Valery and Attributional Accuracy

This is the single most famous quote attributed to Aristotle:

We are what we repeatedly do, therefore excellence is not an act, but a habit.

It’s a great piece of rhetoric. The only problem is that Aristotle never wrote it. It’s actually an extract from a paraphrase of the fourth book of the Nicomachean Ethics made by Will Durant in his The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers, a mid-brow philosophy text written in 1926. The context of that extract contains several such restatements of an English translation of Aristotle’s Greek:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation: we do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have these because we have acted rightly; ‘these virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions’; we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit: ‘the good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life–for as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy’

While I prefer to read most things in their original language and context, I don’t mind seeing good ideas popularized in capsule like this. Another example, which came up this weekend, is: Art is never finished, only abandoned.

This phrase is usually attributed to painters, most often Leonardo Da Vinci, with no clear line back to an original source. A friend asked me for the original attribution over a meal, but I found the question a bit misguided. The wisdom in it has doubtless been found and lost a thousand times over the years, and its truth transcends any individual. What’s more, it’s actually much less gracefully stated in the modern source, which was the personal correspondance of Paul Valery:

Aux yeux de ces amateurs d’inquietude et de perfection, un ouvrage n’est jamais acheve–mot qui pour eux n’a aucun sens–mais abandonne; et cet abandon, qui le livre aux flammes ou au public (et qu’il soit l’effet de la lassitude ou de l’obligation de livrer), leur est une sorte d’accident, comparable a la rupture d’une reflexion, que la fatigue, le facheux, ou quelque sensation viennent rendre nulle.

Which is usually rendered into English as:

In the eyes of those lovers of perfection, a work is never finished–a word that for them has no sense–but abandoned; and this abandonment, whether to the flames or to the public (and which is the result of weariness or an obligation to deliver) is a kind of an accident to them, like the breaking off of a reflection, which fatigue, irritation, or something similar has made worthless.

The longer version contains not only the kernel within the pithy extract–that we must ultimately overcome our desire for perfection in order to release our art at all–but also Valery’s larger belief about artistic work, which was that one should undertake it for the internal transformation that it provides, the work for its own sake, rather than for the artifact produced.

This entry is part of Jack Rusher’s journal, originally published August 1st, 2012, in New York City.