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No reason that I know of, can be given, why the habit of having done a thing, should increase the tendency to do it: all reason stops at this point, — it is not possible to explain it. The pain annexed to the interruption of the habit, is the means by which obedience to the law is secured. Nature is too good a legislator to pass any act without annexing a smart penalty to the violation of it.
There remains to notice the very little attention of mind, and the very little bodily exertion, with which all habitual actions are performed. A boy, at his first beginning to learn arithmetic, adds together a column of figures with the greatest difficulty, and with the greatest uncertainty: an expert arithmetician, adds up the longest sum with the most unerring precision, and with as much rapidity almost as is required to advance his hand from the bottom to the top of the page.
Montaigne says, in his chapter on “ Custom and Law," " I saw the other day, at my own house, a little fellow, “ who came to show himself for money, a native of “ Nantes, born without arms, who has so well taught “his feet to perform the services his hands should have “ done him, that indeed they have half forgot their “ natural office, and the use for which they were de“signed; the fellow, too, calls them his hands, and we
may allow him to do so, for with them he cuts any“ thing, charges and discharges a pistol, threads a
needle, sews, writes, and puts off his hat, combs “ his head, plays at cards and dice, and all this with “ as much dexterity as any other could do who had “ more and more proper limbs to assist him; and the
money I gave him, he carried away in his foot, as we " do in our hand. I have seen another, who, being yet
a boy, flourished a two-handed sword, and (if I may
so say) handled a halbert, with the mere motions and “ writhings of his neck and shoulders, for want of “hands; tossed them into the air, and caught them
again; darted a dagger; and cracked a whip, as well as any coachman in France.” *
Every one, except Dr. Crotch, must remember the difficulty with which they first learnt music.
The correspondence between the note on the piano-forte and the note in the book, was the first thing to be ascertained ; then, that note is to be struck with a particular finger, with a particular degree of velocity; and if she should sing at the same time, all these are to be accompanied with certain inflexions of the voice. The difficulty with which all this is done, the blunders which are made, and the slowness of the progress that is made at first, there can be no occasion I should describe, as there are so many here who must have felt it. At last, such is the astonishing facility acquired by habit, that there are many persons who will sit down to a glee which they have never seen before, play the bass with one hand, the treble with the other, and sing the third part; that is, read three different languages, and per. form three different sets of actions, at the same time: and this, with such little effort of faculty or of finger, that they shall have plenty of leisure to observe who goes in and comes out; who is drest ill, who well; and to pursue the usual train of thought, which passes in our minds on such occasions: and though it be absolutely necessary that each musical note, and each key of the piano-forte, must have been thought of by such a musician during the performance, they have past through the mind with so much ease and rapidity, that it is impossible, or at least exceedingly difficult, to recall any of them. The reason of this astonishing facility, is partly to be explained by bodily, partly by mental
It proceeds from the strengthened association between the sign, and the thing signified: we read inusic with greater ease, and, the very instant we look
* Montaigne, vol. i. p. 133.
at the note, and the musical line on which it is placed, know immediately to what part of the piano-forte the finger is to be carried. The other cause is merely a bodily cause: the actions of the fingers become associated together; and one finger having followed the other in a certain direction, follows it ever after with much more ease. To shake on the piano-forte is extremely difficult to beginners. However desirous any one may be of moving these two fingers rapidly, the muscles obey the decision of the will with extreme difficulty; but when the respective motions of the two fingers are completely associated, so slight a determination of the will produces the desired effect, that it becomes difficult to recollect, the very moment after, that we have thought anything about the matter.
Just so in learning to walk, or in grown-up persons learning to skate ; it requires a specific resolution to put one leg before another. A skater stands tottering and trembling in his slippery career; and when he has resolved which leg he will move the next, is obeyed by that leg in a very awkward, reluctant, and mutinous manner, the very leg which, when it has acquired a great number of associated strains and postures, is to gain its master deathless reputation as a flying Mercury, and render him the envy and the glory of the Serpentine.
It is impossible not to perceive in this analysis, which I have gone through, of the nature of habit, that powerful effect which it must exercise upon human happiness, by connecting the future with the present, and exposing us to do again, that which we have already done. If we wish to know who is the most degraded, and the most wretched, of human beings; - if it be any object of curiosity in moral science, to gauge the dimensions of wretchedness, and to see how deep the miseries of man can reach ;—if this be any object of curiosity, look for the man who has practised a vice so long, that he curses it and clings to it; that he pursues it, because
he feels a great law of his nature driving him on towards it; but, reaching it, knows that it will gnaw his heart, and tear his vitals, and make him roll himself in the dust with anguish. Say everything for vice which you can say, — magnify any pleasure as much as you please, but don't believe you can keep it; don't believe you have any secret for sending on quicker the sluggish blood, and for refreshing the faded nerve. Nero and Caligula, and all those who have had the vices and the riches of the world at their command, have never been able to do this. Yet you will not quit what you do not love; and you will linger on over the putrid fragments, and the nauseous carrion, after the blood, and the taste, and the sweetness, are vanished away. But the wise toil, and the true glory of life, is, to turn all these provisions of nature all these great laws of the mind — to good; and to seize hold of the power of habit, for fixing and securing virtue: for if the difficulties with which we begin, were always to continue, we might all cry out with Brutus, — “I have followed thee, O Virtue! as a real thing, and thou art but a name!” But the state which repays us, is that habitual virtue, which makes it as natural to a man to act right, as to breathe; which so incorporates goodness with the system, that pure thoughts are conceived without study, and just actions performed without effort: as it is the perfection of health, when every bodily organ acts without exciting attention; when the heart beats, and the lungs play, and the pulses flow, without reminding us that the mechanism of life is at work. So is it with the beauty of moral life! when man is just, and generous, and good, without knowing that he is practising any virtue, or overcoming any difficulty: and the truly happy man, is he, who, at the close of a long life, has so changed his original nature, that he feels it an effort to do wrong; and a mere compliance with habit, to perform every great and sacred duty of life.
BEFORE I proceed upon my present Lecture, I beg leave, in a very few words, to bring to your recollection the topics which I have dwelt upon in my last.
My first object was to show that habit was to action, what association is to thought; or, in other words, that it is associated action. I then divided habits into active, and passive: those things which we are prone to do, because we have done them; and those things which we are prone to suffer, because we have suffered them. In those passive impressions, produced upon the mind through the body, I endeavoured to show that the sensibility of the bodily organ was materially impaired by repetition, but that this rule was by no means to be extended to the affections; that it was not generally true that they were weakened by habit. I noticed the pain consequent upon the interruption of habit; the uniform increase of active habits; and lastly, the dimi. nished attention of mind; which latter circumstance I attributed, partly to the strengthened association of ideas, partly to the improved association of actions. This was the substance of my last Lecture; and I now go on to make those additional observations on habit, which I had not then time to comprehend in the discussion.
It has very often been asked when a habit begins to