Chapter 22: Character and the Will

James Rowland Angell

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Volition and Character.-- Inasmuch as consciousness is a systematising, unifying activity, we find that with increasing maturity our impulses are commonly coordinated with one another more and more perfectly. We thus come to acquire definite and reliable habits of action. Our wills become formed. Such fixation of modes of willing constitutes character. The really good man is not obliged to hesitate about stealing. His moral habits all impel him immediately and irrepressibly away from such actions. If he does hesitate, it is in order to be sure that the suggested act is stealing, not because his character is unstable. From one point, of view the development of character is never complete, because experience is constantly presenting new aspects of life to us, and in consequence of this fact we are always engaged in slight reconstructions of our modes of conduct and oar attitude toward life. But in a practical common-sense way most of our important habits of reaction become fixed at a fairly early and definite time in life.

The general manner of speech, the mode of dressing, purely personal manners, etc., are commonly fixed before twenty-one. The general attitude toward moral and religious ideals is likely to be gained sometime during, or just after, adolescence. Professional habits come somewhat later. Speaking broadly, however, for the average individual the dominant tone of his habits, social, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual, is set by the time he is thirty. By this time the direction of his desires and his interests is likely to be finally formed, and for the rest of his life he will but elaborate and refine upon this stock of tendencies.


When we recall the fact that habit depends ultimately upon the preservation of physical changes in neural tissues, we see how powerful an ally, or how frightful an enemy, one's habits may be. The man who has led a life of kindliness and sobriety not only has a fund of agreeable sentiments upon which his friends and neighbours can rely, he actually could not be mean and selfish and sordid without an herculean effort, for his nervous system contains imbedded in its structures the tendency to altruistic deeds.

Moral Development.-- When we describe the development of character as a process in which our impulses become coordinated with one another, we have in mind a very specific course of events. Thus, for example, the little child in learning obedience to his parents may be engaged with the impulses of love, of fear, and of anger. We may suppose that the child has been forbidden to do something. This occasions disappointment and anger. Disobedience is threatened. The parents may appeal to the child's affection or to his fear of punishment in The effort to secure the desired action. The competing impulses must be ordered with reference to one another. Anger and obstinacy may carry the day, love may win, or fear may triumph. Now, whatever the actual outcome, the set given to character by the result is undoubted and will make itself manifest on the next occasion when obedience is at stake.

At first sight it might seem as though in such a case as that of our illustration the question were not one of coordinating two impulses-, but rather of allowing one to suppress the other. This is the view which many good persons take of the whole course of moral education. But this theory is based on a fatal misapprehension of both the psychological facts and the ethical desirabilities of the situation.

If one judged simply by external appearances, one might assume that when the child yielded to the appeal to his affection the impulse of anger was wholly rooted out. This,

(378) however, is not strictly the fact. The impulse has met the obstruction of an opposing impulse, and the act which follows involves a coalescence of the two, an ordering of the two with reference to one another. Obedience given under such conditions is far more than the mere execution of certain muscular movements. It is a mental process in which the self, with its capacities for anger and love and a thousand other emotions, gives expression to its innermost nature. The tendency to react with anger upon any thwarting of desire is a part of the make-up of the self. The disposition to show love and obedience to the parent is also an integral part of it. When the two impulses come in conflict, one is not merely suppressed. Rather is the tendency to action diverted into other channels by means of the substitution of the competing impulse. Under such conditions obedience is not the purely mechanical thing it may later become -- a thing, like eating or dressing, which concerns sheer muscular. dexterity- It is rather a vital outpouring of the self, in which the seeming suppression of the anger is only a suppression as regards certain movements, for the disposition to make the angry response has entered in to colour with a deeper and more lasting hue the beauty of the submission to love's dictates.

All seeming suppression of impulses will be found to be based upon the expression of other impulses, not upon sheer brute repression. To root out a bad impulse we must set some contrary impulse to work. Moreover, in a character built up in this way the control of the morally more dangerous desires becomes a source of increased richness and power in life. Tennyson expressed this truth when he said

"That men may rise on stepping stones
Of their dead selves to higher things."

Only one who has really suffered can truly sympathise with grief. Only one who has been really tempted and tried can be morally altogether reliable.


The Will. -- When we bring all our considerations together, it becomes obvious that the proposition from which we set out early in our work is true in a very wide and deep sense. Mind. we have found to be, indeed, an engine for accomplishing the most remarkable adjustments of the organism to its life conditions. We have seen how the various features of cognitive and affective consciousness contribute each its quota to the general efficiency of the reaction which the organism is able to make upon its surroundings, physical and social. We have seen finally that in the will we have the culmination of all these activities of control. But it must have been observed that we have not found any specific mental element or event to which we could give the name will.

No, the term will is simply a convenient appellation for the whole range of mental life viewed from the standpoint of its activity and control over movement. The whole mind active, this is the will. To say that there is no such thing as the will (a statement which troubles many right-minded persons) is simply the psychologist's perverse way of saying that mentally there is nothing but will. There is no specific mental element to be called will, because all states of consciousness are in their entirety the will.

We have seen this doctrine justified in the last two chapters, wherein we have discovered volition concerned with impulses, with pleas-Lire and pain, with emotion, with ideas, with sensations, with memory, with reasoning, and with every form and type of mental operation. We have observed the. evolving control beginning with the mere mastery of movements, passing from this to more and more remote ends, for the attainment of which the previously mastered movements now available as habitual coordinations are employed, until finally we find the mind setting up for itself the ideas which we call ideals, and by means of these shaping the whole course of a lifetime. What these ideals shall be for any one of us

(380) depends upon the operations of interest and desire, and these in turn depend in part upon the sort of tendencies which we have inherited, and in part upon the forces of our social and physical environment. We may prate as much as we please about the freedom of the will, no one of us is wholly free from the effects of these two great influences. Meantime, each one of us has all the freedom any brave, moral nature can wish, i. e., the freedom to do the best he can, firm in the belief that however puny his actual accomplishment there is no better than one's best.

Training of the Will. -- A deal of twaddle is sometimes indulged in as to the training of the will. The will is spoken of as though it were a race-horse which once a day requires to be given its paces about the track. What is obviously in the minds of persons who discuss the question in this way is the wisdom of some form of moral calisthenics, e. g., self-denial, constructive and aggressive altruism, etc. Now, it is not necessary to enter into an extended argument upon this special recommendation, although it seems evident that apart from a deep moral interest in the thing done it could only produce moral prigs. If the moral interest is there, the artificial gymnastics will be superfluous. Life is rich in opportunities for larger and more intelligent kindliness. But disregarding this form of moral discipline, the development of volition evidently is not a thing to be hastened by any special form of exercise, because the will we have seen to be simply another name for the whole mental activity. Any purposeful intellectual occupation affords means of developing certain features of control. Play develops certain other features. Art develops volitional processes in one direction, mathematics develops them in another. So far as a well-developed will consists in the ability voluntarily to direct one's attention effectively and for unlimited periods in definite directions (and this certainly is a very basal conception), all thoughtful activity facilitates its attainment.


Healthiness of Will.-- The well-trained man is the man whose mind is stored with a fund of varied knowledge which he can promptly command when the necessity for it arises; he is the mail who can keep his attention upon the problem in hand as long as necessary, and in the face of distraction; he is, moreover, the man who, having paused long enough to see the situation correctly and to bring to bear upon it all the relevant knowledge he possesses, acts thereupon promptly and forcefully. Defects in any of these requirements may defeat efficient action and proclaim the actor a person of feeble or defective character.

The ignorant person cannot act effectively when nice discrimination and wide knowledge are necessary, as they often are. Even the learned person ordinarily cannot go far, provided his attention is wayward and fitful. His effort is too disconnected ever to. accomplish large results. The person who is flighty and precipitate is either a genius or a fool -- commonly the latter. On the other hand, the hopelessly careful person, whose life is spent in a morass of doubt and indecision, balancing imponderable considerations and splitting insignificant hairs-he, also, is likely to belong to the incompetents and inefficients. Evidently the attainment of a will which can fill all these requirements for the avoidance of pitfalls requires a training on every side of one's nature, requires a rich experience and a powerful dominant purpose running through it. All life offers us such training, and our success in building up a strong, rich character depends much more on how we do our work than upon what work we do. There is no calling so humble that it may not afford scope for the expression and development of all the great human interests, if we really put ourselves into it, and not our mere labour.


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