On the Efficacy of the Will

It is a commonplace in the movies, when a man is near death, for someone to say that his recovery depends on his will to live. For example, toward the end of the movie Hud (1963), Homer Bannon (Melvyn Douglas) is lying by the side of the road, dying from an injury, when he is discovered by his son Hud (Paul Newman) and his grandson Lonnie (Brandon de Wilde).  After the old man dies, Hud says, “Anyway, he couldn’t have made it another hour,” to which Lonnie replies, “He could if he wanted to.  You fixed it so he didn’t want to any more.”

In many cases, the assertion that a person’s life depends on his will to live is made by a doctor, giving it the authority of medical science.  I have only a limited experience with deathbed situations, so I cannot say how often this happens in real life, but it seems to me I have heard people say something to this effect when watching the nightly news.  An alternative way of expressing this idea is saying that someone is a “fighter.”

There is, of course, a trivial sense in which the will to live is important to one’s survival, and that is if one’s survival depends on one’s actions.  If the patient does not care enough about living to take his medicine, for instance, then he is less likely to survive than a comparable patient who does want to live and takes his medicine exactly as prescribed.  But what is intended by the assertion of a causal connection between the will to live and survival transcends such mere actions as ordinarily understood.  The idea, the metaphysics of it, if you like, is that the will can actually permeate the body and operate within it, causing beneficial physiological changes that make the difference between life and death.

If any of that is true, then I am in trouble, because I have never been a fighter, and my will to live is qualified.  I mean, before I go to a lot of trouble and effort to survive, I need to know, “What’s in it for me?”  If I am in danger of dying, say, of cancer, I can see myself opting for surgery, getting radiation treatment, or going through chemotherapy, but if I also have to exert my will to live, I just don’t know that I’ll be up to it.  Part of the problem is that I don’t believe in it.  The way I figure it, the will to live may be more of an effect than a cause.  It is not that a person dies because he lost his will to live; he lost his will to live because he was dying.

This belief that the will is effective, aside from merely being the cause of our actions, goes beyond its imagined role in making the difference between life and death.  In The Hot Spot(1990), Don Johnson, a used car salesman, tells Charles Martin Smith, a coworker, “I’m gonna sell one of these [cars] to the first sucker that walks in here today.”  When Smith asks him, “How do you reckon to accomplish that?” Johnson replies, “Sheer willpower.”

I suppose we could write this off as merely an expression of determination, which probably is a good attitude for a salesman to have.  But if we take this seriously for just a minute, we have to imagine that Johnson’s character in that movie supposes not merely that he will apply high-pressure salesman techniques to overcome the customer’s resistance, but that beyond what he does or says, his will, as a kind of psychic force, is going to shape events directly.

Once again, there is likely to be a confusion of cause and effect.  Don Johnson’s character is not a good salesman because of his sheer willpower; he believes in sheer willpower because he is a good salesman.  A lesser salesman, like the character portrayed by Charles Martin Smith, is probably more aware of his limitations and is more likely to believe that he just has to do his job and hope to make a sale.

We have a successful salesman running for president.  That would be Donald Trump, of course. And like Johnson’s character, Trump believes in sheer willpower.  Pointing out that Trump does not have specific plans to do the things he says he will do may be a perfectly legitimate criticism, but it might also be a failure to understand the psychology of the man being criticized. Trump does not believe he needs a plan.  He only needs the strength of his will.  And that is what a lot of Trump supporters believe as well.

In order for people believe in the will of Trump, it is not enough that he be rich, nor is it enough that most of his wealth be the result of his success in business.  He must brag!  A man who brags and then is able to back it up inspires awe.  For most of us, modesty is not merely a virtue.  It is a matter of prudence.  We are just not that good at anything we do.  Furthermore, bragging is obnoxious.  When someone brags about how good he is at this or that, we figure he is due a comeuppance.  And when people around you want to see you fail, you are likely to do just that.

But there comes a point at which bragging has the opposite effect, when it induces in the minds of others that one has special powers, and instead of wanting to see that person fail, there is a tendency to believe in that person, to want to follow him and be a part of whatever he is.  I am not a baseball fan, but I understand that Babe Ruth, while standing at the plate, once pointed to which part of the stadium he would hit his home run. And then he did it.  At that point he was no longer merely a great baseball player.  He became a god.

Cassius Clay took braggadocio to new heights in the world of boxing when he announced, “I am the greatest!” and then went on to win the heavyweight championship of the world.  Of course, he might have been knocked out in his next fight, and then he would have been thought a fool, one who got what he deserved.  And no one would remember him.  Alternatively, had he become a champion without any accompanying rodomontade, he would have been regarded as just another boxing champion. But he broke through that aversion most of us have for braggarts and came out on the other side with a mystique of greatness not seen since.

Friedrich Nietzsche, the philosopher of the will to power, understood this connection between will and arrogance.  For the title of his biography, he used the expression, Ecce Homo, used by Pontius Pilate to direct the crowd’s attention to Jesus, but which Nietzsche used to direct attention to himself. And as if that were not enough, some of the chapters of that autobiography are, “Why I Am So Wise,” “Why I Am So Clever,” “Why I Write Such Good Books,” and “Why I Am a Destiny.”  In that same book, Nietzsche says, “I know my fate. One day my name will be associated with the memory of something tremendous — a crisis without equal on earth, the most profound collision of conscience, a decision that was conjured up against everything that had been believed, demanded, hallowed so far. I am no man, I am dynamite.”

Whether one agrees with Nietzsche’s self-assessment or not is beside the point.  It is fitting that the philosopher of the superman would present himself the way a superman would, as a man of will, as a man whose greatness is so manifest that nothing short of bragging would seem appropriate.

Finally, part of what makes Donald Trump unique is the way arrogates to himself the privilege of doing what other politicians must not.  It is sometimes said of the Clintons that they believe the rules do not apply to them, that they think they are special. It is one of the reasons, some have speculated, that Hillary set up a private server while she was Secretary of State.  And the question now is whether this email business will hurt her in the upcoming election.  But when Trump breaks the rules, he not only gets away with it, but he benefits from it as well.  It is not that his politically incorrect remarks have failed to ruin his candidacy.  The fact that he says such things proves, in the eyes of his followers, that he is superior to the ordinary politician.

As we all know, incest taboos are universal.  And to be guilty of incest, even if it be between consenting adults, is to bring upon oneself the disgust of mankind.  And yet, as has often been observed, what is forbidden to man is permitted among the gods, Zeus and Hera, as brother and sister as well as husband and wife, are the most well-known example.  It is argued by some that incest is universally forbidden because it is a pleasure too great for man to enjoy, and thus only the gods are worthy enough to partake of it.

For most of us, violating a taboo, be it incest or anything else, is something best avoided, lest we suffer the obloquy of mankind. But under the right circumstances, violating a taboo can be a proof of superiority, the mark of godlike status.  Just as Trump would not be doing as well in the polls if he did not brag about how great he is, so too would his popularity be less if he did not take for himself the privilege of being outrageous and offensive. By establishing himself as someone who is superior, by pointing to his past success, by bragging about how smart he is, and by violating political taboos, Trump is able to make people believe that he will be able to overcome all obstacles in “making America great again” through sheer willpower.

In other places at other times, men like this have risen to power, but it will not happen here. Although it may not seem that way at times, Americans have too much common sense and practical reason for such a man even to win the nomination, let alone the election.  But he definitely has his true believers, and I suspect for years to come, long after someone else has become president, they will be talking about how great things would have been if only Donald Trump had been elected.

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