William James on “New Thought”

In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), William James describes the seedbed of what is today called New Age. He traces the thought of Emerson and Thoreau through the intellectual movements of the nineteenth century (the whole book could be titled “Varieties of American Religious Experience”). Transcendentalism flowers at the core of the late nineteenth century into New Thought, “mind-cure” movement, and what one writer at the time called “menticulture.”

This was the apex of what James calls “healthy-mindedness,” of optimism, the rejection of morbid sentiment and outdated religion. The discovery of nature was a sanguine tonic for morose religious dispositions.

One of the doctrinal sources of Mind-cure is the four Gospels; another is Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism; another is Berkleyian idealism; another is spiritism, with its messages of “law” and “progress” and “development”; another the optimistic popular science of evolutionism … and finally Hinduism has contributed a strain. But the most characteristic feature of the mind-cure movement is … an intuitive belief in the all-saving power of healthy-minded attitudes as such, in the conquering efficacy of courage, hope, and trust, and a correlative contempt for doubt, fear, worry and all nervously precautionary states of mind.

Something typical of American culture permeates these observations, resonant with historical experience, manifest destiny, the psychology of the conquered frontier. The heyday of the country’s imperial pursuits was an exhilaration of the new, untried, uninherited, and experimental. A sense of boastful pride that scoffs at suffering and tragedy as unmasculine, at discipline and practice as exaggeration. Only the right frame of mind is needed to affect wonders! Thus the New Thought of the era is but the new thought of the whole culture, on the brink of conquest and in search of a psychology to go along with it.

Reading William James today one senses an antiquarianism in both science (specifically psychology) and religion. The movement he describes and today seems to fit well the label of New Age never influenced the institutions and mores of the U.S. except as a useful palliative, an amusing sideline to the business of business.

Certainly the movement even from James’ day was morally too weak and narcissistic to assume social change or serve as a catalyst for social reform. That, of course, was not its purpose, veering away from the traditional interventionist roles of Church and State in the Old World. In that, New Thought, like New Age, is entirely a religious experience or surrogate for one. Religion is abstract and a subjective application of values if it has not the ability to change people, even if by force. That lesson New Thought and New Age learned. With their cheery optimism, they never forced or judged anyone, even to the point of a tolerance that is amoral and often irrelevant. It was an inevitable reaction to centuries of intolerance.

In turning away from the vicious wars of religion that had engulfed Europe and Britain for centuries, the U.S. rigorously subjugated the religious experience to the mind, relegating religious thought to the status of a social decoration. This reaction saved the culture from both sectarian conflict as much as ethical or moral conscience. The elective civil disobedience of Thoreau or the rabid abolitionism of his New England compatriots quickly ebbed with the new-found interest in the self that New Thought and its successors pursued. “Pessimism leads to weakness. Optimism leads to power,” James quotes a typical mind-cure pamphlet of his day. Such was a national consciousness of power formed, and a view that power is always good simply because it exists.

William James makes the interesting distinction between “first-born” and “second-born” in the religious thought of his day. He makes his point, but not as might be expected. Not from a Christian but a psychological angle does he refine the religious experience. Among the positive, healthy-minded believers, he notes, there is no doubt or crisis (perhaps a modest or perfunctory and staged one). There is only faith, light, and trust. They are the first-born because they are reliable citizens of the Kingdom, born into inheritance, exactly as intended by their culture of belief, they are models of orthodox (if “new”) thinking.

Not so the second-born. James gives the example of Leo Tolstoy, who enjoyed all the wealth and plaudits of this world, including the respectability of establish religious belief. But there came to Tolstoy

absolute disenchantment with ordinary life, and the fact that the whole range of habitual values may, to a man as powerful and full of faculty as he was, come to appear so ghastly a mockery.

Tolstoy had seen through the veil of order, necessity and decorum at a vast moral disorder, paradox, and unrest in the universe. It was not a matter, like the “first-born,” of recovering a fundamental optimism or cheerful disposition that never questions the prescriptions of life and society. It was not a restoration or healthy-mindedness that reshaped Tolstoy’s values. It was a discovery or quest for order and meaning, to be “saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before,” writes James.

Such a topic would take James far afield from his interest in charting the psychological phenomena attending to the second-born. Tolstoy alone would be a significant case of outright rebellion that supersedes the modest subjective turns of thought of James’ anecdotal examples. The simplicity of Tolstoy’s later tales, their quiet and reflective wisdom, his insights into the absolute necessity to escape Church, State, military, and institutions in society and culture in order to recover the essence of Jesus and the true spirit of Christianity, leave the cheery optimism of mind-cureists and their contemporaries far behind. The solitary does not tolerate psychological sleights of hand but demands close study of sages like Tolstoy. The whole thrust of the desert hermits, for example, resound with this clarity and fierceness.

And William James himself sensed this well enough to conclude with helpful insight that

systematic healthy-mindedness, failing as it does to accord to sorrow, pain, and death any positive and active attention whatever, is formally less complete than systems that try at least to include these elements in their scope.

Or, one might add, less than the solitary who bravely launches forth to confront the universe with his or her questions.