitants of eudaimonia. And indeed this makes sense even looking at the etymology of the word, εὐ- and -δαιμονία: εὐ typically means “well”, “thoroughly”, “competently”, which coupled with compounds implies, e.g., “abundance” (εὐανδρία) and “prosperity” (εὐδαίμων). Of course, the last term is the derivative root for eudaimonia/εὐδαιμονία. In turn, the root word in both εὐδαίμων and εὐδαιμονία corresponds to divinity or divine gods, interestingly, which in Aristotle and other ancient Greeks, connotes perfection, completion—which one could tie to “prosperity” and “happiness”/”completion” with the two correlate Greek terms. In any case, the key feature that stands out in conceptions of divinity is stability: the gods are what they are because they never change, but all change is consequent on their being. Their eternal stability and being can be seen reflected in the eternal, stable motions of the cosmic bodies that go through space and do not imply instability or diversion—instances of change, rather than unchanging motion, as in a circle or circular pattern for the ancients. So eudaimonia, by its very etymology, implies stability.

Given this, it is interesting that Aristotle doesn’t talk about stability as a distinct virtue in itself in the Nicomachean Ethics, but it seems to be presupposed underneath the surface with most (or all) the virtues. It’s maybe even curious why: perhaps it is something like being or unity, which (in Aristotle at least) are not separate genera unto themselves, but are, what medieval Scholastics would call, transcendentals—terms that have distinct meanings, but correspond to the concrete categories of being (like substance, quality, quantity, etc.). In any case, it seems one needs to have the pre-requisite of stability in some way to be able to develop and practice moral virtues, at least certain ones.

Early Christian monastics, especially the Desert Fathers, took the idea seriously (and to this day still do). Stability was heavily emphasized in the monk’s place and position: moving around tended to imply instability, and hence a weakening of developing the virtues. The work of one’s soul was often in the one physical place where the monk resided, whether in a community (in cenobitic monasticism) or as a solitary. There the inculcation of the virtues would happen through the constant adherence to patterns of life, with prayer at specific hours of the day to mark the time with divine worship and the soul’s return to its origin. Important in the life of the monk, besides developing the spiritual virtues, was his regular work: the immediate goal of that work was to ensure that the monk was totally self-supporting, free from any gifts or income—and not only this, but (especially) to be able to support those in need and offer hospitality to visitors. With this of course comes the solitude as part of the monk’s life: having no family or possessions of his (or her) own, the monk would devote his whole life to God and focus directly on the life of prayer, with the virtues as the means by which communion with God is directly realized. Here stability was a crucial factor here, with the non-monastic, outside “world” representing a state of flux and involvement in material affairs. On the one hand most desert monastics still necessitated some connection with the outside world for basic material and/or for selling their crafts on the market. On the other hand, they were expected to keep to a structure and order in their lives, apart from the world, to allow for the soul’s unmediated attention and focus on communion with God—a way of life the “world” could not afford.

This predominant notion of the “world” seems apt for our modern eyes. More so than at any other time in history, the world—or rather at least the Western world—seems marked by constant change and shifts. Previously, apparently stable institutions have become unstable: companies now come and go—even ones that, until recently, were over a century old; middle- or even lower-class jobs that used to be full-time, secure mainstays for the US and Europe have eroded away into temporary/short-term, part-time, freelance jobs; the idea of the family (not just their existence) has frayed, from the paradigm of stability to instability and uncertainty; even what used to be perceived as the most stable, respect institutions in society, like the major ancient Churches (Catholic and Orthodox, let alone other Protestant/non-denominational), have changed and swayed, either through controversy or the pressure of surrounding culture to readjust and readapt (however justified or not), or even just standard trends; and so on. (Now, the pandemic seems to have strongly accelerated this destabilizing trend across these and other areas, in likely permanent ways too.)

Granted, this general picture is nothing new when looking at the description of the “world” in ancient monastic, Christian texts: instability is a given in a life involved in the world, contextualized by things always changing. On the other hand, ancient and medieval societies seemed to understand and respect the need for some stability—across both political governing structures, as well as ecclesial structures, and the daily order and regime of peoples’ lives. Byzantine society for example, going back to John Chrysostom (and possibly earlier), actively encouraged the proximity of civic and church communities with monastic communities, while respecting the distinct modes of life between the two. In turn, one finds stable modes of life that served as buffers to the constant state of change and shifts in circumstances, whether between minor or major disruptions in political changes, wars, etc.—institutions like churches in their cities, and the family, both of which were interwoven into the fabric of the city. Not only were these buffers to physical changes and instabilities, but these would also serve as the means for working on the virtues, both political/inter-personal and moral (and/or personal). In turn the city’s structure would (or should) support this: one’s trade or line of work as a cobbler, or blacksmith, or teacher, and so on, would also be an additional form of stability. All these could dimly reflect the stable life of the monk and/or monastery—albeit only analogously.

Now, however, the idea of stability in contemporary, western society seems not a presupposition, as in the ancient/medieval world, but a luxury. Many cities and societies seem to be structured now—down to mine and my friend’s level with the academic field—around various lowest common denominators decided by majorities, i.e. whatever seems relevant or important either by “society”, institutional and/or governmental fiat, or arbitrary self-interest. Self-interest particularly seems to be the dominant modus operandi, where each person should be free to decide his or her own future happiness (whatever that is), so long as it does not hurt or destroy that of others he or she is around. Yet given this we have what has become the Uber model of society: in general, companies appear to be radically reducing or eliminating full-time jobs in multiple areas for the sake of “cutting costs”—replacing with more available or accessible, transactional kinds of jobs, as with freelance workers—i.e. Uber. (Needless to say academia, especially in the Anglophone sphere, is a special case of this.)

My friend was relating, as an example, his former university’s employment of a gardener and cleaner of the university’s buildings. These two janitorial workers that he knew were in their later ages, near retirement: the university payed them a living wage, despite the simple nature of their work—and this used to be the standard. He noted that the university will likely replace their positions with lower-paying, part-time workers: positions that would certainly necessitate having more than one job if the future workers of those positions were to have a living wage. Though this is tragic at some level (and a motivation for those calling for Universal Basic Income), what my friend noted interestingly was that simply having these simple jobs gave the workers an opportunity to work on ordinary, yet important virtues: the stability of that one job, however simple and however much or little work that involved, could permit them to work on finding perfection, even in the simple things. This brings to mind the well-known Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God: simple tasks, whether cleaning the dishes, or even just picking up a piece of straw, should bring one to the love of God in mind. Perfecting simple, everyday ordinary practices should be the means of securing the love of God in whatever one does. This again brings us back to the original Desert Fathers’ monastic notion of work as one of the regular means of communion with God, bookended by the daily office of prayers at different, regular hours of the day. And from my friend’s conversation, even the ordinary lay participate in this, at least in this now-old model of employment.

This is perhaps the sad thing about current trends in the “world” at the moment: by moving to a Neoliberalized Uber-like model of work, where one has to go from one job to another just to get by—or invest one’s life in multiple temporary fixed-term positions to get to the high point of stability, not even considering thriving—effaces the idea that work becomes the means for developing a life of human thriving, through the development of virtues. This is also apparent in the current notion of leisure we see now: social media, entertainment, become constant means of distraction. People do not seem to use these for real enjoyment for their own sake, but always for something else, especially social media: to win the argument, to continue scrolling, to derive enjoyment…that leads to less enjoyment, perpetual dissatisfaction, and more attempts to seek enjoyment… To no end. This seems like an endless loop to addiction, from which there can be no enjoyment of life. David Foster Wallace was indeed a prophet for our times: we seek perpetual distraction to get away from pain, only to throw ourselves into further pain, ending up in what he called the “double-bind of loneliness”. Yet it’s paradoxical to compare this with the Desert Fathers: solitude was the opposite of loneliness—singular concentration in the place of stability was the harbinger of divine communion. By contrast, in the “world” now, we are ironically least “lonely”, and yet in distracting ourselves with and around others, we are the most lonely by having no stable ground to bring ourselves together. (And this pandemic seems to have massively accelerated this latter sentiment.)

Can there be a return to stability? If so, what would this look like? Maybe the pandemic, despite the unnatural evil of physical isolation, is a reminder to inculcate the virtue of stability, if anything in one’s individual life: a virtue that was merely a given for any other virtue in antiquity, which is now something to be sought after and inculcated. I do not have an answer, but at least I think we can see enough reasons to see it is sorely lacking, not consciously considered, and perhaps to be considered when (or if) we can ever return to a natural world, and a natural life.

  1. Of course there are gradations of courage, Aristotle recognizes: Aristotle would simply say that displaying action in the face of death is the paradigmatic case of courage. 

Header image credit: An overview of the monasteries of Meteora (Greece).

Jonathan Greig
Jonathan Greig

Jonathan is a postdoctoral researcher at the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, Austria.


Stability Aristotle eudaimonia

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