WILL AND WILFULNESS
Wilful Persons are of Various Dispositions.—What of the person who always contrives to get his own way, whether he get it by means of stormy scenes, crafty management, sly evasion, or dogged persistence? The dogged and the blustering person are commonly supposed to have strong wills; the sly, and the managing person keep somehow out of our notice, we do not make up our minds about them. As a matter of fact, persons of these four classes may get each their own way, with as little action of the Will as is exercised by the casual person who lets things slide. When we have given ourselves to Greed or Vanity, Ambition or Lust, we pursue our way without restraint from Will, and get what we want by straight or devious ways, according to our nature. The robber baron of the Middle Ages, a turbulent man, without ruth or fear, whose action was commonly the outcome of stormy passions,—he and his like are supposed to be persons of strong will. Such a man was the Wild Boar of the Ardennes, such another, Charles of Burgundy, and such another indeed, our own reckless Cœur de Lion. These heroes of the
‘strong will’ are not without their qualities; they are generous and lavish, as ready to give as to take; and they will always have a following of the sort whose instinct is to ‘follow my leader.’ The persons who compass their way by more subtle means are less attractive. King John and Becky Sharp do not win a following; we prefer Joab to Achitophel; and Esau is a more winning person than Jacob.
In the last two, we get the contrast we want, between the man of Will and the creature of Wilfulness. This contrast is not, as it would seem at first, between the man who pursues his desires above board and generously, and his brother who wins his way, sometimes by prudence and sometimes by craft. The difference lies deeper.
The Wilful Person has one Aim.—The wilful person is at the mercy of his appetites and his chance desires. Esau must needs have that red pottage, he must needs hunt, or marry, or do whatever his desires move him towards at the moment. So must needs do the crafty gambler, the secret drunkard, the slothful soul, the inordinate novel-reader, the person for whom ‘life’ means ‘pleasure.’ Each of these is steady to only one thing, he must always have his way; but his way is a will-o’-the-wisp which leads him in many directions. Wherever gratification is to be found—for his vanity, his love of nice eating, his desire for gay company, or his ambition, his determination to be first,—there he goes. He is a wilful man, without power or desire to control the lead of his nature, having no end in view beyond the gratification of some one natural desire, appetite, or affection. Mr Barrie’s Sentimental Tommy is a valuable study
of a wilful person. Tommy always attained his end, always found out a ‘wy’; and his ends were often good enough in themselves. But Tommy is an ingrained poseur: he does many generous things, and is a bit of a genius; but all his efforts are prompted by the chance desires of his vanity. He must, at all hazards, impress an audience. He always gets his ‘wy,’ yet his life falls to pieces in the end because he is not dominated by Will, but by vanity.
Jacob, too, gets his way, often by subtle means, and every subtlety brings its chastisement; but he does not seek his way for its own sake. All his chance desires are subordinated to an end—in his case, the great end of founding the kingdom of promise. The means he uses are bad and good. “Few and evil are the days of my life,” he complains at the end, so sore have been his chastisements; but, always, he has willed steadily towards an end outside of himself.
The career of the late Lore Beaconsfield is an interesting study, as showing the two phases of Wilfulness and Will. To begin with, he has only the rather dazzling wilfulness of a young man’s ambition; he will shine, he will make himself heard in the House; and he does it. But there is nothing more; and the country feels him to be a creature of chance desires. But by and by Will manifests itself, the will of the great statesman. Personal desires are subjugated or disappear in the presence of the ruling will, and we get a man fit for the service of his country. We have no record of an era of wilfulness in Wellington; his was ever the iron will, iron to keep down not only those under him, but any turbulence of his own flesh or spirit. The ‘Iron Chancellor’ of
Germany had this same steadfastness of will, always accomplishing towards an end.
A Brilliant Career does not demand Exercise of Will.—But it is even possible to make the world wonder without an exercise of Will. Napoleon, who came upon Europe as a portent, was but impelled along the lines of least resistance in his nature—his genius, high courage, vanity, and inordinate ambition,—but he never reached the elevation of a man with an impersonal aim. He willed nothing outside himself. He had the lavish generosity of a child, and a child’s petulant wilfulness; a child’s instability, too, or how could he have borne the shame of retreating from Russia in advance of his army?
It is not safe to take success in life as a criterion. His Will is the measure of the man; and many a man has become rich or famous without willing, on the easy lines of his nature, by the strength of his desires; while many another of constant will lives unknown: and yet it is the persons of constant will, which implies impersonal aims, who are the world’s great possession, and are discerned to be such.
We distinguish, for example, between rich, successful men. There are those who are simply accepted as rich; and, there are those—merchants, manufacturers, shopkeepers, it matters little what—who have become rich and successful by accident, as it were; these are not the things they have willed; but rather some manner of duty-doing, some sort of aim, outside of themselves; these are the men of weight recognised and valued by their neighbours.
Redgauntlet, as devoid as you please of amiable qualities, wins the reader’s sympathy because he was
a man of will. He had the power to project himself beyond himself and shape his life upon a purpose. We may draw upon Scott without reserve for instances in this kind. The great novelist had a certain legal acumen which never failed him in his discrimination of character. As for his historical accuracy, mere errors of detail are, perhaps, fewer than we imagine; for the man who could deal with the case of ‘Poor Peter Peebles’ knew well enough how to sift documentary evidence. I have already quoted two personages as figured by him, William de la Marck and Charles of Burgundy. Louis XI. again, mean and unlovely soul that he was, was yet concerned, if meanly concerned, with matters outside of himself. What a fine study, again, we get of Will and Wilfulness in that crusaders’ camp in The Talisman! Each of the princes present was engaged in the wilful pursuit of personal ends, each fighting for his own hand. And Saladin looked on, magnanimous of mind and generous of heart, because he was a man of will, urged towards ends which were more than himself. I can hardly conceive a better moral education than is to be had out of Scott and Shakespeare. I put Scott first as so much the more easy and obvious; but both recognise that the Will is the man. As for Shakespeare, the time will come when our universities will own a Shakespeare ‘faculty,’ not for philological study, but for what is beginning to be known as ‘ethology,’ the study of man on the lines of character.
A Dividing Line.—Both Shakespreare and Scott use, as it were, a dividing line, putting on the one side the wilful, wayward, the weak and the strong; and on the other, persons who will.
Faust, Lady Macbeth, King Lear, Edward Waverly, Charles II, King John, Marlborough, all sorts of unlikely persons, fall to the side of the line where Will is not in command. On the other side, also, unlikely people find themselves in company—Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, Laud, Mahomet, Henry V. of England, and Henry IV. of France. The two Marys, of England and Scotland, fall to either side of the line.
To make even a suggestive list would be to range over all history and literature. Let me say again, however, that here is a line of study which should make our reading profitable, as making us intimate with persons, and the more able for life. The modern psychical novel is rarely of use ‘for example of life and instruction in manners.’ It is too apt to accept persons as inevitable, to evade the question of Will, and to occupy itself with a thousand little traits which its characters manifest nolens volens. The way of the modern novel is to catch its characters and put them to disport themselves in a glass bowl, as it were, under observation.
A man standing in the ranks cannot drill the company, and the restless forces of Mansoul can only be ordered by a Will, projected, so to speak, from the man, thrown to the front aiming at something without; and, from this point of vantage, able to order the movements of Mansoul, and to keep its forces under command.
‘Will’ may be a National Attribute.— We are at this moment (1904) contemplating a magnificent object-lesson presented by a nation of extraordinary will-power; for this power may belong to nations as well as individuals. It would seem that every Japanese has an impersonal aim. There is that which he wills to serve with the whole force of his nature,
and in comparison with which his tastes and inclinations, his desires and deserts, matter not at all. Who can doubt that he loses his life to save it, when, with purpose, method, forethought, every reasonable device, and with unlimited skill, the Japanese gives himself for his country?
Nor is this the first time in their history that the Japanese have given an example of will-power unparalleled in the annals of any country. Thirty years ago they worked out such a revolution as the history of the world cannot match. The people did not rise in arms and wrest power from their rulers; but the rulers, who kept the state and held the authority of feudal princes, perceived of themselves that the people had not room to grow under this feudal dominion, and they, of their own free will, retired from ruling and owning the land, from vast wealth and dignity, and became as citizens with the rest, served in the rank and file of the army, manned the constabulary force. These, too, lost their life, a princely life, to find it in the regeneration of their country.
The neighbouring empire, China, presents a curious spectacle of incoherence and futile endeavour. Yet China, too, has taste, literature, ingenuity, an art of its own, morals perhaps of a higher order than we Westerns suspect, the prestige of a long, long history; and, with all this, China is a petulant, wayward, unstable child among the nations. Why? We of the West are apt to say superior things about race and colour; but perhaps recent events have taught us better. Great things have come out of the East in the past, and may in the future.
The truth probably is that China and Japan rank themselves on the two sides of our imaginary line.
In meantime, we Western nations have become enfeebled by a philosophy whose first principle is that we must never under any circumstances lose our life. The greatest happiness of the greatest number is our avowed general aim; comfort at all hazards is our individual desire; and ‘Every man for himself,’ is the secret, or open, rule of life followed by many of us.
But we need not be alarmed, and talk of deterioration and the like; nor need we compare ourselves unfavourably with any great nation. What is in fault is the teaching we have allowed and fostered, teaching which urges men along those lines of least resistance proper to their nature.
With an aim outside ourselves, we are as capable of great things as any nation of the past or present. If we are able for no more than little Skepsey’s cuckoo cry, of his ‘England,’ we shall be restored to the power of willing, which is only possible to us as we are moved from without ourselves. According as we will, we shall be able to effectual doing.
Our Lord’s teaching appears to have been directed, in the first place, to awaken the Jews from the lethargy of national superstitions and personal aims; to give them the power of willing again; because it is only as a man wills that he is, in any full sense, a man. “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!”
“If any man willeth to do His will, he shall know of the doctrine” (R.V.)
 Quentin Durward, Scott.
 Anne of Geierstein, Scott.
 The Talisman, Scott.
 Vanity Fair, Thackeray.
 Redgauntlet, Scott.
 Redgauntlet, Scott.
 Quentin Durward.
 One of our Conquerors, Meredith.