Monday, August 4, 2008

Cliff Notes: The Value of Saintliness

In this lecture, James, not surprisingly for the future founder of Pragmatism, looks to see in greater detail what are the common-sense, lived, practical fruits of saintly character- but not before noting that much religion is often more or less directly opposed to those who will become saints and spiritual geniuses.

Indeed, there is a rough but certain process by which religion deals with the spiritually brilliant outsider, those who like Christ and George Fox insist on wandering the wilderness:

1. heterodoxy to its witnesses, the prophet appearing as a mere lonely madman.

2. If his doctrine prove contagious enough to spread it becomes a heresy.

3. If it then still prove contagious enough to triumph over persecution, it becomes itself an orthodoxy.

4. The new church...can be henceforth counted on as a staunch ally in every attempt to stifle the spontaneous religious spirit.

This leaves a fairly negative account of religion and the saint, a criticism that James addresses at some length. (Though one might note, here, that the religious community also forms the saint in the first place, an argument James does not directly deal with-it's part of the short shrift James gives throughout to religious communities). Yet he does note that the sins of the community are the sins of its individuals writ large, and this is his argument.

These religious errors are not, James asserts, the fruit of evil intents or designs, but the corrupt and excessively ripe, rotten fruits of saintliness itself.

An excess of Devotion becomes what we might call "theophilia". Of the founder of the Sacred Heart order he records, "They tried her in the kitchen, but were forced to give it up as hopeless - everything dropped out of her hands. They put her in the school, where the little girls cherished her but she was too absorbed inwardly to pay the necessary attention. Poor dear sister."

Becoming distracted by the minutiae of internal religious fervor, she became useless to her fellows in her order, and to James himself, judging by his tone.

An excess of Purity likewise leads to a kind of revolting small-ness, as in St. Louis of Ganzaga, the patron saint of young people:

"Mary accepted the offering of his innocent heart. Thenceforward he never raised his eyes, either when walking in the streets, or when in society. Not only did he avoid all business with females, but he renounced all conversation and every kind of social recreation with them...Never was he seen to hold in his hand a flower or anything perfumed, that he might take pleasure in it. In the hospital, he used to seek whatever was most disgusting, and eagerly snatch the bandages of ulcers. He sought after false accusations and unjust reprimands as opportunities of humility. He died in 1591, in his twenty-ninth year."

Of the two virtues of Tenderness and Charity James has more generally positive things to say; this fruit does not seem quite so easily corruptible. They go against the grain of our society, they seem to, as in Nietzsche, foster the very existence of weak and undesirable people.

And here James seems willing to let the individual adopt however much fruit he or she will, because, as he says,

"You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers. And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one ready to be duped rather than live on suspicion; the world would be an infinitely worse place."

He goes on, marvelously, to compare us all to horses. Doesn't the world need more than one kind of horse? An he asserts that the better order, the order best to come, is the world proposed by tenderness and charity, so that the saints here broadcast the way we all ought ideally to live.

Lastly, James deals with the excesses of Asceticism, of which much could be written. But James here refrains, having dealt with as much earlier, and includes a suggestion for voluntary poverty, in some of the best language of the book:

"Is it not possible for us to discard most of these older forms of mortification, and yet find saner channels for the heroism which inspired them? What we now need to discover in the social realm is the moral equivalent of war: something heroic that will speak to men as universally as war does, and yet will be as compatible with their spiritual selves as war has proved itself to be incompatible. I have often thought that in the old monkish poverty-worship, in spite of the pedantry which infested it, there might be something like that moral equivalent of war which we are seeking.

We have grown literally afraid of being poor. We despise any one who elects to be poor in order to simplify and save his inner life. If he does not join in the general scramble and pant with the money making street, we deem him spiritless and lacking in is certain that the prevalent fear of poverty among the educated classes is the worst moral disease from which our civilization suffers.

Let us be saints, then, if we can, whether or not we succeed. But in our Father's house are many mansions, and each of us must discover for himself the kind of religion and the amount of saintship which best comports with what he believes to be his powers and feels to be his truest mission and vocation."

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