Habit, and the Formation of Character

William Thomson, 1864

Habit is the effect produced by the frequent repetition of an act. It is an acquired tendency, proneness, or disposition, to fall into certain states of body or mind.

Habit may be regarded as that peculiarity of our constitution by which the present is linked to the past, and in virtue of which we are capable of progress either in good or evil.

Were it not for the process of habit, which links the present to the future whatever we may be now, we could have no conception of what we might be on the morrow.

With, at least, as much certainty as the meteorologist can predict a fall of rain, hail, or snow we can predict that the young drinker, who often goes swaggering home between two and three in the morning, will soon be vegetating amid the baneful influences of the jail.

It is therefore, an easy matter to read your future. Not, certainly, as intimating the future of your circumstances but the future of yourselves. Your future character twelve months hence, or twelve years hence will just be the evolution of the present.

From these hints respecting the nature of habit, its importance in constituting us what we are, or in the formation of our character is abundantly clear; for our character may be regarded as the aggregate of our habits.

Taking man as a whole, the character most to be desired is that in which all his faculties are fully and harmoniously developed, in subordination to Conscience. But as at present we cannot view the subject to the extent just indicated, we set aside the consideration of habit in its bearing on the development of the intellect and we shall also dismiss the feelings which only fall indirectly under the laws of habit, and confine ourselves for a moment to the department of Desire and Volition.

The character most to be desired, in this department, is that in which all the Desires work harmoniously together, in due subordination to Conscience.

The Will gives forth its authoritative word of command, owning the Conscience to be its legitimate and actual sovereign. The Desires are taught to obey the rein of the Will are habituated to control and subjection and they soon learn to submit with cheerfulness to the decision of the Will, acting in conformity with the intimations of its master, the Conscience.

We are encouraged to the exercise of this self-control by the consideration that every time we successfully exercise authority over the Desires, we increase our controlling power over them, in consequence of which we can, with greater facility, master them in time to come.

If we should neglect to habituate the Desires to subordination, they will take the management of affairs into their own hands, and either rule us by turns, or, one of them, by frequent indulgence, may acquire the mastery over the Conscience and Will, and exercise a pitiless tyranny over us!

There are some who will not give themselves the trouble to exercise self-control. When the object of a special Desire presents itself, and the longing for its realization is awakened, the Will is dragged after the Desire, and constrained to adopt measures for Desire's gratification.

But, perhaps, when giving the necessary orders for securing the desired end, the object of some other Desire makes its appearance, urges its plea, and demands attention. The will is enfeebled and the man is tossed about by every wind. Now, pleasure from one quarter solicits his attention and he runs to obey it. Now, Desire appears in another quarter, and he is turned aside to pursue it.

"Unstable as water," he cannot excel. Tossed with ceaseless fluctuation, like the waves of the sea, he casts up mire and dirt, and he is justly given up to the anarchy of desire.

The Conscience and the Will may be so gently and so gradually prepared for the usurpation by the Desires, that danger is not apprehended. It is not realized, certainly, on many occasions, until the Conscience is silenced, and the Will is made the mere tool and plaything of lust! The tyranny is often terrible and complete. The whole man, body and soul, is compelled to labor for the gratification of one dominant passion!

The noblest faculties of human nature (the Conscience and the Will) are made to act the part of hewers of wood and drawers of water, to serve to the mastery of the Desires.


"Sow a thought and you will reap an act;
 sow an act and you will reap a habit;
 sow a habit and you will reap a character;
 sow character and you will reap a destiny!"


"As the tree falls so must it lie;
 As the man lives so must he die!
 As a man dies such must he be;
 All through the ages of eternity!"