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

Lectures 6 & 7: The Sick Soul

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In these two lectures, James looks at how people may be affected by awareness of sin in themselves and of evil in the world. He begins by noting the healthy-minded response to evil, but spends most of the two lectures on a response he labels morbid.

The healthy-minded response to evil

According to the writer, the healthy-minded response to evil is essentially to minimise it. He finds this in attitudes to repentance. Thus, the Catholic practice of confession and absolution [p 128] allows penitents to, as we might say, walk away from their sins.

Not altogether different was Luther. He may have rejected the Catholic sacrament of penance, but his attitude to repentance was still to a degree healthy-minded: you should simply accept that you are a sinner and put your trust in God's mercy.

James sees healthy-mindedness as associated with a particular stance in religious philosophy. If you are going to free God from responsibility for the existence of evil in the world, then you have to see evil as a totally independent principle. This gives you a somewhat pluralistic philosophy.

Two types of morbid mind

Turning away from healthy-mindedness, James makes a radical distinction between two types of morbid mind. Thus:

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. ... But there 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. [p 134]

James associates the former attitude with the Latin races and the latter with the Germanic races. We must take these to refer to Catholicism and Protestantism respectively.

Profound pessimism

The writer now fixes his gaze on those who are very deeply afflicted by pessimism. He seems to think that they will lead us to more significant insights:

Let us see whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view[p 136].

Happiness and success

James equates happiness with success and points out that this last is always precarious. What is more, those who are apparently successful rarely truly feel that way:

But take the happiest man, the man most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure. [p 137]

Life as failure

Thus James quotes Goethe in old age to the effect that, looking back, he had always found life nothing but pain and burden.

Again, he quotes Robert Louis Stevenson, seemingly with approval:

Whatever else we are intended to do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted. [p 138]

What is more, after failure comes death:

Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness. [p 139]

In the face of realities like these, healthy-mindedness has nothing to offer, suggests James.

Taking up a terminology he had first mentioned in a earlier lecture [p 80], James refers to those with a healthy-minded attitude as the once-born and those with the alternative as the twice-born. He offers a chronology and a parallel evaluation which makes the former earlier and inferior to the latter.

The once-born

The writer distinguishes three stages among the once-born. First, there was man's primitive intoxication with sense-happiness[p 143]. Then there came ancient Greek Epicurianism and Stoicism:

Stoic insensibility and Epicurean resignation were the farthest advance that the Greek mind made ... [p 143].

The twice-born

Finally, there came the great religions of the twice-born:

[The Greeks] knew no joys comparable to those which we shall erelong see that Brahmans, Buddhists, Christians, Mohammedans, twice-born people whose religion is non-naturalistic, get from their several creeds of mysticism and renunciation. [p 143]

And again:

Compared with the complex ecstasies which the supernaturally regenerated Christian may enjoy, or the oriental pantheist indulge in, [Epicurian and Stoic] receipts for equanimity are expedients which seem almost crude in their simplicity. [p 144]

Profound depression in the twice-born

James now begins his exploration of the links between religious experience and mental abnormality by associating the twice-born with pathological depression. He finds that for profound depression to lead to significant religious experience, it must be accompanied by a powerful desire to make sense of things.

His prime example here is Leo Tolstoy. James explains that the Russian novelist's successful effort to restore himself to mental health led to more than a return to his original condition. The twice-born reach a new and higher plane:

The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before. [p 157]

Another case explored at length by James is that of John Bunyan. The author of The Pilgrim's Progress differed from Tolstoy in that his depression focused on himself as worthless rather than on the world as meaningless.

James suggests that any religion that is going to really mean anything must be able to address cases like those of Tolstoy and Bunyan:

No prophet can claim to bring a final message unless he says things that will have a sound of reality in the ears of victims such as these. [p 162]

The coarser religions

And James adds this:

But the deliverance must come in as strong a form as the complaint, if it is to take effect; and that seems a reason why the coarser religions, revivalistic, orgiastic, with blood and miracles and supernatural operations, may possibly never be displaced. Some constitutions need them too much. [p 162]

The writer then renews the attack on healthy-mindedness:

there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth. [p163]

The completest religions

Finally, he offers a judgment on the relative merits of religions:

The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed. Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known to us of these. [p 165]


They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life. [p 165]
(c) John C Durham, 2002

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