The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lectures 11, 12, and 13 : Saintliness | Summary



James begins this set of lectures by reminding the reader he has embarked on an empirical inquiry for the purpose of judging the value of religion. First he described the fruits of religious life; in the set of lectures to follow, on the value of saintliness, he will judge those fruits.

James claims "the best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show." He quotes the French literary critic Sainte-Beuve, who calls the state of grace heroic, and James adds that "through all the different forms of communion, and all the diversity of the means which help to produce this state," whether it is reached by celebration, confession, or prayer, it is "fundamentally one state in spirit and in fruits."

Those who commit themselves entirely to spirituality seem to be radically different from the ordinary person, so James looks for the "inner conditions" making one human being so different from another. He determines that diversity lies in people's "differing susceptibilities of emotional excitement and in the different impulses and inhibitions which these bring in their train." People's moral and practical attitudes are generally the product of the opposing forces of impulse and inhibition continuously shaping behavior. Sometimes one emotion is so strong that it sweeps all others away and can effectively sweep away inhibitions. This can manifest as a passion for romantic love, or for fighting or reforming, or for union with God. The person who is animated by spiritual enthusiasm has left behind the carnal self. "Magnanimities once impossible are now easy; paltry conventionalities and mean incentives once tyrannical hold no sway. The stone wall inside of him has fallen, the hardness in his heart has broken down." An ordinary person can imagine these "melting moods" based on their own fleeting experiences of a hard trial in life or feelings brought on by a novel or other artistic creation.

"The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness," James says. He then outlines some key features of the saint, universal in all religions:

  1. a feeling of being part of a wider life than that of the manifest world, and a conviction that an Ideal Power exists;
  2. a sense of this power's friendliness and a willingness to surrender to its control;
  3. a feeling of elation and freedom upon experiencing the boundaries of the self-dissolving; and
  4. an increase in loving feelings toward others with less concern for self.

These inner conditions create asceticism, in which the saint finds pleasure in sacrifice (sometimes to an extreme) and strength of soul, in which selfish concerns dissipate, patience and fortitude increase, fear and anxiety disappear, and blissful equanimity becomes the norm. The saint becomes more concerned with staying pure, sometimes to excess when this attitude "takes an ascetic turn." The saint becomes more tender and charitable toward follow creatures and feels little aversion for others. James now illustrates the "fruits of the spiritual tree" with copious examples taken from various sources.

The saintly fruit of fraternal charity is not confined to Christianity; they can also be found in other religions. James questions whether the prescription to love one's enemies, found in both Eastern and Western religions, is hyperbole or whether it can be accomplished. He answers that in fact even instinctive repugnance—for example, for lepers, beggars, and the like—can be and were overcome by Christian saints. James notes that equanimity of saints is demonstrated in the various stories of martyrs who underwent torture, seemingly oblivious to what their bodies were suffering.

James turns to the practice of asceticism among saints, first by distinguishing types of practice:

  1. an expression of organic hardiness and disgust with too much ease;
  2. temperance;
  3. sacrifices for the sake of the Deity;
  4. an expression of bad feelings about one's sinfulness and a desire to expiate it;
  5. an irrational obsession; and
  6. perversion, in which pain gives pleasure.

James opines that it is natural for people to "court the arduous." Some people need tension to make them feel "alive and well," and it is such souls who turn to sacrifice and inhibition. When they become religious, they may turn "their need of effort and negativity against their natural self." James next provides numerous accounts of ascetic practice, assigning each of them numbers according to his categorization. He quotes the Spanish mystic, Saint John of the Cross, who provides a primer for mortification (extreme ascetic practice). John counsels the ascetic to vanquish joy, hope, fear, and grief, and he provides a litany of dos and don'ts. James quotes extensively from the autobiography of the German mystic Suso, whom he calls a "psychopathic individual"; this man tormented himself for many years with crude devices of his own making until God finally told him he could stop his self-mutilation.

The obedience practiced by those who live in religious communities is another form of asceticism and an outward sign of obedience to God. Saint Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit order of priests, took this idea to such an extreme that he described himself as "a corpse which has neither intelligence nor will" and "a mass of matter which without resistance lets itself be placed wherever it may please any one." Poverty is another "adornment of the saintly life," and James quotes instructions for Jesuits in which they are advised not to get attached to anything and to have no more sorrow than "a statue being uncovered" when something is taken away. James notes that the attitude of idealizing poverty can also be found among Hindu fakirs (wandering mendicants), Buddhist monks, and Islamic ("Mohammedan") dervishes (mystics who practice whirling). He pauses to examine these seeming irrational beliefs, noting that people admire those who give up their possessions, such as the knights who went questing or soldiers who give up even their own lives. Those who have a lot of possessions and attachments are less free, and there is some romance or spiritual excitement in throwing away one's possessions. Moreover, a person with less finds it easier to "surrender to the larger power."


These sections of The Varieties examine saintliness and its value; first, William James looks at what has generally passed for saintliness in the world and then, in Lectures 14 and 15, examines its value. To do so he will, in typical pragmatic fashion, examine the fruits of religious experience, which are characteristics the saints exhibit.

James has very deliberately set out to frame saintliness in the best light, only rarely considering "un-saintly" acts of his subjects. These are the people on whose religious vision institutions have been built. But some of these "saints" exhibited behavior in their lifetime that raises concerns, according to the criteria for saintliness that William James himself has worked out. For example, in the next section he will fault Martin Luther for turning his back on the persecution of the Anabaptists, though in fact Luther condoned in strong terms the persecution of both Jews and Christians; however, he recommended burning down the homes and synagogues (houses of worship) and schools of the Jews when they refused to convert to his form of Christianity and said the rabbis should be killed if they insisted on teaching. In 1536, he signed a document that called for the execution of Anabaptists, a group of dissenting Christians who opposed the baptism of infants because they could not confess their faith.

James paints a portrait of Martin Luther as a sane and saintly man who brought a kinder and gentler religion to the masses, but that is only one side of the reformer's story, as evidenced by his condoning persecution and execution of the so-called enemies of Christianity; moreover, not all of Luther's spiritual apprehensions were benign. He also was haunted by the devil, saw the devil on a regular basis, and argued with him. Yet, James never mentions this well-known aspect of Luther's biography. Neither does James address in The Varieties other examples of saints whose visions included both God and the devil. While these omissions do not undercut the power of the transformations that James describes, often accompanying religious experience, they do indicate that the author has chosen to narrow his study of religious experience and to leave out information that might lead to the conclusion that the fruits of saintliness can include some that might be considered evil. He does include fruits he believes have no use, but he doesn't include any that are just plain bad.

That being said, James outlines the benign fruits of saintliness which can be observed in people who have undergone a religious conversion on any spiritual path (he stresses the universality of the fruits of saintliness) and who then resolve to act on their spiritual realizations. James explains that all share the sense of participating in an enlarged life, the expansion of their self-boundaries, which is a result of contact with the Divinity; they feel increased but detached love for other people. In James's view the initial vision or apprehension of God creates a desire to engage in sacrifice, which often takes the form of excessive attention to remaining pure and a desire to undergo ascetic practices.

James gives considerable space to asceticism, giving many gory details, for example, from the life of Henry Suso, an extreme ascetic who, among his other penances, wore a hair shirt filled with vermin. A hair shirt was an itchy and very uncomfortable garment worn by Catholic monks and nuns practicing asceticism, made of animal hair. To this Suso added gloves studded with tacks, which he wore to bed so that he could not tear off the garment in his sleep without also tearing his flesh. In Catholicism asceticism is based, at least in part, on the emphasis which the Church places on the sinfulness of humanity, which began with the disobedience of Adam and Eve; moreover, the sacrifice of Jesus to atone for the sinfulness of human beings—the central motif of belief and practice—is another reason the devout feel a need to purify and punish themselves. By doing so, they both expiate their sinfulness and imitate Jesus's sacrifice. In recent times these practices are less common.

The Eastern ascetics—specifically fakirs and yogis—also sometimes engaged in extreme penances of the body, although James mentions only their ascetic poverty, not their engagement in mortification of the body. For example, one practice of India's wandering yogis was to stand and never sit, or to stand on only one leg. The purpose of these practices was not to expiate sin but to cultivate detachment to the body, which was thought to lead more quickly to realization of the self as consciousness. The Buddha had spent time with some of these extreme yogis, which is how he came up with the idea of the "Middle Way." James provides examples from Saint John of the Cross's primer on asceticism, which seems to have some things in common with Eastern asceticism—that is, he recommends practices that cultivate detachment: "To enjoy the taste of all things, have no taste for anything. To know all things, learn to know nothing. To possess all things, resolve to possess nothing. To be all things, be willing to be nothing."

James does acknowledge that asceticism can sometimes be an expression of perversion, or a desire to derive pain from pleasure, which reflects an unhealthy psychology that saints may have at times exhibited. At the same time he sees asceticism as an expression of a natural need for many human beings to perform arduous tasks to strengthen or test themselves, and he discusses this idea more at length in the section that follows on the value of saintliness.

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