[WilliamJames] Lectures 6-7, first chunk (almost caught up!)

Eric Purdy epurdy at uchicago.edu
Tue Feb 25 01:28:24 CST 2014


AT our last meeting, we considered the healthy-minded temperament, the
temperament which has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering,
and in which the tendency to see things optimistically is like a water of
crystallization in which the individual's character is set. We saw how this
temperament may become the basis for a peculiar type of religion, a
religion in which good, even the good of this world's life, is regarded as
the essential thing for a rational being to attend to. This religion
directs him to settle his scores with the more evil aspects of the universe
by systematically declining to lay them to heart or make much of them, by
ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even, on occasion, by
denying outright that they exist. Evil is a disease; and worry over disease
is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original
complaint. Even repentance and remorse, affections which come in the
character of ministers of good, may be but sickly and relaxing impulses.
The best repentance is to up and act for righteousness, and forget that you
ever had relations with sin.

Spinoza <http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Spinoza>'s philosophy has
this sort of healthy-mindedness woven into the heart of it, and this has
been one secret of its fascination. He whom Reason leads, according to
Spinoza, is led altogether by the influence over his mind of good.
Knowledge of evil is an 'inadequate' knowledge, fit only for slavish minds.
So Spinoza categorically condemns repentance. When men make mistakes, he
says,--
"One might perhaps expect gnawings of conscience and repentance to help to
bring them on the right path, and might thereupon conclude (as every one
does conclude) that these affections are good things. Yet when we look at
the matter closely, we shall find that not only are they not good, but on
the contrary deleterious and evil passions. For it is manifest that we can
always get along better by reason and love of truth than by worry of
conscience and remorse. Harmful are these and evil, inasmuch as they form a
particular kind of sadness; and the disadvantages of sadness," he
continues, "I have already proved, and shown that we should strive to keep
it from our life. Just so we should endeavor, since uneasiness of
conscience and remorse are of this kind of complexion, to flee and shun
these states of
mind."[1]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-1>

Within the Christian body, for which repentance of sins has from the
beginning been the critical religious act, healthy-mindedness has always
come forward with its milder interpretation. Repentance according to such
healthy-minded Christians means *getting away from* the sin, not groaning
and writhing over its commission. The Catholic practice of confession and
absolution is in one of its aspects little more than a systematic method of
keeping healthy-mindedness on top. By it a man's accounts with evil are
periodically squared and audited, so that he may start the clean page with
no old debts inscribed. Any Catholic will tell us how clean and fresh and
free he feels after the purging operation. Martin Luther by no means
belonged to the healthy-minded type in the radical sense in which we have
discussed it, and he repudiated priestly absolution for sin. Yet in this
matter of repentance he had some very healthy-minded ideas, due in the main
to the largeness of his conception of God.

"When I was a monk," he says, "I thought that I was utterly cast away, if
at any time I felt the lust of the flesh: that is to say, if I felt any
evil motion, fleshly lust, wrath, hatred, or envy against any brother. I
assayed many ways to help to quiet my conscience, but it would not be; for
the concupiscence and lust of my flesh did always return, so that I could
not rest, but was continually vexed with these thoughts: This or that sin
thou hast committed: thou art infected with envy, with impatiency, and such
other sins: therefore thou art entered into this holy order in vain, and
all thy good works are unprofitable. But if then I had rightly understood
these sentences of Paul: 'The flesh lusteth contrary to the Spirit, and the
Spirit contrary to the flesh; and these two are one against another, so
that ye cannot do the things that ye would do,' I should not have so
miserably tormented myself, but should have thought and said to myself, as
now commonly I do, 'Martin, thou shalt not utterly be without sin, for thou
hast flesh; thou shalt therefore feel the battle thereof.' I remember that
Staupitz was wont to say, 'I have vowed unto God above a thousand times
that I would become a better man: but I never performed that which I vowed.
Hereafter I will make no such vow: for I have now learned by experience
that I am not able to perform it. Unless, therefore, God be favorable and
merciful unto me for Christ's sake, I shall not be able, with all my vows
and all my good deeds, to stand before him.' This (of Staupitz's) was not
only a true, but also a godly and a holy desperation; and this must they
all confess, both with mouth and heart, who will be saved. For the godly
trust not to their own righteousness. They look unto Christ their
reconciler, who gave his life for their sins. Moreover, they know that the
remnant of sin which is in their flesh is not laid to their charge, but
freely pardoned. Notwithstanding, in the mean while they fight in spirit
against the flesh, lest they should *fulfill* the lusts thereof; and
although they feel the flesh to rage and rebel, and themselves also do fall
sometimes into sin through infirmity, yet are they not discouraged, nor
think therefore that their state and kind of life, and the works which are
done according to their calling, displease God; but they raise up
themselves by faith."[2]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-2>

One of the heresies for which the Jesuits got that spiritual genius,
Molinos, the founder of Quietism, so abominably condemned was his
healthy-minded opinion of repentance:--
"When thou fallest into a fault, in what matter soever it be, do not
trouble nor afflict thyself for it. For they are effects of our frail
Nature, stained by Original Sin. The common enemy will make thee believe,
as soon as thou fallest into any fault, that thou walkest in error, and
therefore art out of God and his favor, and herewith would he make thee
distrust of the divine Grace, telling thee of thy misery, and making a
giant of it; and putting it into thy head that every day thy soul grows
worse instead of better, whilst it so often repeats these failings. O
blessed Soul, open thine eyes; and shut the gate against these diabolical
suggestions, knowing thy misery, and trusting in the mercy divine. Would
not he be a mere fool who, running at tournament with others, and falling
in the best of the career, should lie weeping on the ground and afflicting
himself with discourses upon his fall? Man (they would tell him), lose no
time, get up and take the course again, for he that rises again quickly and
continues his race is as if he had never fallen. If thou seest thyself
fallen once and a thousand times, thou oughtest to make use of the remedy
which I have given thee, that is, a loving confidence in the divine mercy.
These are the weapons with which thou must fight and conquer cowardice and
vain thoughts. This is the means thou oughtest to use--not to lose time, not
to disturb thyself, and reap no
good."[3]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-3>

Now in contrast with such healthy-minded views as these, if we treat them
as a way of deliberately minimizing evil, stands a radically opposite view,
a way of maximizing evil, if you please so to call it, based on the
persuasion that the evil aspects of our life are of its very essence, and
that the world's meaning most comes home to us when we lay them most to
heart. We have now to address ourselves to this more morbid way of looking
at the situation. But as I closed our last hour with a general
philosophical reflection on the healthy-minded way of taking life, I should
like at this point to make another philosophical reflection upon it before
turning to that heavier task. You will excuse the brief delay.

If we admit that evil is an essential part of our being and the key to the
interpretation of our life, we load ourselves down with a difficulty that
has always proved burdensome in philosophies of religion. Theism, whenever
it has erected itself into a systematic philosophy of the universe, has
shown a reluctance to let God be anything less than All-in-All. In other
words, philosophic theism has always shown a tendency to become pantheistic
and monistic, and to consider the world as one unit of absolute fact; and
this has been at variance with popular or practical theism, which latter
has ever been more or less frankly pluralistic, not to say polytheistic,
and shown itself perfectly well satisfied with a universe composed of many
original principles, provided we be only allowed to believe that the divine
principle remains supreme, and that the others are subordinate. In this
latter case God is not necessarily responsible for the existence of evil;
he would only be responsible if it were not finally overcome. But on the
monistic or pantheistic view, evil, like everything else, must have its
foundation in God; and the difficulty is to see how this can possibly be
the case if God be absolutely good. This difficulty faces us in every form
of philosophy in which the world appears as one flawless unit of fact. Such
a unit is an *Individual*, and in it the worst parts must be as essential
as the best, must be as necessary to make the individual what he is; since
if any part whatever in an individual were to vanish or alter, it would no
longer be *that* individual at all. The philosophy of absolute idealism, so
vigorously represented both in Scotland and America to-day, has to struggle
with this difficulty quite as much as scholastic theism struggled in its
time; and although it would be premature to say that there is no
speculative issue whatever from the puzzle, it is perfectly fair to say
that there is no clear or easy issue, and that the only *obvious* escape
from paradox here is to cut loose from the monistic assumption altogether,
and to allow the world to have existed from its origin in pluralistic form,
as an aggregate or collection of higher and lower things and principles,
rather than an absolutely unitary fact. For then evil would not need to be
essential; it might be, and may always have been, an independent portion
that had no rational or absolute right to live with the rest, and which we
might conceivably hope to see got rid of at last.

Now the gospel of healthy-mindedness, as we have described it, casts its
vote distinctly for this pluralistic view. Whereas the monistic philosopher
finds himself more or less bound to say, as Hegel said, that everything
actual is rational, and that evil, as an element dialectically required,
must be pinned in and kept and consecrated and have a function awarded to
it in the final system of truth, healthy-mindedness refuses to say anything
of the sort.[4]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-4>Evil,
it says, is emphatically irrational, and
*not* to be pinned in, or preserved, or consecrated in any final system of
truth. It is a pure abomination to the Lord, an alien unreality, a waste
element, to be sloughed off and negated, and the very memory of it, if
possible, wiped out and forgotten. The ideal, so far from being
co-extensive with the whole actual, is a mere *extract* from the actual,
marked by its deliverance from all contact with this diseased, inferior,
and excrementitious stuff.

Here we have the interesting notion fairly and squarely presented to us, of
there being elements of the universe which may make no rational whole in
conjunction with the other elements, and which, from the point of view of
any system which those other elements make up, can only be considered so
much irrelevance and accident--so much 'dirt,' as it were, and matter out of
place. I ask you now not to forget this notion; for although most
philosophers seem either to forget it or to disdain it too much ever to
mention it, I believe that we shall have to admit it ourselves in the end
as containing an element of truth. The mind-cure gospel thus once more
appears to us as having dignity and importance. We have seen it to be a
genuine religion, and no mere silly appeal to imagination to cure disease;
we have seen its method of experimental verification to be not unlike the
method of all science; and now here we find mind-cure as the champion of a
perfectly definite conception of the metaphysical structure of the world. I
hope that, in view of all this, you will not regret my having pressed it
upon your attention at such length.


Let us now say good-by for a while to all this way of thinking, and turn
towards those persons who cannot so swiftly throw off the burden of the
consciousness of evil, but are congenitally fated to suffer from its
presence. Just as we saw that in healthy-mindedness there are shallower and
profounder levels, happiness like that of the mere animal, and more
regenerate sorts of happiness, so also are there different levels of the
morbid mind, and the one is much more formidable than the other. There are
people for whom evil means only a mal-adjustment with *things*, a wrong
correspondence of one's life with the environment. Such evil as this is
curable, in principle at least, upon the natural plane, for merely by
modifying either the self or the things, or both at once, the two terms may
be made to fit, and all go merry as a marriage bell again. But there are
others for whom evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer
things, but something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his
essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any
superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a
supernatural remedy. On the whole, the Latin races have leaned more towards
the former way of looking upon evil, as made up of ills and sins in the
plural, removable in detail; while the Germanic races have tended rather to
think of Sin in the singular, and with a capital S, as of something
ineradicably ingrained in our natural subjectivity, and never to be removed
by any superficial piecemeal
operations.[5]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-5>These
comparisons of races are always open to exception, but undoubtedly
the northern tone in religion has inclined to the more intimately
pessimistic persuasion, and this way of feeling, being the more extreme, we
shall find by far the more instructive for our study.

Recent psychology has found great use for the word 'threshold' as a
symbolic designation for the point at which one state of mind passes into
another. Thus we speak of the threshold of a man's consciousness in
general, to indicate the amount of noise, pressure, or other outer stimulus
which it takes to arouse his attention at all. One with a high threshold
will doze through an amount of racket by which one with a low threshold
would be immediately waked. Similarly, when one is sensitive to small
differences in any order of sensation, we say he has a low
'difference-threshold'--his mind easily steps over it into the consciousness
of the differences in question. And just so we might speak of a
'pain-threshold,' a 'fear-threshold,' a 'misery-threshold,' and find it
quickly overpassed by the consciousness of some individuals, but lying too
high in others to be often reached by their consciousness. The sanguine and
healthy-minded live habitually on the sunny side of their misery-line, the
depressed and melancholy live beyond it, in darkness and apprehension.
There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of
champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born
close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send
them over.

Does it not appear as if one who lived more habitually on one side of the
pain-threshold might need a different sort of religion from one who
habitually lived on the other? This question, of the relativity of
different types of religion to different types of need, arises naturally at
this point, and will become a serious problem ere we have done. But before
we confront it in general terms, we must address ourselves to the
unpleasant task of hearing what the sick souls, as we may call them in
contrast to the healthy-minded, have to say of the secrets of their
prison-house, their own peculiar form of consciousness. Let us then
resolutely turn our backs on the once-born and their sky-blue optimistic
gospel; let us not simply cry out, in spite of all appearances, "Hurrah for
the Universe!--God 's in his Heaven, all's right with the world." Let us see
rather whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human
helplessness may not open a profounder view and put into our hands a more
complicated key to the meaning of the situation.


To begin with, how *can* things so insecure as the successful experiences
of this world afford a stable anchorage? A chain is no stronger than its
weakest link, and life is after all a chain. In the healthiest and most
prosperous existence, how many links of illness, danger, and disaster are
always interposed? Unsuspectedly from the bottom of every fountain of
pleasure, as the old poet said, something bitter rises up: a touch of
nausea, a falling dead of the delight, a whiff of melancholy, things that
sound a knell, for fugitive as they may be, they bring a feeling of coming
from a deeper region and often have an appalling convincingness. The buzz
of life ceases at their touch as a piano-string stops sounding when the
damper falls upon it.

Of course the music can commence again;--and again and again,--at intervals.
But with this the healthy-minded consciousness is left with an irremediable
sense of precariousness. It is a bell with a crack; it draws its breath on
sufferance and by an accident.

Even if we suppose a man so packed with healthy-mindedness as never to have
experienced in his own person any of these sobering intervals, still, if he
is a reflecting being, he must generalize and class his own lot with that
of others; and, doing so, he must see that his escape is just a lucky
chance and no essential difference. He might just as well have been born to
an entirely different fortune. And then indeed the hollow security! What kind
of a frame of things is it of which the best you can say is, "Thank God, it
has let me off clear this time!" Is not its blessedness a fragile fiction?
Is not your joy in it a very vulgar glee, not much unlike the snicker of
any rogue at his success? If indeed it were all success, even on such terms
as that! But take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and
in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. Either
his ideals in the line of his achievements are pitched far higher than the
achievements themselves, or else he has secret ideals of which the world
knows nothing, and in regard to which he inwardly knows himself to be found
wanting.

When such a conquering optimist as
Goethe<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Goethe>can express himself
in this wise, how must it be with less successful men?
"I will say nothing," writes Goethe in 1824, "against the course of my
existence. But at bottom it has been nothing but pain and burden, and I can
affirm that during the whole of my 75 years, I have not had four weeks of
genuine well-being. It is but the perpetual rolling of a rock that must be
raised up again forever."

What single-handed man was ever on the whole as successful as
Luther<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Martin_Luther>?
yet when he had grown old, he looked back on his life as if it were an
absolute failure.

"I am utterly weary of life. I pray the Lord will come forthwith and carry
me hence. Let him come, above all, with his last Judgment: I will stretch
out my neck, the thunder will burst forth, and I shall be at rest."--And
having a necklace of white agates in his hand at the time he added: "O God,
grant that it may come without delay. I would readily eat up this necklace
to-day, for the Judgment to come to-morrow."--The Electress Dowager, one day
when Luther was dining with her, said to him: "Doctor, I wish you may live
forty years to come." "Madam," replied he, "rather than live forty years
more, I would give up my chance of Paradise."

Failure, then, failure! so the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it
with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the
memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with what a damning
emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no mere apology or formal
expiation, will satisfy the world's demands, but every pound of flesh
exacted is soaked with all its blood. The subtlest forms of suffering known
to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these
results.

And they are pivotal human experiences. A process so ubiquitous and
everlasting is evidently an integral part of life. "There is indeed one
element in human destiny," Robert Louis
Stevenson<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Author:Robert_Louis_Stevenson>writes,
"that not blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are
intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate
allotted."[6]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-6>And
our nature being thus rooted in failure, is it any wonder that
theologians should have held it to be essential, and thought that only
through the personal experience of humiliation which it engenders the
deeper sense of life's significance is
reached?[7]<http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Varieties_of_Religious_Experience/Lectures_VI_%26_VII#cite_note-7>

But this is only the first stage of the world-sickness. Make the human
being's sensitiveness a little greater, carry him a little farther over the
misery-threshold, and the good quality of the successful moments themselves
when they occur is spoiled and vitiated. All natural goods perish. Riches
take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and
pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be
the real goods which our souls require? Back of everything is the great
spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness:--
"What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the Sun? I
looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and behold, all was
vanity and vexation of spirit. For that which befalleth the sons of men
befalleth beasts; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; all are of the
dust, and all turn to dust again. ... The dead know not anything, neither
have they any more a reward; for the memory of them is forgotten. Also
their love and their hatred and their envy is now perished; neither have
they any more a portion for ever in anything that is done under the Sun. ...
Truly the light is sweet, and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold
the Sun: but if a man live many years and rejoice in them all, yet let him
remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many."

In short, life and its negation are beaten up inextricably together. But if
the life be good, the negation of it must be bad. Yet the two are equally
essential facts of existence; and all natural happiness thus seems infected
with a contradiction. The breath of the sepulchre surrounds it.

To a mind attentive to this state of things and rightly subject to the
joy-destroying chill which such a contemplation engenders, the only relief
that healthy-mindedness can give is by saying: 'Stuff and nonsense, get out
into the open air!' or 'Cheer up, old fellow, you'll be all right erelong,
if you will only drop your morbidness!' But in all seriousness, can such
bald animal talk as that be treated as a rational answer? To ascribe
religious value to mere happy-go-lucky contentment with one's brief chance
at natural good is but the very consecration of forgetfulness and
superficiality. Our troubles lie indeed too deep for *that* cure. The fact
that we *can* die, that we *can* be ill at all, is what perplexes us; the
fact that we now for a moment live and are well is irrelevant to that
perplexity. We need a life not correlated with death, a health not liable
to illness, a kind of good that will not perish, a good in fact that flies
beyond the Goods of nature.


-- 
-Eric
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://mailman.moomers.org/pipermail/williamjames/attachments/20140224/cae59071/attachment-0001.html>


More information about the WilliamJames mailing list