Henry James, Senior dealt with his father’s strict Calvinism by altering it drastically, a change which in turn deeply affected the attitude toward religion of his sons William James, the philosopher and psychologist, and Henry James, the novelist.
Henry Senior abandoned his studies for the Presbyterian ministry on the grounds that professional commitment to any organized religion forced one to sacrifice freedom of thought. He also passed through a devastating crisis that led him to doubt the worth of his very existence. Henry James, Sr emerged from this nearly suicidal state of soul by concluding that his life up to this time amounted to little more than self-love which, like that of the Pharisees in Scripture, merely posed as religiosity. True Christianity, the novelist’s father now believed, consisted in abandoning the self in favor of action for the good of others.
This harshness toward his individual identity may well have been an extreme reaction against his father’s Calvinistic insistence that his personal judgments were always the right ones. There was no such thing for William James of Albany as a reality “out there” and beyond him which demanded struggle, further experience and the help of others to understand and improve. Since the abundance of money and power he had accumulated were signs of God’s favor to him personally, to dispute his judgments and his will was to disobey the judgment and will of God himself. His son, Henry James Senior, quite rightly could not stomach this colossal self infatuation. But by going to the opposite extreme of elevating the claims of neighbor over those of self (“love thy neighbor as thyself”) the father of Henry James was was so distrustful of his personal ability and strength that he became chronically indecisive–in stabilizing, for example, his family’s home and his sons’ education.
Henry Senior’s son, Henry James the novelist, was indebted to his father’s attack on egotism even as he rebelled against it. Like so many others of his generation, the novelist could not find his way to belief in Christian doctrines despite a regard for the Christian religion often amounting to affection. Central to the vision of Henry James is what R.W.B. Lewis has called his feeling for “the otherness” of the human situation–for the complexities of our engagement with others as well as ourselves. The same was true of the novelist’s slightly older brother William James who, though he suffered like his father from severe self-doubt, still recommended acting over thinking in developing his philosophy of pragmatism.
What both these great writers most feared was their grandfather’s dogmatic infatuation with himself–the loss, that is, of the sense of a reality “out there” that needed to be modestly searched for and discovered. Such was the destructive narcissism their grandfather gloried in and their father fought too fiercely in himself. A focus on “the other” (Henry James) and practical action for “the other” (William James) was more important to them than the self-righteousness that that so often accompanies religion. Their search was essentially for that elusive disposition we might call real, though non-dogmatic, religion.
We live in an era (call it the Trump era) of secularized narcissism, when the reality-denying ego is not only flaunted but widely admired, even by so-called Christians. To recover the sense of a shared world beyond any one of us individually and to work together to improve that world we have to take seriously the idea that each of us belongs to a society just as important as we are individually. Tribalism will not do. But that spirit of cooperation assumes norms–civility, for example, that Trump era enthusiasts, mindlessly following their leader, treat as an old fashioned joke. To reverse this direction, we need to value reflection and leisure instead of fearing them, which will be the subject of Post 4.