Saturday, July 12, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Sick Soul

William James continues his Varieties of Religious Experience by turning to that more explicitly Christian version of character: the sick-souled man, the tortured soul. To be fair, this "morbid" response does recognize the power and pervasiveness of evil in a way that healthy-mindedness does not.

Note that Martin Luther, known for his self-torment over perceived wickedness and unrighteousness, does not actually belong in the second category, but in the first: ""When I was a monk," he says "I thought that I was utterly cast away, if at any time I felt the lust of the flesh. I should have said to myself, as now commonly I do, 'Martin, thou shalt not utterly be without sin, for thou hast flesh.' "

Yet the sick soul seeks to maximize the impact of evil, not minimize it. The difference, in James's analysis, depends on where one locates the origin of evil. If one frees the original evil from God, if God had nothing to do with it, then evil can be in some way naturally expiated. Yet if one locates primal and systemic evil in any way in God, then there is no hope for one's character save help from that same God.

The first of these tend to be the Latin races, the latter the Germanic: James's take on Catholic and Protestant traditions. And to the truly tormented soul James feels we might do well to turn, lest pessimism offer up its insights unobserved: "Let us see whether pity, pain, and fear, and the sentiment of human helplessness may not open a profounder view"

Success, the pessimist tells us, is precarious- as obviously is happiness. Moreover, the happiest people are most often, upon closer examination, actually unhappy.

James regards this sober estimation as empirically correct. He notes the tend of many, many successful people to regard their own accomplishments as nothing, and nearly everyone's bleaker outlook when facing the inevitable stark horror of death. To these healthy-mindedness has nothing to offer, especially to those who are not already healthy-minded.

Failure, James reminds us, is more common than success.

So James sees the "once-born" of healthy mindedness as philosophically and existentially in a weaker position than the sick soul, the "twice-born." Greek stoicism, for its simplicity, cannot compare with the complex creeds and transformative ecstasies of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic religions.

The point is precisely that these joys do not come easily. James points to the pathological depression of the twice-born. And their equally desperate need to make sense of things. Premier in his study looms the figure of Tolstoy, whose years-long struggle for completion in mid-life led him not back to his original state, but beyond it.

Thus, "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." John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim's Progress, only turned the process outside-in, with worthlessness being inside, rather than in the world. The essential process remained the same.

True religion, even honest thought, James implies, must make sense of these experiences. So, "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."

Thus, comparatively, religions that offer the transformation of depression to exuberance in the sick soul must be rated superior: "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...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]

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