The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lecture 8 : The Divided Self, and the Process of Its Unification | Summary



Lecture 8 continues with a discussion of the twice-born, who have two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and they must lose the former to participate in the latter. The twice-born character has a "heterogeneity ... an incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitution" through which they experience conflicting desires. In the psychopathic temperament of certain saints these conflicting emotions can manifest as blasphemous obsessions, usually ascribed to Satan (the devil). While a normal person unifies their inner self without a lot of fanfare, a "religiously quickened" person will suffer much remorse and melancholy in the process. James cites Saint Augustine as a classic case of this type of religious melancholy, quoting from his Confessions, in which the saint describes his struggle with sexual desire against the desire to be celibate.

Unification may occur gradually or abruptly and may result from intellectual or mystical insights; unification brings relief. Regeneration is not always religious in character, and it can even be a "new birth" away from religion toward atheism, or away from scrupulous morality toward "freedom and license." Sometimes unification manifests as the birth of a new passion. All these instances, however, have the same psychological form: a period of crisis followed by the establishment of stability and equilibrium. Religious unification "often transforms the most intolerable misery into the profoundest and most enduring happiness."

James next presents instances of unification, the first being an account of a French philosopher who experiences a "counter-conversion," in which he sees as illusory everything he had previously held dear. The second case is a story of a man who loses all his money through reckless spending but then resolves to recover his lost wealth, working hard and accumulating money; he dies a rich miser. The third case is a religious one in which a man is told about a Japanese Buddhist practice of getting rid of anger and worry. The individual in question takes the idea to heart and begins to successfully practice nonattachment to negative thoughts, such as anger and worry—to the point of effecting a spiritual transformation in himself.

James returns to Tolstoy's case, whose transformation took two years, at the end of which he realized he needed to live less like an aristocrat and more like the common man. Thus, he embraced the life of the peasants. Bunyan's transformation took a longer time, as he eventually let go of guilt and fear. He became a minister and suffered a 12-year prison sentence for his nonconforming religious beliefs (by law he was not allowed to preach), eventually completing The Pilgrim's Progress. While Tolstoy and Bunyan both "realized a good which broke the effective edge of his sadness," that sadness remained as an aspect of their faith.


In his continued analysis of the twice-born James explains that they are divided, a common psychological phenomenon. All people are, in a sense, a collection of selves with conflicting desires and goals. People either become more unified over time or make peace with their conflicting desires or at least learn to live with them. Still, conflicting desires bring misery to everyone. For example, people who struggle with their weight both want to indulge their appetites and at the same time want to have a thinner body, and this conflict is a torment to many. Unifying the divided self is a perennial psychological problem for all. James's major point in this chapter is that unification may come either gradually or abruptly, but this is true whether unification involves a religious apprehension or not. While the term conversion is generally reserved for the unification that occurs within a religious context, it can be argued that it applies in any situation in which conflicting desires are suddenly resolved, and a person convinces himself or herself to embark without wavering on a new course of action.

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