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Why Hermann Hesse Saw ‘Willfulness’ as the Virtue Above All Others

The great German-Swiss poet Herman Hesse, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1946, argued it is a shame willfulness is such an unpopular virtue.

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Editor’s note: This article—an excerpt from Nobel Prize-winning poet Hermann Hesse‘s Eigensinn macht Spaß, Individuation und Anpassungwas translated from its original German by Nils Symanczyk. The German Suhrkamp publishing house, which manages the rights of Herman Hesse’s (1877-1962) written legacy, has confirmed that the rights to this essay, which has gone largely unnoticed since its original publication, have not yet been claimed and granted the translator permission to publish it.

Translated excerpt from: Hermann Hesse, Eigensinn macht Spaß. Individuation und Anpassung. Ein Lesebuch, pages 89-96, compiled by Volker Michels. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1986. All rights reserved by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin.

There is one virtue, one alone, which I truly love. It is called willfulness. None of the other virtues we read about in books and that are talked about by professors I hold in such high regard. Yet, all those many virtues that man has invented for himself could be subsumed under a single name. Virtue is obedience. This begs the question: whom does one obey, as even the willful must obey. All other cherished and praised virtues however are obedience to laws, which are given by men. It is willfulness alone, that does not concern itself with those laws. He who is willful, subjects himself to a different law, a singular and holy one, which is the law within, i.e. the will to that which is one’s own.

It is a great pity that willfulness is so unpopular! Does it have any reputation at all? Far from it! It is even seen as a vice, or at any rate as a sign of degeneracy. Its beautiful name is only evoked when others feel disturbed by it or when it elicits hatred. (Incidentally, true virtues always cause disturbance and hatred, see Socrates, Jesus, Giordano Bruno, and all others imbued with willfulness.) Wherever people are at least somewhat accepting of willfulness as a virtue or else as a pretty trinket, its raw name is attenuated, whenever possible. “Character” or “personality” do not sound as harsh and almost vicious as “willfulness.” They have a more acceptable ring to them. One might even put up with “originality,” albeit only that of tolerated misfits, artists, and other oddballs. In art, where willfulness cannot cause any noticeable harm to wealth and society, it is even welcomed under the guise of originality. Thus, when embodied by artists, willfulness is seen as something desirable and will be compensated well. Apart from that, however, in everyday language, “character” or “personality” is understood as something rather tricky—namely as a trait that exists and can be shown and adorned, but one that will submit to external laws whenever push comes to shove. A character is a man who has any number of apprehensions and opinions he does not live by. Only very subtly and rarely will he imply that he thinks differently and has other opinions. In the eyes of the living, this placid and vain form of character already constitutes virtue. Yet, if someone has those apprehensions and really lives by them, he will not be recognized as a man of “character” but merely be called “willful.” But let us take the word literally for a moment! What does “willfulness” mean? That which has its own will, does it not?

Each and every single thing on earth has its own will. Each rock, blade of grass, flower, bush and animal grows, lives, acts and feels merely according to its own will, which is why the world is good, abundant, and beautiful. Flowers and fruit, oak and birch trees, horses and chickens, tin and iron, gold and coal all exist merely because even the smallest thing in the universe carries within itself its own will, its own law, which it follows securely and unwaveringly.

There are only two poor and damned creatures on earth that are barred from following this everlasting call to be, grow, live, and die in accordance with their innate willfulness. Only man and his domesticated pet are condemned not to follow the call to life and growth, but rather to adhere to some man-made laws that are broken and changed time and again. The most peculiar thing about it is this: those few who disregard these arbitrary laws in order to follow their own, natural laws indeed, most of them were condemned and stoned; later though, it was they in particular, who were forever revered as heroes and redeemers. That society which praises and demands obedience to their arbitrary laws as the highest virtue amongst the living, that same society adds especially those to their pantheon, who bid defiance to these demands and would rather lose their lives than betray their willfulness.

“Tragedy,” that wonderfully sublime, mystical and holy word, which has sprung from the shivers of a youthful, mythical humanity and which every reporter misuses so frivolously on a daily basis, this “tragedy” means nothing else than the fate of the hero, who, contrary to conventional law, perishes by following his own star. It is the only way through which humanity is granted an insight into its innate willfulness time and again. For it is the tragic hero, the willful individual, who repeatedly shows the millions of commoners and cowards that disobedience to manmade laws is not mere whim, but rather adherence to a much higher, much holier law. In other words: humanity’s herd mentality, above all, demands everyone’s assimilation and subordination— its highest honors however are not reserved for the indulgent, coward, or acquiescent but rather for the willful and heroic.

Just as much as reporters misuse language when they call every accident at a factory “tragic” (which for those clowns is synonymous with the word “regrettable”), it is equally wrong to speak colloquially of the “heroic death” of all those unfortunate, slaughtered soldiers. It is one of those favorite words sentimentalists like to use, particularly the ones who evaded conscription. The soldiers who have died in battle are certainly worthy of our highest compassion. They have often performed under unimaginable circumstances, have suffered tremendously and in the end have paid with their lives. But this does not make them heroes any more than a private, who gets killed by a bullet while his officer is yelling at him like at a dog. The notion of entire masses, of millions of heroes by itself is preposterous.

“Heroic” is not the obedient, well-behaved citizen, carrying out his duties. Heroic can only be the individual who has turned his own will—his precious, natural willfulness—into his fate. Novalis, one of deepest and least known German thinkers, said fate and temperament are [different] names for the same concept.

If most of humanity had such courage and willfulness, the world would be a different place. Our salaried teachers (the ones who so eagerly praise yesterday’s heroes) will say that [in such a state] things would get out of hand. For this claim they neither have nor need proof. The truth of the matter is, that life would be richer and higher amongst people who follow their inner laws and will autonomously. In their world, some cusses and face slaps, which nowadays dignified judges must busy themselves with, would perhaps go unpunished. Likewise, the occasional homicide would occur—yet, does this not even happen today, with all the laws and punishments in place? However, some of the awful, unbelievably sad and insane things we see thriving in our well-structured world today would then be unfamiliar and impossible—as for instance war between peoples.

Now I hear the authorities say: “you preach revolution.”

Yet another fallacy, made possible solely through herd mentality. I preach willfulness, not upheaval. How could I wish for revolution? Revolution, like war, is nothing but the continuation of politics by other means. On the contrary, the individual who has once himself felt the courage and has heard the call to his own fate, he won’t care in the slightest about politics anymore, be it monarchical or democratic, revolutionary or conservative! He is concerned with something else. His willfulness, like that […] of the blade of grass, is aimed at nothing other than his own growth. “Egotism,” if you will, albeit a kind of egotism that is quite unlike that of the penny pincher or megalomaniac!

The willful individual I have in mind does neither seek money nor power. He does not disdain these things because he is a prig or resigning atheist—on the contrary! Yet money and power and all the things for the sake of which people torment and even shoot each other are of little value to one who has come to his own. For he upholds only that mystical force within himself, which is the source for his life and growth. This force cannot be sustained, furthered, or deepened by money and the like, since money and power are inventions of distrust. He who distrusts the life force within himself and is therefore lacking it, must compensate for it with a substitute, like money. He who trusts himself and does not wish for anything but for his fate to manifest within himself will downgrade these overrated and grossly overpriced substitutes to subordinate tools. For him, their possession and use might be expedient, but never essential.

Oh, how I cherish this virtue named willfulness! Once one has recognized and discovered within himself some of that virtue, all the other virtues become curiously dubious.

Take for example patriotism. I do not mind it per se—it means the individual is superseded by a larger complex. However, patriotism is only really seen as a virtue in times of warfare, that naïve and ridiculously inadequate means to continue with politics. After all, isn’t the soldier who kills his enemies seen as a greater patriot than the farmer who cultivates his land as well as he can? For the latter draws personal benefits from it. And strangely enough, our contrived morality questions those virtues that benefit its bearer! But why is that? It is because we are so used to gaining benefits at the expense of others and because our mistrust causes us to desire what others have.

The tribal chief believes the life force of the enemies he killed is passed on to himself. Is this not the same deprived slave mentality [sic] underlying all warfare, all rivalry, all mistrust between humans? Nay, we would be better off equating the farmer with the soldier! If we could only dispense with the superstition that one man’s gain is another man’s loss.

“Well…” I hear the teacher say: “all of this sounds lovely, however please consider the matter objectively from a national economic viewpoint. The global economic output is…“

To which I answer, “No thanks. The national economic viewpoint is by no means objective, it is a pair of glasses, through which one can look with quite different results. For instance, before the war, it could be proven that a world war was impossible or could otherwise not last for very long. Today the opposite can be proven, also using a national economic viewpoint. Nay, let us for once conceive realities rather than these fantasies!”

These “viewpoints” are of no use however they may be called, and whomever they might be professed by. They are all misleading. We are neither calculating machines nor any other type of mechanism. We are human beings. And for a human being there is only one natural viewpoint, only one natural measure. It is that of the willful. For him, there are no fates of capitalism or socialism, no England, no America. The only living thing beating in his chest is that deep and inevitable law, which causes endless struggle to the affluent, but which means fate and sanctity to the willful.

  • Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was a German-Swiss novelist, poet, and painter. His most popular works include Demian, Steppenwolf, and The Glass Bead Game, each of which explores an individual's search for self-knowledge and spirituality. In 1946, Hesse received the Nobel Prize in Literature.