On the Will in Nature/Linguistic


All that I have to record under this head is an observation of my own, made within the last few years, which seems hitherto to have escaped notice. Yet, that it is worthy of consideration, is attested by Seneca's utterance:[1]Mira in quibusdam rebus verborum proprietas est, et consuetudo sermonis antiqui quaedam efficacissimis notis signat. Lichtenberg too says: "If one thinks much oneself, one finds a good deal of wisdom deposited in language. It is hardly likely that we have laid it all there ourselves, but rather that a great deal of wisdom really lies there."

In many, perhaps in all, languages, the action even of those bodies which are without intellect, nay of inanimate bodies, is expressed by the words "to will," so that the existence of a will in these bodies is thus taken for granted; but they are never credited with a faculty for knowing, representing, perceiving or thinking: I know of no expression which conveys this.

Seneca, when speaking of lightning shot down from heaven, says:[2] "In his, ignibus accidit, quod arboribus: quarum cacumina, si tenera sunt, ita deorsum trahi possunt, ut etiam terram attingant; sed quum permiseris, in locum suum exsilient. Itaque non est quod eum spectes cujusque rei habitum, qui illi non ex voluntate est. Si ignem permittis ire quo velit, caelum repetet."[3] In a more general sense Pliny says: nec quaerenda in ulla parte naturae ratio, sed voluntas.[4] Nor do we find Greek less fertile in instances. Aristotle, when explaining gravity, says: μικρὸν μὲν μόριον τῆς γῆς, ἐὰν μετεωρισθὲν ἀφεθῇ, φέρεται, καὶ μένειν οὐκ ἐθέλει (parva quaedam terrae pars, si elevata dimittitur, fertur, neque vult manere).[5] And: Δεῖ δὲ ἕκαστον λέγειν τοιοῦτον εἶναι, ὃ φύσει βούλεται εἶναι, καὶ ὃ ὑπάρχει, ἀλλὰ μὴ ὃ βίᾳ καὶ παρὰ φύσιν (unumquodque autem tale dicere oportet, quale naturâ suâ esse vult, et quod est; sed non id quod violentiâ et præter naturam est).[6] Of great and more than merely linguistic importance is what Aristotle says in his Ethica magna,[7] where not only animals, but inanimate beings (fire striving upwards and earth downwards) are explicitly in question, and he asserts that they may be obliged to do something contrary to their nature or their will: παρὰ φύσιν τι, ἢ παρ' ἃ βούλονται ποιεῖν,[8]—and therefore rightly places παρ' ἃ βούλονται as a paraphrase of παρὰ φύσιν.—Anacreon, in his 29th Ode, εἰς Βάθυλλον, in ordering the portrait of his lady-love, says of her hair: Eλικας δ' ἐλευθέρους μοι πλοκάμων, ἄτακτα συνθείς, ἄφες, ὡς θέλωσι, κεῖσθαι (capillorum cirros incomposite jungens, sine utut volunt jacere).[9] In German, Bürger says: "hinab will der Bach, nicht hinan" (the brook will go downwards, not upwards). In daily life we constantly hear: "the water boils, it will run over,"—"the glass will break,"—"the ladder will not stand;"—"le feu ne veut pas brûler."—"La corde, une fois tordue, veut toujours se retordre."—In English, the verb "to will" THE WILL IN NATURE.

is even the auxiliary of the future of all the other verbs, thus expressing the notion, that there lies a will at the bottom of every action. In English moreover, the endeavours of all inanimate and unconscious things, are expressly designated by the word "want," which denotes every sort of human desire or endeavour: "the water wants to get out," "the steam wants to make itself way through [Schopenhauer's English]." In Italian too we have "vuol piovere [it will rain];" "quest' orologio non vuol andare [this clock will not go]." The conception of willing is besides so deeply rooted in this last language, that it seems to indicate everything that is requisite or necessary: "vi vuol un contrapeso [it wants a counterweight];" "vi vuol pazienza [it wants patience]."

A very striking instance of this is to be found even in Chinese, a language which differs fundamentally from all those belonging to the Sanskrit family. It is in the commentary to the Y-King [I Ching], 1 accurately rendered by Pater Regis as follows: "Yang, seu materia caelestis, vult rursus ingredi vel (ut verbis doctoris Tching–tse utar) vult rursus esse in superiore loco; scilicet illius naturae ratio ita fert seu innata lex [The Yang, or celestial substance, wants to return to heaven, or (to use the words of the teacher Ching–tse) wants to occupy again a superior place, because its nature necessarily entails this or a law inherent in it]."

The following passage from [Justus] Liebig has decidedly much more than a linguistic signification, for it expresses an intimate feeling and comprehension of the way in which a chemical process takes place. "Aldehyde arises, which with the same avidity as sulphurous acid, combines directly with oxygen to form, acetic acid." And again: 3 "Aldehyde, which absorbs oxygen from the air with great avidity." As Liebig uses this expression twice in speaking of the same phenomenon, it can hardly be by chance, but rather because it was the only adequate expression for the thing. 4

1 Y-King, edited by . J. Mohl, Vol. I, p. 341.

2 Liebig, Die Chemie in ihrer Anwendung auf Agrikultur, p. 394.

3 Ibid. Die Chemie in Anwendung auf Physiologie.

4 French chemists likewise say: "Il est évident que les métaux ne sont pas tous également avides d oxygène" . . . . " La difficulté de la réduction devait correspondre nécessairement à une avidité fort grande du métal pur pour l'oxygène" [It is evident that metals are not

  1. Seneca, "Epist." 81.
  2. Ibid. "Quaest. nat." ii. 24.
  3. "Here it is the same with fire as with trees shose supple tops can be drawn down so far that they even touch the ground. But when you release them, they will spring up into their place. Therefore, it is inappropriate to have in mind the case of something that position which is not in accordance with its will. If you allow fire to go whither it will, it will soar to heaven." (Wikisource contributor note)
  4. Plin. "Hist. nat." 37, 15.
    "Not reason, but will, is to be sought in any part of nature." (Wikisource contributor note)
  5. Aristot. "De Coelo." ii. c. 13, "If a small particle of earth is lifted and let loose, it is carried away and will not rest." [Tr.'s add.]
  6. Ibid. c. 14, "But each thing ought to be named as it wills to be and really is according to its nature, not as it is by force and contrary to its nature." [Tr.'s add.]
  7. Aristot. "Ethica Mag." i. c. 14.
  8. "To do something contrary to their nature or to what they will or want." (Wikisource contributor note)
  9. "Let the freely curling locks fall unarranged as they will [like]." [Tr.'s add.]