William James Commentary: 
3. Evil


Jackson Snyder

James describes two basic theologies of evil relevant to the three lectures here appraised. Philosophical Theism maintains that the whole world is "one unit of absolute fact" (117). It is pantheistic, then, in respect to God's presence in the world - God is in all things and is everywhere. Evil is part of the All, thus part of God. Since God is the originator of the All, and God is in some part evil, God is also the originator of evil. Evil, therefore, must be accommodated, and claimed as a necessary part of the divine plan.

The more popular and facile tendency is toward Practical Theism, which is polytheistic in the sense that God has created many "original principles" that have the ability to act independently of God. Therefore, if evil is not directly of God (but the by-product of independent agents), it is possible by some means to become free from its power and influence, temporarily or for all time (118).

A certain strata of people demonstrate some measure of hyper-awareness to outside evil influences (Latin races), or an inward sense of self-worthlessness (Germanics) (119). They suffer in various degrees from melancholia (127) due to "incompletely unified moral and intellectual constitutions" (144). This innate incompleteness is the source for James' psychomedical term, "the divided self," and may be a physiological source of practical theology.

The depression manifests in malcontentedness toward things, people, self, and life in general. Tolstoy aptly describes the feeling: "One can live only so long as one is intoxicated, drunk with life; but when one grows sober one cannot fail to see that it is all a stupid cheat" (133).

James labels such religious psychopaths as "sin-sick souls," who spend sometimes a lifetime in search of "redemption" (135), second birth (144), and self-unification. Their's is "a lifelong drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes" (145). The religious among these are forced to lead two lives: physical and spiritual (143). The spiritual life, a "deeper kind of consciousness" (135), is often the preferable of the two, in elimination of the other insofar as possible. Thus, a supernatural remedy is often the prescription for curing the sin sick soul.

The successful deliverance (the second birth :"twice born" [144]) reintegrates the heterogeneous personality gradually (lysis) or immediately (crisis), through altered feelings or altered actions, through intellectual insights or mystical experiences - and not necessarily by religious means. It is "a stimulus, an excitement, a faith, a force that re-infuses the positive willingness to live, even in full presence of the evil perceptions that erstwhile made life seem unbearable" (159). The experience is theologically known as "conversion;" the subject is taken up in the next lecture.


There are so many different aspects of this reading that would be interesting and profitable to explore: (1) psychological analysis of a "saint" (a la Kohlberg) such as John Dowie or Bunyan; (2) physiological psychology of the "divided" brain, especially in regards to the hypothalamus and the corpus callosum, and how sin sickness relates to schizophrenia; (3) the difficulty experienced by theology professors in explaining evil (from James' first theological perspective), and their elaborate contrivances (Moltmann, Capon, Walt Lowe); and (4) finally, I got the feeling that James was mixing apples, oranges, and strawberries in his philosophy of religion - but no time to sort that one out.

(2b) Although melancholia might be rendered "depression" in modern terms, due to James' ideas of double-mindedness and hallucination in conjunction with religion, one might better interpret it as some mild form of schizophrenia. The Greek roots of the word do in fact mean "split mind." The emotion and the intellect seem not to work as a unified whole - sentiment and expression might be completely unrelated. Other symptoms include what James calls anhedonia (127). Schizophrenics typically experience delusions and hallucinations, not unlike some exemplified in James' first lecture, but, of course, more severe.

Schizophrenia, like the divided self, is mostly hereditary ("constitutional") in nature (James, 144). Exnctly what the cause is remains to be proven; theories include an overactivity of the dopamine synapses, and/or a defect in a single gene's production of an enzyme, or even the excess activity of endorphins. One popular cure a few years ago (if memory serves) was to separate the right and left brains by severing the corpus callosum. Instead of a divided mind, victims of this treatment received two complete minds. Also, simple niacin deficiency can cause schizophrenia; a vitamin supplement used over time can set some free.

The secondary source for the disease is stress. Typical symptoms of the disease were elicited in rats by forcing them to swim in turbulent waters for days at a time. This experiment reminds me of Bunyan's predicament, having to deal with "all those tumultuous thoughts that did, like masterless hell-hounds, roar and bellow and make a hideous noise within me" (James 158). The response of the rats to such stresses included "sudden leaping, as if they were responding to an imagined sight or sound." Bunyan lept when the chains of sin fell from his legs.

The prime age range for diagnosis of schizophrenia is between 15 and 30, after 30 cases taper off until 45, no cases develop later. Pointing to behavioral theory is almost irresistible - if stages are progressive and universal and can be linked with ages, as Erikson espouses, we might want to link the onset years of schizophrenia with Erikson's antithesis of adolescent identity, i. e. identity confusion, which involves role repudiation (a "drive separating roles and values that seem workable in identity formation from what must be resisted"), and negative identity. Finding one's self on the downside of this stage can force "an almost desperate attempt at self-rebirth" and have tumultuous consequences on later moral development.

As high as 2% of the population will develop this disease with severe enough symptoms to seek professional help. This is a very significant number. Now, I will make my point. What if a low grade form of schizophrenia, low enough to escape diagnosis and "treatment," were the ultimate cause of the sin sick divided self? If so, what if the condition synergized the stress of life, causing malcontent, constant, lingering desires, forebodings and spiritual burdens? What if (what we call today) "conviction" was purely a physiological norm for those predisposed to it? What if one effective though not universal remedy for this serious affliction is religion's "psychic binding of the fear of demons?"