The Education of the Will by Jules Payot

Education of Will

RATING: 8/10…READ: September 24, 2012

Educationalist Jules Payot distills in this book how to form a hardy mind–a mind devote of laziness. Again and again Payot emphasizes continual work, continually testing our will which will bring us the life we desire. From avoiding trivial matters and lazy friends, not scattering our attention, and persistence, this book cuts through the bullshit and stands out far above the productivity blogs of today.

Get at Amazon


Any continued effort is not kept up long by man, except under pressure of necessity.

No joy is attained without some difficulty in this world. All happiness presupposes some effort. To read a book, to visit a museum, to take a walk in the park, are pleasures demanding initiative. They are active pleasures. But active pleasures are the only ones which count, the only ones which can be indefinitely renewed at one’s pleasure.

Idlers can readily endure war, which demands momentary violent efforts, followed by long periods of inactivity.

The Arabs conquered a vast empire, but they did not hold it, because they were not able to keep up the continued effort of organizing and administrating the country, such as making roads, and founding schools and industries.

It is so true that moderate, but continued effort alone expresses real and fruitful energy, that we may consider all work deviating from this type as lazy work.

It goes without saying that continued work implies continuity of direction. Therefore the energy of the will expresses itself less by multiple efforts than by the direction of all the forces of the mind down to hard work, but what they hate is that toward one definite end.

Such “mental excursions” are truly delightful, but they are only pleasure strolls. Nicolle describes those workers who flit here and there to no purpose as having “buzzing minds.” They are, to recall Fenelon’s simile, “like a lighted candle set in a windy place.”

Students of philosophy, for example, are good pupils so long as they are stimulated by the final examinations. They work hard and are generally accurate in their work. Unfortunately, however, they do not reflect at all. Their laziness of spirit is shown by their proclivity to think with words, but nothing more. Thus, in studying psychology it never enters their heads that they have been making practical psychology from the day of their birth to the present time, just as M. Jourdain found that he had been “speaking prose without knowing it.” It would be infinitely more simple to examine themselves and to discover personal examples instead of committing to memory those cited in their books. But no, they have an invincible tendency to memorize rather than to seek for themselves. The enormous amount which they are thus obliged to stuff into their memories frightens them less than the slightest personal effort. They are nothing, if not passive.

The word work will be reserved for the putting forth of real energy, the elimination of trifling details, and for that concentration which produces supreme effort of thought. To create in reality means to conceive an idea in its essential entirety and to bring it forth to the light of day.

Ease of communication, frequency of journeys, the habit of going to the mountains, or the sea, all dissipate our thoughts. There is not even time to read. One lives a life that is full of excitement and yet, at the same time, empty. The daily papers, the artificial excitement they give to the mind, the ease with which their items of news lead the interest through various happenings in five continents make the reading of books seem dull to many people.

Work means attention. Unfortunately attention is not a stable, fixed, and lasting condition. It can not be compared to a bow in constant tension, but consists rather in a repeated number of efforts in which the tension is more or less intense, and which follow one another with greater or less rapidity. In energetic and disciplined attention, efforts succeed each other so closely as to give the effect of continuity, and this apparent continuity may last a few hours each day. Hence the object of our endeavor is to be able to put forth some effort of intense and persevering attention.

The object to be sought by the intellectual worker is the energy of voluntary attention, an energy which expresses itself not only in the vigor and frequency of effort, but also, and above all, in the perfect direction of all our thoughts toward one single end, and by a subordination, for the time being, of our volition, feelings, and ideas to the directing, dominating idea for which we are striving.

Those who possess no ardent thirst for the ideal, nor a certain nobility of mind which shall furnish any inner reason for pursuing the difficult task of gradually rising above their animal natures, allow themselves to drift.

Our personal uplifting must be a work of patience. Why? One sees people spending thirty years in the practice of a difficult profession, in order to be free to retire to the country. Should one grudge the time that must be devoted to such a lofty and noble work as the mastery of one’s self?

We make use of the right presentative states that will help us; we speak out loud, or we write our thoughts; for writing more than anything else is a wonderful aid to prolonged meditation. It sustains thought and calls in the movements of the hand and the eyes to aid and abet the ideas.

As human beings, according to Descartes, do not exist except by a continuous creation of God, so even our pleasures, our griefs, our sensations, and our memories have no reality, except by a sort of continued creation, through the living energy of the theme by which they are glorified. Without it, one would have nothing but a collection of cold, dry, purely abstract psychological conditions without color and without force.

Even in the deepest experiences of life, they only feel conventional emotions.

History and experience prove that the most passionate characters are the most fantastically rigid in their feelings of duty, when their passion has been trained to act in that direction. Let any one observe him-self carefully and he will see that apart from the acts which have become automatic by habit, all volition is preceded by a wave of emotion, an effective perception of the act to be accomplished. We have just seen that the idea of the work which we had on hand was not enough to make us spring out of bed, while the feeling of shame at being caught in bed, after announcing that we made a practice of getting up at dawn, was sufficiently moving to make us hurry into our clothing.

Is it not perfectly clear that we must be without control over our emotions because their underlying causes, being physiological in nature, are beyond our control?

It is a fundamental law in psychology that when any two elements have been frequently associated together, one has a tendency to awaken the other…Are tears as well as laughter not contagious?

All knowledge is intellectual, but when the knowledge is accompanied by an emotion there is an intimate mingling of the intellectual elements with those of feeling, and the feeling which in certain ways is more over-powering and intense than the idea, places itself in the full light of consciousness, and throws its associated idea into the shade.

If one asks what it is that sustains the energy in the long and wearisome series of efforts that must be put forth when we start in upon the task of writing a long book, into which we throw our hearts, we would answer that we find a powerful coalition of feelings all pointing toward the same end; the feeling of energy which gives to work such a degree of vigor; meditation rewarded by its results and by the joys of discovery; the feeling of superiority which the pursuit of a noble aim gives us; the feeling of strength and physical well-being which comes from using all our pent-up energy in a profitable manner.

Does it not appear that the role of the intelligence is chiefly to bring together and to unite the elementary untrained sentiments into working order, and to give them distinct expression?

For by itself every emotional state and every desire is vague, blind and helpless. With the exception of the instinctive feelings of anger and fear, which can find external expression by themselves, the majority require the cooperation of the intelligence. They cause a certain feeling of restlessness and discomfort in the mind, but it is the intelligence which gives the true significance to this feeling of discomfort.

Time will accomplish what we want. It is time which forms habits and which gives them the strength and energy of natural tendencies. The power of the man who never despairs is marvelous. In the Alps there are granite gorges over three hundred feet in depth. It is the incessant wearing of the water burdened with sand that through countless summers has worn these prodigious chasms ; just so the smallest actions repeated indefinitely achieve in the end results out of all proportion to their causes.

They draw no profit from their experiences; for to let one’s interest wander in every direction is equivalent to having no real interest in anything. Only those draw a profit from their experiences who plunge into the torrent of their impressions without being carried away by them and who are sufficiently cool and self-possessed to snatch the different circumstances, ideas and feelings which they choose to possess, as they pass by, and which they will later ponder over, study and assimilate.

Thus lazy people think abstract, inanimate ideas in words, with the result, that they retain for their spiritual life amounts to nothing. Moreover, words follow one another so quickly and call up such a multitude of pictures that none of them achieve any distinctness. As a result, these superficial evocations merely fatigue the mind uselessly. A sort of stupefaction is produced by this jumble of images which comes to nothing.

In the same way you must paint a picture complete in every trifling detail of old age crowning a life of work the authority of your sayings and writings, the respect that everybody shows you, the great interest that remains in life even when it is deprived of many pleasures.

One must not only despise a life of idleness, that miserable state in which the empty, unoccupied mind preys upon itself and in turn becomes the prey of mean, contemptible thoughts, but one must go still further and abstain from envying a life of idle ease, or even talking about it. We must shun companions who would incline us to a desultory do-nothing existence, and such pleasures as would lead to it. In short, we must not only detest the disease, but the melon which brings on the attacks.

There is nothing finer than that by thus retreating within ourselves, we can either by ourselves or by calling great thoughts to our aid, gradually dispel our illusions. Instead of judging things according to the standard which others have set up we must accustom ourselves to look at them by themselves alone ; we must, above all, break the habit of judging our pleasures and impressions by public opinion. We shall see how the vulgar who are content with low pleasures by reason of their incapacity to enjoy those of a higher nature not only glorify their deceptive illusions and bestow the most eulogistic words of the language upon them, but how they also point the finger of scorn and disdain at all higher pleasures, and how they stigmatize everything that is worthy of esteem.

An action undertaken at first with compunction gradually begins to assume the proportions of a necessity, and although it was frankly disagreeable at first, it finally reaches the point where its non – accomplishment becomes distressing.

Action, to the student of philosophy, for example, means to get up at seven in the morning and read with the closest attention a chapter of Leibnitz or Descartes; it means to take notes, etc. Even to read demands a great number of successive efforts of attention. Action means to go over the notes again, to learn them by heart, to look up references and material for an essay, to lay out a general plan of it, then to make a plan of each paragraph; it includes meditation, research and the patient working up of collected material.

To act means, therefore, to perform thousands of small actions.

That student who, in spite of his disinclination, makes himself get up and look up a word in the dictionary, who finishes his work in spite of his desire to loaf a little, who reads to the end of a difficult page he is the man of courage.

To write out one’s thoughts, to take notes in reading, to make our arguments clear by expressing them in definite terms, all these, as we have said, lend the same kind of aid to thought as do manual experiments in the laboratory to the investigator, or formulas to the geometrician.

Happily, as Bossuet has remarked in the passage already quoted, a little suffices for each day, if each day accomplishes that little. Even at the slowest pace one reaches the journey ‘s end if one never stops. The important thing in intellectual work is not so much regularity as continuity. It has been said that genius is only infinite patience. All great works have been accomplished by persevering patience.

To be active is never to read passively, but to be constantly making efforts. But it is just as much a part of this activity to get up resolutely and go out for a walk or to visit a museum, when one feels that one’s nervous force is growing weak and that one’s efforts are ceasing to be productive. For it is the greatest foolishness to persevere indefinitely in unprofitable work which only exhausts and discourages one.

The most important thing in attaining this mastery of one’s energy, is never to go to sleep without making up one’s mind exactly what one is going to do the next day.

If, before I go to sleep, I do not distinctly picture to myself my work for the next day, my morning will be useless. It is never enough merely to outline it in a general way and to say: “I will work tomorrow, ” nor even “tomorrow I will begin the study of Kant’s ‘ Moral ” but I must always set a distinct and particular task and say: “To-morrow I will resolutely begin at the commencement of the lecture on ‘ Practical Beason’ by Kant,” or “I will study and make a synopsis of such a chapter in physiology. ”

To the precept of fixing one’s self a set task, one must also add that of always finishing and finishing conscientiously what has been commenced, so that one will not have to come back to it. Never to be obliged to do a piece of work over again, and to do what we have to do in such a manner that it is done accurately, is an extraordinary economy of time. The student should therefore do all his reading in this thorough and energetic fashion, he ought to write out a resume of what he has read and copy such extracts as he may foresee will be useful to him, and then immediately classify his notes under the title of the table of contents in such a way that he can find them again when he wants to. In this way he will never need to read a book over again, unless it should be one of his bedside books.

Do each thing in its turn thoroughly and without haste and without agitation.

When they asked him how he was able to find time to finish such a variety of business and still to amuse himself, he replied: ” There is nothing easier: it is only a question of doing one thing at a time and of never putting off until tomorrow what could be done on the same day.

One should not, he said, try to do several different things at one and the same time, ” because, often the enemy tries to induce us to begin several plans, so that when we are loaded with too many cares, we shall accomplish nothing and leave everything unfinished. . . . Sometimes he cunningly raises the desire within us to undertake some very excellent thing which he foresees, that we shall not be able to accomplish, in order to keep us from pursuing some less brilliant thing, which we could easily have achieved.”

It is evident that to know how to lead others, one must first be able to lead one’s self. If one would preach moderation, unselfishness, and devotion to others, it must be by force of example, and one must be able to demonstrate a life of active, energetic work by one’s actions as well as by work.

Walking seems to be a very helpful accompaniment to the assimilation of intellectual material, and aids one in getting one’s thoughts into shape.

When the mind is drawn in several different directions, it always has a sense of dull uneasiness during its work. It is the undertakings which are left in a rough, un- finished state that give rise to such wearisome mental worry.

Michelet told M. de Goncourt that at about thirty years of age he suffered terribly from headaches, caused by the number of things that he had to do, and that he resolved to read no more books, but to make them instead. From that day, when I arose in the morning,” he said, “I knew exactly what I was going to do, and as my mind was never fixed on more than one object at a time, I was cured.”

It is a good plan to form the habit of sitting up very straight and throwing out the chest, so as to allow perfect freedom to the respiratory movements.

Exercise is directly and of itself like a primary school for the will.

The more one works intellectually, the less one has need of excessive muscular exercise, in order to burn up the excess of unused materials.

The great victories of humanity have never been gained with the muscles ; they have been won by discoveries, by noble feelings, and living ideas; and we would exchange the muscles of 500 day laborers, or rather the perfectly useless muscles of all sporting men, for the powerful intelligence of a Pasteur, an Ampere or a Malebranche.

It is therefore evident from what has gone before, that in the choice of exercises to be recommended to students, one absolute rule ought to be observed: these exercises ought not to be exhausting nor even go to the point of excessive fatigue.

Constructive work may be carried on to a large extent in the open air and sunlight.

Tell me how long you lie abed in the morning and I will tell you whether or not you are morally strong.

He is not in love with any particular woman, he is still “in love with love.”

It must, however, be admitted that the delightful romances which flit through their imaginations, and the future which they plan to please their fancy, are infinitely more interesting than work, and require far less effort. As soon, therefore, as a study becomes wearisome the student begins to reason that he can just as well put his work off till tomorrow, which, as a matter of fact, he always does. He then lets himself go, and indulges in day-dreams which absorb the best part of his time. How many young men there are who are living in some sort of romance, made up bit by bit during weeks and weeks, varying the theme in a hundred different ways, imagining their heroine in every possible situation, even addressing her aloud in words which they can never make too tender, too sweet, or too ardent !

It is not until later when our imagination has been crowded out by serious affairs, and has become cold and inert, that we turn to the novelist and ask him to take the place of the poet we once were, but are no more.

There is no more strength- giving sentiment for a young man than that which is built up by this association of two persons of good sense and courage against misfortune and disease.

In the homes which have started out modestly the comforts increase with age, and the cares diminish, and old age is perfectly happy because it enjoys security, tranquillity, and wealth only after having worked a long time to obtain them.

The days slip by in apathetic indifference, accompanied by a feeling of listlessness and disheartening laziness. Above all, there is that loss of virile joy in work, and it becomes a bore the moment it lacks its material recompense.

Anything which weakens one of the parties concerned weakens the other, and whatever strengthens one strengthens the other.

What  do all intellectual and artistic joys, the love of nature, the effort to mitigate the misery of the poor and the outcasts of society, the love of one’s family and one’s neighbor, count for nothing, and would one exchange all these pleasures for a few moments’ enjoyment of a spasm which one has in common with the animals?

Would it not be a hundred times better to be able to congratulate himself, as Cicero did, upon having escaped becoming a slave to his passions, and to devote himself to politics, art, science, and philosophy?

But let us leave these medical theories, they are so naive and childish that they only furnish fresh proof of the radical lack in the studies of logic, psychology, and morals in the course of the majority of students of medicine.

He ought to go out every evening, while meditating on his work for the morrow, and walk until he feels tired, then go straight to bed. These walks he should take as a regular habit, no matter what the weather may be, for, as an English humorist has remarked, the rain always falls much more heavily, and the weather is much worse to him who looks down into the street from the windows of his room than for him who is not afraid to go out into it.

While the most brilliant intellectual conquests are achieved by thinking of one subject all the time, the victory over sensuality is won by not thinking about it at all. One must at any cost prevent the union of ideas with a newly born temptation, and the gradual awakening of sensual images which are still lying dormant. One must avoid reading romances, and, above all, journals or books which have indecent suggestions.

One must avoid looking at obscene pictures or illustrations which are even more upsetting to the tranquillity of the spirit than written descriptions.

One must avoid the society of lewd companions; one must foresee the possibility of danger in trifling details so that one can never be caught unaware by temptation.

At first a simple thought, as yet wholly powerless, steals into the mind.

Desultory or too diversified work, with the attention distracted by a great variety of objects, brings no joy, but, on the contrary, a feeling of irritation and discontent with one’s self. Regular methodical work alone can bring powerful interest to the mind, an interest that will continue and last.

Nothing is easier at those happy years which stretch from eighteen to twenty-five than to become enamored of nature, of the mountains, the woods, the sea, and to love, even to the point of passion, everything that is noble, fine and inspiring; the arts, literature, science, history, without mentioning the new possibilities which are constantly offering themselves for work along social lines.

Apply yourself to work, even if only for three hours each day, and it will soon be discovered that the work is not profitless, and that the sum total of working hours is the same, whether three hours a day for six months, or six hours a day for three months has been the time employed. The work is the same, but results are different, for, as Leibnitz has said, “the more we try to polish our minds by excessive study, the more we are apt to dull them.”

A little enthusiasm and initiative, coupled with a passion for research, will take the place of material support, and accomplish marvels, even when the resources at their command are inadequate. On the other hand, even in laboratories thoroughly equipped, an inert and unambitious mind will accomplish nothing. The important thing, therefore, is to possess unbounded enthusiasm. A laboratory is only useful as a verifier of preconceived ideas. The idea lies in the discovery itself, not in the apparatus that facilitated it.

An organized memory is like a picked army carefully ” ensconced. ” Thus, a man who can not have access to innumerable libraries only surrounds himself with books of the highest order, which he reads with care and which he meditates over and criticizes, supplying what is lacking by personal observation and by thoughtful discrimination, which is the best kind of discipline for the mind.

The word science immediately suggests to us the idea of accumulated knowledge, while it ought to suggest to us the idea of a strong, vigorous mind, full of initiative, but extremely careful in verification.

The power of the savant is not in proportion to the number of facts he has amassed. It is in proportion to his capacity for research and adventure, if I may thus call it, which is constantly controlled by a severe criticism. The number of facts is nothing, their quality is everything.

The great movements of thought accomplished in the world have been, not by the communication of knowledge, but by the communication of an ardent love for the truth or for some great cause, and by the communication of good methods of work. That is to say, in a word, that influence only comes through the contact of man to man, and soul to soul.

But has not classical education, as it is understood, exactly this end in view : to kindle a calm and lasting enthusiasm for all that is grand and noble and generous in the minds of students!

We also believe that the only religious truth that is necessary and sufficient, is to admit that the universe and human life are not without a moral end, and that no effort for good is lost