[WilliamJames] Lectures 4-5, first chunk

Eric Purdy epurdy at uchicago.edu
Sun Feb 9 23:08:11 CST 2014


IF we were to ask the question: 'What is human life's chief concern?' one
of the answers we should receive would be: 'It is happiness.' How to gain,
how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times
the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure.
The hedonistic school in ethics deduces the moral life wholly from the
experiences of happiness and unhappiness which different kinds of conduct
bring; and, even more in the religious life than in the moral life,
happiness and unhappiness seem to be the poles round which the interest
revolves. We need not go so far as to say with the author whom I lately
quoted that any persistent enthusiasm is, as such, religion, nor need we
call mere laughter a religious exercise; but we must admit that any
persistent enjoyment may *produce* the sort of religion which consists in a
grateful admiration of the gift of so happy an existence; and we must also
acknowledge that the more complex ways of experiencing religion are new
manners of producing happiness, wonderful inner paths to a supernatural
kind of happiness, when the first gift of natural existence is unhappy, as
it so often proves itself to be.

With such relations between religion and happiness, it is perhaps not
surprising that men come to regard the happiness which a religious belief
affords as a proof of its truth. If a creed makes a man feel happy, he
almost inevitably adopts it. Such a belief ought to be true; therefore it
is true--such, rightly or wrongly, is one of the 'immediate inferences' of
the religious logic used by ordinary men.
"The near presence of God's spirit," says a German
writer,[1]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-1>"may
be experienced in its reality--indeed *only* experienced. And the mark by
which the spirit's existence and nearness are made irrefutably clear to
those who have ever had the experience is the utterly incomparable *feeling
of happiness* which is connected with the nearness, and which is therefore
not only a possible and altogether proper feeling for us to have here
below, but is the best and most indispensable proof of God's reality. No
other proof is equally convincing, and therefore happiness is the point
from which every efficacious new theology should start."

In the hour immediately before us, I shall invite you to consider the
simpler kinds of religious happiness, leaving the more complex sorts to be
treated on a later day.

In many persons, happiness is congenital and irreclaimable. 'Cosmic
emotion' inevitably takes in them the form of enthusiasm and freedom. I
speak not only of those who are animally happy. I mean those who, when
unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it,
as if it were something mean and wrong. We find such persons in every age,
passionately flinging themselves upon their sense of the goodness of life,
in spite of the hardships of their own condition, and in spite of the
sinister theologies into which they may be born. From the outset their
religion is one of union with the divine. The heretics who went before the
reformation are lavishly accused by the church writers of antinomian
practices, just as the first Christians were accused of indulgence in
orgies by the Romans. It is probable that there never has been a century in
which the deliberate refusal to think ill of life has not been idealized by
a sufficient number of persons to form sects, open or secret, who claimed
all natural things to be permitted. Saint Augustine's maxim, *Dilige et
quod vis fac*,--if you but love [God], you may do as you incline,--is morally
one of the profoundest of observations, yet it is pregnant, for such
persons, with passports beyond the bounds of conventional morality.
According to their characters they have been refined or gross; but their
belief has been at all times systematic enough to constitute a definite
religious attitude. God was for them a giver of freedom, and the sting of
evil was overcome. Saint Francis and his immediate disciples were, on the
whole, of this company of spirits, of which there are of course infinite
varieties. Rousseau in the earlier years of his writing, Diderot, B. de
Saint Pierre, and many of the leaders of the eighteenth century
anti-christian movement were of this optimistic type. They owed their
influence to a certain authoritativeness in their feeling that Nature, if
you will only trust her sufficiently, is absolutely good.

It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine
than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint,
whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting
innocencies, than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or
God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset,
needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.

"God has two families of children on this earth," says Francis W. Newman,
[2]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-2>"the
*once-born* and the *twice-born*," and the once-born he describes as
follows: "They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate;
but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and
Kind, Merciful as well as Pure. The same characters generally have no
metaphysical tendencies: they do not look back into themselves. Hence they
are not distressed by their own imperfections: yet it would be absurd to
call them self-righteous; for they hardly think of themselves *at all*.
This childlike quality of their nature makes the opening of religion very
happy to them: for they no more shrink from God, than a child from an
emperor, before whom the parent trembles: in fact, they have no vivid
conception of *any* of the qualities in which the severer Majesty of God
consists.[3]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-3>He
is to them the impersonation of Kindness and Beauty. They read his
character, not in the disordered world of man, but in romantic and
harmonious nature. Of human sin they know perhaps little in their own
hearts and not very much in the world; and human suffering does but melt
them to tenderness. Thus, when they approach God, no inward disturbance
ensues; and without being as yet spiritual, they have a certain complacency
and perhaps romantic sense of excitement in their simple worship."

In the Romish Church such characters find a more congenial soil to grow in
than in Protestantism, whose fashions of feeling have been set by minds of
a decidedly pessimistic order. But even in Protestantism they have been
abundant enough; and in its recent 'liberal' developments of Unitarianism
and latitudinarianism generally, minds of this order have played and still
are playing leading and constructive parts.
Emerson<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Ralph_Waldo_Emerson>himself
is an admirable example. Theodore
Parker <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Theodore_Parker> is
another,--here are a couple of characteristic passages from Parker's
correspondence.[4]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-4>

"Orthodox scholars say: 'In the heathen classics you find no consciousness
of sin.' It is very true--God be thanked for it. They were conscious of
wrath, of cruelty, avarice, drunkenness, lust, sloth, cowardice, and other
actual vices, and struggled and got rid of the deformities, but they were
not conscious of 'enmity against God,' and didn't sit down and whine and
groan against non-existent evil. I have done wrong things enough in my
life, and do them now; I miss the mark, draw bow, and try again. But I am
not conscious of hating God, or man, or right, or love, and I know there is
much 'health in me'; and in my body, even now, there dwelleth many a good
thing, spite of consumption and Saint Paul." In another letter Parker
writes: "I have swum in clear sweet waters all my days; and if sometimes
they were a little cold, and the stream ran adverse and something rough, it
was never too strong to be breasted and swum through. From the days of
earliest boyhood, when I went stumbling through the grass, ... up to the
gray-bearded manhood of this time, there is none but has left me honey in
the hive of memory that I now feed on for present delight. When I recall
the years ... I am filled with a sense of sweetness and wonder that such
little things can make a mortal so exceedingly rich. But I must confess
that the chiefest of all my delights is still the religious."

Another good expression of the 'once-born' type of consciousness,
developing straight and natural, with no element of morbid compunction or
crisis, is contained in the answer of Dr. Edward Everett
Hale<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Edward_Everett_Hale>,
the eminent Unitarian preacher and writer, to one of Dr.
Starbuck<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Edwin_Diller_Starbuck>'s
circulars. I quote a part of it:--

"I observe, with profound regret, the religious struggles which come into
many biographies, as if almost essential to the formation of the hero. I
ought to speak of these, to say that any man has an advantage, not to be
estimated, who is born, as I was, into a family where the religion is
simple and rational; who is trained in the theory of such a religion, so
that he never knows, for an hour, what these religious or irreligious
struggles are. I always knew God loved me, and I was always grateful to him
for the world he placed me in. I always liked to tell him so, and was
always glad to receive his suggestions to me. ... I can remember perfectly
that when I was coming to manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the
time had a deal to say about the young men and maidens who were facing the
'problem of life.' I had no idea whatever what the problem of life was. To
live with all my might seemed to me easy; to learn where there was so much
to learn seemed pleasant and almost of course; to lend a hand, if one had a
chance, natural; and if one did this, why, he enjoyed life because he could
not help it, and without proving to himself that he ought to enjoy it. ... A
child who is early taught that he is God's child, that he may live and move
and have his being in God, and that he has, therefore, infinite strength at
hand for the conquering of any difficulty, will take life more easily, and
probably will make more of it, than one who is told that he is born the
child of wrath and wholly incapable of
good."[5]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-5>

One can but recognize in such writers as these the presence of a
temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden
to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects
of the universe. In some individuals optimism may become
quasi-pathological. The capacity for even a transient sadness or a
momentary humility seems cut off from them as by a kind of congenital
anæsthesia.[6]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-p83-6>

The supreme contemporary example of such an inability to feel evil is of
course Walt Whitman <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Walt_Whitman>.
"His favorite occupation," writes his disciple, Dr.
Bucke<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Richard_Maurice_Bucke>,
"seemed to be strolling or sauntering about outdoors by himself, looking at
the grass, the trees, the flowers, the vistas of light, the varying aspects
of the sky, and listening to the birds, the crickets, the tree frogs, and
all the hundreds of natural sounds. It was evident that these things gave
him a pleasure far beyond what they give to ordinary people. Until I knew
the man," continues Dr. Bucke, "it had not occurred to me that any one
could derive so much absolute happiness from these things as he did. He was
very fond of flowers, either wild or cultivated; liked all sorts. I think
he admired lilacs and sunflowers just as much as roses. Perhaps, indeed, no
man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt
Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and
sounds seemed to please him. He appeared to like (and I believe he did
like) all the men, women, and children he saw (though I never knew him to
say that he liked any one), but each who knew him felt that he liked him or
her, and that he liked others also. I never knew him to argue or dispute,
and he never spoke about money. He always justified, sometimes playfully,
sometimes quite seriously, those who spoke harshly of himself or his
writings, and I often thought he even took pleasure in the opposition of
enemies. When I first knew [him], I used to think that he watched himself,
and would not allow his tongue to give expression to fretfulness,
antipathy, complaint, and remonstrance. It did not occur to me as possible
that these mental states could be absent in him. After long observation,
however, I satisfied myself that such absence or unconsciousness was
entirely real. He never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of
men, or time in the world's history, or against any trades or
occupations--not even against any animals, insects, or inanimate things, nor
any of the laws of nature, nor any of the results of those laws, such as
illness, deformity, and death. He never complained or grumbled either at
the weather, pain, illness, or anything else. He never swore. He could not
very well, since he never spoke in anger and apparently never was angry. He
never exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt
it."[7]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-7>

Walt Whitman <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Walt_Whitman> owes his
importance in literature to the systematic expulsion from his writings of
all contractile elements. The only sentiments he allowed himself to express
were of the expansive order; and he expressed these in the first person,
not as your mere monstrously conceited individual might so express them,
but vicariously for all men, so that a passionate and mystic ontological
emotion suffuses his words, and ends by persuading the reader that men and
women, life and death, and all things are divinely good.

Thus it has come about that many persons to-day regard Walt Whitman as the
restorer of the eternal natural religion. He has infected them with his own
love of comrades, with his own gladness that he and they exist. Societies
are actually formed for his cult; a periodical organ exists for its
propagation, in which the lines of orthodoxy and heterodoxy are already
beginning to be
drawn;[8]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-8>hymns
are written by others in his peculiar prosody; and he is even
explicitly compared with the founder of the Christian religion, not
altogether to the advantage of the latter.

Whitman is often spoken of as a 'pagan.' The word nowadays means sometimes
the mere natural animal man without a sense of sin; sometimes it means a
Greek or Roman with his own peculiar religious consciousness. In neither of
these senses does it fitly define this poet. He is more than your mere
animal man who has not tasted of the tree of good and evil. He is aware
enough of sin for a swagger to be present in his indifference towards it, a
conscious pride in his freedom from flexions and contractions, which your
genuine pagan in the first sense of the word would never show.

"I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained,
I stand and look at them long and long;
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
Not one is dissatisfied, not one is demented with the mania of owning
things,
Not one kneels to another, nor to his kind that lived thousands of years
ago,
Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole
earth."[9]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-9>

No natural pagan could have written these well-known lines. But on the
other hand Whitman is less than a Greek or Roman; for their consciousness,
even in Homeric times, was full to the brim of the sad mortality of this
sunlit world, and such a consciousness Walt Whitman resolutely refuses to
adopt. When, for example, Achilles, about to slay Lycaon, Priam's young
son, hears him sue for mercy, he stops to say:--
"Ah, friend, thou too must die: why thus lamentest thou? Patroclos too is
dead, who was better far than thou. ... Over me too hang death and forceful
fate. There cometh morn or eve or some noonday when my life too some man
shall take in battle, whether with spear he smite, or arrow from the
string."[10]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-10>

Then Achilles savagely severs the poor boy's neck with his sword, heaves
him by the foot into the Scamander, and calls to the fishes of the river to
eat the white fat of Lycaon. Just as here the cruelty and the sympathy
each ring
true, and do not mix or interfere with one another, so did the Greeks and
Romans keep all their sadnesses and gladnesses unmingled and entire.
Instinctive good they did not reckon sin; nor had they any such desire to
save the credit of the universe as to make them insist, as so many of
*us*insist, that what immediately appears as evil must be 'good in the
making,'
or something equally ingenious. Good was good, and bad just bad, for the
earlier Greeks. They neither denied the ills of nature,--Walt Whitman's
verse, 'What is called good is perfect and what is called bad is just as
perfect,' would have been mere silliness to them,--nor did they, in order to
escape from those ills, invent 'another and a better world' of the
imagination, in which, along with the ills, the innocent goods of sense
would also find no place. This integrity of the instinctive reactions, this
freedom from all moral sophistry and strain, gives a pathetic dignity to
ancient pagan feeling. And this quality Whitman's outpourings have not got.
His optimism is too voluntary and defiant; his gospel has a touch of
bravado and an affected
twist,[11]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-11>and
this diminishes its effect on many readers who yet are well disposed
towards optimism, and on the whole quite willing to admit that in important
respects Whitman is of the genuine lineage of the prophets.


If, then, we give the name of healthy-mindedness to the tendency which
looks on all things and sees that they are good, we find that we must
distinguish between a more involuntary and a more voluntary or systematic
way of being healthy-minded. In its involuntary variety, healthy-mindedness
is a way of feeling happy about things immediately. In its systematical
variety, it is an abstract way of conceiving things as good. Every abstract
way of conceiving things selects some one aspect of them as their essence
for the time being, and disregards the other aspects. Systematic
healthy-mindedness, conceiving good as the essential and universal aspect
of being, deliberately excludes evil from its field of vision; and
although, when thus nakedly stated, this might seem a difficult feat to
perform for one who is intellectually sincere with himself and honest about
facts, a little reflection shows that the situation is too complex to lie
open to so simple a criticism.

In the first place, happiness, like every other emotional state, has
blindness and insensibility to opposing facts given it as its instinctive
weapon for self-protection against disturbance. When happiness is actually
in possession, the thought of evil can no more acquire the feeling of
reality than the thought of good can gain reality when melancholy rules. To
the man actively happy, from whatever cause, evil simply cannot then and
there be believed in. He must ignore it; and to the bystander he may then
seem perversely to shut his eyes to it and hush it up.

But more than this: the hushing of it up may, in a perfectly candid and
honest mind, grow into a deliberate religious policy, or *parti pris*. Much
of what we call evil is due entirely to the way men take the phenomenon. It
can so often be converted into a bracing and tonic good by a simple change
of the sufferer's inner attitude from one of fear to one of fight; its
sting so often departs and turns into a relish when, after vainly seeking
to shun it, we agree to face about and bear it cheerfully, that a man is
simply bound in honor, with reference to many of the facts that seem at
first to disconcert his peace, to adopt this way of escape. Refuse to admit
their badness; despise their power; ignore their presence; turn your
attention the other way; and so far as you yourself are concerned at any
rate, though the facts may still exist, their evil character exists no
longer. Since you make them evil or good by your own thoughts about them,
it is the ruling of your thoughts which proves to be your principal concern.

The deliberate adoption of an optimistic turn of mind thus makes its
entrance into philosophy. And once in, it is hard to trace its lawful
bounds. Not only does the human instinct for happiness, bent on
self-protection by ignoring, keep working in its favor, but higher inner
ideals have weighty words to say. The attitude of unhappiness is not only
painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the
pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have
been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a
way out of the difficulty? It but fastens and perpetuates the trouble which
occasioned it, and increases the total evil of the situation. At all costs,
then, we ought to reduce the sway of that mood; we ought to scout it in
ourselves and others, and never show it tolerance. But it is impossible to
carry on this discipline in the subjective sphere without zealously
emphasizing the brighter and minimizing the darker aspects of the objective
sphere of things at the same time. And thus our resolution not to indulge
in misery, beginning at a comparatively small point within ourselves, may
not stop until it has brought the entire frame of reality under a
systematic conception optimistic enough to be congenial with its needs.

In all this I say nothing of any mystical insight or persuasion that the
total frame of things absolutely must be good. Such mystical persuasion
plays an enormous part in the history of the religious consciousness, and
we must look at it later with some care. But we need not go so far at
present. More ordinary non-mystical conditions of rapture suffice for my
immediate contention. All invasive moral states and passionate enthusiasms
make one feelingless to evil in some direction. The common penalties cease
to deter the patriot, the usual prudences are flung by the lover to the
winds. When the passion is extreme, suffering may actually be gloried in,
provided it be for the ideal cause, death may lose its sting, the grave its
victory. In these states, the ordinary contrast of good and ill seems to be
swallowed up in a higher denomination, an omnipotent excitement which
engulfs the evil, and which the human being welcomes as the crowning
experience of his life. This, he says, is truly to live, and I exult in the
heroic opportunity and adventure.

The systematic cultivation of healthy-mindedness as a religious attitude is
therefore consonant with important currents in human nature, and is
anything but absurd. In fact, we all do cultivate it more or less, even
when our professed theology should in consistency forbid it. We divert our
attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the
slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded
are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we
recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far
handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really
is.[12]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_IV_%26_V#cite_note-p90-12>


-- 
-Eric
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