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The Varieties of Religious Experience

by William James

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Marcus Aurelius Marcus Aurelius (121–180 A.D.) was a Roman emperor and renown stoic who wrote a famous book on how to live. James quotes from Aurelius’s writing to demonstrate his stoic nature, which agrees to the circumstances of life but not necessarily with them.

Jonathan Edwards Theologian and metaphysician Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was born in Connecticut, the only son of eleven children. He graduated from Yale at the age of seventeen and became a minister, as his father and grandfather were before him. James quotes Edwards throughout his lectures but in particular in his first lecture: ‘‘by their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.’’ Man’s roots, James expounds, are inaccessible. Only by the empirical evidence of the fruit is something known. This is one of James’s basic tenets. Only by the results of a practice does one know if it is true.

George Fox Founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers), George Fox (1624–1691) was born in England and traveled around Europe and the New World promoting his religious views. James often uses Fox as an example of a person using his or her pathological features (such as ‘‘nervous instability’’) to help give him or her ‘‘religious authority and influence.’’ James states that no one of any reputation would state that Fox’s mind was unsound, despite the fact that his published journal abounds in entries that make Fox sound like a ‘‘psychopath.’’ Fox often had visions that would direct him to do strange things, such as pulling off his shoes and walking barefoot in winter and crying out that people he met should repent.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel Born in Stuttgart, Germany, Georg Hegel (1770–1831) was the central philosophical influence on Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. James refers to Hegel’s theories in his lecture on philosophy. He mentions two Hegelian school principles. The first is that ‘‘the fullness of life can be construed to thought only by recognizing that every object which our thought may propose to itself involves the notion of some other object which seems at first to negate the first one.’’ The second principle states that if a person is conscious of a negation, that person is ‘‘virtually to be beyond it.’’ In other words, the concept of the finite, James writes, somehow already acknowledges the infinite.

Immanuel Kant German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) had a strong influence on the study of metaphysics and ethics, and spent most of his life attempting to answer the question, ‘‘What do we know?’’ In his lecture ‘‘The Reality of the Unseen,’’ James calls upon some of Kant’s thoughts about the nature of God and soul. James paraphrases Kant, who believed that since these concepts ‘‘cover no distinctive sense-content,’’ theoretically they are ‘‘devoid of any significance.’’ However, Kant did concede that the concept of God and soul hold meaning in practice of life and that people have the right to act as if they held substance. In other words, people can live their lives as if there is a God.

Martin Luther James refers to Martin Luther (1483–1546), whose philosophy was to become the foundation of the Lutheran Church, in his lecture about the sick soul, and in later lectures, because of Luther’s rather melancholic disposition. The quotes that James uses display Luther’s sense of almost desperate need for a belief in a god.

Frederic W. H. Myers Frederic W. H. Myers (1843–1901) was a member of the Society for Psychical Research. During his lifetime, he published several essays on subliminal consciousness, a concept that James addresses in his lectures on conversion. James writes, ‘‘this discovery of a...

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consciousness existing beyond the field . . . casts light on many phenomena of religious biography.’’ Myers coined the wordautomatism, to which James refers. It is a reference to unaccountable impulses such as automatic writing, by which an individual writes things of which he or she claims not to understand the meaning. Later, James quotes from a letter from Myers in which Myers discusses prayer.

John Henry Newman John Henry Newman (1801–1890) was a cardinal in the Roman Catholic Church, and James quotes him in his lecture on philosophy that states that theology is ‘‘a science in the strictest sense of the word.’’ Newman claimed that truths about God could be (and were) known and could be claimed as fact ‘‘just as we have a science of the stars and call it astronomy.’’ James uses Newman to point out the dogmatic nature of institutionalized religion, in which feeling is valid only for the individual and ‘‘is pitted against reason,’’ which is considered universally valid.

Friedrich Nietzsche Born in Prussia, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) has greatly influenced the philosophical world. James refers to Nietzsche’s comments on saintliness, of which James states, ‘‘The most inimical critic of the saintly impulses whom I know is Nietzsche.’’ Nietzsche contrasts saintliness to the aggressive nature of the military type, with emphasis and advantage on the latter. In other words, according to Nietzsche saintliness was a weakness.

Saint John of the Cross Cofounder of the Roman Catholic order of Carmelites and doctor of mystic theology, Saint John of the Cross (1542–1591) provides James in his lecture on saintliness with an extreme type of ascetic personality. James quotes St. John at length in a list of all the ways in which St. John finds to humiliate and humble himself. For example, St. John believed that people should not seek what is best in life but rather they should seek what is worst ‘‘so that you may enter for the love of Christ into a complete destitution.’’

Edwin Diller Starbuck Throughout the lecture on conversion, James often refers to the studies of E. D. Starbuck (1866–1947), a Stanford University professor who along with James was considered one of the pioneers in the study of the psychology of religion. In particular, James mentions Starbuck’s statistical research on conversion among adolescents. Starbuck published several books after James’s death, two of which are The Psychology of Religion (1911) and Religion in Transition (1937).

Leo Tolstoy James uses the story about Russian author Leo Tolstoy’s long bout with melancholia and his subsequent recovery as an example of a conversion over a long period of time. Tolstoy (1828–1910) published an account of his depression and religious experience in his book My Confession (1887). He suffered from what James calls anhedonia, the ‘‘passive loss of appetite for all life’s values.’’ During this time, Tolstoy could find no reason to continue with life since everything he accomplished would end with his death. He could find no meaning in life, despite the fact that he was happily married, was a success, and received praise for his work from an international community. He often contemplated suicide during this period, although he states he never actually thought he would do it. Over the course of a year, he slowly began to realize that all humankind was put on this Earth to live for some reason. The concept of an infinite God broadened his scope and made him stop thinking about his own finite parameters.

Walt Whitman James uses American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892) as his prime example of the healthyminded individual. James quotes one of Whitman’s students, who states that Whitman could find supreme happiness just strolling outside and looking at the grass, the trees, and the sky. According to James, everything in life pleased Whitman, and he enjoyed a wide readership in his time (a readership that continues in the twenty-first century) because of his ‘‘systematic expulsion from his writing of all contractile elements.’’ Whitman wrote in the first person not as an egotist, James writes, but as Universal Man. His poetry reassures his readers that everything in life is good. James also quotes Whitman in his lecture on mysticism, claiming that Whitman’s poetry contains a ‘‘classical expression of this sporadic type of mystical experience.’’




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