The Will – Circa 1911

Victorian educators gave great attention to developing “the will” in students. By the early 20th century, “the will” began to disappear. The fledgling science of psychology demanded reproducible, publicly demonstrable effects, which do not fit the idea of will that periodically must “break these rules.”

In a book titled The Pupil and the Teacher, first published in 1911, my grandfather Luther Weigle attempted a synthesis of Victorian will with early psychological thinking. His book was an educational text on how to teach Sunday School. It filled a gap of need, because many churches in the United States were just beginning then to devote an hour of Sunday morning to religious education of children and youth. Despite widespread adoption of Sunday School by churches in the 20th century, the educational gap only grew wider, as moral and religious education faded away in public or secular schools — a trend that my grandfather strenuously opposed.

In the last blog I described how Grandpa’s career and even our family vacations owed much to this book. Yet I hardly heard about it and never picked it up to read until after he passed away in 1976. How I would have liked to discuss it with him!

This blog presents an abridged and slightly revised version of Lesson 10, titled The Will, in The Pupil and the Teacher. I offer this reproduction not because Luther Weigle broke any new ground in philosophy or psychology. His ideas at the time were heavily influenced by William James, an early framer of pragmatism and author of such influential titles as The Will to Believe and The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Weigle’s writing reveals the stance of a clergyman and religious educator who decided as a college student in 1900 that the doctrine of evolution and the new science of psychology posed no irreconcilable conflict with firmly held Christian concepts and views. It is the interplay between science, philosophy, and faith that I find most interesting here, from someone who moved with his times more than foreshadowed them. As you read, note how  he wrote about the will as if it were part of the new (in 1911) science of psychology. Because the will pertains to singular and personal, not universal, effects, I submit that the will does not fit within psychology, but has a close, complex, and ever-changing interface with it. Better to describe it in such terms than to disqualify all thought of the will.

Here is the chapter. I have elected to do it in Reader’s Digest style, simply omitting some nonessential parts without showing where the cuts were made by ellipsis or other indicators. A few words have been inserted to help with transitions, and I have also modestly amended Grandpa’s exclusive use of male gender which I felt might detract from the message to today’s readers. The entire book is available free online.[1]


The Will
Lesson 10 from The Pupil and the Teacher
Luther Allan Weigle, Ph.D.

Hodder & Stoughton, New York, 1911

People often speak of the will as though it were a sort of absolute ruler, independent of the rest of the mind, and master of all its ideas and feelings and actions.  The truth is that the will is itself a part of the mind, and must develop as must any other of its faculties.  One’s will depends on ideas and feelings, instincts and habits, just as truly as they in turn are controlled by it.

1.  To understand the will, we must begin with the fundamental principle formulated by William James, that “all consciousness is motor.” Every idea is as well an impulse to act.  Thoughts are forces.  Left to itself, any thought will issue in action.

2.  The distinction between impulsive and voluntary action is this. An action is impulsive that results from the simple presence and impulse of one idea.  When you “speak before you think,” it is not that you did not think the judgment you blurt forth, but that you did not think of anything else but it.  In Bible history King Saul is a notable example of an impulsive man.  His mistakes and sins were the result, not so much of settled badness of character as of a disposition to think of only one thing at a time.  An action is voluntary, on the other hand, when more than one idea has been present, offering an alternative, and it is therefore the result of choice.

3.  Ideas differ greatly, of course, in the degree of impulsive strength which they possess. Some ideas are relatively weak in their push toward action, and others so urgent that they are hard to resist. The strongest of all impulses are associated with those objects which appeal directly to elemental instincts – the bodily appetites, the passions and emotions.  Ideas that are in line with acquired habits may have as great a force. Things near at hand, immediate results and present goods, have an impulsive attraction which diminishes rapidly with their removal in space or postponement in time.  It is much easier to let each moment take care of itself than to act for sake of some end to be realized in the distant future – the here and now seems so much more real, and immediate satisfactions more tangible.  In any normal person, therefore, distinctly rational ideas of action – those derived from far-sighted considerations – are relatively cold and weak in impulsive power.  Such ideas it requires an effort to hold before the mind, in face of the overwhelming surge of stronger impulses.

4.  An act of will involves three things; first, the presence before the mind of alternative lines of action; second, the acceptance of some one as our choice; third, the resulting action.

The first factor of an act of will – the presence of alternatives – depends upon the working of the laws of association.  You cannot will to do a thing unless you first think of it; and you cannot think of it unless it is called up by the laws of association which determine the appearance of ideas before your mind.

The second factor in willing – the power to choose some one of the alternative ideas – depends on the power to keep that idea before the focus of attention.  The secret of will is, after all, concentrated attention.  Just in the degree that one can keep thinking of the right thing and keep other ideas from taking possession of the mind, he or she is certain always to choose the right thing.  The idea that is consistently kept before the mind is pretty sure to issue in action, simply because of its own impulsive power.

And this makes plain the third factor of willing.  The action is not something we add to ideas; it is not some power that we create to help them out.  It is the physical result that naturally follows when an idea is kept steadily before the mind – provided, of course, one has the ability to carry it out.

5.  The will is dependent on the laws of association. We cannot will to do anything of which we have not had some previous experience.  The ideas which shape the will come from former action and their results – actions which we either have done ourselves or have observed in others.

After all, one’s associations measure the degree of freedom which one’s will possesses.  The person who chooses from a wide range of alternatives is more free than the person who can think of only a few possible things to say or do.  To develop a strong and efficient will, one must begin at the foundation by widening the range of his or her ideas, and by making such associations as shall insure that they will be at hand when needed.

There is another side, of course.  The will itself helps to determine what ideas shall come before the mind. Of the many possible ideas that may come up, that is most likely to come which is most in accord with the general trend or purpose of thought for the time.  Under stress of a great grief, everything reminds one of loss; the happy person never thinks of misfortune. At work on your Bible lesson, the name Paul reminds you of your neighbor boy. One set of ideas comes to mind on Sunday, another set at business during the week. A purpose, therefore, if one is really in earnest about it, will keep bringing before the mind such ideas as are consistent with itself.  But, remember, a purpose cannot create ideas.  The will can only select the best of the resources which experience has put at its command.

6.  The idea which holds the attention is the idea which will result in action. Attention may be either spontaneous or voluntary.  Spontaneously, we give attention to ideas which appeal to our interests, our instincts, habits or feelings.  Voluntarily, we keep the attention upon some idea because of its relation to some other idea or purpose.

Undoubtedly a great part of our willing results from attention which makes its choice more or less spontaneously – and it is well that it is so.  But we all know, as a matter of experience, that one can pull oneself together and keep the attention unflinchingly centered on the right thought, to the exclusion of any number of more strongly impulsive ideas that seek to crowd it out.  It demands effort, it costs sacrifice, it often means a tremendous battle; but it can be done.  Here, then, is the very wellspring of freedom within a person.  The things to which she gives attention are not decided for her; they are not even the mechanical results of her own instincts and habits.  He may some day summon an energy of which he himself had never dreamed, and center his life about a new object.

He may; but he most likely will not.  This freedom does not lessen in the least the force of habit and association in molding a life.  The greatest fool on earth is he who lets bad habits and associations enter into the very building of his soul, relying upon his “freedom of will” to purge him of them some day, and to create his life anew.

One condition must be fulfilled if effort is in any case to be put forth.  To command it, an object must seem worthwhile.  It must bring results, or give very definite promise of them.  Attention cannot be kept long, even through effort, upon an unchanging and fruitless object.  The person who can think most fruitfully about some purpose, and who can most vividly imagine its concrete results, will be best able to command the effort needed to hold it before the mind.  For another, the same idea may simply die out, for the very barrenness of thought about it.  Great reformers and discoverers are always intensely imaginative.

7.  It is in the realm of ideas that the real battles of the will are fought. To get the right ideas before the mind, and, once gotten, to hold them there, are the vital issues of good and efficient willing.  After that, the action follows as a natural result of the impulsive power which right ideas, like all others, possess.

One qualification must be put upon this principle.  The action will naturally follow, provided we have not gotten into the habit of resting content with mere thinking.  It is easy enough to fall into that attitude of life which conceives that having ideas is an adequate substitute for carrying them out, that mere thinking of good deeds can take the place of doing them, and that feeling noble sentiments is a sufficient manifestation of right character.

The crowning counsel, then, to secure strength and efficiency of will, is one of the maxims of habit.  Act!  Act decisively and promptly when once you decided what is right.  Seek opportunities to apply in actual doing the things you believe.  This is a counsel of especial importance in connection with religion.

8.  We have described the will thus far in terms chiefly of its relation to the intellect. But we must not forget that the soul has a trinity of powers – feeling as well as intellect and will.  One’s will is determined by feeling as truly as by ideas.  Feeling may enter into each of the three factors of an act of will.  As trend or set of mind, a feeling helps to bring before one ideas consistent with itself.  It keeps the attention naturally and spontaneously upon such as appeal to it.  And it gives to the idea it chooses a degree of impulsive strength that carries one into prompt and whole-souled action.

There is a third great counsel, therefore, for the development of a strong and efficient will.  To right ideas and habits of decisive action add the power of feeling.  Get the affections centered upon things that a worthwhile.  Enlist the heart as well as the mind.

“The expulsive power of a new affection” is life’s eternal miracle. Some have questioned the possibility of conversion. Yet it has been a blessed fact in thousands of lives. Feeling transforms even the working of that hidden mechanism of association that determines one’s thoughts. Often real personhood dates from winning the love of a spouse or from the opening to someone of the heart of a child.  A person’s thoughts, choices, acts, all center about the new devotion.  Conversions are natural.  They are begotten in human relationships as well as divine.  Love is indeed “the greatest thing in the world.”  It saves people.

A person who lacks feeling, even were his or her will strong enough without it, lacks the highest maturity.  The ideal of the stoics is as untrue as it is unlovely.  They sought to look at the world of things and people calmly, dispassionately and impersonally.  Feeling, they thought, but clouds the vision and brings turmoil to the soul.  A person ought to be purely rational, with a mind that Huxley called a perfect “logic machine.”  And so one might well be, if living alone, the only person in a world of matter, with only the problem of comprehending impersonal forces, and only the aim of managing them.  But our world is not such.  We live with other persons.  Life’s real problems are social; its true values are those of personal relationship.  Even a God who was absolutely alone would have nothing to live for.  We need feeling, therefore.  It is the link that binds one person to another, the fire that warms an otherwise dead and cheerless world.  Without it, one might understand things, but could never live with and for persons.

Just as feeling exists for sake of personal relationships, it is begotten early in personal relationships.  You cannot by precept or proverb teach a feeling to your pupil, or generate it by command.  It must be by life with her or him.  The secret of “personal work” is personal relationship.

9.  The final secret of strength of will is the grace of God.  What is true of the feeling begotten in earthly relationships is infinitely more true of those that spring from the contact of the soul with its Father.  There is no love like His, no feeling mightier than the sense of His presence and help.  Not upon ideas and sheer effort of attention merely, not even upon the strength alone that comes from earthly affection, need the wills of men and women rely; they may lay hold of the love and grace of an almighty God.  The experience that Paul records in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Romans, is true of all humanity.  Whoever fails of human strength to break free from “the law of sin and death” may yet live to “thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”


Next post:  Growing Up – the Sixties in Mississippi

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Header image:  Two of Grandpa’s books. Own photo. CC0 Public Domain.

[1], accessed October 9, 2016. Book digitized by Google from the library of Harvard University and uploaded to the Internet Archive by user tpb. PDF version may be preferred, as electronic text rendering is flawed.


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