Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Saturday, July 23, 2011


"Habit a second nature! Habit is ten times nature," the Duke of Wellington is said to have exclaimed. Wellington was a successful military commander who knew how to turn out good soldiers. William James was a psychologist and his job was to turn out good people. James was in full agreement with Wellington on the importance of developing good habits. He says that no one can probably appreciate as well as one who is a veteran soldier himself. The daily drill and the years of discipline end by fashioning a man completely over again… That’s why military service begins with boot camp. The goal is to take ordinary people and change their “bad” civilian habits and produce good soldiers, sailors or Marines. For better or worse, all of us are creatures of habit. Is that a good thing? On one hand, habit dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. Most of our habits developed in early stages of life and then stick with us for years to come. We aren’t aware of the power habits hold over us. Many times, for example, we think we’re in full control of our desires. We say to ourselves: I can quit drinking whenever I want, or I can quit smoking whenever I want, or I can quit (fill in the blank) whenever I want. So we decide to quit. Then to our astonishment we fail. We find that it isn’t as easy to quit as we thought it would be. Our habits are stronger than our willpower. This is bad. But there’s also a good side that James points out: Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent… It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log-cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow… This doesn’t sound inspiring. It sounds like habits are keeping us chained in misery because that’s what we’re used to. For William James this isn’t necessarily bad. He believes that On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again. If the period between twenty and thirty is the critical one in the formation of intellectual and professional habits, the period below twenty is more important still for the fixing of personal habits… We have our jobs to do. We have our station in life. We have our duties to fulfill. Habit helps us to do that. It prepares us to take our place in the adult world. We just need to be educated in the right kind of way. James believes that the great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. Getting up early and going to work every morning is an adult activity. Kids don’t do it naturally. So we have to train them to get used to it. We all have to become habituated to work. It doesn’t come naturally. Most people don’t wake up every morning and ask themselves: should I go on working or should I quit my job and become a homeless nomad? Their minds were made up long ago to get a job and have a home. That’s what people do. It’s a habit of our culture. William James thinks this habit makes life better: There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision… If there be such daily duties not yet ingrained in any one of my readers, let him begin this very hour to set the matter right. Setting the matter right may be easier said than done. Anyone who’s ever tried to break a bad habit, especially a long-standing bad habit, knows how hard it can be. We get used to living a certain way and changing is hard. James points out that Men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free. They find it easier to go on living in prison rather than adjust to freedom in the outside world. In the same way, sometimes we become imprisoned in our own habits. James’ advice is this: if we have to live in a prison made out of our own habits, better to make them good ones.


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