Whenever someone first begins to pursue excellence in any field, he is often accused of being “pretentious.” An especially subtle demon haunts this use of the word “pretentious” because the scorn that animates such use trades upon the word’s original meaning while giving little heed to whether the situation at hand warrants the scorn. Many sneering words work this way.

“Pretension” involves pretending. Someone is “pretentious” if he puts on airs, posing as someone that he is not, particularly in the realm of social class or artistic taste. At its most innocent, this real fault is merely silly; at its most pernicious, it becomes a serious vice, involving a form of pride and self-deceit. Those who mock the man who begins the pursuit of excellence, however, do not ask whether their target is guilty of these sins. It is enough that an atmosphere has been evoked, an atmosphere of valuing higher things. To their eyes, the spires of Oxford are pretentious regardless of that institution’s real claims to an accomplished history. Other schools might be pretentious for pretending to look like Oxford, but Oxford is accused of being pretentious because it has the audacity in this democratic age to go on looking like itself. The real crime of those spires is that they stand as silent accusers of underachievement. They steadily bear witness to centuries of study and culture, truth and beauty. It is easier, however, for the self-justifier to claim that all this is mere fake surface appearance and posturing than to face the possibility that other humans with a constitution similar to his own managed real accomplishments to which he cannot now rouse himself.

We can readily concede that much of what has gone on at Oxford is mere social posturing, as a read through the opening chapters of Brideshead Revisited or any Wodehouse novel will hilariously reveal. This does not mean, however, that we should assume that all our aspirations must fall under this condemnation or that we should always shrink from even a whiff of culture just because such whiffs have often been used as a snobby cologne. The perennial nuisance of pretenders must not lead us to believe that all are only ever pretending. Indeed, why would so many strive at great expense through history to present the veneer of excellence in education, art, or virtue if there were never any solid wood to fake? Human beings only sustain such pretense where something real, worthy of admiration in itself, can cast the aura of its nobility around the courtiers who follow in its train.

What is more, not all pretending is a bad thing. We rightly mock the foppish dilettante, who carries around an empty sketchbook just to look creative at coffee shops. But are we right to mock the young man who carries an empty sketchbook only because he is just beginning? Such a man aspires to be an artist and so imitates the manners of those he admires. Because he is young, he has not yet worked out his own particular style and so regulates his imitations more often by passion than by perfect good taste. Are we right to sneer at such a beginning?

The beginning of every endeavor is liable to look ridiculous just as the young of many species are liable to begin life awkward and gangly. We cannot reach the adulthood of real achievement without first passing through this stage. We cannot leap over looking silly. A principal component of this silly appearance comes from the unskilled imitation of one’s betters, from practicing particulars before one knows how to put them into proportion and harmony with the whole. The young man adopts the posture of his well-respected father, but stands just a little too straight. A painter tries the shadows of Caravaggio, but goes a little too far. A poet uses vocabulary from Shakespeare, but ends up sounding archaic. Such faults are real faults and the good teacher will point them out gently, but they are to be expected from those beginning. How could they learn and grow otherwise?

Consider the process that someone must likewise go through as an adult if he wants to begin painting watercolors with no prior artistic experience. First, he must see something in watercolor painting that is worth pursuing. He must say to himself, “There is beauty here that I cannot now produce as I am, but which I might possibly produce if I try.” Already he has become pretentious, if only in his thoughts. Next, he must buy his supplies. What an act of hypocrisy this requires! Then he must somehow learn. He might watch videos, look at books, attend lessons, or simply try his hand. His first pictures, however, will necessarily be those of an amateur. Is he pretending to be a painter when really he is not? Yes of course, but thankfully he risks the embarrassment of this situation because the world would not contain painters otherwise.

You may have noticed that I am urging upon you an Aristotelian conception of virtue (although it was, of course, Platonic before it was Aristotelian). According to Aristotle, there is a basic distinction between those qualities we simply possess by birth and those qualities that we acquire. Only the latter can serve as the proper object of praise and blame because we cannot properly praise or blame someone for something he cannot help. Virtues, therefore, belong to the acquired class because virtues are the sort of thing for which we rightly hold each other responsible. A person may have an inborn affability, but this is different from the virtue of kindness. Furthermore, Aristotle makes clear that virtue is a stable character trait rather than a one-time affair. Even the worst liar might tell the truth on a particular occasion, but this does not make him honest. Instead, an honest man must have within himself a lasting formation of character that consistently leads to him telling the truth even under difficult circumstances.

In order to acquire a virtue, therefore, one must begin from the position of not already having it. But how is this possible? How can a person, recognizing that he is not currently kind, honest, or courageous develop himself to be eventually that kind of man. We know from experience that we cannot simply wake up one morning and wish it to be so. Aristotle’s answer to this predicament is that we must begin by imitation. In order to acquire courage, the young recruit must look to the veteran. By doing so, the recruit is able to form a conception of what a courageous man is like and what a courageous man would do. He can then, imperfectly at first, begin to act like the veteran even though he does not yet have the character that would reliably produce such stalwart behavior. At first, his heart will quake violently, but looking left and right, he mimics the posture of those who stand their ground with spear and shield against a rushing enemy. At first, his external behavior will not match his internal disposition. But there is no other way to gain that disposition. At, first, he will only be a pretender, but such was the path taken by every veteran in the army. Over time and through repeated efforts, the accumulation of experience forms a stable habit of excellence. The recruit is no longer a recruit when standing his ground is no longer an act.

What Aristotle says about the acquisition of virtues can be transposed onto the acquisition of non-moral excellences such as those of artistic or scholarly merit. The painter we described earlier must go through the phase of imitation if he wants to be a good painter. Just as we distinguished natural disposition from praiseworthy acquired moral traits, we must distinguish natural artistic talent or congenital qualities such as good eyesight from those abilities the artist only gains through effort. Technical skill with a brush and aesthetic judgment are acquired, stable character traits analogous to the moral virtues. In a similar way, intellectual achievements of any worth do not come without acquiring the mental character traits of a scholar such as facility understanding the logic of arguments, the ability to articulate one’s ideas, or the habit of sound judgment capable of distinguishing plausible claims from implausible. Again, no one comes from the womb with these traits. They must be acquired—through repeated acts of pretense.

Both the artist and the scholar must, like the recruit, look to their betters in order to form a conception of what excellence in their chosen field looks like. Then, they must pretend. They must set out doing the very thing at which they know they are no good. But they must try their best to act like those who really are good. In time, we hope, the outcome will justify the pretension. Even if they never achieve their aim, however, the sneering multitude should keep silent. Even the failures have at least made the attempt to become something worth becoming.