THE SCOPE OF WILL
Allowance does Duty for Choice.—We have seen that the function of the Will is to choose, not between things, persons, and courses of action, but between the ideas which these represent. Every choice, of course, implies a rejection of one or many ideas opposed to the one we choose. If we keep the will in abeyance, things and affairs still present themselves, but we allow instead of choosing. We allow a suggestion from without, which runs with our nature, to decide for us. There would not seem to be much difference between the two courses; but most ruined lives and ruined families are the result of letting allowance do duty for will-choice.
It is not that a person need go through the labour of choice on all small occasions. A man goes to his tailor having made his choice; that is, he has long ago decided that the common sense and good taste of the class he belongs to are a sufficient guide in such matters. He remembers Lord Chesterfield’s dictum; he will not be among the first to adopt a new fashion, nor among the last to follow an old one: therefore, his choice is limited enough, and his tailor sees to the rest. But, you will say, he has not chosen at all!
Yes, he has; he has chosen with modesty and good sense to follow the lead set by the common sense of his class.
A young man of more pretensions comes to his tailor and is shown the latest cut, a material that will be ‘the thing’ in a few months. He asks many questions, deliberates a good deal, or rather, invites his tailor to say, ‘The very thing for you, sir! Lord Tom Foley ordered the very same thing last week.’ That does it; the thing of a new cut or a striking pattern is sent home, and the young man considers that he has made his choice. Not at all: the tailor has played on his vanity, and his act, in ordering the garment, has been one of allowance, not of choice. He is but playing Malvolio after all! Another man visits his tailor who takes his measure in more senses than one. This man is proud, not vain; he does not choose to set the fashion, but to be above it. ‘I never wear’ this, ‘I prefer’ the other, is the line he takes. The tradesman humours him, and the purchase, again, is not a matter of choice, but of allowance.
Or, again, there is the man whose conceit leads him to defy general usage and startle the world with checks and ties, feeling that he is a mighty independent fellow. He is merely obeying the good conceit he has formed of himself, and his daring ventures come of allowance and not of choice. We cannot follow the woman to her dressmaker’s; the considerations are too complicated! But here, too, the decision arises either from choice made upon deliberate principles regulating taste and outlay, or upon allowance—the suggestion of a costume displayed in a shop window, or the insinuations of the trades-woman as to what is worn and is becoming.
Once having arrived at principles of choice in such matters, the special occasions give very little trouble. A choice of will implies some previous action of judgment and conscience, some knowledge of the subject, and, generally, some exercise of taste and imagination. We do not choose a thing because we will to do so—that would be mere waywardness; but will acts upon information and reflection. The question of a lady’s shopping is only a by-issue, but it is well worth considering; for, alas! the shopping scene at Madame Mantalini’s is of too frequent occurrence, and is as damaging to the nerves and morale of the purchaser as to those of the weary shopwomen.
Cheap ‘Notions.’—The dishonest fallacy, that it is our business to get the best that is to be had at the lowest price, is another cause of infinite waste of time, money, and nervous energy. The haunting of sales, the ransacking of shop after shop, the sending for patterns here, there, and everywhere, and various other immoralities, would be avoided if we began with the deliberate will-choice of a guiding principle; that, for example, we are not in search of the best and the cheapest, but, of what answers our purpose at the price we can afford to pay.
The mad hunt for the best, newest, most striking, and cheapest, is not confined to matters of dress and ornament, household use and decoration. We are apt to run after our opinions and ideas with the same restless uncertainty. Indeed, it is ideas we hunt all the time; even if we go to a sale with the dishonest and silly notion that we shall get such and such a thing—‘a bargain,’ that is, for less than its actual worth.
It is well to remember that in all our relations of life, our books and friends, our politics and our religion, the act of choice, the one possible act of the Will, has always to be performed between ideas. It is not that ideas stand for things; but things stand for ideas, and we have to ask ourselves what we really mean by allowing this and that, by choosing the one or the other. Are we going after the newest and cheapest things in morals and religion? are we picking up our notions from the penny press or from the chance talk of acquaintances? If we are, they are easily come by, but will prove in the end a dear bargain. We have expended the one thing that makes us of value, our personality, upon that which is worth nothing. For personality, the determination of the Will, is wasted,—not by use, but by disuse,—in proportion as it is not employed. We must bring wide reading, reflection, conscience, and judgment to bear upon our opinions, if it be only an opinion concerning a novel or a sermon—upon our principles, if they affect only the ordering of our day.
“Who sweeps a room as for Thy law
Makes that and the action fine,”
is a general principle; and no action is fine but as it reaches after a principle greater than itself. The ideas we admit become our opinions; the opinions upon which we take action become our principles; our principles and our opinions are ourselves, our character the whole of us for which we are responsible.
One idea is free, one great will-choice is open to us all. We are inclined to wait upon circumstances and upon opportunities, but it is not necessary, nor, indeed, does it answer, for the person who waits for his opportunity
is not ready for it when it comes. The great decision open to us all, the great will act of life, is whether we shall make our particular Mansoul available for service by means of knowledge, love, and endeavour. Then, the opportunities that come are not our affair, any more than it is the affair of the soldier whether he has sentry duty or is called to the attack.