The Varieties of Religious Experience Essays and Criticism

William James

A Religious State of Mind

William James begins his fourth lecture in The Varieties of Religious Experience with the question, ‘‘What is human life’s chief concern?’’ Shortly thereafter he provides the answer, which is ‘‘happiness.’’ Happiness, James tells his readers, is the source behind everything that an individual does, so much so that the overall goal of life is to gain, keep, or recover happiness. It is not mere laughter of which James speaks. It is something that goes much deeper. It goes so deep that this kind of happiness might even be referred to as a religious experience. James clarifies that happiness itself is not religion, but ‘‘we must admit that any persistent enjoyment may produce the sort of religion which consists in a grateful admiration of the gift of so happy an existence.’’ Although happiness is not a religion, the ‘‘more complex ways of experiencing religion’’ are ways of ‘‘producing happiness.’’ But to what kind of happiness is James referring?

To better understand happiness, it might be a good idea to uncover first what James refers to as unhappiness. One of the best examples of this emotional state, or what James calls a ‘‘religious melancholy,’’ is provided through an excerpt from My Confession (1887) by famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy. Before offering Tolstoy’s words, James, who defines Tolstoy’s mental condition as anhedonia, or the ‘‘passive loss of appetite for all life’s values,’’ expounds on Tolstoy’s state of mind by describing how the world might have appeared to Tolstoy when he was in the midst of his depression.

In this state, familiar things that used to inspire him suddenly lost all value. In such a world of no meaning, emotions are drained from the objects and experiences that surround the person involved. For example, where once the sunset might have stirred the emotions of someone, with its beauty or overwhelming sense of romance, it no longer holds significance. In its place is only the fact that the sun is setting; a rainbow of colors tints the sky; and night falls. That is it. It is an event that does not elicit any feelings. There is no importance in one event over another. James compares the ability of an object to stir emotions to the power of love. A woman can stand in front of a man whom she does not love and no matter what that man does in her favor, if love is not there, it will never be there. It cannot be rationalized into existence. Conversely, if a woman loves a man, no matter what he does, he arouses her emotions. In other words, mental states come involuntarily. However, when certain emotions take over a person’s mind, they change that person’s life. The emotions, or passions of life, are gifts, James writes. They are also ‘‘non-logical.’’ They cannot be explained by the intellect.

Tolstoy seems to agree with James, as he relates that his depression made no sense to him at all. There were no elements in his life on which the melancholy could be blamed. It came over him at a time in his life when he was enjoying tremendous success. He was also very much in love with his wife; his children were healthy; and the family lived in a beautiful home. However, for some reason the value of these things was totally withdrawn from him, to the point that Tolstoy considered suicide. What did it matter that he had all these things, St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth-century cleric and mystic theologian discussed by James in his lectures on saintliness Tolstoy began to wonder, when in the end he would die and all these things would fade away? No matter how hard Tolstoy tried to reason with his despair, the only concept that came to him was, as quoted in James, ‘‘the meaningless absurdity of life.’’ So why continue it?

Tolstoy had lost the gift, the abstraction that gives value to life, and no matter what he did with his rational mind, he could not find it. His passageway out of his depression came to him gradually, in what he refers to as a thirst for God, a feeling that rose out of...

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Recurring Issues in Debate Over Religious Experience

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

No book becomes a classic unless it has something to say to generations of readers. One of the remarkable things about The Varieties of...

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Risking Belief: Why William James Still Matters

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

It is almost a hundred years since William James delivered his celebrated Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh on The Varieties of Religious...

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Introduction by John E. Smith

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

I. The Experimental Approach and the Generic Meaning of Religion
Whatever philosophical conclusions were to result from his...

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