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Our Own Providence 6 July 2007

Posted by Todd in American Pragmatism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Religion, Secular Humanism.
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[As I mentioned before, I’m reading a biography of William James this summer, and it’s been more than pleasurable so far, a glimpse into not only the life of a great mind, but into the moment of transformation of American culture into modernity. If you like biography or philosophy, read this book: Robert D. Richardson, William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007). My first brief post about James is here.]

In his mid-20s, James had a bit of a crisis, emotional and physical. He had hurt his back in a physiology lab and had gone to Germany for recuperation, where he ended up staying for over a year and a half. During that time, he had descended into a depression and, in ways that completely resonate with me, into self-doubt. The biographer notes that James throughout his life used his constant battle with depression as a means to open his thinking and to break down his cherished beliefs. Among those beliefs that had to be dealt with was his very mid-19th century American idea that individuals have utter control of their own fate.

In his life-long struggle against his father’s ofttimes wacky ideas, James spent much time in Germany corresponding with his father about theology, truth, creation, religion, and the meaning of human life. In one letter, he wrote:

Practically, it seems to me that all tendencies must now a days unite in Philanthropy: perhaps an atheistic tendency more than any, for sympathy is now so much developed in the human breast, that misery and undeveloped-ness would all the more powerfully call for correction when coupled with the thought, that from nowhere else than from us could correction possibly come, that we ourselves must be our own providence.

In turning away from religious explanations of life (which he had been doing since he was a teenager), James seeks to understand where that leaves us. Optimistically, he points to the compassion people seem to have for each other and sees in it the possibility of a new source of meaning, which he calls “Philanthropy,” or “love of man”. But what kept echoing in my head was that last line, that this atheistic (perhaps he meant humanistic) belief in human beings means that we must be our own providence. Americans had been speaking of providence since the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock, and although it isn’t a concept we deal with much anymore, the idea of a divine hand guiding the fate of the individual and the nation has led both to amazing social goods and brutal nationalism. But James isn’t talking about a new kind of Manifest Destiny, here. He means that we seek and find the divine in our own interactions. We become indeed our own providence.

A couple years later, his first cousin, with whom he was in some senses in love, died of tuberculosis. James was devastated and continued his search for meaning through her death. In his diary shortly after Minnie Temple’s death, he wrote:

Minnie, your death makes me feel the nothingness of our egotistical fury. The inevitable release is sure: wherefore take our turn kindly, whatever it contains. Ascend to some sort of partnership with fate, and since tragedy is at the heart of us, go to meet it, work it to our ends, instead of dodging it all our days, and being run down by it at last. Use your death (or your life, it’s all one meaning) tat tvam asi.

James sees life as inevitably leading to death, a tragedy at the heart of life, a fact that must be met and accepted. This is a key part of much Buddhist teaching, the acceptance of our own mortality, that this will all end someday. But James isn’t Buddhist here. He turns instead to the Upanishads, to ancient hinduism, and quotes it: Tat tvam asi. That art Thou. That is the Allbeing, or the Beingness of the universe, the oneness of us all with the realities of life. Life and death are the same thing, one in That. And Minnie is That. Richardson argues that Minnie’s death turned James toward a new way of seeing his life, wherein he could face death the way Minnie did, by embracing life in all its complications. Sometimes biography is interpretive art, and I have no idea if that is what happened for James. But again I find a resonance here of the freedom found in facing death and accepting oneself as part of the Being of the universe.

James apparently did not return to the Upanishads or the idea of Being until he wrote his most famous set of lectures, which we know as the Varieties of Religious Experience:

This overcoming of all the usual barriers between the individual and the Absolute is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition. … ‘That art Thou!’ say the Upanishads, and the vedantists add: ‘Not a part, not a mode of That, but identically That, that Absolute Spirit of the World.’

And so we come back to providence. It is not that we must be our own providence, but indeed that we are providence. James was not making a proclamation about some kind of ultimate truth, but rather he was talking about the experience of religion, in this case, the experience of the mystical oneness with being. It seems to me a great basis for a kind of spirituality that began with James’ atheism and ends with the experience of connection with all life around you.

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