Sick Souls, Healthy Minds - How William James Can Save Your Life

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A nice perspective on W. James's life and philosophy.


Take the happiest man, the one most envied by the world, and in nine cases out of ten his inmost consciousness is one of failure.

—- William James

“I AM A LOW-LIVED WRETCH. I’ve been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.” William James was on the brink of adulthood and, as he confessed to his friend Henry Bowditch in 1869, on the brink of collapse. In the coming two decades, James would write—letters, essays, books—incessantly, like his life depended on it. He’d become the father of American philosophy and psychology, but when he wrote to Bowditch he couldn’t foresee any of it. Actually, he often struggled to see the next day.
after an eighteen-month sojourn in Berlin. This trip, a quest in search of good health and sanity, had failed. More accurately, it had proven deeply counterproductive. He was, if anything, deeper in the pit. Back in New England, the prospect of earning his medical degree—which he’d go on to do without difficulty —gave him little joy. His heart wasn’t in it, wasn’t in anything. In truth, it may have been in too many things at once.

James’s polymathic abilities were, partially, responsible for his divided self—part poet, part biologist, part artist, part mystic. He was pulled in too many directions, like a man on the rack, and therefore, for a time, couldn’t move, forward or otherwise. He was a man of disparate pieces, and in his early years he nearly failed to hold himself together. But there was something else. James was also philosophically stuck, mired in thoughts that had plagued countless thinkers before him: maybe human beings are determined by forces beyond their control; maybe their lives are destined from the start, fated to end tragically and meaninglessly; maybe human beings, despite their best efforts, can’t act on their own behalf, as free and vibrant beings; maybe they’re nothing but cogs in an unfortunately constructed machine.

Meaninglessness was the problem, James’s problem, and it drove him to the edge of suicide.

1 - Determinism and Despair

IN A CERTAIN SENSE, the way that we take in life is determined without our permission. No one asks us if we would like to be born or if we might like to grow up in this family rather than that one. One’s race, sex, socioeconomic condition, and health are factors that are largely accidental. We are, in the words of the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger, “thrown” into the world, set adrift, and, through much of adolescence, live at the mercy of forces beyond our control.

He believed that the point of life wasn’t merely to make a living, to assume some narrowly circumscribed task and do it repeatedly day after day. It wasn’t about making money or punching a clock. Instead, the objective of human existence was to cultivate good character. “And in as much,” Henry Sr. wrote of raising a son, “as I know that this character cannot be forcibly imposed on him, but must be freely assumed, I surround him as far as possible with an atmosphere of freedom.”

James was given every possible opportunity to flourish and be shielded from the world’s harsher realities. He was, in the simplest possible terms, spoiled.

James wrote, “I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the fleshpots, but it seems kind of like selling one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined however with physical penury.”

In 1866, after returning to Boston and resuming medical school, James began a meticulous study of Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic. James only read two or three pages a day.
According to “Mark,” as James fondly calls him, human beings consist of three parts: a “little flesh,” “some breath,” and something called “the ruling part.” The first two of these are fragile and transitory: our body and breath come and go quickly, in a tragically disgusting fashion. At the end of the existential day, we are a bunch of meat sacks destined for the grinder. After confronting the force of the ocean and profound sickness, James knew this all too well. The “ruling part,” however, sometimes translated as “reason,” is the coping mechanism to deal with the tragedy of the human condition. The controlling part can face the nastiness of human finitude and bring our life into tune with any brutal reality. This isn’t just a grin-and-bear-it philosophy, as Stoicism is often described, but rather an attempt to harmonize one’s life with the cruel necessities of nature. As one becomes an adult, it is best to come to terms with gray hair, disease, and death. It’s going to happen anyway.

"It seems to me that any man who can, like him, grasp the love of a “life according to nature” i.e. a life in which your individual will becomes so harmonized to nature’s will as cheerfully to acquiesce in whatever she assigns to you, know that you serve some purpose in her vast machinery which will never be revealed to you—any man who can do this will, I say, be a pleasing spectacle, no matter what his lot in life."

Stoicism turns on the presumption that there are two constitutive elements of every person: the bodily self that is subject to natural laws and the “ruling” spiritual self (a soul) that can determine its orientation to the workings of nature.
While the bodily self is definitely not free, this “ruling part” is more or less at liberty to choose how to respond to its highly unfortunate circumstances.

Humans are different than things: they have souls and minds and free will and can do as they please.

Suicide can be regarded not as a letting go, but rather a laying claim to a life that is otherwise out of control. Control: that is what James wanted. He craved a sense that his will had some, even a little, causal efficacy.

“I remember wondering how other people,” he writes, “could live, how I myself had ever lived, so unconscious of that pit of insecurity beneath the surface of life.”

2 - Freedom and Life