William James: The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) Summary. The aim here is to summarise the work generally, highlighting ideas of particular interest.

Lectures 11-13: Saintliness

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James starts the second half of his lecture series by proposing to describe what he calls the practical fruitsof the conversion process he has previously described, proclaiming that:

the best fruits of religious experience are the best things that history has to show. [p 259]

The writer describes his fruits in terms of saintliness:

The collective name for the ripe fruits of religion in a character is Saintliness. The saintly character is the character for which spiritual emotions are the habitual centre of the personal energy; and there is a certain composite photograph of universal saintliness, the same in all religions, of which the features can easily be traced. [p 271]

The four fruits

Specifically, the fruits are, with the writer's own numbering:

1. A feeling of being in a wider life than that of this world's selfish little interests; and a conviction, not merely intellectual, but as it were sensible, of the existence of an Ideal Power. In Christian saintliness this power is always personified as God; but abstract moral ideas, civic or patriotic utopias, or inner visions of holiness or right may also be felt as the true lords and enlargers of our life ...

2. A sense of the friendly continuity of the ideal power with our own life, and a willing self-surrender to its control.

3. An immense elation and freedom, as the outlines of the confining selfhood melt down.

4. A shifting of the emotional centre towards loving and harmonious affections, towards yes, yes, and away from no, where the claims of the non-ego are concerned. [pp 272-273]

Characteristics of saintliness

James further identifies the characteristic practical consequencesof saintliness. These are, with his lettering and italics:

a. Asceticism.- The self-surrender may ... so overrule the ordinary inhibitions of the flesh that the saint finds positive pleasure in sacrifice and asceticism. ...

b. Strength of Soul. - ... personal motives and inhibitions, commonly omnipotent, become too insignificant for notice, and new reaches of patience and fortitude open out. ...

c. Purity. - ... the cleansing of existence from brutal and sensual elements becomes imperative. ... In some temperaments ... weaknesses of the flesh are treated with relentless severity.

d. Charity. - ... tenderness for fellow-creatures ... The saint loves his enemies, and treats loathsome beggars as his brothers. [pp 273-274]

Five fruits, with examples

The rest of the material on saintliness is devoted to examples of the fruits of the spiritual tree. [p 274] James groups his examples with a further set of categories.

The first fruit in this series is the sense of Presence of a higher and friendly Power [p 274]. The first example is taken from Thoreau's Walden, but the others are of Christians, Protestant and Catholic, who offer testimony of their intense, even ecstatic feeling of God's love for them.

The second fruit is Charity and Brotherly Love [p 278]. The writer again brings in Catholic as well as Protestant examples, including the Catholic saints, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius Loyola.

The third fruit is inward tranquillity [p 285], based on letting go and living in the present. In the example of Blaise Pascal this takes the form of resignation.

The craving for moral consistency

The fourth fruit is Purity of Life. [p 290] Here James refers to the writings of early Quakers, who banished from their lives various kinds of conventionality that they found to be superfluous and who suffered as a consequence. Thus Fox [1]refused to take his hat off to social superiors and got beaten up for it. The c18th Quaker, John Woolman, concluded that dye in clothing disguised dirt and so was contrary to cleanliness; so wearing an undyed fur hat made him an oddity. James comments:

When the craving for moral consistency and purity is developed to this degree, the subject may well find the outer world too full of shocks to dwell in, and can unify his life and keep his soul unspotted only by withdrawing from it. [p 296]

A fifth fruit is Asceticism [p 296], involving various sorts of self-denial or cultivation of hardship. Most of the material refers to Catholic ascetics, such as St John of the Cross.


James ends his analysis of saintliness with discussions of two of the monastic vows, obedience and poverty. Regarding obedience, he comments that it is a mystery to him, but:

it evidently corresponds to a profound interior need of many persons, and we must do our best to understand it. [p 311]


Similarly regarding poverty:

Since Hindu fakirs, Buddhist monks, and Mohammedan dervishes unite with Jesuits and Franciscans in idealizing poverty as the loftiest individual state, it is worth while to examine it on spiritual grounds for such a seemingly unnatural opinion. [p 317]

The writer's main conclusion here is that possessions get in the way of action:

Only those who have no private interests can follow an ideal straight away. [p 319]


1 George Fox

For comment, go to Religious geniuses on the Issues page. [Back to Article]

(c) John C Durham, 2002

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