The Healthy-Minded & Sick Soul 

We have all known or met people who seem happy all the time, who are convinced of the essential goodness of life, who radiate a certain enthusiasm and cheer. They seem almost to have come out of the womb with a bottle of champagne in their hands. Sometimes they even seem blind to the darker sides of life -- to disease, hardship, vices, venality, sin. Instinctively they give others the benefit of the doubt, see the positive and beautiful in everything, and are incapable of censoriousness.

There are those, on the other hand, who are painfully conscious of evil in the world. They tend to be discontented, alienated, divided. They long for a point and purpose in life but cannot find one. They are given to despair and yearn for nothing so much as deliverance from a fallen and transient world.

Most of us would attach the word "optimist" to the first grouping of people and "pessimist" to the second, and leave it at that. But William James, in The Varieties of Religious Experience, went a little further: he preferred the terms "healthy-minded" and "sick soul". James was not only describing human dispositions but explaining how people possessed of different instincts and attitudes approached the subject of religion. James saw religious experience as quite manifold, and in his book examines the orientation of mystics, saints, converts, ascetics, even those consigned to insane asylums.

He counted such thinkers as Emerson and Whitman as "healthy-minded," along with certain liberal preachers. An example of the latter is Edward Everett Hale, who once wrote:

"I can remember perfectly that when I was coming to manhood, the half-philosophical novels of the time had a deal to say  [sic] about the young men and maidens who were facing 'the problem of life.' I had no idea whatever what the problem of life was. To live with all my might seemed to me easy; to learn where there was so much to learn seemed pleasant and almost of course; to lend a hand, if one had a chance, natural; and if one did this, why, he enjoyed life because he could not help it, and without proving to himself that he ought to enjoy it..."

James writes, "One can but recognize in such writers as these the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe."

James thought Luther and Tolstoy had personified the sick soul -- to which category one might also add aspects of Stoicism and Epicureanism, the pessimism of Schopenhauer's philosophy, the fire-and-brimstone theology of Jonathan Edwards, and the spiritual longing of someone like Hermann Hesse. James recognized that there are degrees and gradations of sickness, as there are degrees and gradations of healthy-mindedness. In melancholiacs, he notes,

The world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny. Its color is gone, its breath is cold, there is no speculation in the eyes it glares with. "It is as if I lived in another century," says one asylum patient. -- "I see everything through a cloud," says another, "things are not as they were, and I am changed." -- "I see," says a third, "I touch, but the things do not come near me, a thick veil alters the hue and look of everything." -- "Persons move like shadows, and sounds seem to come from a distant world." -- 'There is no longer any past for me; people appear so strange; it is as if I could not see any reality, as if I were in a theatre"...

In the end, James thought that the healthy-minded are happier and lead more fulfilling lives, but that the sick souls have greater insight into the human condition:

All natural goods perish. Riches take wings; fame is a breath; love is a cheat; youth and health and pleasure vanish. Can things whose end is always dust and disappointment be the real goods which our souls require?...The pride of life and glory of the world will shrivel. It is after all but the standing quarrel of hot youth and hoary eld. Our age has the last word: the purely naturalistic look at life, however enthusiastically it may begin, is sure to end in sadness.

Below are more passages from The Varieties of Religious Experience; they have been excerpted from the 1958 edition, New American Library, pp. 77-80, 84, 116-117, 119, 130-131, 136-139.

 

I. Healthy-Mindedness

"In many persons, happiness is congenital and irreclaimable. 'Cosmic emotion' inevitably takes in them the form of enthusiasm and freedom. I speak not only of those who are animally happy. I mean those who, when unhappiness is offered or proposed to them, positively refuse to feel it, as if it were something mean and wrong. We find such persons in every age, passionately flinging themselves upon their sense of the goodness of life, in spite of the hardships of their own condition, and in spite of the sinister theologies into which they may be born. From the outset their religion is one of union with the divine...Saint Francis and his immediate disciples were, on the whole, of this company of spirits, of which there are of course infinite varieties. Rousseau in the earlier years of his writing, Diderot, B. de Saint Pierre, and many of the leaders of the eighteenth century anti-christian movement were of this optimistic type. They owed their influence to a certain authoritativeness in their feeling that Nature, if you will only trust her sufficiently, is absolutely good.

"It is to be hoped that we all have some friend, perhaps more often feminine than masculine, and young than old, whose soul is of this sky-blue tint, whose affinities are rather with flowers and birds and all enchanting innocencies than with dark human passions, who can think no ill of man or God, and in whom religious gladness, being in possession from the outset, needs no deliverance from any antecedent burden.

"'God has two families of children on this earth," says Francis W. Newman, 'the once-born and the twice-born,' and the once-born he describes as follows: 'They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure'...

"In the Romish Church such characters find a more congenial soil to grow in than in Protestantism, whose fashions of feeling have been set by minds of a decidedly pessimistic order. But even in Protestantism they have been abundant enough; and in its recent 'liberal' developments of Unitarianism and latitudinarianism generally, minds of this order have played and still are playing leading and constructive parts. Emerson himself is an admirable example...in such writers as these the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe. In some individuals optimism may become quasi-pathological. The capacity for even a transient sadness or a momentary humility seems cut off from them as by a kind of congenital anesthesia...

"The deliberate adoption of an optimistic turn of mind thus makes its entrance into philosophy...The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy than the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a way out of difficulty?...

"The systematic cultivation of healthy-mindedness as a religious attitude is therefore consonant with important currents in human nature, and is anything but absurd. In fact, we all do cultivate it more or less, even when our professed theology should in consistency forbid it. We divert our attention from disease and death as much as we can; and the slaughter-houses and indecencies without end on which our life is founded are huddled out of sight and never mentioned, so that the world we recognize officially in literature and in society is a poetic fiction far handsomer and cleaner and better than the world that really is."

 

II. The Sick Soul

"Just as we saw that in healthy-mindedness there are shallower and profounder levels...so also are there different levels of the morbid mind, and the one is much more formidable than the other. There are people for whom evil means only a mal-adjustment with things, a wrong correspondence of one's life with the environment. Such evil as this is curable, in principle at least, upon the natural plane, for merely by modifying either the self or the things, or both at once, the two terms may be made to fit, and all go merry as a marriage bell again. But there are others for whom evil is no mere relation of the subject to particular outer things, but something more radical and general, a wrongness or vice in his essential nature, which no alteration of the environment, or any superficial rearrangement of the inner self, can cure, and which requires a supernatural remedy. On the whole, the Latin races have leaned more towards the former way of looking upon evil, as made up of ills and sins in the plural, removable in detail; while the Germanic races have tended rather to think of Sin in the singular, with a capital S, as of something ineradicably ingrained in our natural subjectivity, and never to be removed by any superficial piecemeal operations. These comparisons of races are always open to exception, but undoubtedly the northern tone in religion has inclined to the more intimately pessimistic persuasion...

"What single-handed man was ever on the whole as successful as Luther? yet when he had grown old, he looked back on his life as if it were an absolute failure.

'I am utterly weary of life. I pray the Lord will come forthwith and carry me hence. Let him come, above all, with his last Judgment: I will stretch out my neck, the thunder will burst forth, and I shall be at rest'. . .

"Failure, then, failure! so the world stamps us at every turn. We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no mere apology or formal expiation, will satisfy the world's demands, but every pound of flesh exacted is soaked with all its blood. The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these results...

"Tolstoy relates that he began to have moments of perplexity, of what he calls arrest, as if he knew not 'how to live,' or what to do. It is obvious that these were moments in which the excitement and interest which our functions naturally bring had ceased. Life had been enchanting, it was now flat sober, more than sober, dead. Things were meaningless whose meaning had always been self-evident. The questions 'Why?' and 'What next?' began to beset him more and more frequently. At first it seemed as if such questions must be answerable, and as if he could easily find the answers if he would take the time; but as they ever became more urgent, he perceived that it is was like those first discomforts of a sick man, to which he pays but little attention till they run into one continuous suffering, and then he realizes that what he took for a passing disorder means the most momentous thing in the world for him, means his death.

"These questions 'Why?' 'Wherefore?' 'What for?' found no response.

'I felt,' says Tolstoy, 'that something had broken within me on which my life had always rested, that I had nothing left to hold on to, and that morally my life had stopped. An invincible force impelled me to get rid of my existence, in one way or another. It cannot be said exactly that I wished to kill myself, for the force which drew me away from life was fuller, more powerful, more general than any mere desire. It was a force like my old aspiration to live, only it impelled me in the opposite direction. It was an aspiration of my whole being to get out of life'...

 

III. Summary

"...we can see how great an antagonism may naturally arise between the healthy-minded way of viewing life and the way that takes all this experience of evil as something essential. To this latter way, the morbid-minded way, as we might call it, healthy-mindedness pure and simple seems unspeakably blind and shallow. To the healthy-minded way, on the other hand, the way of the sick soul seems unmanly and diseased. With their grubbing in rat-holes instead of living in the light; with their manufacture of fears, and preoccupation with every unwholesome kind of misery, there is something almost obscene about these children of wrath and cravers of a second birth...

"[W]hat are we to say of this quarrel? It seems to me that we are bound to say that morbid-mindedness ranges over the wider scale of experience, and that its survey is the one that overlaps. The method of averting one's attention from evil, and living simply in the light of good is splendid as long as it will work. It will work with many persons; it will work far more generally than most of us are ready to suppose; and within the sphere of its successful operation there is nothing to be said against it as a religious solution. But it breaks down impotently as soon as melancholy comes; and even though one be quite free from melancholy one's self, there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality; and they may after all be the best key to life's significance, and possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth...

"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."

 

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