The Varieties of Religious Experience | Study Guide

William James

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The Varieties of Religious Experience | Lectures 6 and 7 : The Sick Soul | Summary



Lecture 6 begins with a review of the healthy-minded temperament, and James mentions the Dutch philosopher Spinoza as an example of someone with a healthy-minded approach, since he condemns repentance, as an "evil passion." James sees the sacrament of Confession, in which Catholics confess their sins to a priest and then receive absolution, as a milder form of healthy-mindedness, since it allows people to move on with a clean slate. Martin Luther, the Catholic priest who inspired the Protestant Reformation, criticizes Confession but is healthy-minded in this one particular because he reasons that it is inevitable for humans to sin; therefore, God will pardon them. Mystic Miguel de Molinos, who was accused of heresy by the Catholic Church for his doctrine of Quietism, also has a healthy-minded approach to repentance. He counsels not wasting time wallowing in one's mistakes but simply trying to do better and relying on God's mercy.

In wrapping up his discussion of healthy-mindedness, James refers to it as pluralistic theism, as opposed to philosophic theism (God-centered philosophy), which tends toward pantheism and monism. James says that in "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." Thus, according to his understanding of pantheism and monism, evil cannot be satisfactorily accounted for. On the other hand, pluralistic theism allows evil to exist as something separate from the good, which can be overcome. The philosophy of healthy-mindedness calls evil irrational and does not give it a place in any system of truth. James pronounces the "mind-cure gospel" a "genuine religion, and no mere silly appeal to imagination to cure disease," since it uses a method of "experimental verification ... not unlike science" and creates "a metaphysical structure of the world."

He now turns to the radically opposite view of healthy-mindedness: those with a more morbid outlook. While there are variations in people's consciousness of evil, some see themselves or the world as incurably wrong. Psychology has coined the term "threshold" to designate a change in state of mind—as in pain threshold; likewise, there is a misery threshold. Those living on the "sunny side of their misery-line" need a different religion from the depressed and melancholy.

James now takes a slight detour in his line of thought to expound on the almost universal feeling of failure. Most people, even happy people, feel for one reason or another that they have not reached their ideals. James then quotes a few examples, including a passage written by Martin Luther and a famous passage from the Hebrew Bible's book of Ecclesiastes, which begins, "What profit hath a man of all his labor which he taketh under the Sun?" Life and its negation, then, are inextricably linked, primarily because human beings are self-conscious creatures who know they will die. What alleviates the pain of the consciousness of death are notions of an eternal moral order, that suffering has significance, and that contact with God is possible. Those of a more morbid cast of mind—the twice-born whose religion, unlike the healthy-minded, is "un-naturalistic"—find joy in "their several creeds of mysticism and renunciation."

The Greek Stoics and followers of Epicure committed themselves to escaping unhappiness rather than trying to be happy. They expected very little from life and practiced detachment. James identifies their philosophy as coming at the end of a once-born period in the history of Western religion. For the twice-born, whether Christian or an Eastern pantheist, happiness comes by committing oneself to radical pessimism. Such extreme melancholy is associated with a "neurotic constitution," James says. He then provides a description of anhedonia, or inability to experience joy, followed by autobiographical accounts of deep depression. James associates these accounts with religious melancholy, in which people see no good in the world but have a strong sense of evil or foreboding.

Religious melancholy, however, has "a more melting mood," and James spends the rest of the lecture deconstructing the religious melancholy of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy and the English author of The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan. Tolstoy's My Confession recounts a bout with melancholia the novelist experienced at age 50, in which he felt "absolute disenchantment with ordinary life." It is impossible to go back to ordinary happiness once a person arrives at this place; if they are fortunate, they continue to travel, arriving at a new place where natural evil is "swallowed up in supernatural good." James calls this the redemption of the twice-born.

Bunyan's melancholy was different from Tolstoy's in that he saw wrongness not outside himself but rather inside himself. James says his case was typical of someone with a psychopathic temperament, manifesting as a conscience that was sensitive to the point of disease. Bunyan, like Tolstoy, was delivered from his melancholy and experienced a spiritual transformation. James describes Bunyan's transformation in more detail in Lecture 8. James provides one additional account of religious melancholy from an unnamed source. He summarizes, saying the first sufferer saw the "vanity of mortal things"; the second felt his own "sense of sin"; and the third had a "fear of the universe." The real core of the religious problem, says James, is "Help! Help!" Healthy-mindedness works for some people, or it works for a time, but it is inadequate in the face of religious melancholy. Moreover, it may be that some types of evil are too extreme to enter into a metaphysical system and can be met only with "dumb submission" or "neglect to notice." James determines that systematic healthy-mindedness is less complete than religious systems that account for pain, sorrow, and death. Thus, the more complete religions include pessimistic elements.


In wrapping up his discussion of healthy-minded religion, James reiterates some points he has already made as well as introduces new material. On the one hand, he calls Spinoza healthy-minded for condemning repentance, while on the other he applauds as healthy-minded the Catholic sacrament of Confession, in which a repentant person confesses their sins to a priest, who acts as a representative of God. Perhaps what James is trying to get across is that excessive remorse is psychologically unhealthy because it puts a person in the position of thinking of themselves as bad, which means they are more likely to do wrong again if they brood on their badness; moreover, they will likely feel resentment for being forced to feel badly about themselves, which is more likely to trigger additional bad behavior. James notes that "evil is a disease; and worry over disease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint ... The best repentance is to up and act for righteousness, and forget that you ever had relations with sin." Thus, he commends Martin Luther for his attitude that God will forgive people their sins since they cannot help but commit them. The important part is to try to do better, from the healthy-minded standpoint.

James calls healthy-mindedness "pluralistic theism" because it separates evil from good, and doesn't see any part of God in evil. On the other hand, he associates pantheism and monism with philosophical theism, as if they are identical. But James makes a serious error in equating monism with pantheism, which he does throughout The Varieties, especially when he gets to a discussion of Indian philosophy in Lectures 16 and 17. Pantheism is the view that God and the universe are identical. Monism may refer to any number of speculative philosophies positing that there is only one ultimate substance. However, Indian monism, specifically, Vedanta, is the philosophy to which James returns to most often, especially in his discussions of mysticism, which is his central concern in The Varieties. Vedantic monism holds the view that an ultimate reality (impersonal transcendent consciousness) exists, while the material world manifests as the power of illusion. This is a very different idea from pantheism. Another form of monism that James alludes to, specifically in these lectures on the sick soul, is the absolute idealism of the German philosophers. James even claims the German idealists would do well to dispense with the monistic underpinnings of their philosophy. In German monism, the ground of being is a dynamic and historical process, which unfolds and gives rise to increasingly complex forms of being and consciousness. This monism is also different from pantheism. James's real problem is that he wishes to separate evil from any notion of God or god-likeness. However, in the process of arguing for a philosophy of dualism, which he will take up again in later lectures, he conflates monism with pantheism. Further, he does not define either term, and he does not distinguish among different types of monism.

James pronounces the "mind-cure gospel" as a genuine religion in part because it uses experimental verification, but this view seems like an exaggeration to the modern reader. The verification he refers to are accounts of people who claim they were cured of either psychological or physical disease either by their own minds or the intervention of a faith healer. While it is plausible that the mind-cure might work on certain types of psychological illnesses or psychologically induced physical problems, it is less plausible that the mind-cure would work on serious physical illness. Once again, the proof would be in the pudding, not in people's assertions, and James doesn't provide any pudding in the form of scientific verification. Still, the mind-cure enthusiasts have, as James notes, created a metaphysical structure and live by their belief system, so in that sense it seems reasonable to call mind-cure a religion.

When James turns to the twice-born, those with a morbid outlook on life, he seems to be on more solid ground. He begins this part of his discussion by pointing out that most people, even very successful people, consider themselves to be failures in some sense, and he quotes from Ecclesiastes, which is a meditation on the brevity of life and the vanity of the endeavors of creatures whose existence is so short in the grand scheme of things. He ties together these two ideas because the knowledge of death informs people's feeling that whatever they accomplish can never be enough to make up for the fact that they and their works are ultimately assigned to oblivion. The only idea that can blunt the pain of the knowledge of mortality is that suffering has meaning in a universe that is morally ordered by God. Also of comfort is the idea that they might make contact with that deity, either in the here and now or in the hereafter.

Once again James makes a distinction between the Stoics and the adherents of both Christianity and "Eastern pantheism," by which he means Indian monists and probably Buddhists. While the Stoics escape unhappiness by not expecting too much of life and committing themselves to detachment, the others embrace "radical pessimism." James appears to be referring to the Christian notion that man is sinful and the Indian notion that life is suffering. The first precept of Buddhism is "sarvam dukham," which means that there is suffering or that there is unhappiness everywhere. James associates this kind of religious pessimism with psychological depression and cases of anhedonia (the inability to experience joy), but this connection seems like a false equivalency. To look at life with open eyes and admit that it consists largely of mental and physical dissatisfaction is not the same as being unable to experience joy or becoming so depressed that it is impossible to function.

James perhaps ties depression with religious pessimism because people often turn to religion to alleviate psychological pain, which then becomes a doorway through which they enter a religious path. They then resolve their neuroses by virtue of ascending to a higher state of consciousness. In such states, and often as a result of them, the previous neuroses disappear. James sees religion as a solution to the dread that comes with being a conscious mortal, and he finds the path of the twice-born to be more complete, since it takes into account a larger arena of human experience, both good and bad.

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