The Mythology Of Will

I have mentioned elsewhere that the concept Schopenhauer termed “the Will” was not at all the same as that celebrated in the film Triumph of the Will. As the underlying reality of the universe, the Kantian ding-am-sich, he meant something like the Bergsonian élan vital or the Shavian life-force, and not the mere imposition of what some people want upon what other people want. Which latter may be considered our first popular meaning.

Another very common meaning of “will” is the ability to persist with one’s desiderata. This may be considered misleading on the grounds that persistence is not a matter of how “hard” you will a thing, whatever “hard” may mean here, but only on what obstacles will make you give it up.

A third thing people call by “will” is best seen in popular novels of magic, an excellent example being Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series. The eponymous magical practitioner is forever “gathering up his will” to achieve things in the external universe. We meet the same thing in the common device of “metapsychic” powers, especially telekinesis or “mind over matter” as it used to be known: the idea seems to be that a telekinetic’s mere will is causative.

The magician’s will seems to involve some kind of effort, but it is never clear exactly what this might mean, because moving our own limbs involves no great grunting and straining. Moving the limb against outer resistance, by all means, but that is not the same thing. If we raise a healthy arm in empty air, it does not feel like striving to overcome constipation; the willing and the accomplishing appear to be precisely the same thing. As in the Nike slogan, we “just do it”. And if there is no grunting and groaning “exercise of will” to raise our arm, why should we believe in some strenuous putting-forth of our “wills” in order to move things at a distance, that is, to do magic? If we really could call up demons by our “wills”, it would surely be no harder than wanting to hum and so humming.

If wanting something “badly” does not feel like straining to lift a weight, it must then be a way of saying that we are prepared to sacrifice more to get what we want, either our own interests or preferably someone else’s. That being so, it should go without saying that the notion of one man being more potent at magic by virtue of having a stronger will is nonsense, other than in the sense of being more content to wade through more blood. Which brings us back again to Triumph of the Will.

The whole concept of some inner homunculus strenuously pulling at ropes and pulleys in order to move the body should be recognised as just that, a model, and all models may be mistaken. This model of effortful willing may in fact be a projection from the ownership of slave labour.

Posted on July 16, 2011 at 14:52 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: THE LONGEST CON, From Rationalism to New Age

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  1. Written by The Ghost in the Machine
    on February 22, 2018 at 14:55

    The link between *will* and *persistence* is an interesting one. Allow me to offer a different take on this.

    Many sages and philosophers, not least Zen Buddhists, have underscored the idea that “I” am not the same “I” as yesterday, or when I woke up this morning. Building on this, it follows that “will” does not continue on its own accord, because the “I” is shifting.

    And since the “I” is shifting, so do our wants and desires, and our focus. If the focus shifts elsewhere, to some other priority or distraction, our “will” (or, you wish, the willing of that which was willed) ceases.

    “Will” can thus only be a significant force if it is constantly renewed, by the ever-shifting “I”. In other words, over time, “will” can only be exercised by persistence – which we may define as this constant renewal.

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