Resistance is the true work

Copyright © 1999 by Christopher L. Walton

Philocrites : Liberal religion : Essays | 1.18.03

"Difficulty is the element, and resistance the true work of a man."

— William Ellery Channing

In his celebrated address "Self-Culture" (1838), William Ellery Channing locates the grandeur of human nature in each individual's potential for growth. Self-culture is "the care which every man owes to himself, to the unfolding and perfecting of his nature" (226). Grandeur of character is a quality of the cultivated self, expressed not in the extent of one's practical influence, but in a personal sense of possibility. Channing calls this sense "force of soul" (224). Channing admits that "the true greatness of human life is almost wholly out of sight" (225): force of soul is a quality of response to the world, but it is not measurable or quantifiable. Although the quality of a person's character does bear practical fruit in Channing's view, he defines character primarily in spiritual, moral, and aesthetic terms. The impulse to grow must come from within the individual — from human nature itself. The external world provides only the conditions for growth. The external world consists of circumstances that resist, limit, or threaten self-culture. Self-culture, on the other hand, involves the cultivation of internal capacities for growth and expansion. The self and the world, as Channing defines them, exist in a state of conflict. The grandeur of self-culture, the glory of the individual, is in fact the quality of a person's response to those circumstances of life that militate against self-culture. In this paper, I identify the importance of conflict to Channing's doctrine of self-culture. Looking first at Channing's idea of self-culture and then at his discussion of the relationship of difficulty and resistance, we shall see that the quality of growth that characterizes self-culture is the "force of soul" expressed in each person's response to elemental difficulty.

Self-culture is the work of "unfolding and perfecting" one's human nature (226). Channing identifies human perfectibility — or human improvability — as an innate capacity of the human being. At the beginning of the address, Channing writes that human nature "is the image of God, the image even of his infinity, for no limits can be set to its unfolding" (223). Channing's emphasis on the infinite unfolding of God is significant in several respects. First, Channing describes human nature as the image of God without referring to a doctrine of the fall. For Channing, human beings are created in God's image and continue to reflect the image of God. There is no essential corruption of this original human nature. Second, Channing identifies God's image in the essence of human nature, not in a particular kind of human action or relationship. Channing's idea of human perfectibility represents a substantial view of the doctrine of the image of God rather than a functional or relational view.1 In other words, human beings are perfectible by virtue of being human, and not by virtue of adopting particular tasks or entering special relationships. Third, Channing identifies a direct analogy between God's infinity and human growth: God's infinite unfolding is the divine characteristic apparent in human nature. As God is innately unlimited, so human beings are unlimited. People are inherently and infinitely improvable. Self-culture is the work of acting on this innate capacity to perfect the self.

Human perfectibility is not automatic, however. Although Channing does not identify innate limitations to human nature in a doctrine of the fall, he does identify circumstances in human life that make self-culture difficult. Some of these circumstances are external. Channing is especially critical of social arrangements that treat human beings as means rather than ends (see especially 236). But even when education, social and economic pressure, or brute force limit human beings to a life of manual labor, Channing observes that the mind "cannot be shut up" in manual labor (236). Other faculties continue to seek expression. Not all limitations on self-culture are imposed, however. Some of the circumstances that limit self-culture are internal. Channing observes that when most people "happen to cast a glance inward, they see there only a dark, vague chaos." Unable to recognize their own nature, "multitudes live and die as truly strangers to themselves, as to countries of which they have heard the name, but which human foot has never trodden" (227). Not knowing their true nature or the powers they possess for cultivating that nature, most human beings limit their own growth. Channing suggests that internal limitations pose a greater threat to self-culture than external limitations. The most adverse external conditions cannot finally deter a resolute soul, but a person may limit her own self-culture in even the most favorable external conditions. "If you will, you can rise," he writes. "No power in society, no hardship in your condition can depress you, keep you down, in knowledge, power, virtue, influence, but by your own consent" (264). Human nature, in other words, includes a potent capacity for self-culture limited only by constraints that each person accepts as limitations. Human beings are "fallen" only to the extent that they fail to recognize their own nature. No condition or difficulty can finally overwhelm human nature unless a person abandons hope of improvement.

The process of self-culture therefore involves both external and internal difficulties. The conflict Channing identifies in "Self-Culture" is not merely a conflict of the self with the world. Channing points as well to a conflict of the self with itself. Midway through "Self-Culture," Channing identifies the "one circumstance attending all conditions of life" that provides the most useful occasion for self-culture:

Every condition, be it what it may, has hardships, hazards, pains. We try to escape them; we pine for a sheltered lot, for a smooth path, for cheering friends, and unbroken success. But Providence ordains storms, disasters, hostilities, sufferings; and the great question, whether we shall live to any purpose or not, whether we shall grow strong in mind and heart, or be weak and pitiable, depends on nothing so much as on our use of these adverse circumstances Difficulty is the element, and resistance the true work of a man. (247)

Every condition of life presents a choice to grow or not to grow. Self-culture is a process of responding to adverse circumstances — Channing calls them "outward evils" (247) — by growing or changing. Human beings may choose not to grow, however, by avoiding the conflict of self-culture.

Resistance is the true work of the human being because it requires the cultivation of internal resources in response to external conditions. A person intent on self-culture resists her own desire to avoid conflict with herself and with the world. Channing continues:

Self-culture never goes on so fast, as when embarrassed circumstances, the opposition of men or the elements, unexpected changes of the times, or other forms of suffering, instead of disheartening, throw us on our inward resources, turn us for strength to God, clear up to us the great purpose of life, and inspire calm resolution. No greatness or goodness is worth much, unless tried in these fires. (247)

The language of trial, Providential misfortune, outward evils, and external opposition reveals the religious quality of Channing's idea of self-culture. Self-culture is the moral and religious task for which God has ordained the difficulties of life. "Calm resolution," a religious confidence, accompanies the human being who engages in the work of resistance. The conflict of self-culture is never futile, in Channing's view, but is always accompanied by divine favor and new growth.

As a person recognizes the possibility for growth in her responses to life's difficulties, she cultivates a divinely-given and innately-human power that calms and strengthens the self. Channing calls this power "force of soul." Channing identifies "force of soul" as "the force of thought, moral principle, and love" (224). These three aspects of the force of soul enable a human being to recognize what is possible, what is to be done, and what is the ultimate source and end of the soul. Channing identifies thought as the "self-searching power" that discerns "not only what we already are, but what we may become" (226-227). Thought recognizes "germs and promises of a growth to which no bounds can be set" (227). Channing identifies moral principle with the still-nobler "self-forming power." The human capacity to act on, determine, and form the self provides "the ground of human responsibility" (227). A person not only recognizes that things might be different, but recognizes as well that she may effect change by acting on herself. Thought and moral principle are the first two aspects of the force of soul.

Channing does not discuss the power of love separately, but two primary features of this final aspect of the force of soul are worth mentioning. Love of other beings grows out of the moral recognition of "Impartial, Disinterested, Universal" Duty (228). A more fully-cultivated moral sense issues in the religious sense, which is also "disinterested" but seeks God in whom "the attributes of Impartial Justice and Universal Love" are perfectly manifest (229). Force of soul is the recognition that possibility is real for the self; that the self possesses by its nature the powers of realizing its possibilities; and that the source and perfection of its nature is to be found in God.

"Difficulty is the element, and resistance the true work of a man." Channing identifies a form of conflict at the heart of his doctrine of human perfectibility. External conditions and internal reluctance limit human growth, but in human nature is a power capable of resisting external and internal limitations. This power — force of soul — grows and expands the human being's moral, intellectual, religious, social, practical, aesthetic, and expressive powers. Force of soul is rooted in human nature, which is made in the image of an infinite and unfolding God. Difficulty is elemental: without it, the human being would not turn inward for the resources available in human nature. Difficulty characterizes every condition of life, but force of soul provides an innate power capable of responding to every difficulty. Channing's optimistic doctrine of human nature locates a divine capacity in every human being in every condition: to resist the external difficulties of life by cultivating the internal resources of human nature, each person grows in what Channing elsewhere calls "likeness to God."


Written for "The American Tradition of Religious Thought and Philosophy," Professors Richard Niebuhr and David Lamberth, Harvard Divinity School, March 24, 1999.
1. The three terms are provided by the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. One could argue that Channing's view is both substantial and functional, since Channing identifies the defining quality of human nature as an active quality — but a functional view of the image of God would identify God's image in particular actions, not in a quality that characterizes the person acting. back

Works Cited

William Ellery Channing, "Self-Culture, An Address Introductory to the Franklin Lectures, Delivered at Boston, Sept., 1838." In William Ellery Channing: Selected Writings, ed. by David Robinson. Sources of American Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1985: 221-266.
Donald K. McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms. Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1996.

Return to Essays
Philocrites | Copyright © 1999, 2001 by Christopher L. Walton