The Varieties of Religious Experience HTML version

Lectures 6 and 7. The Sick Soul
At our last meeting, we considered the healthy-minded temperament, the temperament
which has a constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering, and in which the tendency
to see things optimistically is like a water of crystallization in which the individual's
character is set. We saw how this temperament may become the basis for a peculiar type
of religion, a religion in which good, even the good of this world's life, is regarded as the
essential thing for a rational being to attend to. This religion directs him to settle his
scores with the more evil aspects of the universe by systematically declining to lay them
to heart or make much of them, by ignoring them in his reflective calculations, or even,
on occasion, by denying outright that they exist. Evil is a disease; and worry over disease
is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint. Even
repentance and remorse, affections which come in the character of ministers of good,
may be but sickly and relaxing impulses. The best repentance is to up and act for
righteousness, and forget that you ever had relations with sin.
Spinoza's philosophy has this sort of healthy-mindedness woven into the heart of it, and
this has been one secret of its fascination. He whom Reason leads, according to Spinoza,
is led altogether by the influence over his mind of good. Knowledge of evil is an
"inadequate" knowledge, fit only for slavish minds. So Spinoza categorically condemns
repentance. When men make mistakes, he says--
"One might perhaps expect gnawings of conscience and repentance to help to bring them
on the right path, and might thereupon conclude (as every one does conclude) that these
affections are good things. Yet when we look at the matter closely, we shall find that not
only are they not good, but on the contrary deleterious and evil passions. For it is
manifest that we can always get along better by reason and love of truth than by worry of
conscience and remorse. Harmful are these and evil, inasmuch as they form a particular
kind of sadness; and the disadvantages of sadness," he continues, "I have already proved,
and shown that we should strive to keep it from our life. Just so we should endeavor,
since uneasiness of conscience and remorse are of this kind of complexion, to flee and
shun these states of mind."[66]
[66] Tract on God, Man, and Happiness, Book ii. ch. x.
Within the Christian body, for which repentance of sins has from the beginning been the
critical religious act, healthy-mindedness has always come forward with its milder
interpretation. Repentance according to such healthy- minded Christians means
GETTING AWAY FROM the sin, not groaning and writhing over its commission. The
Catholic practice of confession and absolution is in one of its aspects little more than a
systematic method of keeping healthy- mindedness on top. By it a man's accounts with
evil are periodically squared and audited, so that he may start the clean page with no old
debts inscribed. Any Catholic will tell us how clean and fresh and free he feels after the
purging operation. Martin Luther by no means belonged to the healthy-minded type in the
radical sense in which we have discussed it, and he repudiated priestly absolution for sin.