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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Character and the Will, Part I

by A. T. Schofield, M.D.
Volume 12, January 1901, pgs. 1-6


In these few papers on character, we shall consider, first of all, the freedom of the will, which includes the whole question of moral responsibility; and then its effect on character. Its relation to morality will come next, and then its expression in action.

All our readers must be aware of the endless discussions that have raged about the question whether the will be free or not, resembling in their persistent character the eternal disputes in theology as to whether man is responsible, or God sovereign. The answer in each case is that "both are true." Here is an instance of the value of affirmations over denials. Assert the will is free and man responsible; but don't deny it may be controlled and God sovereign. Or we may change the assertion with equal truth, but must never deny what appears to be the incompatible opposite, for we are small and our mental capacity limited, but truth and God are great and infinite.

The will is free. There can be no morality without freedom of will, because there can be no responsibility. Nothing less is required and nothing more is needed than our own personal freedom and responsibility in order to build up personal character.

Free will and Divine foreknowledge cannot clash, though to human logic apparently incompatible, for they are two parallel lines that never meet.

The freedom of will, moreover, is always consistent with the Divine foreknowledge as well. Because a certain action can be predicted it does not prove it is not a free action.

To be morally and practically free, one must be able easily to resist all instinctive and unconscious impulses.

We may be free, and yet it may be quite certain what use we shall make of our freedom. There can, of course, be no movement of will without a sufficient exciting cause, but we may know perfectly well in what direction this exciting cause will act.

While, therefore, we are literally and absolutely free in theory, there are laws of character as irresistible as the law of gravitation. And in this lies the importance of character. That while I am free to form it, to re-form it, and to transform it as I like, and have abundant power available to do so when I have formed it, I have freely imposed conditions myself on my own free will.

Though a man may be free to go wrong, in fixed characters, it is practically impossible in certain directions. Of course, this remark is equally true with regard to right doing, though in neither case is the force of character absolute.

John Stuart Mill observed (J.S. Mill, System of Logic, vol ii., p. 477): "A man feels morally free who knows he is master of his habits or temptations. To be completely free, we must have succeeded in the effort. Hence, none but one of perfect virtue is completely free"--and yet, as we have seen, such an one is, to a great extent, under the power of virtue instead of vice. When we cease to be slaves of sin, we are described as slaves of God, and yet, at the same time, we are morally free.

Virtue often has a tremendous conflict to attain this freedom, or this possession of the ego. The Homeric conflict is described in full by St. Paul, whose profound introspection exceeds that of most men (vide Rom. Vii.). Freedom is certainly linked in that passage, and throughout St. Paul's writings, with virtue. "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free." (St. Paul, Gal. v. i.) And Christ Himself attached freedom to truth: "And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." (St. John viii. 32)

The conscious will should rule, and rule in accordance with the moral sense; but sometimes the instincts of character, and what may be called the unconscious will, prevail over the conscious will; and "the firmest resolve," says Maudsley, "or purpose sometimes vanishes issueless when it comes to the brink of an act, while the true (i.e., unconscious) will, which determines, perhaps a different act, springs up suddenly out of the depths of the unconscious nature, surprising and overcoming the conscious." (Henry Maudsley, Physiology of Mind, p. 417)

If the conscious will be allied with the character, of course there is no difficulty.

As a rule, I do what I would, though at all times it is impossible to trace all the springs that move me: so unconscious are they; yet, however many there may be, I feel the will is free, that I need not have so acted unless "I chose," and that I am, therefore, a responsible being before God and man.

The will, as we have seen, is, in a sense, determined by the character, but inasmuch as the expression of the character in action is at the control of the will, the will also forms the character by repeated action. We cannot will to be different, any more than we can will to play the violin; but we can will to do certain actions that make us different by repetition, so as to attain the result, and modify the character. The effect of action is even more subjective than objective--inward more than outward. The outward effect may be good or bad; the effect of the action on our character depends on the motive that caused it. Each action performed under the influence of motives is my own, the character being more definitely formed with each voluntary act.

"Character," says Novalis, "is a completely formed will."

But the will must be strong and resolute, and often in the desperate conflict with inertia and positive evil needs all the aid it can get from the higher side of character, and from the enlightened moral sense, energised by the Divine Spirit. Many amiable, good characters are marred for want of will. We see plainly they might be so much better, do so much more good, with more will and purpose than they do.

Effort and overcoming are essential factors in all strong characters, and determined wills are their mainsprings. Prof. James earnestly insists upon our never suffering a single emotion to evaporate without its yielding some practical service. Freedom is not standing still; it is the power to become; it is advance. (Prof. William James, Principles of Psychology, vol. i., p. 125).

We are really as capable of moulding our characters if we will, by force and exercise of will, as of having them made for us by others unconsciously.

A habit of willing is called a purpose. It is only when our purposes have become independent of pain or pleasure or internal sudden impulses, that we are said to have a settled or confirmed character. A whole-hearted purpose to be true to one's best instincts ever leads onward. A great deal of moral power is gained by accustoming our wills to act with decision the moment the right path is clear. This decision, and the habitual discipline of a strong will, are essential to a good character. "In the supremacy of self-control consists one of the perfections of the ideal man. Not to be impulsive--not to be spurred hither and thither by each desire--but to be self-restrained, self-balanced, governed by the just decision of the feelings in council assembled . . . that it is which moral education strives to produce."(Herbert Spencer, Social Status, p. 185)

          Self reverence, self-knowledge, self-control.
          These three alone lead life to sovereign power.
          Yet not for power; that of itself would come unsought,
          But to live by rule, acting each rule by law,
          And because right is right to follow right,
          Were wisdom in the score of consequence.

                    (Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Oenone.)

At a large girls' college in the States, girls deserving of it are put on the roll of the "Self-governed," and are then permitted to do as they please.

          The bravest trophy ever man obtained
          Is that which in himself himself hath gained.

                    (Sir William Alexander, Earl of Stirling, The Tragedie of Darius)

We will now consider the relation of the will to morality. We have seen that the will must be free in order that moral responsibility can exist. A person, to be moral, must be capable of being immoral, a free will implies choice. For moral action there must be consciousness. Instincts as such, strictly speaking, are not in themselves moral; what we mean by the words moral instincts, are instincts which form the basis of moral action. It is clear, therefore, that moral responsibility does not attach to the original character, save when it becomes the cause of action in consciousness. I am responsible, morally, for all my acts, though they may be done in opposition to my better self, and in this sense I can say it was not I who did them.

We are not what we do, but what we approve of. Nevertheless, we are responsible for what we do. A responsible man is one, therefore, whose conscious will endorses the actions that may spring from unconscious motives. We are responsible for all actions, however much they may be predetermined by character. Punishment for, and suffering for sin is thus really in the interests of humanity, and of the whole race. If fools and sinners did not suffer for folly and sin, the world would soon consist of nothing else.

We see from all this what moral importance attaches to the action of the will. All moral training is essentially a training of the will; moral health implies a vigorous will. The two evils as to will are feebleness or indolence, and the corruption of will by self-indulgence. The first moment, therefore, that moral sense is developed, the conflict begins between two springs of action, a higher and a lower; and the first index of moral character is the choice between them. It is useless, therefore, to think a man is good because the analysis of his motives and character show it. No man is known to be good until he has exhibited his worth in voluntary action. Morality and the exercise of the will are inseparable.

We must now consider what constitutes right conduct, without here trenching too much on the domain of conscience and Christianity.

Let us hear what Plato has to say on this (Plato, Rep., 443. C-B): "Right (i.e., conscience) concerns itself with the inward springs which are man's true self and life. When he has turned to account his three principles (wisdom, courage, and self-control) like the three notes of a scale (with any intermediate notes), then he may be and become, no longer manifold in character, but one compact and balanced nature. He is at last prepared so to act and call that conduct right and good, which concurs with this character, and that knowledge which directs it--wisdom: and on the other hand, that conduct wrong which may misrepresent it, and that judgment ignorance which directs such conduct."

Every action is right which in the presence of a lower motive follows a higher. "I do that I would not," is seldom literally true when we are conscious of our actions. We must abet to some extent every action we are aware of.

Now a right action may not be positively right, and yet relatively so. The generous man may have to close his hand, the merciful man to harden his heart, the truthful man to veil facts; but if done with sorrow, the action is right, and no harm ensues to character.

Good conduct should be righteous and right; but between the two the former prevails. An action is not good in itself, or in its results, but in its motive. The motive may be known or unknown. It is better when known. It is well to know always why we act, or at any rate the leading motive. Where instinct pulls one way and reason another, we must ever remember that the defeat of reason by instinct is, to a certain extent, demoralising, even when the latter is better, while on the other hand, the defeat of instinct by reason is good and common; the resisting of temptation is generally a conflict of the latter sort. Many think that if they act according to the moral sense, it is necessarily right. Not so; it is right with relation to this, but may be wrong with reference to God and man; as when St. Paul, with a good conscience, sent Christian men and women to prison. To do what we think right may be all we are capable of at the moment; but we should not rest till we are assured that what we believe to be right actually is so, and therefore that what we do is right.

So much stress has been laid in this chapter on the moral worth attaching to action, that it may seem as if what we do, is worth more than what we are. That is of course ridiculous; for the former is ever based on the latter, and is its expression. The only reason why it is of such value is because this expression depends on the will that causes the action; and this will being free, moral responsibility attaches to it in a special way; and thus the morality which we may say was passive and potential in character, becomes active and embodied in conduct. We therefore will now proceed to consider conduct generally.

(To be continued.)


Proofread May 2011, LNL