As part of my ongoing efforts to understand humans, I recently read William James’ “The Varieties of Religious Experience”. (Now, if only there were a book “The Varieties of Capitalist Experience”!) As you might expect, I do not share James’ views on most things, but several passages are highly interesting.

Now, some of the following seems clearly wrong: Quakerism for instance seems to me to be perfectly compatible with non-violent resistance. And, it may grate upon the non-religious among you (it did on me a little): I would read “salvation” as something purely ethical, although James means something more.

And, as friends have pointed out, this is a highly exclusive version of socialism. Socialism, if it is anything, is democratic and inclusive, in which all can have their say, not only in the legislative-political but also in the economic realm.

Moreover, as religious friends have pointed out, the “doormat Christianity” of turning the other cheek, as it is usually understood, is not faithful to the original text of the gospels, which preach non-violent resistance, rather than no resistance at all.

BUT in any case, note that at the end he considers utopian socialists as the secular version of this saintliness, as an exemplary, visionary orientation. I would disagree with his unsupported judgment about practicability — indeed he seems to be entirely contemptuous of them — but the general characterisation to me seems valid. Note some of the language is surprisingly modern; this was written in 1901-2, but the “world yet to be born” is straight out of Arundhati Roy, and the “creative social force” and “potentialities for human development” are fairly modern socialist or anarchist formulations, I would say. The vanguard imagery (torch bearers! drops flung ahead of the crest of a wave!) is perfectly overblown, straight out of orthodox Marxism-Leninism — of course this is “vanguardism” in its defensible sense of exemplary moral character, not the apologetics for Leninist authoritarianism with which that word has long been tainted.

The creation of a socialist heaven on earth, regardless of the existence of a heaven per se, of course is much older, as old as socialism itself — an animating vision of all revolutionary and
transformative politics.

And, the “facets of the character-polyhedron” is an awesomely geeky formulation. What is this earth thing you call love?

Passage follows.

[S]aintliness has to face the charge of preserving the unfit, and breeding parasites and beggars. ‘Resist not evil,’ ‘Love your enemies,’ these are saintly maxims of which men of this world find it hard to speak without impatience. Are the men of this world right, or are the saints in possession of the deeper range of truth?

No simple answer is possible…

As there is no worse lie than a truth misunderstood by those who hear it, so reasonable arguments, challenges to magnanimity, and appeals to sympathy or justice, are folly when we are dealing with human crocodiles and boa-constrictors. The saint may simply give the universe into the hands of the enemy by his trustfulness. He may by non-resistance cut off his own survival.

… We must frankly confess, then, using our empirical common sense and ordinary practical prejudices, that in the world that actually is, the virtues of sympathy, charity, and non-resistance may be, and often have been, manifested in excess. The powers of darkness have systematically taken advantage of them. The whole modern scientific organization of charity is a consequence of the failure of simply giving alms. The whole history of constitutional government is a commentary on the excellence of resisting evil, and when one cheek is smitten, of smiting back and not turning the other cheek also.

You will agree to this in general, for in spite of the Gospel, in spite of Quakerism, in spite of Tolstoi, you believe in fighting fire with fire, in shooting down usurpers, locking up thieves, and freezing out vagabonds and swindlers.

And yet you are sure, as I am sure, that were the world confined to these hard-headed, hard-hearted, and hard-fisted methods exclusively, were there no one prompt to help a brother first, and find out afterwards whether he were worthy; no one willing to drown his private wrongs in pity for the wronger’s person; no one ready to be duped many a time rather than live always on suspicion; no one glad to treat individuals passionately and impulsively rather than by general rules of prudence; the world would be an infinitely worse place than it is now to live in. The tender grace, not of a day that is dead, but of a day yet to be born somehow, with the golden rule grown natural, would be cut out from the perspective of our imaginations.

The saints, existing in this way, may, with their extravagances of human tenderness, be prophetic. Nay, innumerable times they have proved themselves prophetic. Treating those whom they met, in spite of the past, in spite of all appearances, as worthy, they have stimulated them to be worthy, miraculously transformed them by radiant example and by the challenge of their expectation.

From this point of view we may admit the human charity which we find in all saints, and the great excess of it which we find in some saints, to be a genuinely creative social force, tending to make real a degree of virtue which it alone is ready to assume as possible. The saints are authors, auctores, increasers, of goodness. The potentialities of development in human souls are unfathomable. So many who seemed irretrievably hardened have in point of fact been softened, converted, regenerated, in ways that amazed the subjects even more than they surprised the spectators, that we never can be sure in advance of any man that his salvation by the way of love is hopeless. We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as of fixedly incurable beings. We know not the complexities of personality, the smouldering emotional fires, the other facets of the character-polyhedron, the resources of the subliminal region… The saints, with their extravagance of human tenderness, are the great torch-bearers of this belief, the tip of the wedge, the clearers of the darkness. Like the single drops which sparkle in the sun as they are flung far ahead of the advancing edge of a wavecrest or of a flood, they show the way and are forerunners. The world is not yet with them, so they often seem in the midst of the world’s affairs to be preposterous. Yet they are impregnators of the world, vivifiers and animaters of potentialities of goodness which but for them would lie forever dormant. It is not possible to be quite as mean as we naturally are, when they have passed before us. One fire kindles another; and without that over-trust in human worth which they show, the rest of us would lie in spiritual stagnancy.

… If things are ever to move upward, some one must be ready to take the first step, and assume the risk of it. No one who is not willing to try charity, to try non-resistance as the saint is always willing, can tell whether these methods will or will not succeed. When they do succeed, they are far more powerfully successful than force or worldly prudence. Force destroys enemies; and the best that can be said of prudence is that it keeps what we already have in safety. But non-resistance, when successful, turns enemies into friends; and charity regenerates its objects. … [G]enuine saints find in the elevated excitement with which their faith endows them an authority and impressiveness which makes them irresistible in situations where men of shallower nature cannot get on at all without the use of worldly prudence. This practical proof that worldly wisdom may be safely transcended is the saint’s magic gift to mankind. Not only does his vision of a better world console us for the generally prevailing prose and barrenness; but even when on the whole we have to confess him ill adapted, he makes some converts…

In this respect the Utopian dreams of soci
al justice in which many contemporary socialists and anarchists indulge are, in spite of their impracticability and non-adaptation to present environmental conditions, analogous to the saint’s belief in an existent kingdom of
heaven. They help to break the edge of the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.

— William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, p. 355-60

Socialism as saintliness
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