The Varieties of Religions Experience – Lectures 6 and 7

Chapter-by-chapter thoughts on William James’ The Varieties of Religious Experience (hardcoverKindle).

Lecture VI & V – The Sick Soul

I admit I’m a bit confused by James’s treatment of “healthy mindedness.” In his last lecture he seemd to praise it as an outlook that motivated the believer, enabling him to see evil as an anomaly, a defect, something bad but that can be overcome. But in “The Sick Soul,” he eventually declares healthy mindedness as inadequate to (philosophically) tackle the problem of inherent evil in the world.

That said, this entire lecture is devoted to an analysis of depression (melancholia, whatever you’d like to call it). James reads accounts from several sufferers, both anonymous and world-famous, describing their fear and hopelessness; their desire to end it all (some with the hope of being with God, of course).

Naturally, people suffering from depression are not likely to see the universe in a balanced way. They’ll obsess about the bad things in life and the “evil” of the world. Beyond that, James never really draws strong conclusions on what depression has to say about religion. He does say that one’s outlook is determined by one’s inherent mental attitude–if you’re born an optimist, you’re likely to take a rosier view of God and sin and evil; if you’re depressed, perhaps the opposite. As James puts it, “There are men who seem to have started in life with a bottle or two of champagne inscribed to their credit; whilst others seem to have been born close to the pain-threshold, which the slightest irritants fatally send them over.”

James concludes that perhaps the depressive has the right idea; that certain kinds of religion cannot reconcile itself with the inherent, overwhelming downbeat of life. Other religions like Buddhism and Christianity, for which “the pessimistic elements are best developed,” are more complete. How festive.

On to Lecture VIII!

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