“After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.”
William James is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His publication of The Principles of Psychology in 1890 established him as the father of American psychology. His 1901 treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, originally delivered at the prestigious Gifford Lectures, remains one of the most important theological works of all time and inspired Carl Sagan’s superb The Varieties of Scientific Experience. But if James were alive today, his contributions might well be dismissed under the fashionable accusation of privilege — he was born into a wealthy family and his father, a prominent theologian, was independently wealthy himself a century and a half before the term “independently wealthy” entered the vernacular; his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also endured an undue share of physical hardship, suffering from a range of physical ailments since childhood — near-blindness, debilitating back pain, and various skin and stomach conditions — as well as regular bouts of severe, suicidal depression since early adulthood. His life was defined by dualities in deeper ways, too — James was a man straddling two epochs as a scholar of theology in an era when the dogmatic beliefs of the previous generation where past the point of repair and a science-minded skeptic before the golden age of twentieth-century scientific discovery.
And yet despite these vexing dualities, James navigated his life with tremendous faith in the power of personal choice in shaping one’s destiny — which included, as it always has and always will, the discomfiting luxury of making difficult decisions. Nearly four decades before he came to put this conviction into words in his timeless treatise on habit — “We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” — he enacted it in his own life as he stood on the precipice of a monumental choice, the kind all of us have to make at one point or another, the value of which we only ever appreciate in hindsight.
In 1861, 19-year-old William enrolled into Harvard to study science after a short apprenticeship with the artist William Morris Hunt. But as he immersed himself in the pursuit of a medical degree, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the prospects laid before him by this established path to a “successful” life as a respectable doctor — a life of steady income and steady petrification of his deeper aspirations. He knew he had to confront the trying choice between profit and purpose. (Around the same time, halfway around the world, a young Leo Tolstoy was tussling with a parallel tension between income and ideals.)
In a letter to his cousin Kitty from September of 1863, found in the altogether illuminating The Letters of William James, Vol. 1 (public library; free download), 21-year-old James outlines his choices with equal parts exasperation and snark:
I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary… After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted. Medicine would pay, and I should still be dealing with subjects which interest me — but how much drudgery and of what an unpleasant kind is there!
He adds a lament about the crippling industrial model of higher education, which shoves young people down the conveyer belt of specialization and careerism before they’ve had a chance to find their true purpose — a lament equally, if not more, valid today:
The worst of this matter is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge — “go it blind,” as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.
In a letter to his mother later that month, James exorcizes the growing urgency and unease of his impending choice:
I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.
James, longing to be a family man, peers into the future and considers how choosing the pursuit of purpose over profit would affect his imaginary future love, to whom he refers by a Shakespearean allusion, as he revisits his four options:
If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his “higher nature.” But I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (necessarily reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.
And yet, admitting to being “undecided” still, James is aware of the rare privilege that renders him among those few young people who “can afford the time to try what suits them.” He tells his mother with a self-conscious wink:
I want you to become familiar with the notion that I may stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more.
James did choose to stick to science. Around the time he wrote that letter to his mother, he changed majors from Chemistry to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology — the Harvard department where he lucked into one of the most formative relationships of his life. There, he came to study under a professor named Jeffries Wyman, whose influence on James’s ideals and decisions became a spectacular testament to how unsung mentors and champions shape creative geniuses. A brilliant yet humble man — a perennially rare combination — he imparted on his pupils, by way of personal example, enduring values of kindness, generosity, humility, unflinching integrity, and resolute refusal to advance himself at anyone else’s expense. Under Wyman’s wing during those two critical years of determining the course of his entire life, James blossomed into himself — his ideals, his values, his character — with courageous authenticity. He would later come to write of his mentor:
His extraordinary effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, character. Never was a man so absolutely without detractors. The quality which every one first thinks of in him is his extraordinary modesty, of which his unfailing geniality and serviceableness, his readiness to confer with and listen to younger men… Next were his integrity, and his complete and simple devotion to objective truth. These qualities were what gave him such incomparable fairness of judgment in both scientific and worldly matters… He had if anything too little of the ego in his composition, and all his faults were excesses of virtue. A little more restlessness of ambition, and a little more willingness to use other people for his purposes, would easily have made him more abundantly productive, and would have greatly increased the sphere of his effectiveness and fame. But his example on us younger men, who had the never-to-be-forgotten advantage of working by his side, would then have been, if not less potent, at least different from what we now remember it; and we prefer to think of him forever as the paragon that he was of goodness, disinterestedness, and single-minded love of the truth.
James graduated from Harvard with a degree in medicine, but wasn’t interested in practicing. Instead, he followed his calling and set out to study philosophy and psychology on his own, imbibing self-education with diligent visits to the Harvard and Boston libraries. He persevered through failing eyesight, debilitating depression, and frequent brushes with the very “beggary” he foresaw and feared. Decades later, having followed his purpose to become America’s first great psychologist, he joked: “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”
The Letters of William James is full of soul-stretching insight into one of the greatest minds and most visionary spirits humanity has ever known, featuring James’s meditations on melancholy, happiness, writing, creativity, and human nature. His brother, the great novelist Henry James, captures this beautifully in the introduction to the 1920 edition:
Life spoke to him in even more ways than to most men, and he responded to its superabundant confusion with passion and insatiable curiosity. His spiritual development was a matter of intense personal experience.