William James, The Principles of Psychology: Volume I (1890), pp. 125-26

“No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better.  With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved.  And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down.  A ‘character,’ as J. S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will’; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life.  A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.  Every time a resolve or a fine glow of feeling evaporates without bearing practical fruit is worse than a chance lost; it works so as positively to hinder future resolutions and emotions from taking the normal path of discharge.  There is no more contemptible type of human character than that of the nerveless sentimentalist and dreamer, who spends his life in a weltering sea of sensibility and emotion, but who never does a manly concrete deed.  Rousseau, inflaming all the mothers of France, by his eloquence, to follow Nature and nurse their babies themselves, while he sends his own children to the foundling hospital, is the classical example of what I mean.  But every one of us in his measure, whenever, after glowing for an abstractly formulated Good, he practically ignores some actual case, among the squalid ‘other particulars’ of which that same Good lurks disguised, treads straight on Rousseau’s path.  All Goods are disguised by the vulgarity of their concomitants, in this work-a-day world; but woe to him who can only recognize them when he thinks them in their pure and abstract form!  The habit of excessive novel-reading and theatre-going will produce true monsters in this line.  The weeping of a Russian lady over the fictitious personages in the play, while her coachman is freezing to death on his seat outside, is the sort of thing that everywhere happens on a less glaring scale.  Even the habit of excessive indulgence in music, for those who are neither performers themselves nor musically gifted enough to take it in a purely intellectual way, has probably a relaxing effect upon the character.  One becomes filled with emotions which habitually pass without prompting to any deed, and so the inertly sentimental condition is kept up.  The remedy would be, never to suffer one’s self to have an emotion at a concert, without expressing it after ward in some active way.  Let the expression be the least thing in the world — speaking genially to one’s aunt, or giving up one’s seat in a horse-car, if nothing more heroic offers — but let it not fail to take place.”


By the way, I think William James is being excessively harsh toward Rousseau here, partly because I have a very high opinion of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Emile (from which the example is taken).  I believe Rousseau’s writing of the book constituted a “manly concrete deed” in itself.  In my own writings I make a distinction between “theory” and “action,” but I believe the act of writing a book can itself serve as a form of “action” if it is intended to lead directly to a change in social practices, by first changing minds.  (At the same time, it must be stressed that other forms of “action” must exist in addition to book-writing.)

Also, as a general matter, I’m quite leery of accusations of “hypocrisy,” which I think in practice is often used as a way of silencing persons who articulate views that other people do not want articulated (although I do not necessarily think that that is what James is trying to do in this particular case).  Even if Rousseau did in fact send his own children to the foundling hospital, would we be better off if he had not written Emile?  Would suppressing his views have constituted a “just punishment” for what he did?  Shouldn’t one continue to try to maintain and even publicize certain ideals even if—as is inevitable—one falls short of meeting them?  (In fact, the narrator of Emile, “Jean-Jacques,” indeed acknowledges that he has not personally lived up to all of the ideals that he puts forth in the book.)

But, having said all that, it should be noted that I also have a high opinion of William James.