Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, January 04, 2016

WILLIAM JAMES: Habit (Happy New Year)

William James knew all about Americans and their annual habit of making New Year’s resolutions.  He also knew that most of those resolutions fade away before February.  In this essay he examines why old habits are so hard to break and gives some good advice on making, and keeping, new ones.  His ideas are based partly on good old American self-help pragmatism and partly on meditations about the universal human condition.  James makes the observation that “Men grown old in prison have asked to be readmitted after being once set free.”  This is strange but true.  It has been well documented that some inmates eventually become so institutionalized they have a hard time adjusting to life outside prison walls.  Their daily habits behind bars finally forge bars in their minds too, making it nearly impossible for them to escape their daily routines.  And what is true for inmates living in prison is also true for average citizens living in the work-a-day world.  Most of us get up in the morning, take a shower, have breakfast, brush our teeth, and then go to work.  Our work usually consists of doing the same general tasks day in, day out, year after year.  This may sound bad but James believes regular habits help hold people together.  He puts it this way: “Habit is the enormous flywheel of society, its most precious conservative agent.”  Many workers dream of escaping from earning a living, what we sometimes call the rat race, as if all we’re doing is running aimlessly on a treadmill.  A man may be justified in wanting to escape pointless routines.  But James (speaking both as a psychologist and as a philosopher) cautions 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.”  For James it’s not necessarily our jobs that are wrong; it’s our habitual way of thinking.  Most of us don’t need New Year’s resolutions.  We need to be re-educated.

James gets straight to the point.  “The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy.  It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund.”  It’s a good thing we don’t start each day by planning out how we’ll take a shower or how we’ll brush our teeth.  We just do it.  We’ve done these things so many times it’s become second nature to us.  For James this is a good thing.  He says, “The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work.”  Personal hygiene is just routine maintenance and we should be devoting most of our mental efforts to better things.  We shouldn’t have to deliberate over routine daily duties and James suggests “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.”  The little daily duties we perform (often without thinking) are important in the formation of character because these habits soon become “set like plaster, and will never soften again.”  That’s why New Year’s resolutions are so hard to keep.  It’s easy to say “I will (whatever my resolution is)” on December 31.  It’s much harder to actually do it in January.  The plaster of personal habit has already hardened and can’t be molded into a new shape without breaking off the old plaster first.  But it’s vitally important to make the effort because, as James says, “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.  Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”  Drop by drop characters are fashioned.  Pragmatists believe (and it’s inherent in the Declaration) that men are responsible for their own destinies.  James believes “The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells us, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way.”  William James thinks it’s hard, but not impossible to break bad habits and form new, better ones.  His Happy New Year message is this: good luck with those U-turns.    


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