A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

William James

"The Varieties of Religious Experience - Lecture 1: Religion and Neurology"

Lecture I

It is with no small amount of trepidation that I take my place behind
this desk, and face this learned audience. To us Americans, the
experience of receiving instruction from the living voice, as well as
from the books, of European scholars, is very familiar. At my own
University of Harvard, not a winter passes without its harvest, large
or small, of lectures from Scottish, English, French, or German
representatives of the science or literature of their respective
countries whom we have either induced to cross the ocean to address us,
or captured on the wing as they were visiting our land. It seems the
natural thing for us to listen whilst the Europeans talk. The contrary
habit, of talking whilst the Europeans listen, we have not yet
acquired; and in him who first makes the adventure it begets a certain
sense of apology being due for so presumptuous an act. Particularly
must this be the case on a soil as sacred to the American imagination
as that of Edinburgh. The glories of the philosophic chair of this
university were deeply impressed on my imagination in boyhood.
Professor Fraser's Essays in Philosophy, then just published, was the
first philosophic book I ever looked into, and I well remember the
awestruck feeling I received from the account of Sir William Hamilton's
classroom therein contained. Hamilton's own lectures were the first
philosophic writings I ever forced myself to study, and after that I
was immersed in Dugald Stewart and Thomas Brown. Such juvenile
emotions of reverence never get outgrown; and I confess that to find my
humble self promoted from my native wilderness to be actually for the
time an official here, and transmuted into a colleague of these
illustrious names, carries with it a sense of dreamland quite as much
as of reality.

But since I have received the honor of this appointment I have felt
that it would never do to decline. The academic career also has its
heroic obligations, so I stand here without further deprecatory words.
Let me say only this, that now that the current, here and at Aberdeen,
has begun to run from west to east, I hope it may continue to do so.
As the years go by, I hope that many of my countrymen may be asked to
lecture in the Scottish universities, changing places with Scotsmen
lecturing in the United States; I hope that our people may become in
all these higher matters even as one people; and that the peculiar
philosophic temperament, as well as the peculiar political temperament,
that goes with our English speech may more and more pervade and
influence the world.

As regards the manner in which I shall have to administer this
lectureship, I am neither a theologian, nor a scholar learned in the
history of religions, nor an anthropologist. Psychology is the only
branch of learning in which I am particularly versed. To the
psychologist the religious propensities of man must be at least as
interesting as any other of the facts pertaining to his mental
constitution. It would seem, therefore, that, as a psychologist, the
natural thing for me would be to invite you to a descriptive survey of
those religious propensities.

If the inquiry be psychological, not religious institutions, but rather
religious feelings and religious impulses must be its subject, and I
must confine myself to those more developed subjective phenomena
recorded in literature produced by articulate and fully self-conscious
men, in works of piety and autobiography. Interesting as the origins
and early stages of a subject always are, yet when one seeks earnestly
for its full significance, one must always look to its more completely
evolved and perfect forms. It follows from this that the doc*ments
that will most concern us will be those of the men who were most
accomplished in the religious life and best able to give an
intelligible account of their ideas and motives. These men, of course,
are either comparatively modern writers, or else such earlier ones as
have become religious classics. The doc*ments humains which we shall
find most instructive need not then be sought for in the haunts of
special erudition--they lie along the beaten highway; and this
circ*mstance, which flows so naturally from the character of our
problem, suits admirably also your lecturer's lack of special
theological learning. I may take my citations, my sentences and
paragraphs of personal confession, from books that most of you at some
time will have had already in your hands, and yet this will be no
detriment to the value of my conclusions. It is true that some more
adventurous reader and investigator, lecturing here in future, may
unearth from the shelves of libraries doc*ments that will make a more
delectable and curious entertainment to listen to than mine. Yet I
doubt whether he will necessarily, by his control of so much more
out-of-the-way material, get much closer to the essence of the matter
in hand.

The question, What are the religious propensities? and the question,
What is their philosophic significance? are two entirely different
orders of question from the logical point of view; and, as a failure to
recognize this fact distinctly may breed confusion, I wish to insist
upon the point a little before we enter into the doc*ments and
materials to which I have referred.

In recent books on logic, distinction is made between two orders of
inquiry concerning anything. First, what is the nature of it? how did
it come about? what is its constitution, origin, and history? And
second, What is its importance, meaning, or significance, now that it
is once here? The answer to the one question is given in an existential
judgment or proposition. The answer to the other is a proposition of
value, what the Germans call a Werthurtheil, or what we may, if we
like, denominate a spiritual judgment. Neither judgment can be deduced
immediately from the other. They proceed from diverse intellectual
preoccupations, and the mind combines them only by making them first
separately, and then adding them together.

In the matter of religions it is particularly easy to distinguish the
two orders of question. Every religious phenomenon has its history and
its derivation from natural antecedents. What is nowadays called the
higher criticism of the Bible is only a study of the Bible from this
existential point of view, neglected too much by the earlier church.
Under just what biographic conditions did the sacred writers bring
forth their various contributions to the holy volume? And what had
they exactly in their several individual minds, when they delivered
their utterances? These are manifestly questions of historical fact,
and one does not see how the answer to them can decide offhand the
still further question: of what use should such a volume, with its
manner of coming into existence so defined, be to us as a guide to life
and a revelation? To answer this other question we must have already
in our mind some sort of a general theory as to what the peculiarities
in a thing should be which give it value for purposes of revelation;
and this theory itself would be what I just called a spiritual
judgment. Combining it with our existential judgment, we might indeed
deduce another spiritual judgment as to the Bible's worth. Thus if our
theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it,
must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the
writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and
express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare
ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow
that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions
and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the
inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of
their fate, then the verdict would be much more favorable. You see
that the existential facts by themselves are insufficient for
determining the value; and the best adepts of the higher criticism
accordingly never confound the existential with the spiritual problem.
With the same conclusions of fact before them, some take one view, and
some another, of the Bible's value as a revelation, according as their
spiritual judgment as to the foundation of values differs.

I make these general remarks about the two sorts of judgment, because
there are many religious persons--some of you now present, possibly,
are among them--who do not yet make a working use of the distinction,
and who may therefore feel first a little startled at the purely
existential point of view from which in the following lectures the
phenomena of religious experience must be considered. When I handle
them biologically and psychologically as if they were mere curious
facts of individual history, some of you may think it a degradation of
so sublime a subject, and may even suspect me, until my purpose gets
more fully expressed, of deliberately seeking to discredit the
religious side of life.

Such a result is of course absolutely alien to my intention; and since
such a prejudice on your part would seriously obstruct the due effect
of much of what I have to relate, I will devote a few more words to the

There can be no doubt that as a matter of fact a religious life,
exclusively pursued, does tend to make the person exceptional and
eccentric. I speak not now of your ordinary religious believer, who
follows the conventional observances of his country, whether it be
Buddhist, Christian, or Mohammedan. His religion has been made for him
by others, communicated to him by tradition, determined to fixed forms
by imitation, and retained by habit. It would profit us little to
study this second-hand religious life. We must make search rather for
the original experiences which were the pattern-setters to all this
mass of suggested feeling and imitated conduct. These experiences we
can only find in individuals for whom religion exists not as a dull
habit, but as an acute fever rather. But such individuals are
"geniuses" in the religious line; and like many other geniuses who have
brought forth fruits effective enough for commemoration in the pages of
biography, such religious geniuses have often shown symptoms of nervous
instability. Even more perhaps than other kinds of genius, religious
leaders have been subject to abnormal psychical visitations.
Invariably they have been creatures of exalted emotional sensibility.
Often they have led a discordant inner life, and had melancholy during
a part of their career. They have known no measure, been liable to
obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into
trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of
peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often,
moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to
give them their religious authority and influence.

If you ask for a concrete example, there can be no better one than is
furnished by the person of George Fox. The Quaker religion which he
founded is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of
shams, it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness,
and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men
had ever known in England. So far as our Christian sects today are
evolving into liberality, they are simply reverting in essence to the
position which Fox and the early Quakers so long ago assumed. No one
can pretend for a moment that in point of spiritual sagacity and
capacity, Fox's mind was unsound. Everyone who confronted him
personally, from Oliver Cromwell down to county magistrates and
jailers, seems to have acknowledged his superior power. Yet from the
point of view of his nervous constitution, Fox was a psychopath or
detraque of the deepest dye. His Journal abounds in entries of this

"As I was walking with several friends, I lifted up my head and saw
three steeple-house spires, and they struck at my life. I asked them
what place that was? They said, Lichfield. Immediately the word of
the Lord came to me, that I must go thither. Being come to the house
we were going to, I wished the friends to walk into the house, saying
nothing to them of whither I was to go. As soon as they were gone I
stept away, and went by my eye over hedge and ditch till I came within
a mile of Lichfield where, in a great field, shepherds were keeping
their sheep. Then was I commanded by the Lord to pull off my shoes. I
stood still, for it was winter: but the word of the Lord was like a
fire in me. So I put off my shoes and left them with the shepherds;
and the poor shepherds trembled, and were astonished. Then I walked on
about a mile, and as soon as I was got within the city, the word of the
Lord came to me again, saying: Cry, 'Wo to the bloody city of
Lichfield!' So I went up and down the streets, crying with a loud
voice, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! It being market day, I went
into the market-place, and to and fro in the several parts of it, and
made stands, crying as before, Wo to the bloody city of Lichfield! And
no one laid hands on me. As I went thus crying through the streets,
there seemed to me to be a channel of blood running down the streets,
and the market-place appeared like a pool of blood. When I had declared
what was upon me, and felt myself clear, I went out of the town in
peace; and returning to the shepherds gave them some money, and took my
shoes of them again. But the fire of the Lord was so on my feet, and
all over me, that I did not matter to put on my shoes again, and was at
a stand whether I should or no, till I felt freedom from the Lord so to
do: then, after I had washed my feet, I put on my shoes again. After
this a deep consideration came upon me, for what reason I should be
sent to cry against that city, and call it The bloody city! For though
the parliament had the minister one while, and the king another, and
much blood had been shed in the town during the wars between them, yet
there was no more than had befallen many other places. But afterwards
I came to understand, that in the Emperor Diocletian's time a thousand
Christians were martyr'd in Lichfield. So I was to go, without my
shoes, through the channel of their blood, and into the pool of their
blood in the market-place, that I might raise up the memorial of the
blood of those martyrs, which had been shed above a thousand years
before, and lay cold in their streets. So the sense of this blood was
upon me, and I obeyed the word of the Lord."

Bent as we are on studying religion's existential conditions, we cannot
possibly ignore these pathological aspects of the subject.

We must describe and name them just as if they occurred in
non-religious men. It is true that we instinctively recoil from seeing
an object to which our emotions and affections are committed handled by
the intellect as any other object is handled. The first thing the
intellect does with an object is to class it along with something else.
But any object that is infinitely important to us and awakens our
devotion feels to us also as if it must be sui generis and unique.
Probably a crab would be filled with a sense of personal outrage if it
could hear us class it without ado or apology as a crustacean, and thus
dispose of it. "I am no such thing, it would say; I am MYSELF, MYSELF

The next thing the intellect does is to lay bare the causes in which
the thing originates. Spinoza says: "I will analyze the actions and
appetites of men as if it were a question of lines, of planes, and of
solids." And elsewhere he remarks that he will consider our passions
and their properties with the same eye with which he looks on all other
natural things, since the consequences of our affections flow from
their nature with the same necessity as it results from the nature of a
triangle that its three angles should be equal to two right angles.
Similarly M. Taine, in the introduction to his history of English
literature, has written: "Whether facts be moral or physical, it makes
no matter. They always have their causes. There are causes for
ambition, courage, veracity, just as there are for digestion, muscular
movement, animal heat. Vice and virtue are products like vitriol and
sugar." When we read such proclamations of the intellect bent on
showing the existential conditions of absolutely everything, we
feel--quite apart from our legitimate impatience at the somewhat
ridiculous swagger of the program, in view of what the authors are
actually able to perform--menaced and negated in the springs of our
innermost life. Such cold-blooded assimilations threaten, we think, to
undo our soul's vital secrets, as if the same breath which should
succeed in explaining their origin would simultaneously explain away
their significance, and make them appear of no more preciousness,
either, than the useful groceries of which M. Taine speaks.

Perhaps the commonest expression of this assumption that spiritual
value is undone if lowly origin be asserted is seen in those comments
which unsentimental people so often pass on their more sentimental
acquaintances. Alfred believes in immortality so strongly because his
temperament is so emotional. Fanny's extraordinary conscientiousness
is merely a matter of overinstigated nerves. William's melancholy
about the universe is due to bad digestion--probably his liver is
torpid. Eliza's delight in her church is a symptom of her hysterical
constitution. Peter would be less troubled about his soul if he would
take more exercise in the open air, etc. A more fully developed
example of the same kind of reasoning is the fashion, quite common
nowadays among certain writers, of criticizing the religious emotions
by showing a connection between them and the sexual life. Conversion
is a crisis of puberty and adolescence. The macerations of saints, and
the devotion of missionaries, are only instances of the parental
instinct of self-sacrifice gone astray. For the hysterical nun,
starving for natural life, Christ is but an imaginary substitute for a
more earthly object of affection. And the like.[1]

[1] As with many ideas that float in the air of one's time, this
notion shrinks from dogmatic general statement and expresses itself
only partially and by innuendo. It seems to me that few conceptions
are less instructive than this re-interpretation of religion as
perverted sexuality. It reminds one, so crudely is it often employed,
of the famous Catholic taunt, that the Reformation may be best
understood by remembering that its fons et origo was Luther's wish to
marry a nun:--the effects are infinitely wider than the alleged causes,
and for the most part opposite in nature. It is true that in the vast
collection of religious phenomena, some are undisguisedly
amatory--e.g., sex-deities and obscene rites in polytheism, and
ecstatic feelings of union with the Savior in a few Christian mystics.
But then why not equally call religion an aberration of the digestive
function, and prove one's point by the worship of Bacchus and Ceres, or
by the ecstatic feelings of some other saints about the Eucharist?
Religious language clothes itself in such poor symbols as our life
affords, and the whole organism gives overtones of comment whenever the
mind is strongly stirred to expression. Language drawn from eating and
drinking is probably as common in religious literature as is language
drawn from the sexual life. We "hunger and thirst" after
righteousness; we "find the Lord a sweet savor;" we "taste and see that
he is good." "Spiritual milk for American babes, drawn from the
breasts of both testaments," is a sub-title of the once famous New
England Primer, and Christian devotional literature indeed quite floats
in milk, thought of from the point of view, not of the mother, but of
the greedy babe.

Saint Francois de Sales, for instance, thus describes the "orison of
quietude": "In this state the soul is like a little child still at the
breast, whose mother to caress him whilst he is still in her arms makes
her milk distill into his mouth without his even moving his lips. So
it is here.... Our Lord desires that our will should be satisfied with
sucking the milk which His Majesty pours into our mouth, and that we
should relish the sweetness without even knowing that it cometh from
the Lord." And again: "Consider the little infants, united and joined
to the breasts of their nursing mothers you will see that from time to
time they press themselves closer by little starts to which the
pleasure of sucking prompts them. Even so, during its orison, the
heart united to its God oftentimes makes attempts at closer union by
movements during which it presses closer upon the divine sweetness."
Chemin de la Perfection, ch. xxxi.; Amour de Dieu, vii. ch. i.

In fact, one might almost as well interpret religion as a perversion of
the respiratory function. The Bible is full of the language of
respiratory oppression: "Hide not thine ear at my breathing; my
groaning is not hid from thee; my heart panteth, my strength faileth
me; my bones are hot with my roaring all the night long; as the hart
panteth after the water-brooks, so my soul panteth after thee, O my
God:" God's Breath in Man is the title of the chief work of our best
known American mystic (Thomas Lake Harris), and in certain
non-Christian countries the foundation of all religious discipline
consists in regulation of the inspiration and expiration.

These arguments are as good as much of the reasoning one hears in favor
of the sexual theory. But the champions of the latter will then say
that their chief argument has no analogue elsewhere. The two main
phenomena of religion, namely, melancholy and conversion, they will
say, are essentially phenomena of adolescence, and therefore
synchronous with the development of sexual life. To which the retort
again is easy. Even were the asserted synchrony unrestrictedly true as
a fact (which it is not), it is not only the sexual life, but the
entire higher mental life which awakens during adolescence. One might
then as well set up the thesis that the interest in mechanics, physics,
chemistry, logic, philosophy, and sociology, which springs up during
adolescent years along with that in poetry and religion, is also a
perversion of the sexual instinct:--but that would be too absurd.
Moreover, if the argument from synchrony is to decide, what is to be
done with the fact that the religious age par excellence would seem to
be old age, when the uproar of the sexual life is past?

The plain truth is that to interpret religion one must in the end look
at the immediate content of the religious consciousness. The moment
one does this, one sees how wholly disconnected it is in the main from
the content of the sexual consciousness. Everything about the two
things differs, objects, moods, faculties concerned, and acts impelled
to. Any GENERAL assimilation is simply impossible: what we find most
often is complete hostility and contrast. If now the defenders of the
sex-theory say that this makes no difference to their thesis; that
without the chemical contributions which the sex-organs make to the
blood, the brain would not be nourished so as to carry on religious
activities, this final proposition may be true or not true; but at any
rate it has become profoundly uninstructive: we can deduce no
consequences from it which help us to interpret religion's meaning or
value. In this sense the religious life depends just as much upon the
spleen, the pancreas, and the kidneys as on the sexual apparatus, and
the whole theory has lost its point in evaporating into a vague general
assertion of the dependence, SOMEHOW, of the mind upon the body.

We are surely all familiar in a general way with this method of
discrediting states of mind for which we have an antipathy. We all use
it to some degree in criticizing persons whose states of mind we regard
as overstrained. But when other people criticize our own more exalted
soul-flights by calling them 'nothing but' expressions of our organic
disposition, we feel outraged and hurt, for we know that, whatever be
our organism's peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive
value as revelations of the living truth; and we wish that all this
medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue.

Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too
simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical
materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to
Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an
epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of
Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the
shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a
symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it
accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental
overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter,
mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to
the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet
discover. And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual
authority of all such personages is successfully undermined.[2]

[2] For a first-rate example of medical-materialist reasoning, see an
article on "les varietes du Type devot," by Dr. Binet-Sangle, in the
Revue de l'Hypnotisme, xiv. 161.

Let us ourselves look at the matter in the largest possible way.
Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold
good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental
states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete. If
we adopt the assumption, then of course what medical materialism
insists on must be true in a general way, if not in every detail:
Saint Paul certainly had once an epileptoid, if not an epileptic
seizure; George Fox was an hereditary degenerate; Carlyle was
undoubtedly auto-intoxicated by some organ or other, no matter
which--and the rest. But now, I ask you, how can such an existential
account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon
their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of
psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of
mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process
as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just
as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts
intimately enough, we should doubtless see "the liver" determining the
dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the
Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in
one way the blood that percolates it, we get the methodist, when in
another way, we get the atheist form of mind. So of all our raptures
and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and
beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they religious or of
non-religious content.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in
refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite
illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance
some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with
determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our
thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our
DIS-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for
every one of them without exception flows from the state of its
possessor's body at the time.

It is needless to say that medical materialism draws in point of fact
no such sweeping skeptical conclusion. It is sure, just as every
simple man is sure, that some states of mind are inwardly superior to
others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of
an ordinary spiritual judgment. It has no physiological theory of the
production of these its favorite states, by which it may accredit them;
and its attempt to discredit the states which it dislikes, by vaguely
associating them with nerves and liver, and connecting them with names
connoting bodily affliction, is altogether illogical and inconsistent.

Let us play fair in this whole matter, and be quite candid with
ourselves and with the facts. When we think certain states of mind
superior to others, is it ever because of what we know concerning their
organic antecedents? No! it is always for two entirely different
reasons. It is either because we take an immediate delight in them; or
else it is because we believe them to bring us good consequential
fruits for life. When we speak disparagingly of "feverish fancies,"
surely the fever-process as such is not the ground of our
disesteem--for aught we know to the contrary, 103 degrees or 104
degrees Fahrenheit might be a much more favorable temperature for
truths to germinate and sprout in, than the more ordinary blood-heat of
97 or 98 degrees. It is either the disagreeableness itself of the
fancies, or their inability to bear the criticisms of the convalescent
hour. When we praise the thoughts which health brings, health's
peculiar chemical metabolisms have nothing to do with determining our
judgment. We know in fact almost nothing about these metabolisms. It
is the character of inner happiness in the thoughts which stamps them
as good, or else their consistency with our other opinions and their
serviceability for our needs, which make them pass for true in our

Now the more intrinsic and the more remote of these criteria do not
always hang together. Inner happiness and serviceability do not always
agree. What immediately feels most "good" is not always most "true,"
when measured by the verdict of the rest of experience. The difference
between Philip drunk and Philip sober is the classic instance in
corroboration. If merely "feeling good" could decide, drunkenness
would be the supremely valid human experience. But its revelations,
however acutely satisfying at the moment, are inserted into an
environment which refuses to bear them out for any length of time. The
consequence of this discrepancy of the two criteria is the uncertainty
which still prevails over so many of our spiritual judgments. There
are moments of sentimental and mystical experience--we shall hereafter
hear much of them--that carry an enormous sense of inner authority and
illumination with them when they come. But they come seldom, and they
do not come to everyone; and the rest of life makes either no
connection with them, or tends to contradict them more than it confirms
them. Some persons follow more the voice of the moment in these cases,
some prefer to be guided by the average results. Hence the sad
discordancy of so many of the spiritual judgments of human beings; a
discordancy which will be brought home to us acutely enough before
these lectures end.

It is, however, a discordancy that can never be resolved by any merely
medical test. A good example of the impossibility of holding strictly
to the medical tests is seen in the theory of the pathological
causation of genius promulgated by recent authors. "Genius," said Dr.
Moreau, "is but one of the many branches of the neuropathic tree."
"Genius," says Dr. Lombroso, "is a symptom of hereditary degeneration
of the epileptoid variety, and is allied to moral insanity."
"Whenever a man's life," writes Mr. Nisbet, "is at once sufficiently
illustrious and recorded with sufficient fullness to be a subject of
profitable study, he inevitably falls into the morbid category.... And
it is worthy of remark that, as a rule, the greater the genius, the
greater the unsoundness."[3]

[3] J. F. Nisbet: The Insanity of Genius, 3d ed., London, 1893, pp.
xvi., xxiv.

Now do these authors, after having succeeded in establishing to their
own satisfaction that the works of genius are fruits of disease,
consistently proceed thereupon to impugn the VALUE of the fruits? Do
they deduce a new spiritual judgment from their new doctrine of
existential conditions? Do they frankly forbid us to admire the
productions of genius from now onwards? and say outright that no
neuropath can ever be a revealer of new truth?

No! their immediate spiritual instincts are too strong for them here,
and hold their own against inferences which, in mere love of logical
consistency, medical materialism ought to be only too glad to draw.
One disciple of the school, indeed, has striven to impugn the value of
works of genius in a wholesale way (such works of contemporary art,
namely, as he himself is unable to enjoy, and they are many) by using
medical arguments.[4] But for the most part the masterpieces are left
unchallenged; and the medical line of attack either confines itself to
such secular productions as everyone admits to be intrinsically
eccentric, or else addresses itself exclusively to religious
manifestations. And then it is because the religious manifestations
have been already condemned because the critic dislikes them on
internal or spiritual grounds.

[4] Max Nordau, in his bulky book entitled Degeneration.

In the natural sciences and industrial arts it never occurs to anyone
to try to refute opinions by showing up their author's neurotic
constitution. Opinions here are invariably tested by logic and by
experiment, no matter what may be their author's neurological type. It
should be no otherwise with religious opinions. Their value can only
be ascertained by spiritual judgments directly passed upon them,
judgments based on our own immediate feeling primarily; and secondarily
on what we can ascertain of their experiential relations to our moral
needs and to the rest of what we hold as true.

Immediate luminousness, in short, philosophical reasonableness, and
moral helpfulness are the only available criteria. Saint Teresa might
have had the nervous system of the placidest cow, and it would not now
save her theology, if the trial of the theology by these other tests
should show it to be contemptible. And conversely if her theology can
stand these other tests, it will make no difference how hysterical or
nervously off her balance Saint Teresa may have been when she was with
us here below.

You see that at bottom we are thrown back upon the general principles
by which the empirical philosophy has always contended that we must be
guided in our search for truth. Dogmatic philosophies have sought for
tests for truth which might dispense us from appealing to the future.
Some direct mark, by noting which we can be protected immediately and
absolutely, now and forever, against all mistake--such has been the
darling dream of philosophic dogmatists. It is clear that the ORIGIN
of the truth would be an admirable criterion of this sort, if only the
various origins could be discriminated from one another from this point
of view, and the history of dogmatic opinion shows that origin has
always been a favorite test. Origin in immediate intuition; origin in
pontifical authority; origin in supernatural revelation, as by vision,
hearing, or unaccountable impression; origin in direct possession by a
higher spirit, expressing itself in prophecy and warning; origin in
automatic utterance generally--these origins have been stock warrants
for the truth of one opinion after another which we find represented in
religious history. The medical materialists are therefore only so many
belated dogmatists, neatly turning the tables on their predecessors by
using the criterion of origin in a destructive instead of an
accreditive way.

They are effective with their talk of pathological origin only so long
as supernatural origin is pleaded by the other side, and nothing but
the argument from origin is under discussion. But the argument from
origin has seldom been used alone, for it is too obviously
insufficient. Dr. Maudsley is perhaps the cleverest of the rebutters
of supernatural religion on grounds of origin. Yet he finds himself
forced to write:--

"What right have we to believe Nature under any obligation to do her
work by means of complete minds only? She may find an incomplete mind
a more suitable instrument for a particular purpose. It is the work
that is done, and the quality in the worker by which it was done, that
is alone of moment; and it may be no great matter from a cosmical
standpoint, if in other qualities of character he was singularly
defective--if indeed he were hypocrite, adulterer, eccentric, or
lunatic.... Home we come again, then, to the old and last resort of
certitude--namely the common assent of mankind, or of the competent by
instruction and training among mankind."[5]

[5] H. Maudsley: Natural Causes and Supernatural Seemings, 1886, pp.
256, 257.

In other words, not its origin, but THE WAY IN WHICH IT WORKS ON THE
WHOLE, is Dr. Maudsley's final test of a belief. This is our own
empiricist criterion; and this criterion the stoutest insisters on
supernatural origin have also been forced to use in the end. Among the
visions and messages some have always been too patently silly, among
the trances and convulsive seizures some have been too fruitless for
conduct and character, to pass themselves off as significant, still
less as divine. In the history of Christian mysticism the problem how
to discriminate between such messages and experiences as were really
divine miracles, and such others as the demon in his malice was able to
counterfeit, thus making the religious person twofold more the child of
hell he was before, has always been a difficult one to solve, needing
all the sagacity and experience of the best directors of conscience.
In the end it had to come to our empiricist criterion: By their fruits
ye shall know them, not by their roots. Jonathan Edwards's Treatise on
Religious Affections is an elaborate working out of this thesis. The
ROOTS of a man's virtue are inaccessible to us. No appearances
whatever are infallible proofs of grace. Our practice is the only sure
evidence, even to ourselves, that we are genuinely Christians.

"In forming a judgment of ourselves now," Edwards writes, we should
certainly adopt that evidence which our supreme Judge will chiefly make
use of when we come to stand before him at the last day.... There is
not one grace of the Spirit of God, of the existence of which, in any
professor of religion, Christian practice is not the most decisive
evidence.... The degree in which our experience is productive of
practice shows the degree in which our experience is spiritual and

Catholic writers are equally emphatic. The good dispositions which a
vision, or voice, or other apparent heavenly favor leave behind them
are the only marks by which we {22} may be sure they are not possible
deceptions of the tempter. Says Saint Teresa:--

"Like imperfect sleep which, instead of giving more strength to the
head, doth but leave it the more exhausted, the result of mere
operations of the imagination is but to weaken the soul. Instead of
nourishment and energy she reaps only lassitude and disgust: whereas a
genuine heavenly vision yields to her a harvest of ineffable spiritual
riches, and an admirable renewal of bodily strength. I alleged these
reasons to those who so often accused my visions of being the work of
the enemy of mankind and the sport of my imagination.... I showed them
the jewels which the divine hand had left with me:--they were my actual
dispositions. All those who knew me saw that I was changed; my
confessor bore witness to the fact; this improvement, palpable in all
respects, far from being hidden, was brilliantly evident to all men.
As for myself, it was impossible to believe that if the demon were its
author, he could have used, in order to lose me and lead me to hell, an
expedient so contrary to his own interests as that of uprooting my
vices, and filling me with masculine courage and other virtues instead,
for I saw clearly that a single one of these visions was enough to
enrich me with all that wealth."[6]

[6] Autobiography, ch. xxviii.

I fear I may have made a longer excursus than was necessary, and that
fewer words would have dispelled the uneasiness which may have arisen
among some of you as I announced my pathological programme. At any
rate you must all be ready now to judge the religious life by its
results exclusively, and I shall assume that the bugaboo of morbid
origin will scandalize your piety no more.

Still, you may ask me, if its results are to be the ground of our final
spiritual estimate of a religious phenomenon, why threaten us at all
with so much existential study of its conditions? Why not simply leave
pathological questions out?

To this I reply in two ways. First, I say, irrepressible curiosity
imperiously leads one on; and I say, secondly, that it always leads to
a better understanding of a thing's significance to consider its
exaggerations and perversions its equivalents and substitutes and
nearest relatives elsewhere. Not that we may thereby swamp the thing
in the wholesale condemnation which we pass on its inferior congeners,
but rather that we may by contrast ascertain the more precisely in what
its merits consist, by learning at the same time to what particular
dangers of corruption it may also be exposed.

Insane conditions have this advantage, that they isolate special
factors of the mental life, and enable us to inspect them unmasked by
their more usual surroundings. They play the part in mental anatomy
which the scalpel and the microscope play in the anatomy of the body.
To understand a thing rightly we need to see it both out of its
environment and in it, and to have acquaintance with the whole range of
its variations. The study of hallucinations has in this way been for
psychologists the key to their comprehension of normal sensation, that
of illusions has been the key to the right comprehension of perception.
Morbid impulses and imperative conceptions, "fixed ideas," so called,
have thrown a flood of light on the psychology of the normal will; and
obsessions and delusions have performed the same service for that of
the normal faculty of belief.

Similarly, the nature of genius has been illuminated by the attempts,
of which I already made mention, to class it with psychopathical
phenomena. Borderland insanity, crankiness, insane temperament, loss
of mental balance, psychopathic degeneration (to use a few of the many
synonyms by which it has been called), has certain peculiarities and
liabilities which, when combined with a superior quality of intellect
in an individual, make it more probable that he will make his mark and
affect his age, than if his temperament were less neurotic. There is
of course no special affinity between crankiness as such and superior
intellect,[7] for most psychopaths have feeble intellects, and superior
intellects more commonly have normal nervous systems. But the
psychopathic temperament, whatever be the intellect with which it finds
itself paired, often brings with it ardor and excitability of
character. The cranky person has extraordinary emotional
susceptibility. He is liable to fixed ideas and obsessions. His
conceptions tend to pass immediately into belief and action; and when
he gets a new idea, he has no rest till he proclaims it, or in some way
"works it off." "What shall I think of it?" a common person says to
himself about a vexed question; but in a "cranky" mind "What must I do
about it?" is the form the question tends to take. In the
autobiography of that high-souled woman, Mrs. Annie Besant, I read the
following passage: "Plenty of people wish well to any good cause, but
very few care to exert themselves to help it, and still fewer will risk
anything in its support. 'Someone ought to do it, but why should I?'
is the ever reechoed phrase of weak-kneed amiability. 'Someone ought to
do it, so why not I?' is the cry of some earnest servant of man,
eagerly forward springing to face some perilous duty. Between these
two sentences lie whole centuries of moral evolution." True enough!
and between these two sentences lie also the different destinies of the
ordinary sluggard and the psychopathic man. Thus, when a superior
intellect and a psychopathic temperament coalesce--as in the endless
permutations and combinations of human faculty, they are bound to
coalesce often enough--in the same individual, we have the best
possible condition for the kind of effective genius that gets into the
{25} biographical dictionaries. Such men do not remain mere critics
and understanders with their intellect. Their ideas possess them, they
inflict them, for better or worse, upon their companions or their age.
It is they who get counted when Messrs. Lombroso, Nisbet, and others
invoke statistics to defend their paradox.

[7] Superior intellect, as Professor Bain has admirably shown, seems
to consist in nothing so much as in a large development of the faculty
of association by similarity.

To pass now to religious phenomena, take the melancholy which, as we
shall see, constitutes an essential moment in every complete religious
evolution. Take the happiness which achieved religious belief confers.
Take the trancelike states of insight into truth which all religious
mystics report.[8] These are each and all of them special cases of
kinds of human experience of much wider scope. Religious melancholy,
whatever peculiarities it may have qua religious, is at any rate
melancholy. Religious happiness is happiness. Religious trance is
trance. And the moment we renounce the absurd notion that a thing is
exploded away as soon as it is classed with others, or its origin is
shown; the moment we agree to stand by experimental results and inner
quality, in judging of values--who does not see that we are likely to
ascertain the distinctive significance of religious melancholy and
happiness, or of religious trances, far better by comparing them as
conscientiously as we can with other varieties of melancholy,
happiness, and trance, than by refusing to consider their place in any
more general series, and treating them as if they were outside of
nature's order altogether?

I hope that the course of these lectures will confirm us in this
supposition. As regards the psychopathic origin of so many religious
phenomena, that would not be in the least surprising or disconcerting,
even were such phenomena certified from on high to be the most precious
of human experiences. No one organism can possibly yield to its owner
the whole body of truth. Few of us are not in some way infirm, or even
diseased; and our very infirmities help us unexpectedly. In the
psychopathic temperament we have the emotionality which is the sine qua
non of moral perception; we have the intensity and tendency to emphasis
which are the essence of practical moral vigor; and we have the love of
metaphysics and mysticism which carry one's interests beyond the
surface of the sensible world. What, then, is more natural than that
this temperament should introduce one to regions of religious truth, to
corners of the universe, which your robust Philistine type of nervous
system, forever offering its biceps to be felt, thumping its breast,
and thanking Heaven that it hasn't a single morbid fiber in its
composition, would be sure to hide forever from its self-satisfied

[8] I may refer to a criticism of the insanity theory of genius in the
Psychological Review, ii. 287 (1895).

If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might
well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition
of the requisite receptivity. And having said thus much, I think that I
may let the matter of religion and neuroticism drop.

The mass of collateral phenomena, morbid or healthy, with which the
various religious phenomena must be compared in order to understand
them better, forms what in the slang of pedagogics is termed "the
apperceiving mass" by which we comprehend them. The only novelty that
I can imagine this course of lectures to possess lies in the breadth of
the apperceiving mass. I may succeed in discussing religious
experiences in a wider context than has been usual in university

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z #

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