Social Process

Chapter 16: Degeneration and Will

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE human will, I take it, is no separate faculty, but the whole mind functioning as a guide to action, its power being shown in grasping the material which life offers and moulding it to rational ends. A person with a vigorous will shows an onward growth which is in great measure foreseen and intentional; he forms ideals and strives to realize them. It does not follow, however, that this striving is in a right direction. The will, like every form of life, is tentative and may take a degenerate course, that is, a course which the better moral judgment will declare to be wrong. As we see will actually working, in individuals, in nations, or in what form you please, it is a creative power, to be sure, but uncertainly guided, feeling its way and liable to err. We know that a boy may devote really first-rate powers to the leadership of a pernicious gang, or a nation devote an admirable organization to an unjust war.

We may, from this point of view, distinguish two types of degeneracy, one a strong type, in which the will is vigorous, but at variance with higher social standards, and a weak type, in which it is ineffectual, though possibly directed toward the good. With the latter we are

(170) all familiar, and it is perhaps more common than the other. Most of us who fail to help the world along do so not because we do not mean well, but because we lack force and persistency in well-doing.

As to freedom, I may say at once that I am no mechanist or predestinationist, but believe that the human will, individual and collective, an organic whole of onward life, is a true creative process, whose working may perhaps be anticipated by the imagination, which shares in its creative nature, but not by mere calculation. I do not care, however, to discuss the metaphysics of the matter, but would wish to present it in a common-sense way which would appeal to every one's observation.

If we consider fairly the question of what the will can actually do we see that its strength, whatever our philosophy of it may be, is in fact limited-though we cannot exactly define the limits-and is greater or smaller according to our native force and the influences that help or hinder us. Our freedom is not a power to escape from our history and environment, but something that works along with these, enabling us to do things original but not discontinuous. While I believe that the human spirit is part of a creative onward whole, building up life to unknown issues, I believe also that the growth of this whole is gradual and connected.

The matter is not at all mysterious when you consider it in practice. Is a man, for example, free to paint a good picture? We know that if he has good natural gifts and lively ambition has been trained in a good school and inspired by great examples, he stands a good chance to do so; but that if nature or circumstance has denied him any of these essentials he stands little or no chance.

( 171) History shows that good pictures are never painted except when certain conditions concur. There is nothing mystical about freedom in this case; it is just every-day life.

The same principle applies to moral achievement. If we have a man of natural energy and breadth of human sympathy whose experience has afforded him noble suggestions and examples, we need not be astonished at some exalted action; and if we know him intimately enough we shall be able to trace some history of this action in his previous conduct. But if he was born feeble-minded he cannot have large conceptions, and if his associates have been wholly depraved-supposing that possible—his conduct will share this depravity.

Free will, if you call it that, is then simply a power of creative growth, which we all have in some degree, and starts from our actual situation. No one is free to do anything he has not worked up to.

I hold, for many reasons, that it is a bad thing to teach absolute freedom of the will, as bad as to teach fatalism. It leads to discouraging judgments of conduct, both our own and that of others, and to a neglect of the training process by which everything good must be prepared. The logical outcome of the doctrine of unlimited freedom would seem to be that one should make a great effort to achieve at once what he wants, without regard to his preparation. The logical outcome of the view I suggest is that one sets about moulding his whole life into a process from which success will naturally flow. No thoughtful observer will doubt which is the better method.

It is an open secret, which few seem willing to utter, that ardent spirits often make too much effort, exhausting 

( 172) and disheartening themselves by attempting the impossible. I know a man of eager temperament and rather slender physique who, on asking himself what was the most serious and pervading mistake of his early life, finds the answer to be " I tried too hard." The prevalence of the idea of unconditional freedom works to the advantage of phlegmatic people, who cannot be harmed by it, and to the prejudice of the more impressible.

The author of an article on The Handicapped, by One of Them, says: " It was my own fate to be just strong enough to play about with the other boys, and attempt all their games and 'stunts,' without being strong enough actually to succeed in any of them. It never used to occur to me that my failure and lack of skill were due to circumstances beyond my control, but I would always impute them, in consequence of my rigid Calvinistic bringing-up, I suppose, to some moral weakness of my own. I never resigned myself to the inevitable, but over-exerted myself constantly in a grim determination to succeed. . . . I simply tantalized myself, and grew up with a deepening sense of failure."[1]

The strongest men, I should say, usually understand that their strength is limited, and husband it accordingly, taking care to keep a reserve force, the mere appearance and consciousness of which win most of their victories.

It is a fact of observation that social experience may be such as to break down strength of will. A large part of it is confidence, and this comes from the habit of success. A healthy will, if it tries and fails, will try again, perhaps try harder. No one can say how many trials will be

( 173) made, but it is certain that one cannot go on indefinitely putting forth his full strength in the face of uniform failure. A man may try a dozen times to scramble over an eight-foot board fence; but if it proves too much for him he will presently cease his efforts and avoid such fences in the future. The process known as "losing your grip" is primarily a loss of self-respect and self-confidence due to a series of failures. Imagined loss of the respect of others enters largely into it, and it is hastened by the inability to dress well and to keep clean, also by poor food, anxiety, loss of sleep, and physical deterioration. Sensual excitement is sought as a relief, and often completes the ruin. Any candid man must, I think, admit that it is easy to imagine a course of experience which would leave him as completely "down and out" as any tramp. The habit of accomplishment and that alone gives self-respect, hope, and courage to face the eyes of men. The disheartened man is no man, and if kept disheartened for a long enough time he is matter for the scrap-heap. The healthy growth of the will requires difficulty, to be sure, and even failure, but only such failure and difficulty as can be and are overcome in a sufficient proportion of cases to keep confidence alive. The power to resist a given temptation is no more absolute than the power to swim a mile; one can do it if his previous life has been such as to train his strength to the requisite point; otherwise not. It is as certain in the one case as in the other that many simply cannot do it.

Each of us, I suppose, knows that he has weaknesses that his will has been unable to overcome, that he has had times of defeat when the assailing forces, if persistent, would have crushed his character, that he has had friends, no worse than himself, whose characters have been

( 174) crushed. We had better, then, say nothing of the unlimited power of the human will, but ascribe our escape to a preponderance of favoring conditions.

It seems strange, when you think of it, that we have pity and hospitals for the sick in body, but for sick spirits —often a more deadly illness—we have no hospitals (except for the insane), few skilled physicians, and very little understanding. I suppose it is because this kind of trouble is not tangible enough to impress itself upon us, and also because we shun the effort of the imagination that would be required to understand it. Here, certainly, is a field for "social work."

One often encounters the doctrine that reforms are useless and even harmful, because temptation alone can strengthen the will, as when Sir Thomas Browne says that "They that endeavor to abolish Vice destroy also Virtue; for contraries, although they destroy one another, are yet the life of one another." The argument is constantly used against the restriction of prostitution and the liquor traffic.

Now, it is true that the will grows by exercise. Life is ever a struggle, a struggle, moreover, in which there must always, probably, be more or less failure. We may agree with Milton when he says, advocating the knowledge of evil: "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and seeks her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat."[2] But what is commonly overlooked is that, -.since this is an onward world, the struggle ought to keep rising to higher levels, and that unnecessary struggle is

( 175) mere waste and dissipation. We do not need to preserve evil, as the English preserve foxes, for the exercise of hunting it. And yet poverty, disease and vice are frequently upheld on this ground.

There is no danger that struggle will disappear, so long as human energy remains: if it is no longer against drink or licentiousness or war, it can go on to something higher. Every temptation is a conflict, and if it is not a necessary conflict it is a waste of strength: to contend over and over again with the saw temptation is a sign of arrested development. Solicitation merely defiles the mind, and a community which tolerates preventable vice wrongs itself in the same way as a man who reads a salacious book.

There is, no doubt, this much in the argument for undergoing temptation, that if the general conditions are such that one is almost sure to be exposed to it sooner or later, it is well to be armed against it by previous knowledge and discipline. Thus the best preventives of licentiousness are probably a wholesome social intercourse between boys and girls from childhood, and a knowledge of and respect for the higher functions of sex. But even here " sex-teaching " may easily be pernicious.

Degeneration does not spring from a special part of human nature, but is based on normal impulses, which take a higher or lower direction according as they are guided. Our native traits are for the most part vague capacities which are morally indeterminate at the outset of life, and out of which, for better or worse, the most various kinds of behavior may grow, We. know, for example, that the sexual impulses are back of the family, and of all the good which the family at its best brings with it; many psychologists, moreover, believe that these

( 176) instincts, contained and transformed, are the prime movers of nearly all our higher life, of love, art, religion, and social aspiration. But if we pervert or waste this energy it engenders the foulest things we know, sensualism, prostitution, loathsome diseases, spiritual corruption, and despair.

In the same way the need of excitement, relaxation, and change is ever impelling us to new things, but whether to literature, art, and wholesome sport, or to gambling, drink, and degrading shows, is largely a matter of opportunity and education. The mere need of companionship, the very element in which human nature lives, cooperates with a bad environment to entice us into all kinds of evil courses. The boy is bound to join a gang of some sort, and if the gangs in his neighborhood are vicious and criminal the outlook for him is bad; while a girl who has no better kind of society will be likely to frequent questionable dance-halls and accept automobile rides with strange men.

There is, in fact, a certain practical truth in the idea of the "natural depravity" of human nature. That is to say, the higher life of the human mind is co-operative, is reached and sustained only through the higher sort of social organization; and, in the absence of this, human nature, thrown back upon crude impulse, falls into sensualism and disorder. Lust, violence, greed, crude generosity, are natural in a sense that self-control, consideration for others and observance of moral standards are not so; they spring more immediately from primitive emotions, and require no higher thought and discipline. In other words, righteousness, in every form, is the difficult achievement of the social whole when working at

( 177) its best, and is impaired whenever this is impaired. A good soldier can exist only as part of a good army, and a good Christian can exist only as a member of a Christian community, visible or invisible.

How will a man's mind work when he is released from the higher incentives of society, from public ambitions, inspiring literature, the oversight of opinion, the expectation of friends and the control of law? Except in so far as he can carry these with him in his imagination he must fall back upon unschooled impulses, such as those of sex, of appetite for food and drink, of a crude sociability and craving for excitement. We see how this works in frontier towns and in the confused populations of our cities; and any one who leaves the restraints of home to live among strangers is likely to feel a kind of irresponsibility and moral decay setting in. Without the support of a moral order the individual degenerates.

The great thing, then, if we aim to combat degeneracy in a large way, is to build up an affirmative, constructive, many-sided community life, that can draw the individual into its own current, and evoke his higher possibilities. Any one who will look about him may see unnumbered examples of the waste of human nature in our disorderly civilization, the gross and futile expense of energies out of which a little leadership and discipline might make the best things of life. We find prosperous country towns, with almost no poverty, where the younger people are given over to sexual and other vices, chiefly became no organizing spirit has provided a higher outlet for their energies. The prevalent feeling, as expressed in a student's account, is, " Good Lord, I wish we could scare up something to do," and if the Lord does not an-

( 178) -swer a prayer of this kind we know who does. In another town where factory girls get high wages, they buy twenty-dollar hats and silk hose, and have a reputation for being " tough." I knew of two boys, aged about seventeen, who started out with the manly purpose of sampling all the kinds of intoxicating drinks that were sold in town. They were good boys, and this seemed to them a high adventure. Many boys enter houses of prostitution for the first time in a similar spirit.

A student who had helped conduct a boys' club in a neglected part of town made this answer to the question, Why should the boys have grown worse without the club? "We merely reply that our experience with boys of this age in the environment these boys are in, near the railroad and near the shops and factories, and near some hell-hole saloons, tells us that the boys, if they had been allowed to develop unguided, would have followed the course of the boys of the generation next above them in age, and formed into a semi-criminal gang, with no use for school or order, and with a community of interest in the lower forms of amusement." Another student, who had been a school-teacher in a lethargic and depraved rural community, speaks of the surprising effect upon his pupils of hearing "a talented soprano singer." "You could see their souls, purged of all their hopeless provincial badness, shine in their faces." Even in our colleges, notwithstanding the social and athletic activities of which we hear so much, there is a good deal of dissipation ascribable to the fact that the need of companionship and self-expression, among boys and girls cut off from former associations, is after all very imperfectly met, and the freshman hungering for these things is apt to find them most accessible in degenerate groups.

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Any individual is a Place where lower and higher tendencies are in conflict, and how the battle goes depends, other things equal, on the vigor and insistence with which the opposing suggestions are presented. If vice is organized, urgent, skilfully advertised, while virtue is not, it is certain that many balanced choices will swing the wrong way


  1. The Atlantic Monthly, September, 1911.
  2. Areopagitica.

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