Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Habit is Ten Natures

I googled the term "Habit is Ten Natures", which is said by Charlotte Mason in several places in her collected writings upon education.... here, and here, for instance, where she says:

Use is second nature, we are told; it is not too much to say that 'habit is ten natures,' .... Physiologists tell us that thoughts which have become habitual make somehow a mark upon the brain substance, but we are bold in calling it a mark for there is no discernible effect to be quoted. Whether or no the mind be served by the brain in this matter, we are empirically certain that a chief function of education is the establishment of such ways of thinking in children as shall issue in good and useful living, clear thinking, aesthetic enjoyment, and, above all, in the religious life

Immediately I found this section in The Principles of Psychology, by William James. I think CM must have read his book. I'm pasting in several excerpts that remind me remarkably of what CM says about the same subject (the italicized emphases are his but I put some parts in red)

Dr. Carpenter's phrase that our nervous system grows to the modes in which it has been exercised expresses the philosophy of habit in a nutshell. We may now trace some of the practical applications of the principle to human life.

  • The first result of it is that habit simplifies the movements required to achieve a given result, makes them more accurate and diminishes fatigue.
  • The next result is that habit diminishes the conscious attention with which our acts are performed.
This brings us by a very natural transition to the ethical implications of the law of habit. They are numerous and momentous. Dr. Carpenter, from whose 'Mental Physiology' we have quoted, has so prominently enforced the principle that our organs grow to the way in which they have been exercised, and dwelt upon its consequences, that his book almost deserves to be called a work of edification, on this account alone. We need make no apology, then, for tracing a few of these consequences ourselves:

"Habit a second nature! Habit is ten times nature," the Duke of Wellington is said to have exclaimed; and the degree to which this is true 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, as to most of the possibilities of his conduct.

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. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. 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

Two great maxims emerge from his treatment.
  • The first [p.123] is that in the acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall re-enforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
  • The second maxim is: Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right.
  • A third maxim may be added to the preceding pair: Seize the very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new 'set' to the brain.

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. An this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. 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.
Very interesting! These are very similar to the methods CM recommends for training children in habits. I do not know if I am quite convinced that "habit is ten natures" or that it SHOULD be. But this excerpt does seem to say something about where CM got the basis for her thinking on the importance of habits.

More about these ideas about habits from William James:

These quotes, of course, do not really explain how specifically to guide a child's will to do right -- and they do not really tell what habits to form, or why. But I did think it was interesting as context for what she wrote about the forming of habits.

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