Tag Archives: Iris Murdoch

Be ye doers

I’ve just been reading William James’s little treatise on Habit and found this passage, which reinforces what is becoming something of a leitmotif in my recent reflections: the gospel according to Goethe’s Faust — “In the beginning was the Act.”

(In James’s original, this passage is all one big paragraph. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking it up a bit as a concession to the preferences of modern readers.)

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. And 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. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.

Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.

There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed. Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean. But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path. All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure abstract form!

The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line. The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale. Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves not musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character. One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up. The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way. Let the expression be the least thing in the world — speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers — but let it not fail to take place.

— Habit, pp. 61-64

William Blake makes very similar points in several passages of the Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling. And being restrain’d it by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire. . . .

He who desires but acts not, breeds pestilence. . . .

Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.

Blake’s epigrams on this subject had always been opaque to me in the past — particularly the last one quoted, which seemed to be making the insane claim that it is better to commit a murder than to resist the temptation to do so. (I know these are the “Proverbs of Hell” we’re talking about, but still!) I suppose the word desire has carnal connotations, which led me to interpret Blake’s comments as being about temptations and how we ought not to resist them. James’s different wording — “a resolve or a fine glow of feeling” — served as a reminder that there are good desires as well (that, in fact, all our desires are desires for something good) and helped me see Blake from a different angle.

James sheds a similar light on Aleister Crowley’s notorious maxim “Do what thou wilt.” The key is to put the stress on the first word: “Do what thou wilt.” Inflected and interpreted correctly, this could indeed be characterized as “the whole of the law.”

Quoting that bozo approvingly kind of makes me want to take a shower, so here’s something on the same topic from a rather more reputable source:

Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will shew you to whom he is like:

He is like a man which built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.

But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great.

— Luke 6:47-49

The emphasis on hearing and not doing — rather than simply on not doing — is something that never jumped out at me on previous readings of Luke (and Matthew, and the Epistle of James), but to which my attention has now been directed by William James. Hearing and doing is best; neither hearing nor doing is worse; but hearing and not doing — nursing the unacted desire to be good — is worst of all. Not only is one failing to do one’s duty in that particular instance; one is also building up a habit of reacting to moral appeals and moral emotions by doing nothing at all. And being restrain’d, the conscience by degrees becomes passive till it is only the shadow of desire.

One of Iris Murdoch’s characters puts it well (if you overlook the cheap shot at Christianity):

Your ‘moral ambition’ or whatever you call your selfish optimism, is just the old lie of Christian salvation, that you can shed your old self and become good simply by thinking about it – and as you sit and dream this dream you feel that you are changed already and have no more work to do – and so you are happy in your lie (The Book and the Brotherhood, p. 25).

James presents the rather counterintuitive idea that “uplifting” art and literature — the type that evokes feelings of compassion and heroism — might be positively harmful to one’s morals, because it dissociates one’s moral emotions from the actions which ought naturally to follow from them (just as surely as a pornography habit emasculates a man by training him to dissociate sexual stimuli from sex). Too much looking at archaic torsos of Apollo and too little changing one’s life could actually lead to moral callousness, to a decreased sensitivity to the voice of conscience.

People often comment on the paradoxical fact that many of the Nazi leaders were great music lovers — and music, I suppose, would pose a greater danger than the other arts simply because it is so abstract, so far removed from action. When it comes to drama, even if you watch a play, are moved, and do nothing, you aren’t really doing nothing; the pathways of habits are being reinforced behind the scenes by mirror neurons. But the farther removed a given art form is from the actual witnessing of an action, the less this will be true, and the greater the danger that James warns of.

Of course this is not to suggest that art, music, and literature are to be avoided, but perhaps there is something to say for James’s advice “never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it afterward in some active way.”


Filed under Philosophy, Psychology