The Vices of Perseverance

It is an early morning in August. My athletes have a mile time trial on the track, and I am pacing a seventh grader who requested my help. “Just tuck in,” I tell her. The time trial begins, and she positions herself behind me.

To run a time trial well—as opposed to a race situation in which athletes respond to one another’s moves—the goal is to mete out one’s efforts evenly. It is like slowly squeezing out a tube of toothpaste. The objective is to neither run out of toothpaste before crossing the finish, nor have any toothpaste remaining at the line. This typically means that the first laps feel almost too easy and under control. Then fatigue overtakes the runner in a crescendo as she approaches the finish.

As we run, my athlete’s breathing becomes more labored. I remind her to stay tucked in, and I give her what I think is a very compelling speech about the vice of irresolution. We want to be steadfast, perseverant people who do not capitulate in situations of difficulty. We want to be Odysseus tethered to the mast or oak trees deeply rooted in our purpose.

We cross the finish together. She sets a new personal best, and we celebrate with the team. “What did you think of my speech?” I ask her, as we change our shoes. “Did it help you to persevere?”

“No, it didn’t,” she tells me. “I couldn’t hear anything you said in the wind. I just heard, ‘blah blah blah.’”

Perseverance and Its Vices

Aquinas defines perseverance as “persist[ing] long in something good until it is accomplished (1).” It is the virtue of endurance or staying in place, and it is an auxiliary excellence of the principal virtue of fortitude. Unlike constancy, which is the disposition to stand firm against external difficulties, perseverance’s object is internal to its task, and its difficulty “arises from the very continuance of the act (2).” Stated differently, continuing to do the same thing is hard, regardless of any obstacles that come our way. This is something we tend to know as endurance athletes. Doing the same thing for a long time is difficult, and it requires commitment and training. If there is one virtue that belongs to the sport of distance running, it is this one.

Perseverance is a virtue that is conceptually simple. All you have to do is stay where you are, or keep doing what you are already doing, in working toward some good end. But this is also a virtue that is easy to get wrong, and there are two main ways that we do so.

Irresolution and Intransigence

In the classical tradition, moral virtues are often described as being positioned between two vices—a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency. For perseverance, the vice of deficiency is a kind of softness, or an inability to persist (3). In the intellectual domain, philosopher Nathan King applies the term irresolution to this vice, and he describes how it is often connected to sloth. As an example, he names “the high school student who abandons his geometry homework after five minutes because he finds it difficult (4).” In running, we may be inclined to do the same thing—to quit as soon as our task becomes challenging.

Irresolution is a helpful word for runners, since, if we are not resolute, or steadfast, in our commitment to reach the finish line, it is unlikely we will make it. We need to be trees deeply rooted in our purpose, as I told my athlete that day. Reasons to quit always present themselves over the course of a long run, and these reasons grow, if not more logically compelling, certainly louder when we are tired.

Perseverance’s vice of excess is called pertinacity. It involves bullheadedness or “hold[ing] on imprudently (5).” King uses the word intransigence, describing a stubborn persistence to a goal that is no longer worthwhile (6). This vice, while likely less common than irresolution among the general population, describes a disposition common among ultrarunners. The phrase “death before DNF” is indicative of it. We are characteristically recalcitrant.

Persisting through difficulty is generally helpful. Indeed it is one of the best things we can learn to do. But persistence is also not an unqualified good. Sometimes we should rest, call it a day, or reconsider our commitments. It all depends on the good we are committed to (whether it is indeed good) and how that good squares with the rest of our lives.

Telling the Difference between Virtue and Vice

The difference between irresolution and perseverance is clear, particularly in our sport. If a runner is irresolute, then she will often fail to endure—either in training, such that she is unprepared on race day, or in competitions, such that she cannot finish the race.

However, the difference between perseverance and intransigence is less clear. It is sometimes difficult to tell whether one’s commitment is stubborn in fruitful or problematic ways. Moreover, oftentimes what onlookers consider intransigence is actually just what discipline requires. Other times, a breakthrough is right around the corner, and the difference is only clear in retrospect, once the athlete either has a breakthrough or is obliterated in the process of trying to secure one.

So Where Does This Distinction Leave Us?

Aristotle recommends that, in trying to hit the virtue mean, we err on the side that more closely resembles the virtue (7). For perseverance, this would be intransigence. So, in general, we should err on the side of excess—choosing to remain when an effort becomes difficult. We can practice this in training on a regular basis, ‘staying in place’ without capitulating and extending the length of time we can endure.

But knowing myself and my running friends, my guess is that many of us are already inclined toward perseverance’s vice of excess. We can be stubborn to a fault. For those disposed to intransigence, it may be helpful to bend our characters back in the opposing direction. We can add a few more rest days, think long-term, and grow more circumspect about the goods we are pursuing, and the means by which we pursue them.

Call for Comments

  • Where do you stand with perseverance in your running?
  • Have you found yourself with one of perseverance’s vices? What happened in that situation?

References

  1. Aquinas. Summa Theologiae II.2.137.1
  2. Aquinas. ST II.2.137.2-3.
  3. Aquinas. ST 2.2.138.1
  4. N. King. (2014) Erratum to: Perseverance as an intellectual virtue. Synthese 19: 3779–3801.
  5. Aquinas. ST 2.2.138.2
  6. N. King. (2014) Erratum to: Perseverance as an intellectual virtue. Synthese 19: 3779–3801.
  7. Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics 4.5
Sabrina Little

is a trail runner and ultrarunner for HOKA and Nathan Sports, and a Philosophy PhD student at Baylor University. She is trying to figure out whether it is more unreasonable to pursue mountain running in Waco, Texas (elevation 470 feet) or philosophy in the year 2018. Learn more about Sabrina on her website.