Training the Will

In general, will is a very useful thing to have. After all, it allows a person to overcome factors that would make his decisions for him, such as pain, fear, anger, fatigue, lust or weakness. I would, of course, be remiss to not mention that the will can be used to overcome generally positive factors such as compassion, love and mercy as well. The will, as Kant noted, can apparently select good or evil with equal resolve. However, I will set aside the concern regarding the bad will and focus on training the will.

Based on my own experience, the will is rather like stamina—while people vary in what they get by nature, it can be improved by proper training. This, of course, nicely matches Aristotle’s view of the virtues.

While there are no doubt many self-help books discussing how to train the will with various elaborate and strange methods, the process is actually very straightforward and is like training any attribute. To be specific, it is mainly a matter of exercising the capacity but not doing so to excess (and thus burning out) or deficiency (and thus getting no gain). To borrow from Aristotle, one way of developing the will in regards to temperance is to practice refraining from pleasures to the proper degree (the mean) and this will help train the will. As another example, one can build will via athletic activities by continuing when pain and fatigue are pushing one to stop. Naturally, one should not do this to excess (because of the possibility of injury) nor be deficient in it (because there will be no gain).

As far as simple and easy ways to train the will, meditation and repetitive mental exercises (such as repeating prayers or simply repeated counting) seem to help in developing this attribute.

One advantage of the indirect training of the will, such as with running, is that it also tends to develop other resources that can be used in place of the will. To use a concrete example, when a person tries to get into shape to run, sticking with the running will initially take a lot of will because the pain and fatigue will begin quickly. However, as the person gets into shape it will take longer for them to start to hurt and feel fatigued. As such, the person will not need to use as much will when running (and if the person becomes a crazy runner like me, then she will need to use a lot of will to take a rest day from running). To borrow a bit from Aristotle, once a person becomes properly habituated to an activity, then the will cost of that activity becomes much less—thus making it easier to engage in that activity.  For example, a person who initially has to struggle to eat healthy food rather than junk food will find that resisting not only builds their will but also makes it easier to resist the temptations of junk.

Another interesting point of consideration is what could be called will surrogates. A will surrogate functions much like the will by allowing a person to resist factors that would otherwise “take control” of the person. However, what makes the will surrogate a surrogate is that it is something that is not actually the will—it merely serves a similar function. Having these would seem to “build the will” by providing a surrogate that can be called upon when the person’s own will is failing—sort of a mental tag team situation.

For example, a religious person could use his belief in God as a will surrogate to resist temptations forbidden by his faith, such as adultery. That is, he is able to do what he wills rather than what his lust is pushing him to do. As another example, a person might use pride or honor as will surrogates—she, for example, might push through the pain and fatigue of a 10K race because of her pride. Other emotions (such as love) and factors could also serve as will surrogates by enabling a person to do what he wills rather than what he is being pushed to do.

One obvious point of concern regarding will surrogates is that they could be seen not as allowing the person to do as he would will when he lacks his own will resources but as merely being other factors that “make the decision” for the person. For example, if a person resists having an affair with a coworker because of his religious beliefs, then it could be contended that he has not chosen to not have the affair. Rather, his religious belief (and perhaps fear of God) was stronger than his lust. If so, those who gain what appears to be willpower from such sources are not really gaining will. Rather they merely have other factors that make them do or not do things in a way that resembles the actions of the will.

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  1. I think a better concept than the “will surrogate” is the concept of the “final cause.” If a person decides to clean up their room, the final cause is the clean room. If a person chooses to have an affair, the final cause is sex and fun. If a person declines an offer for sex, the final cause is getting to Heaven or having a clear conscience.

  2. The latter part of this reminds me of Nietzsche – religion, conventional morality or concepts of duty train the will. However if the person can only exercise their will in relation to these, they remain effectively a slave to that surrogate. They are better than one with no will, but not as strong as they might be.

  3. Mike, I am thinking about the will power and discipline you must have to constantly write blog entries. I wish I had such powers.

  4. There is considerable material available on Oriental will, which is surprising is not mentioned. There is a lot of dogma, but some of it be can reduced to the phrase “the fighting spirit.” The Japanese Bushido code, for example, is a chosen ethical way of life much the same as one could choose a Greek contemplative life, or a one could choose a monastic religious way of life. Although the Bushido is associated with militarism in western interpretation, Bushido values were simply continued during times of war.

  5. I think a better concept than the “will surrogate” is the concept of the “final cause.”


    I think we would be as well just using every day talk of motives, desires and goals.

    Talk of the clean room as the “final cause” of the room tidying just seems to make description of the commonplace unnecessarily obscure. We don’t need this Aristotelian terminology unless one also has reason to bring in talk of efficient, formal and material causes. There may be good reason to do just that –perhaps one can profitably frame talk of the will, choices and acts in terms of the four causes – but I don’t see any such reason displayed.

  6. jim p houston,

    I agree. But “final cause” is a better expression than “will surrogate.”

  7. Hi David,

    I don’t think there’s anything to said in favour of talking of ‘will surrogates’ no.

  8. A very well thought out piece which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, for myself (quite literally), the mystery of “akrasia” or weakness of will still remains. Can training strengthen the will in every case? For instance, can an alcoholic will sobriety the way he wills himself to run 4.2 miles every day? Looked at another way, what are the kinds of things we can hope to will successfully? The Stoics placed great emphasis on askesis but they also believed it was important to realize which things were actually within our power to will and were therefore worth willing. There was a cognitive aspect of willing that involved knowing which things to will in the first place. I think your notion of the “will surrogate” is actually quite helpful because it brings up the larger question of intention and by implication, character. The actor in your final paragraph is not making a good choice because he is a good person. He simply feels compelled to live up to some expectation he has imposed on himself. He has a rule to follow. His rule helps him make good choices but it does not make him a good person. I am reminded of Albert Camus’ observation that: “Integrity has no need of rules.” which I believe is Camus’ paraphrase of another North African’s dictum to “Love God and do as you will.”

  9. CathyBy,

    True-someone who relies on will surrogates is effectively being controlled by these surrogates. However, it could be said that a person might use them as a will enhancer-that is, they know what they would will and know they are too weak on their own, so they use the enhancer to do what they would will. Kind of like using a bike or hedge trimmers to get the task done.

  10. Philofra,

    As some people like to hear themselves talk, I like to see myself write. 🙂

  11. D.G. Geis,

    Sorting out what the will can do from what it cannot is certainly a matter well worth considering. The choice of alcoholism is an excellent example, especially since it is now often regarded as a disease rather than a sign of a weakness of will. So, perhaps a person can use the will to go for a run when she feels the lure of the couch and Cheetos, yet cannot use the will to hold off the call of alcohol.

    I’d be inclined to say that the will has a very broad application (for example, I think that I use the same basic ability to run through pain as I do to resist stuffing 25 Christmas cookies into my cookie port) but that certain things would be harder to overcome for certain people. So, for example, someone with a greater than normal physiological vulnerability to alcohol would have a harder time resisting the bottle than someone who had less vulnerability.

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