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Willpower is an essential component of humanity and being human.

But for many


people, that was the only thing that held them together despite the constant destruction that life
tried to bring upon these people. For many, willpower is making a decision against temptation
such as deciding to eat vegetables instead of cake or exercising instead of binge-watching
Netflix. I had to muster up willpower in order to complete this essay when I could have spent my
free time on myself. Others don’t have the luxury of making that choice. Sadly in the history of
the United States, slavery was a major aspect of the country that most regret while some
continue to embrace. It is twisted how its elements are present to this day, but progress is being
made. One key thing that the slaves had to endure was a test of willpower. In Toni Morrison’s
Beloved, Sethe is constantly fighting with her life through her willpower and even committed
horrible actions due to said willpower. Many slaves faced the same conundrum: To die a slave,
or to take one’s own life instead of a life of bondage.
A small excerpt from the transcript of Stuff You Should Know, a podcast that compiles
research into small sessions of information for entertainment and teaching, gives a small insight
to what willpower is and how it is interpreted.

“Chuck Bryant: Yeah. So we're at odds with ourselves with our very existence.”

“Chuck Bryant: Yeah. And I think most people relate willpower to things like eating or going to
the gym or indulging in sexual proclivities and things like that, but I think it's broader than that in
general. I think it's the will to - like Plato said, to strive to I guess do the right thing -

Josh Clark: Yeah.

Chuck Bryant: - by yourself, by others, by society at large.

Josh Clark: Right. And I guess also how often you come up against that - how often you have to
exercise willpower because you just hit it on the head. Willpower is the act of making a
decision.” 1

Based on this section, willpower is based on decisions that people make on judgement and
personal benefit. This relates to Beloved because Sethe knew that slavery was no life at all and
that death would be better than remaining a slave. She killed her own daughter because she
believed it was the right thing to do. Despite it being a horrendous action, she thought that she
had no other choice and acted on it without further assessing the situation. Beloved is based on
the events of Margaret Garner and how she had killed her child and attempted to kill her other
children instead of returning them to slavery. Morrison withheld the fact that Graner was
technically free, but returned to the slave states and reinstituted her slave condition. If Garner
had not gone back to the states, she would not have killed her child and the framework for the
abolitionist movement may not have been as effective.

“A correctly operating soul requires the highest part, reason, to control the lowest part,
appetite, with assistance from the will.”2 Plato believed that there were three parts to the soul:
reason, will and appetite. Sethe’s actions encapsulated all pieces of plato’s concepts. She
desires a life worth living that her children should not be enslaved like her. She believes that
death would be better than bondage in the case of her children. And finally she has the will to
take action to ensure that they are not kept in chains. By killing her daughter, she appealed to
the three components of a just soul. The murder was to spare the child of a life filled with
torture, dehumanization, and servitude. Slaveowners will do everything in their power to destroy
the slaves’ humanity in order to have more control over them and to ensure that they don’t
rebel. Because of this, the slaves had to have a strong enough willpower to continue to live and
to fight for their lives. What if the roles were reversed? Would the Africans be as ruthless as the
Americans were? Would the Americans have enough willpower to survive? The white owners
seemed to be immensely cruel and the national archives states a plausible reason; “It became a
matter of self-preservation for slave owners to mete out formal executions and brutalisation for
even the most trivial of offences. Without the complicity of slaves, which would not have
occurred without violence, it is highly unlikely that there would have been a slavery system at
all, least of all one which lasted for such a long period of time. It became necessary then for
slave owners to use this violence as a way of assuring and maintaining their own position. The
irony that those who appear to possess ultimate power were reliant completely on those who
they were in charge of cannot be missed.“3 Beloved encapsulates the soul and its sense of
morality to emphasize Sethe’s (Margaret Garner) action and how it was influenced by willpower.
The Preamble of the Constitution boasts about domestic tranquility and justice4, while protecting
slavery as it is not mentioned nor denied, so how free is the United States if a mother must
murder her child to protect them?

Works Cited
2
Human Intelligence: Plato, www.intelltheory.com/plato.shtml.
1
“How Willpower Works.” Stuff You Should Know, 7 Feb. 2013,

www.stuffyoushouldknow.com/podcasts/willpower-works.htm.
4
“Slavery, the Constitution, and a Lasting Legacy.” Explore History At Our House, 28 Dec.

2018, www.montpelier.org/learn/slavery-constitution-lasting-legacy.
3
"Slave Power: The Relationship between Slave and Slave Owner." Slave Power: The

Relationship between Slave and Slave Owner.

http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/education/how-powerful-essay.pdf.