William James on being alive

RDN’s credo, as at New Year, 2022 is culled from William James and, being paraphrased, runs: Humanity is a worthwhile joint enterprise and being useful to it makes sense of each of us.

In a little detail: Minus the religious dimension (easily achieved by substituting the word “despair” for his “atheisms”), these words below of William James seem to be as good as it gets. The impatient can skip to the highlighted sentences. (But I strongly recommend reading the whole text quoted.)

The Will to Believe by William James (1842–1910) includes the essay, “Is Life Worth Living?” (an address to the Harvard Young Men’s Christian Association first published in the International Journal of Ethics for October 1895  and as a pocket volume by SB Weston, Philadelphia, 1896).

These are the concluding paragraphs of the essay and are often quoted, but not known by RDN until 29/12/21.

William James quotation begins…

I confess that I do not see why the very existence of an invisible world may not in part depend on the personal response which any one of us may make to the religious appeal. God himself, in short, may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity. For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will. But it feels like a real fight,—as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild half-saved universe our nature is adapted. The deepest thing in our nature is this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and our unwillingnesses, our faiths and our fears. As through the cracks and crannies of caverns those waters exude from the earth’s bosom which then form the fountain-heads of springs, so in these crepuscular depths of personality the sources of all our outer deeds and decisions take their rise. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things; and compared with these concrete movements of our soul all abstract statements and scientific arguments—the veto, for example, which the strict positivist pronounces upon our faith—sound to us like mere chatterings of the teeth …          

These then are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific’ proof that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great battle had been gained: ‘Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there!’
William James quote ends

RDN footnotes:

The English poet Robert Bridges (1844–1930) included these remarks in The Spirit of Man: An Anthology, 1916, saying they had been sent to him by William’s brother James, the novelist. The quotation also opens William James: In the maelstrom of American Modernism, by Robert D Richardson (2006) (It’s a self-proclaimed “intellectual biography”.)

I strongly warm to these ideas as fitting well with my admired Teilhard de Chardin’s thinking on the noosphere. Stripping religious credulity from either James’ or de Chardin’s thinking is easy (and necessary alike for atheists and the sophisticated religious). Try Don Cuppit’s thinking on religion as metaphor as an exercise in what a post-supernatural religious impulse might look like.

I don’t think James’s advice (and certainly not mine) is that to contribute to humanity implies that one must, for instance, be politically active or undertake charitable works or be an entrepreneur. To contribute is not necessarily to be an activist. I think of it more as considering the degree to which one is aiming to keep the human enterprise, firstly in mind, and secondly in good shape. I am all for politics and philanthropy, but they can be proxies for self-seeking, self-interest and self-gratification. Nothing wrong in those, but they don’t constitute and can’t automatically substitute for the peculiar business of asking oneself if, in the round, our species’ consciousness has been improved by one’s activities. Even communication (writing, speaking, Tweeting) may not be necessary to this odd sort of personal activity. The reverse might well be true. A monk or a hermit may be advancing humanity, though I admit it may be necessary for their acts of withdrawal to be known to the world for the trick to be achieved.

The obvious difficulty with considering whether one has contributed to the human consciousness is that it is hard to know how one is to assess what that common consciousness might consist of, let alone calibrate one’s own contribution to it. Religions and intellectual movements such as the Reformation, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment all addressed the matter, and the legacy of them all still do. They are all so full of contradictions that we must admit they provided, at best, indications which are easily contested. I suppose I can settle on ideas such as the avoidance of credulity (willing false belief), sentimentality (willing false feeling) and immodesty (willing self-aggrandisement). But the pursuit of these comes with the risk of cynicism, hard-heartedness and self-abasement, respectively.

I incline pretty happily to the view that none of us knows how to contribute to so odd a beast as the miasma, or cloud, or web of ideas which humans spin around this globe. It certainly isn’t capable of being turned into a convenient or coherent single notion. It seems at its best when it celebrates vibrancy and even a competitive marketplace such that plainly bad ideas get squashed or marginalised. Indeed, about all we know is that anyone or body of people who claim to know what it is right for others to believe and who assert that they are beyond challenge are not on the money. And so we come back to the matter which concerns me most: how to guard against the illiberalism which so many liberals fall into.

One way to demystify the idea of consciousness at an all-humanity or species level (de Chardin’s noosphere) is to think in terms of human cultures. We are familiar with the idea of the “English” or “British” (or “French” or “Breton”) culture. We are used to upscaling such entities as the Anglosphere, or the Francophone world. We are familiar with the idea of the “West” or the “East”. Seen this way, it is not such a leap to the noosphere, or the idea of the “human culture”.

One of the things we observe within any culture is its tensions, disputes and arguments. Similarly, when we consider two cultures side by side, we have no difficulty in discussing the arguments between them. So when we consider the human culture as a whole we can readily accept that it is, amongst all sorts of things, argumentative. Indeed, it contains all the “sub-cultures” which are its building blocks.

This is all as simple and vertiginous as the old address children used to write, which began with their house name and went on up to “The Universe”. It may be objected that to think of the human culture as a whole is as futile as to think of oneself as a Citizen of the World. (A notion which only works until one realises that one votes, pays taxes and has a bureaucratic identity at a much finer grain of territory or administration or polity than that – at least for now.) But it wouldn’t quite do to say that one has discharged or explored one’s full human identity if one has done so only within one of the sub-cultures. One should perhaps try to conceive of oneself as part of a rather larger human enterprise than patriotism alone might recognise.

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Publication date

01 January 2022