S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
Habit, if wisely and skilfully formed, becomes truly a second nature, as the common saying is; but unskilfully and unmethodically directed, it will be as it were the ape of nature, which imitates nothing to the life, but only clumsily and awkwardly.
Like flakes of snow, that fall unperceived upon the earth, the seemingly unimportant events of life succeed one another. As the snow gathers together, so are our habits formed. No single flake that is added to the pile produces a sensible change. No single action creates, however it may exhibit, a mans character; but as the tempest hurls the avalanche down the mountain, and overwhelms the inhabitant and his habitation, so passion, acting upon the elements of mischief which pernicious habits have brought together by imperceptible accumulation, may overthrow the edifice of truth and virtue.
I trust everything, under God, to habit, upon which, in all ages, the lawgiver, as well as the school-master, has mainly placed his reliance: habit, which makes everything easy, and casts all difficulties upon the deviation from a wonted course.
Make sobriety a habit, and intemperance will be hateful; make prudence a habit, and reckless profligacy will be as contrary to the nature of the child, grown or adult, as the most atrocious crimes are to any of us.
Habit is the deepest law of human nature. It is our supreme strength, if also, in certain circumstances, our miserablest weakness. Let me go once, scanning my way with any earnestness of outlook, and successfully arriving, my footsteps are an invitation to me a second time to go by the same way;it is easier than any other way. Habit is our primal fundamental law,habit and imitation,there is nothing more perennial in us than these two. They are the source of all working and all apprenticeship, of all practice and all learning in the world.
That balancing moment at which pleasure would allure, and conscience is urging us to refrain, may be regarded as the point of departure or divergency whence one or other of the two processes (towards evil, or towards good) take their commencement. Each of them consists in a particular succession of ideas, with their attendant feelings; and whichever of them may happen to be described once has, by the law of suggestion, the greater chance, in the same circumstances, of being described over again. Should the mind dwell on an object of allurement, and the considerations of principle not be entertained, it will pass inward from the first incitement to the final and guilty indulgence by a series of stepping-stones, each of which will present itself more readily in future, and with less chance of arrest or interruption by the suggestions of conscience than before.
But should these suggestions be admitted, and, far more, should they prevail, then, on the principle of association, will they be all the more apt to intervene on the repetition of the same circumstances, and again break that line of continuity, which, but for this intervention, would have led from a temptation to a turpitude or a crime. If, on the occurrence of a temptation, formerly conscience did interpose, and represent the evil of a compliance, and so impress the man with a sense of obligation as led him to dismiss the fascinating object from the presence of his mind, or to hurry away from it; the likelihood is, that the recurrence of a similar temptation will suggest the same train of thoughts and feelings, and lead to the same beneficial result; and this is a likelihood ever increasing with every repetition of the process.
The train which would have terminated in a vicious indulgence is dispossessed by the train which conducts to a resolution and an act of virtuous self-denial. The thoughts which tend to awaken emotions and purposes on the side of duty, find readier entrance into the mind; and the thoughts which awaken and urge forward the desire of what is evil, more readily give way. The positive force on the side of virtue is augmented by every repetition of the train which leads to a virtuous determination. The resistance to this force, on the side of vice, is weakened in proportion to the frequency wherewith that train of suggestions which would have led to a vicious indulgence is broken and discomfited. It is thus that, when one is successfully resolute in his opposition to evil, the power of making the achievement, and the facility of the achievement itself, are both upon the increase, and virtue makes double gain to herself by every separate conquest which she may have won. The humbler attainments of moral worth are first mastered and secured, and the aspiring disciple may pass onward, in a career that is quite indefinite, to nobler deeds and nobler sacrifices.
I know from experience that habit can, in direct opposition to every conviction of the mind and but little aided by the elements of temptation (such as present pleasure, etc.), induce a repetition of the most unworthy actions. The mind is weak where it has once given way. It is long before a principle restored can become as firm as one that has never been moved. It is as the case of a mound of a reservoir: if this mound has in one place been broken, whatever care has been taken to make the repaired part as strong as possible, the probability is that if it give way again, it will be in that place.
If we look back upon the usual course of our feelings, we shall find that we are more influenced by the frequent recurrence of objects than by their weight and importance; and that habit has more force in forming our characters than our opinions have. The mind naturally takes its tone and complexion from what it habitually contemplates.
Robert Hall: Excellency of the Christian Dispensation.
Those who are in the power of evil habits must conquer them as they can; and conquered they must be, or neither wisdom nor happiness can be attained: but those who are not yet subject to their influence may, by timely caution, preserve their freedom: they may effectually resolve to escape the tyrant whom they will very vainly resolve to conquer.
It is very true that precepts are useful, but practice and imitation go far beyond them: hence the importance of watching early habits, that they may be free from what is objectionable; and of keeping before our mind, as much as possible, the necessity of imitating the good and the wise: without settled principle and practical virtue, life is a desert; without Christian piety, the contemplation of the grave is terrible.
It is important to keep in mind thatas is evident from what has been said just abovehabits are formed, not at one stroke, but gradually and insensibly; so that, unless vigilant care be employed, a great change may come over the character without our being conscious of any. For, as Dr. Johnson has well expressed it, The diminutive chains of habit are seldom heavy enough to be felt, till they are too strong to be broken.
Richard Whately: Annot. on Bacons Essay, Of Custom and Education.