Exercising the Will

In order to get strong, you must exercise.  Here are some examples:

If you want to be physically strong, you must do some sort of athletics such as lifting weights, running, etc.

If you want to be mentally strong, you must do some intellectual exercises such as reading, writing, getting involved in some stimulating conversations.

If you want to be spiritually strong, you must do some spiritual exercises such as getting involved in one’s religion, reading the scriptures, praying, etc.

If you want to be socially strong, you must do some social exercises such as being around friends, getting involved in your community, etc.

But now can one make the will strong?  Does it even make sense?

Let’s start with being physically strong.  Obviously, doing aerobic and/or anaerobic exercises are the way to do it.  It’s just that simple.  Of course to challenge yourself, you need to be with people are push you or challenge you to get better.

To be mentally strong, one needs some intellectual stimulation.  This, again, can be a group effort (like doing philosophy) or it can be individual (like homework), but the idea is that your mental abilities gets better over time.  If one doesn’t use those mental efforts, one loses mental strength in the same way one loses physical strength if one doesn’t exercise.

How about being spiritually strong?  I’m not religious but it seems obvious that one one must do the rituals and practices of one’s faith whether that means attending some sacred space, reading the sacred texts, praying/meditating, and other activities that helps you commune yourself to the Absolute.  This can be a group or individual enterprise as well.  The group helps the individual with their faith, but one can obviously practice his/her faith alone.  Can one become spiritually weak?  I think so.  If one doesn’t do these practices, one can lose one’s faith over time.  Thus, it’s analogous to losing physical or mental strength.

How about being socially strong?  It seems strange but one needs to interact with the community and establish relationships.  I’ve heard that the most terrible thing a prisoner has to go through is solitary confinement.  This is because we are social creatures and getting involved in the community helps us look at the world as social beings instead of individual monads.  It seems odd, but one can do this individually or as a group, I think.  A group can fight for a cause or for some injustice which helps give out the message to the rest of the community.  But one can also practice civil disobedience all by oneself and still give a message to the community.  It doesn’t have to be about injustice either.  One can make many friends.  But a group can also intermingle with another group.  Can one lose social strength?  Yes.  One can get away from society for so long that they become an ascetic and look at the world as something to despise.  It doesn’t have to be that extreme, but perhaps lazy people who don’t care much about the world can be socially weak.  In my class, only 20% of the people (on average) know where Iraq is on the map.  By tuning more into the world and realizing what their actions are doing to the community, they get a sense of responsibility and hopefully and understanding of interacting relationships in the world.

But what about the will?  When I’m talking about the will, I mean something like “I will to do x.”  It’s like I’m intending to do something.  For example, if I’m on a diet, I will myself not to eat some delicious snacks, or if I want to stop smoking, then I will myself not to smoke.  But can this will be strengthened?  The only person I know of that talks about strengthening the will is Aristotle.  He says that if one is tempted to do something vicious, it’s because one has a weak will.  So how does one strengthen the will?  Aristotle says through practice until it becomes ingrained into their character.  For me, this seems a bit odd.  If I want to strengthen my will, it seems strange that I have to tempt myself (let’s say, to eat some cake) so that I can strengthen the will.  Perhaps it could work, but let’s say that I want to will myself to keep on studying.  Does that mean I should study in at my friend’s BBQ so that I strengthen the will to resist the gathering and stick with my studies?  It could work, but again, it seems odd.

Can this be an individual effort or a group effort?  I guess it could be both.  Many people who exercises in groups are known to do better because they get motivation.  But does this extra motivation strengthen the will?  Is this new motivation a real ingrained passion in one’s character, or is this motivation superficial, meaning that you’re motivated because you don’t want to let the other person down?

Finally, can one become weak in their will?  If this analogy holds, it seems that we don’t do many exercises to strengthen the will (after all, what are the exercises to strengthen it).  Thus, our wills become weak over time.  But this seems absurd.  It’s not as if I stopped eating snacks, and then through loss of exercise, my will became so weak that I now have to eat snacks.  I still have the same will, I think.  I resist snacks or other things as I did when I was younger.

Could the will be innate?  Perhaps, but is physical, mental, spiritual, and social strength innate?  It can, but I believe you can get stronger or weaker with what you already have.  So yes, it’s is partially genetic, but there must be some exercises in order to strengthen what you already have.

So then, these are the questions:

  1. Can one strengthen the will?  If so, what sort of exercises can one do?
  2. Can the will become weak?  If so, is it because of lack of exercises?
  3. Can the will be a group and/or individual effort?
  4. Is the will simply innate, or can one train the will?
  5. Finally,  we know people who overdo their physical, mental, spiritual, and social exercises.  Is it possible to “overdo” the will?

About shaunmiller

I have just completed a visiting position as an assistant professor at Dalhousie University. My ideas are not associated with my employer; they are expressions of my own thoughts and ideas. Some of them are just musings while others could be serious discussions that could turn into a bigger project. Besides philosophy, I enjoy martial arts (Kuk Sool Won), playing my violin, enjoying coffee around town, and experimenting with new food.
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9 Responses to Exercising the Will

  1. thekillerj says:

    Before I answer, I need to know something. Would you say “will” is something tied in with our belief system, or separate from that? In other words, a belief I have is, “I am an athlete.” I think this belief strengthens my will to do all the crazy shit I do day in and day out. Does this make sense?

    • shaunmiller says:

      The will I’m thinking of is separate from a belief system. For example, I believe that being healthy is good and being healthy means to not eat ice cream everyday. However, I have a weak will and I end up eating ice cream everyday.

      But you do bring up an interesting feature your belief makes your will stronger. Is that what you’re saying? If so, I’d be interested if it.

  2. thekillerj says:

    Well, if you’re open to the idea I think our beliefs are at the core of our will then. Beliefs are subject to change, of course, thus will can wax and wane. Since our beliefs basically create the lens through which we see the world, it stands to reason our will to carry out a certain behavior (eat the ice cream, or abstain)depends in large part, on our belief about what engaging in that behavior constitutes for us.

    Shaun, I’m going out on a limb here, but I bet you think of yourself as a philosopher. You believe, “I am a thinker.” You don’t accept anything at face value or based upon somebody’s opinion. You tear it apart, and think about it and probably read books on it if it interests you. For example, think about your whole deal with the concept of “love.”

    Since you identify with, and maintain the belief, “I am a thinker,” it impacts your decisions. The belief generates an identity for you, which makes it hard for you to just accept things at face value. This is a good, adaptable trait, and you know this. Since your belief and identity coincide with your belief that “I am a thinker” is a good thing, you hold on to it. What would your reaction be if I were to come along one day and tell you, “Hey bro-man-dawg, I figured out the secret to life! All you need to do is tuck your nuts between your legs and cluck like a chicken! An angel appeared and told me about it. Try it, I’ve never been happier!”

    I’m a charismatic guy, so 99% of the population would tuck their junk and cluck. Not you, though. You’d think it through. You’d tear it apart. You wouldn’t just go against your will of being a thinker, even though the key to happiness is so much easier to accomplish than any current method you’re trying to incorporate in your life.

    Now, what would happen if you decided philosophy was boring. You decided it was also bull shit. Too much over analyzing and debating. Let’s say you truly changed your mind, and decided to relax your mind a bit and just go with the flow. You changed your number one belief to, “If it feels good, do it.” Now, same scenario. Your will power to think it through wouldn’t be there, since your belief, “I’m a thinker” is no longer first on your list. You would be way more likely to cave, pull your shit up in to a fruit basket and cluck!

    Eh? Make sense?

  3. Marcy says:

    my attempt to try and answer the questions …
    1) Can you strengthen your will? It would be great if you could, but I think the consequences change not the will. For instance my will to not eat chocolate cake isn’t any stronger then when I was a teenager but the consequences are more sever, my metabolism is just not what it used to be. Same will different consequences.

    2)Can your will become week? once again I don’t think it is a matter of your will be coming week I think it all boils down to consequences. Strengthening my will by tempting myself with chocolate cake and not eating it is not going to make my will stronger in other areas of my life.

    3)Can will be a group effort? …It helps to have a group effort. That is probably why in addiction programs they create a group format. If your will is week hopefully your partner has the strength to get you through that week moment, but that isn’t strengthening your will, that is relying on somebody else. So I guess it is individual.

    4)Is the will innate or can you train it? As a mother of different little personalities, I think will is largely innate. Can you train it? Depends, to me this goes back to consequences, the will hasn’t changed just the consequences. My will to succeed in school hasn’t changed, but the consequences of not succeeding have.

    5) Can you overdo will? Yes, why torture yourself by always testing your will. I think it is good in certain areas to prove to yourself what you are capable of, but I would be a miserable person if I was constantly tempting myself. This is the exact reason I am taking the summer off from school, I know it would be impossible for me to go to a BBQ and study, and if I did go to a BBQ and study I don’t believe this would strengthen my will in other areas of my life so why punish myself.

  4. shaunmiller says:


    I think we’re using the word “will” differently. I’m defining “will” as a volition or intention of some act. I will myself to run even though I don’t feel like it. I will myself to study (which isn’t hard to do). I will myself to not eat dessert tonight. So with your explanation, you lost me. I think you’re defining “will” as a way to change beliefs. While this can be true, it isn’t always the case. I can believe that eating dessert isn’t a good idea. But I might have a weak will that I end up eating dessert with regret.

    Or how about smoking? I don’t smoke so I guess I have a strong will not to smoke. Was this will something that I worked on overtime, or was it innate? How does one make the will stronger or weaker?

  5. thekillerj says:

    Man, I’m lost. haha I guess I don’t understand. Oh well, my will isn’t strong enough to bend my mind around the concept.

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