Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Charlotte Mason: The Way of the Will

Virtue, then, being of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time), while moral virtue comes about as a result of habit, whence also its name (ethike) is one that is formed by a slight variation from the word ethos (habit).

From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times; nor can fire be habituated to move downwards, nor can anything else that by nature behaves in one way be trained to behave in another. Neither by nature, then, nor contrary to nature do the virtues arise in us; rather we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit.

Again, of all the things that come to us by nature we first acquire the potentiality and later exhibit the activity (this is plain in the case of the senses; for it was not by often seeing or often hearing that we got these senses, but on the contrary we had them before we used them, and did not come to have them by using them); but the virtues we get by first exercising them, as also happens in the case of the arts as well. For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them, e.g. men become builders by building and lyreplayers by playing the lyre; so too we become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.
Aristotle, Ethics, Book 2

I'm on to the Way of the Will in Charlotte Mason's Philosophy of Education. She mentions that will is a difficult word to define. Partly, according to the Catholic Encyclopedia, this was because in her time the word "will" had been distorted from its traditional usage. Here is the traditional Christian philosophical definition -- I am going to emphasize the key parts:

The term will as used in Catholic philosophy, may be briefly defined as the faculty of choice; it is classified among the appetites, and is contrasted with those which belong either to the merely sensitive or to the vegetative order: it is thus commonly designated "the rational appetite"; it stands in an authoritative relation to the complex of lower appetites, over which it exercises a preferential control; its specific act, therefore, when it if in full exercise, consists in selecting, by the light of reason, its object from among the various particular, conflicting aims of all the tendencies and faculties of our nature: its object is the good in general (bonum in communi); its prerogative is freedom in choosing among different forms of good.

In modern philosophy, according to what I read, "Will" had become a wider, less useful term basically synonymous with appetite.... maybe something like "whatever turns you on" or "follow your bliss". I remember reading some modern commentator on Mother Teresa's life saying that Mother Teresa was just doing what made her happy, like another person might devote his life to surfing, or keep a Britney Spears scrapbook. No doubt, the conceptual problem here is that free, joyful exercise of the will as "rational appetite" is mistaken for a simple, self-referential hunt for pleasure. That definition of will flattens out meaning and the very definition of "happiness" as goal in life which Aristotle so carefully worked out in the Nichomachean Ethics.

Though CM considers habit an instrument of education, habit, as she says, is in many ways is the opposite of both attention AND will.

most men go through life without a single definite act of willing. Habit, convention, the customs of the world have done so much for us that we get up, dress, breakfast, follow our morning's occupations, our later relaxations, without an act of choice.
But on the other hand:

there seems to be no doubt that the greater becomes the effort of decision the weaker grows the general will.
She doesn't go into detail, at least not here, but I know she has said the same before as an argument for "laying down the rails" of good habits. A child forced to choose constantly, what time to go outside, what to eat, how to behave, is impoverished in moral energy because he is dissipating his powers of decision for trivial things.

This opens up a whole subject which I have been pondering recently, and have not come to very many conclusions. But say, I think of habits as "laying down rails". This does not itself say where the rails are taking me, or even where the engine power comes from to continue steaming along that track.

Perhaps "will", known in Latinate form as "volition" with roots similar to "voluntary" and "benevolent", is partly the power of the train to move on that track. Habits allow one to focus on moving forward rather than on where to go. So perhaps, to Charlotte Mason, since mental power or energy is limited, it's better to save that power for the "big questions".

But those little "conducts" of habit are not to be mistaken for the refinement of character, though they may be a necessary precursor since virtue doesn't exist without a habit of repeated action (Aristotle says that one happy day does not make a happy life, nor does one single good act constitute a life of character). CM says:

character is as finely wrought metal beaten into shape and beauty by the repeated and accustomed action of will. We who teach should make it clear to ourselves that our aim in education is less conduct than character; conduct may be arrived at, as we have seen, by indirect routes, but it is of value to the world only as it has its source in character.

So there is more than "energy" or "volition" as movement to Will, because she doesn't seem to think Will is only defined by our power of action... she defines it, I think, similarly to the Catholic Encyclopedia, as our "faculty of choice". Faculty comes etymologically from Latin "facilis" meaning "easy to do" and implies "power, ability, wealth" -- our faculties are our abilities, and indeed are treasures, too, because no one who does not have choice has freedom. Freedom is the ability and opportunity to do what is right. From the Catholic Encyclopedia:

St. Thomas and the scholastics in general regard only the free and deliberate acts of the will as human. Their view is grounded on psychological analysis. A free act is voluntary, that is, it proceeds from the will with the apprehension of the end sought, or, in other words, is put forth by the will solicited by the goodness of the object as presented to it by the understanding. Free acts, moreover, proceed from the will's own determination, without necessitation, intrinsic or extrinsic.

James Stenson, in Successful Fathers, says:

Character is simply the integration , into one personality, of several fundamental strengths of mind and will. These are internalized, habitual, permanent attitudes by which someone deals with life, in all its circumstances.

St Ignatius, whom I have just been reading, says that inclinations put into practice repeatedly become habits, and when the habits are established they can be built upon. Let's say I have a bad habit of lying in bed in the morning, so that by the time I get going, the home atmosphere has already disintegrated. Well, once I have learned to get up early, I can actually work on things that weren't even possible for me before that time.

Charlotte Mason thought that habits were important in avoiding the everyday wear and tear of decisions about trivialities. But as much as possible, she thought children's will should be preserved in establishing these habits.

What we do with the will we describe as voluntary. What we do without the conscious action of will is involuntary. The will has only one mode of action, its function is to 'choose,' and with every choice we make we grow in force of character.

We all have a tendency to follow the path that has been worn to smoothness either by ourselves or by others. This is one reason that good habits spring so naturally out of a good environment, without even much conscious training. Every household has some good habits that are just as natural as breathing (which in itself is a very good habit, one that oughtn't to be taken for granted, I can say as one whose child had to learn to breathe again after an extended spell on a ventilator).

But habits are not and should not be mistaken for a good character. A child who learns to fold his clothes neatly might or might not have an orderly character. Maybe he is doing it purely through personal influence, and the habit will go away or become a mindless ritual in his adult life, or even become an occasion for the sin of pride. This is, I think, perhaps why Charlotte Mason wished parents to avoid harsh punishments or personal "suggestions" or manipulations, because those formed the habit of getting one's strength from outside sources or exterior motivations rather than depending upon inner resources to do what is right:

a suggestion given by intent and supported by an outside personality has an added strength which few are able to resist, just because the choice has been made by another and not by ourselves, and our tendency is to accept this vicarious choice and follow the path of least resistance. No doubt much of this vicarious choosing is done for our good, whether for our health of body or amenableness of mind; but those who propose suggestion as a means of education do not consider that with every such attempt upon a child they weaken that which should make a man of him, his own power of choice.

She was very emphatic in condemning "suggestion" and heavy-duty personal influence. After having read only a bit of the modern philosophy of her time, I can see better why this was very important to her. Most of the educational theorists of her day had condemned the use of physical force as an educational instrument. Very few of them believed in the method of Augustine's schoolmasters of beating learning and virtue into the children. CM considered this modern emphasis on kindness a good thing, because of the traditional Christian emphasis on freedom as a necessity for virtue.

However, what the modern psychologists had done instead was to start focusing on the sub-rational impressionability of human nature. They still wanted to control, but just thought that the old methods didn't work well. We all tend to be moved by forces we don't thoroughly understand. You've all read the commentaries about advertising, about peer pressure, about your past "issues" influencing your present, so I don't need to go into detail.

Charlotte Mason saw realistically that these influences are manifold. Realistically, you can't avoid them. There will always be con men and demagogues and fire-and-brimstone preachers. What she objected to was the *conscious employment of the sub-rational as a force for manipulation*, especially if adults are doing it to vulnerable, impressionable children.

In other words, education by its very definition must *maximize the freedom* of the person, and by no means diminish it. Locke, Herbart, Spencer et al tended to think of education as a sort of mechanism that influenced a child to act the way the adults wanted him to.

It sounds a bit like a quibble. After all, we want our kids to do right. A lot of Locke's Thoughts Concerning Education, for instance, is a discussion of how to raise children "right". It sounds very much in line with what we want for our children. But the problem comes from using the wrong *means* for a fairly good end. Is it right to torture people in order to get them to act correctly? How about hypnotize them? How about trick them? Those are extremes, but the principle is the same. CM wrote:

Every assault upon the flesh and spirit of man is an attack however insidious upon his personality, his will; but a new Armageddon is upon us in so far as that the attack is no longer indirect but is aimed consciously and directly at the will, which is the man; and we shall escape becoming a nation of imbeciles only because there will always be persons of good will amongst us who will resist the general trend. The office of parents and teachers is to turn out such persons of good will; that they should deliberately weaken the moral fibre of their children by suggestion is a very grave offence and a thoughtful examination of the subject should act as a sufficient deterrent

People have to will to do right. Habits are important, Charlotte Mason believed. If you don't have helpful habits, you will have harmful habits that will some day have to be fought against -- a waste of the power of will. But habits in themselves are incidental to actual character and virtue. You can have perfectly great habits and still be a person with little to no character. If you look at her quote about men who go through life without a single act of will, I always think of TS Eliot:

Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
and of Jackson Browne:

I'm going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
While I'm thinking about it, I think some of the rebellion of the 60's can be explained by a lack of true formation in the educational methods of the preceding generation. This is a huge topic, of course. The next part of CM's chapter on The Way of the Will talks about literature and cultural inheritance as a factor in educating the will. So probably that whole subject of a rich education versus an impoverished, mechanical one will come in more specifically at that point.

9 comments:

Drew said...

Willa, I just wanted to let you know that I am printing these posts out. They are so rich in ideas that I need much more time to ponder them than I can spend in front of the screen. Thank you so much for all the time and effort you put into this blog!

Us! said...

Ditto for me what Drew said. I need to ponder these posts more deeply, especially in relation to what CM says about influence. (But drat, my printer is out of ink)

Have a good day, and thank you for your thoughtful notes!

Willa said...

I appreciate both your comments very much. I know it's not very easy to read these quote-embedded posts that don't have very much practical information. I'm learning a lot in the research process so it's fun, not work ;-). Anyway, very glad it is of interest to others besides myself!

Stephanie said...

Willa, two things.

1. In traditional "prayer of silence," a thing only remotely connected to its modern interpretations of things like "centering prayer," and only advisable under serious spiritual direction, the whole of the skill is to learn to incline all the affection toward God - and to do this with such "will" as makes "will" into one thing with affection. The ultimate use of will, eh? All subsumed into affectionate inclination toward God.

and 2. Here's a story told to us by a nun at a silent retreat. One of the older sisters was dying in the infirmary, and the nun giving us our retreat's meditation had not wanted to go see the elderly sister. The younger nun was afraid of what she might see. She didn't feel up to such a thing. Didn't think she could be strong enough.

But when she got to the sick bed, she was completely stunned by the pervasive atmosphere of happiness. And as to the older nun, the only word she said toward the end of her life was, "thank you." Her last words in this life were "thank you."

The point of this story at the retreat was this. The older nun had a habit of saying, "thank you." In the end, she had nearly no strength, but where her will could not sustain her, her habit could. She certainly did not have the strength for decision making - about anything! But her will had, over her lifetime, established habit. And her habit was to say "thank you."

And that, I think, is what God gave us a will for. To build the habits that get us to Him.

Stephanie said...

Oh. And on a more practical note?

One of the things my kids will hear themselves telling their kids someday (after which they'll be wondering how my voice got into their heads like that ;-) is this:

"You need to learn to make yourself do what you know you're supposed to do." Train that will! Such a relief and a joy to me as a mom who grew up where the will was "sinful" and needed to be "broken." Ugh. The will was there before the Fall, after all. It's supposed to be redeemed, not condemned!

Faith said...

Stephanie's first comment really resonated with me. My mother in law just passed away last week. While she lay on her deathbed in agony and fear, whenever anyone approached her she would look up and smile at them. Why? Because all her life she had smiled at others. She was a warm sweet soul who loved to do for others and she was like that until the end.

My dh and I both said to each other, we need to be attentive to our habits of living so that on our deathbed we can leave a loving memory to those we are leaving behind.

Willa said...

You took the ideas in an unexpected direction, Stephanie. It really made me think. The habits which are a stamp upon our character are as strong as life, almost?

Charlotte Mason uses the example of an old soldier who drops his dinner plate when someone jokingly calls, "Attention!" but the examples you and Faith give are more memorable to me because they show better the way habits shore up a good life.

lissla lissar said...

Another comment on Stephanie's- my parents' pastor told a story some years ago in a sermon, and I remember the gist but not the details. There was a town in Germany or Austria or France that hid hundreds of Jews during WWI. When the townspeople were asked after the was how they'd had the courage to do it, they said, "Well first you hide one, and then another, and then another. You just get into the habit".

And yes, Willa, thank you. Your blog is a treasure trove.

Meredith said...

I like how you tied all this together Willa, wonderful!