William James, Habit (Action)

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved… A “character,” as J. S. Mill says, “is a completely fashioned will”; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain “grows” to their use. Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as to positively hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge. There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid “other particulars” of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form! …The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion… without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world – speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers – but let it not fail to take place.

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