Henry Morton Stanley’s Unbreakable Will

The explorer of Dr. Livingstone-fame provides a classic character study of how willpower works

Henry Morton Stanley, photographed in 1872 at age 31, is best known for his epic search for the missionary David Livingstone, whom he finally encountered in 1871 in present-day Tanzania. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / Corbis)
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Vastly exaggerating his own severity and the violence of his African expeditions—partly to sound tougher, partly to sell newspapers and books—Stanley ended up with a reputation as the harshest explorer of his age, when in fact he was unusually humane toward Africans, even by comparison with the gentle Livingstone, as Jeal demonstrates. Stanley spoke Swahili fluently and established lifelong bonds with African companions. He severely disciplined white officers who mistreated blacks, and he continually restrained his men from violence and other crimes against local villagers. While he did sometimes get in fights when negotiations and gifts failed, the image of Stanley shooting his way across Africa was a myth. The secret to his success lay not in the battles he described so vividly but in two principles that Stanley himself articulated after his last expedition: “I have learnt by actual stress of imminent danger, in the first place, that self-control is more indispensable than gunpowder, and, in the second place, that persistent self-control under the provocation of African travel is impossible without real, heartfelt sympathy for the natives with whom one has to deal.”

As Stanley realized, self-control is ultimately about much more than the self. Willpower enables us to get along with others by overriding impulses based on selfish short-term interests. Throughout history, the most common way to redirect people away from selfish behavior has been through religious teachings and commandments, and these remain an effective strategy for self-control. But what if, like Stanley, you’re not a believer? After losing his faith in God and religion at an early age (a loss he attributed to the slaughter he witnessed in the American Civil War), he faced a question that vexed other Victorians: How can people remain moral without the restraints of religion? Many prominent nonbelievers, like Stanley, responded by paying lip service to religion while also looking for secular ways to inculcate a sense of “duty.” During the awful trek through the Ituri jungle, he exhorted the men by quoting one of his favorite couplets, from Tennyson’s “Ode on the Death of the Duke of Wellington”:

Not once or twice in our fair island-story,
The path of duty was the way to glory.

Stanley’s men didn’t always appreciate his efforts—the Tennyson lines got very old for some of them—but his approach embodied an acknowledged principle of self-control: Focus on lofty thoughts.

This strategy was tested at New York University by researchers including Kentaro Fujita and Yaacov Trope. They found that self-control improved among people who were encouraged to think in high-level terms (Why do you maintain good health?), and got worse among those who thought in lower-level terms (How do you maintain good health?). After engaging high-level thinking, people were more likely to pass up a quick reward for something better in the future. When asked to squeeze a handgrip—a measure of physical endurance—they could hold on longer. The results showed that a narrow, concrete, here-and-now focus works against self-control, whereas a broad, abstract, long-term focus supports it. That’s one reason religious people score relatively high in measures of self-control, and nonreligious people like Stanley can benefit by other kinds of transcendent thoughts and enduring ideals.

Stanley, who always combined his ambitions for personal glory with a desire to be “good,” found his calling along with Livingstone when he saw firsthand the devastation wrought by the expanding network of Arab and East African slave traders. From then on, he considered it a mission to end the slave trade.

What sustained Stanley through the jungle, and through the rejections from his family and his fiancée and the British establishment, was his stated belief that he was engaged in a “sacred task.” By modern standards, he can seem bombastic. But he was sincere. “I was not sent into the world to be happy,” he wrote. “I was sent for a special work.” During his descent of the Congo River, when he was despondent over the drowning of two close companions, when he was close to starving himself, he consoled himself with the loftiest thought he could summon: “This poor body of mine has suffered terribly . . . it has been degraded, pained, wearied & sickened, and has well nigh sunk under the task imposed on it; but this was but a small portion of myself. For my real self lay darkly encased, & was ever too haughty & soaring for such miserable environments as the body that encumbered it daily.”

Was Stanley, in his moment of despair, succumbing to religion and imagining himself with a soul? Maybe. But given his lifelong struggles, given all his stratagems to conserve his powers in the wilderness, it seems likely that he had something more secular in mind. His “real self,” as the Breaker of Rocks saw it, was his will.

Adapted from Willpower, by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney. Published by arrangement with the Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group USA. © Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney.


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