from The Principles of Psychology
from Is Life Worth Living?


The son of the eccentric American philosopher Henry James, Sr., who was influenced by Swedenborgianism and Fourierism, and the brother of Henry James, the eminent novelist and literary critic, William James became a major figure in both philosophy and psychology. In philosophy, he was one of the founders of the school known as Pragmatism; in psychology, he led the movement of functionalism. His childhood was characterized by irregular schooling, respect for opposing ideas (developed in discussions with his father at the family dinner table), and frequent travel. After an unsatisfying attempt to study art, he attended Harvard, where he studied chemistry, physiology, and medicine. While still in school, he served as assistant to the famous naturalist Louis Agassiz on an expedition to the Amazon.

His health failing, James returned to medical school and in 1867–68 studied in Germany; he also read extensively in philosophy and experimental psychology. While in Germany, he experienced a breakdown and contemplated suicide. He received his M.D. in 1869, but was unable to practice as a result of an extended illness that kept him a semi-invalid and confined him to home until 1872. His recovery began with reading Charles Renouvier on free will: James decided that “my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will.” That year he began to teach physiology at Harvard. In 1878, he married and his health improved; it was from this point on that his original thinking began in earnest.

James published The Principles of Psychology in 1890; its scope grew to be far beyond its conception as a textbook of physiological psychology. In this work, he established a functional viewpoint, thus assimilating mental science to those biological disciplines which viewed thinking and knowledge as tools in the struggle for survival. James defended the idea of free will, yet outlined the influences of physical processes upon mental operations. In The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), he viewed the existence of God as established by the record of religious experience, often occurring during times of crisis. Freedom of action is made possible by a looseness in the connection between past and future events, in a way analogous to Darwin’s notion of spontaneous variation. James’s Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, though delayed several years by further health problems, were published as The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) and became popular for their discussions of science and the religious experience.

Near the turn of the century, James turned to philosophy and formulated the philosophical method of Pragmatism. Building on the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce, James argued that the meaning and veracity of all ideas are a function of the consequences that result from them. Pragmatism flowered, and James achieved great fame in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in England; it is often said that from James, “a new vitality flowed into the veins of American philosophers.” After several years of lecturing, teaching, and further writing though in deteriorating health, James died in New Hampshire in 1910.

In this selection from The Principles of Psychology, James argues that suicide for “positive” wholly altruistic motives is impossible, since one inevitably expects to be rewarded for the act. Suicides with “negative” motivations (e.g., fear, retreat) can be genuine, though suicidal frenzy is itself pathological. In the essay “Is Life Worth Living?” (1896), James outlines a way to help overcome the pessimism that leads to suicide. He argues that only a distrust of life can invalidate the value that endurance might bestow upon it; life is “what we make of it.”


William James, The Principles of PsychologyVol. 1. New York: Dover Publications, 1890, 1918, 1950, pp. 313-317. “Is Life Worth Living?” from The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy. New York, London, and Bombay: Longmans Green, 1896, 1899, pp. 32-62.



A tolerably unanimous opinion ranges the different selves of which a man may be ‘seized and possessed,’ and the consequent different orders of his self-regard, in an hierarchical scale, with the bodily Self at the bottom, the spiritual Self at top, and the extracorporeal material selves and the various social selves between. Our merely natural self-seeking would lead us to aggrandize all these selves; we give up deliberately only those among them which we find we cannot keep. Our unselfishness is thus apt to be a ‘virtue of necessity’; and it is not without all show of reason that cynics quote the fable of the fox and the grapes in describing our progress therein. But this is the moral education of the race; and if we agree in the result that on the whole the selves we can keep are the intrinsically best, we need not complain of being led to the knowledge of their superior worth in such a tortuous way.

Of course this is not the only way in which we learn to subordinate our lower selves to our higher. A direct ethical judgment unquestionably also plays its part, and last, not least, we apply to our own persons judgments originally called forth by the acts of others.  It is one of the strangest laws of our nature that many things which we are well satisfied with in ourselves disgust us when seen in others.  With another man’s bodily ‘hoggishness’ hardly anyone has any sympathy;—almost as little with his cupidity, his social vanity and eagerness, his jealousy, his despotism, and his pride. Left absolutely to myself I should probably allow all these spontaneous tendencies to luxuriate in me unchecked, and it would be long before I formed a distinct notion of the order of their subordination. But having constantly to pass judgment of my associates, I come ere long to see, as Herr Horwicz says, my own lusts in the mirror of the lusts of others, and to think about them in a very different way from that in which I simply feel. Of course, the moral generalities which from childhood have been instilled into me accelerate enormously the advent of this reflective judgment on myself.

So it comes to pass that, as aforesaid, men have arranged the various selves which they may seek in an hierarchical scale according to their worth. A certain amount of bodily selfishness is required as a basis for all the other selves. But too much sensuality is despised, or at best condoned on account of the other qualities of the individual. The wider material selves are regarded as higher than the immediate body. He is esteemed a poor creature who is unable to forgo a little meat and drink and warmth and sleep for the sake of getting on in the world. The social self as a whole, again, ranks higher than the material self as a whole. We must care more for our honor, our friends, our human ties, than for a sound skin or wealth. And the spiritual self is so supremely precious that, rather than lose it, a man ought to be willing to give up friends and good fame, and property, and life itself.

In each kind of self, material, social, and spiritual, men distinguish between the immediate and actual, and the remote and potential, between the narrower and the wider view, to the detriment of the former and advantage of the latter. One must forego a present bodily enjoyment for the sake of one’s general health; one must abandon the dollar in the hand for the sake of the hundred dollars to come; one must make an enemy of his present interlocutor if thereby one makes friends of a more valued circle; one must go without learning and grace, and wit, the better to compass one’s soul’s salvation.

Of all these wider, more potential selves, the potential social self is the most interesting, by reason of certain apparent paradoxes to which it leads in conduct, and by reason of its connection with our moral and religious life. When for motives of honor and conscience I brave the condemnation of my own family, club, and ‘set’; when, as a protestant, I turn catholic; as a catholic, freethinker; as a ‘regular practitioner,’ homœopath, or what not, I am always inwardly strengthened in my course and steeled against the loss of my actual social self by the thought of other and better possible social judges than those whose verdict goes against me now. The ideal social self which I thus seek in appealing to their decision may be very remote: it may be represented as barely possible. I may not hope for its realization during my lifetime; I may even expect the future generations, which would approve me if they knew me, to know nothing about me when I am dead and gone. Yet still the emotion that beckons me on is indubitably the pursuit of an ideal social self, of a self that is at least worthy of approving recognition by the highest possible judging companion, if such companion there be. This self is the true, the intimate, the ultimate, the permanent Me which I seek. This judge is God, the Absolute Mind, the ‘Great Companion.’ We hear, in these days of scientific enlightenment, a great deal of discussion about the efficacy of prayer; and many reasons are given us why we should not pray, whilst others are given us why we should. But in all this very little is said of the reason why we do pray, which is simply that we cannot help praying. It seems probable that, in spite of all that ‘science’ may do to the contrary, men will continue to pray to the end of time, unless their mental nature changes in a manner which nothing we know should lead us to expect. The impulse to pray is a necessary consequence of the fact that whilst the innermost of the empirical selves of a man is a Self of the social sort, it yet can find its only adequate Socius in an ideal world. All progress in the social Self is the substitution of higher tribunals for lower; this ideal tribunal is the highest; and most men, either continually or occasionally, carry a reference to it in their breast. The humblest outcast on this earth can feel himself to be real and valid by means of this higher recognition. And, on the other hand, for most of us, a world with no such inner refuge when the outer social self failed and dropped from us would be the abyss of horror. I say ‘for most of us,’ because it is probable that individuals differ a good deal in the degree in which they are haunted by this sense of an ideal spectator. It is a much more essential part of the consciousness of some men than of others. Those who have the most of it are possibly the most religious men. But I am sure that even those who say they are altogether without it deceive themselves, and really have it in some degree. Only a non-gregarious animal could be completely without it. Probably no one can make sacrifices for ‘right,’ without to some degree personifying the principle of right for which the sacrifice is made, and expecting thanks from it. Complete social unselfishness, in other words, can hardly exist; complete social suicide hardly occur to a man’s mind. Even such texts as Job’s “Though He slay me yet will I trust Him,” or Marcus Aurelius’s “If gods hate me and my children, there is a reason for it,” can least of all be cited to prove the contrary.  For beyond all doubt Job revelled in the thought of Jehovah’s recognition of the worship after the slaying should have been done; and the Roman emperor felt sure the Absolute Reason would not be all indifferent to his acquiescence in the gods’ dislike. The old test of piety, “Are you willing to be damned for the glory of God?” was probably never answered in the affirmative except by those who felt sure in their heart of hearts that God would ‘credit’ them with their willingness, and set more store by them thus if in His unfathomable scheme He had not damned them at all. All this about the impossibility of suicide is said on the supposition of positive motives. When possessed by the emotion of fear, however, we are in a negative state of mind; that is, our desire is limited to the mere banishing of something, without regard to what shall take its place. In this state of mind there can unquestionably be genuine thoughts, and genuine acts, of suicide, spiritual and social, as well as bodily. Anything, anything, at such times, so as to escape and not to be! But such conditions of suicidal frenzy are pathological in their nature and run dead against everything that is regular in the life of the Self in man.



WHEN Mr. Mallock’s book with this title appeared some fifteen years ago, the jocose answer that “it depends on the liver” had great currency in the newspapers. The answer which I propose to give to-night cannot be jocose. In the words of one of Shakespeare’s prologues,—

“I come no more to make you laugh; things now,
That bear a weighty and a serious brow,
Sad, high, and working, full of state and woe,”—

must be my theme. In the deepest heart of all of us there is a corner in which the ultimate mystery of things works sadly; and I know not what such an association as yours intends, not what you ask of those whom you invite to address you, unless it be to lead you from the surface-glamour of existence, and for an hour at least to make you heedless to the buzzing and jigging and vibration of small interests and excitements that form the tissue of our ordinary consciousness. Without further explanation or apology, then, I ask you to join me in turning an attention, commonly too unwilling, to the profounder bass-note of life. Let us search the lonely depths for an hour together, and see what answers in the last folds and recesses of things our question may find.

“It ends soon, and never more can be,” “Lo, you are free to end it when you will,”—these verses flow truthfully from the melancholy Thomson’s pen, and are in truth a consolation for all to whom, as to him, the world is far more like a steady den of fear than a continual fountain of delight. That life is not worth living the whole army of suicides declare,—an army whose roll-call, like the famous evening gun of the British army, follows the sun round the world and never terminates. We, too, as we sit here in our comfort, must ‘ponder these things’ also, for we are of one substance with these suicides, and their life is the life we share. The plainest intellectual integrity,—nay, more, the simplest manliness and honor, forbid us to forget their case.

To come immediately to the heart of my theme, then, what I propose is to imagine ourselves reasoning with a fellow-mortal who is on such terms with life that the only comfort left him is to brood on the assurance, “You may end it when you will.” What reasons can we plead that may render such a brother (or sister) willing to take up the burden again? Ordinary Christians, reasoning with would-be suicides, have little to offer them beyond the usual negative, “Thou shalt not.” God alone is master of life and death, they say, and it is a blasphemous act to anticipate his absolving hand. But can we find nothing richer or more positive than this, no reflections to urge whereby the suicide may actually see, and in all sad seriousness feel, that in spite of adverse appearances even for him life is still worth living? There are suicides and suicides (in the United States about three thousand of them every year), and I must frankly confess that with perhaps the majority of these my suggestions are impotent to deal. Where suicide is the result of insanity or sudden frenzied impulse, reflection is impotent to arrest its headway: and cases like these belong to the ultimate mystery of evil, concerning which I can only offer considerations tending toward religious patience at the end of this hour. My task, let me say now, is practically narrow, and my words are to deal only with that metaphysical tedium vitœ which is peculiar to reflecting men. Most of you are devoted, for good or ill, to the reflective life. Many of you are students of philosophy, and have already felt in your own persons the skepticism and unreality that too much grubbing in the abstract roots of things will breed. This is, indeed, one of the regular fruits of the over-studious career. Too much questioning and too little active responsibility lead, almost as often as too much sensualism does, to the edge of the slope, at the bottom of which lie pessimism and the nightmare or suicidal view of life. But to the diseases which reflection breeds, still further reflection can oppose effective remedies; and it is of the melancholy and Weltschmerz bred of reflection that I now proceed to speak.

Let me say, immediately, that my final appeal is to nothing more recondite than religious faith. So far as my argument is to be destructive, it will consist in nothing more than the sweeping away of certain views that often keep the springs of religious faith compressed; and so far as it is to be constructive, it will consist in holding up to the light of day certain considerations calculated to let loose these springs in a normal, natural way. Pessimism is essentially a religious disease. In the form of it to which you are most liable, it consists in nothing but a religious demand to which there comes no normal religious reply.

We are familiar enough in this community with the spectacle of persons exulting in their emancipation from belief in the God of their ancestral Calvinism,—him who made the garden and the serpent, and preappointed the eternal fires of hell. Some of them have found humaner gods to worship, others are simply converts from all theology; but, both alike, they assure us that to have got rid of the sophistication of thinking they could feel any reverence or duty toward that impossible idol gave a tremendous happiness to their souls. Now, to make an idol of the spirit of nature, and worship it, also leads to sophistication; and in souls that are religious and would also be scientific the sophistication breeds a philosophical melancholy, from which the first natural step of escape is the denial of the idol; and with the downfall of the idol, whatever lack of positive joyousness may remain, there comes also the downfall of the whimpering and cowering mood. With evil simply taken as such, men can make short work, for their relations with it then are only practical. It looms up no longer so spectrally, it loses all its haunting and perplexing significance, as soon as the mind attacks the instances of it singly, and ceases to worry about their derivation from the ‘one and only Power.’

Here, then, on this stage of mere emancipation from monistic superstition, the would-be suicide may already get encouraging answers to his question about the worth of life. There are in most men instinctive springs of vitality that respond healthily when the burden of metaphysical and infinite responsibility rolls off. The certainty that you now may step out of life whenever you please, and that to do so is not blasphemous or monstrous, is itself an immense relief.  The thought of suicide is now no longer a guilty challenge and obsession.

“This little life is all we must endure;
The grave’s most holy peace is ever sure,”—

says Thomson; adding, “I ponder these thoughts, and they comfort me.” Meanwhile we can always stand it for twenty-four hours longer, if only to see what to-morrow’s newspaper will contain, or what the next postman will bring.

But far deeper forces than this mere vital curiosity are arousable, even in the pessimistically-tending mind; for where the loving and admiring impulses are dead, the hating and fighting impulses will still respond to fit appeals. This evil which we feel so deeply is something that we can also help to overthrow; for its sources, now that no ‘Substance’ or ‘Spirit’ is behind them, are finite, and we can deal with each of them in turn. It is, indeed, a remarkable fact that sufferings and hardships do not, as a rule, abate the love of life; they seem, on the contrary, usually to give it a keener zest. The sovereign source of melancholy is repletion. Need and struggle are what excite and inspire us; our hour of triumph is what brings the void.

What are our woes and sufferance compared with these? Does not the recital of such a fight so obstinately waged against such odds fill us with resolution against our petty powers of darkness,—machine politicians, spoilsmen, and the rest? Life is worth living, no matter what it bring, if only such combats may be carried to successful terminations and one’s heel set on the tyrant’s throat. To the suicide, then, in his supposed world of multifarious and immoral nature, you can appeal—and appeal in the name of the very evils that make his heart sick there—to wait and see his part of the battle out. And the consent to live on, which you ask of him under these circumstances, is not the sophistical ‘resignation’ which devotees of cowering religious preach: it is not resignation in the sense of licking a despotic Deity’s hand. It is, on the contrary, a resignation based on manliness and pride. So long as your would-be suicide leaves an evil of his own unremedied, so long he has strictly no concern with evil in the abstract and at large. The submission which you demand of your self to the general fact of evil in the world, your apparent acquiescence in it, is here nothing but the conviction that evil at large is none of your business until your business with your private particular evils is liquidated and settled up. A challenge of this sort, with proper designation of detail, is one that need only be made to be accepted by men whose normal instincts are not decayed; and your reflective would-be suicide may easily be moved by it to face life with a certain interest again. The sentiment of honor is a very penetrating thing. When you and I, for instance, realize how many innocent beasts have had to suffer in cattle-cars and slaughter-pens and lay down their lives that we might grow up, all fattened and clad, to sit together here in comfort and carry on this discourse, it does, indeed, put our relation to the universe in a more solemn light. “Does not,” as a young Amherst philosopher (Xenos Clark, now dead) once wrote, “the acceptance of a happy life upon such terms involves a point of honor?” Are we not bound to take some suffering upon ourselves, to do some self-denying service with our lives, in return for all those lives upon which ours are built? To hear this question is to answer it in but one possible way, if one have a normally constituted heart.

Thus, then, we see that mere instinctive curiosity, pugnacity, and honor may make life on a purely naturalistic basis seem worth living from day to day to men who have cast away all metaphysics in order to get rid of hypochondria, but who are resolved to owe nothing as yet to religion and its more positive gifts. A poor half-way stage, some of you may be inclined to say; but at least you must grant it to be an honest stage; and no man should dare to speak meanly of these instincts which are our nature’s best equipment, and to which religion herself must in the last resort address her own peculiar appeals.

Now, when I speak of trusting our religious demands, just what do I mean by ‘trusting’? Is the word to carry with it license to define in detail an invisible world, and to anathematize and excommunicate those whose trust is different? Certainly not! Our faculties of belief were not primarily given us to make orthodoxies and heresies withal; they were given us to live by. And to trust our religious demands means first of all to live in the light of them, and to act as if the invisible world which they suggest were real. It is a fact of human nature, that men can live and die by the help of a sort of faith that goes without a single dogma or definition. The bare assurance that this natural order is not ultimate but a mere sign or vision, the external staging of a many-storied universe, in which spiritual forces have the last word and are eternal,—this bare assurance is to such men enough to make life seem worth living in spite of every contrary presumption suggested by its circumstances on the natural plane. Destroy this inner assurance, however, vague as it is, and all the light and radiance of existence is extinguished for these persons at a stroke. Often enough the wild-eyed look at life—the suicidal mood—will then set in.

Now turn from this to the life of man. In the dog’s life we see the world invisible to him because we live in both worlds. In human life, although we only see our world, and his within it, yet encompassing both these worlds a still wider world may be there, as unseen by us as our world is by him; and to believe in that world may be the most essential function that our lives in this world have to perform. But “may be! may be!” one now hears the positivist contemptuously exclaim; “what use can a scientific life have for maybes?” Well, I reply, the ‘scientific’ life itself has much to do with maybes, and human life at large has everything to do with them. So far as man stands for anything, and is productive or originative at all, his entire vital function may be said to have to deal with maybes. Not a victory is gained, not a deed of faithfulness or courage is done, except upon a maybe; not a service, not a sally of generosity, not a scientific exploration or experiment or textbook, that may not be a mistake. It is only by risking our persons from one hour to another that we live at all. And often enough our faith beforehand in an uncertified result is the only thing that makes the result come true. Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. In such a case (and it belongs to an enormous class), the part of wisdom as well as of courage is to believe what is in the line of your needs, for only by such belief is the need fulfilled. Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right, for you shall irretrievably perish. But believe, and again you shall be right, for you shall save yourself. You make one or the other of two possible universes true by your trust or mistrust,—both universes having been only maybes, in this particular, before you contributed your act.

Now, it appears to me that the question whether life is worth living is subject to conditions logically much like these. It does, indeed, depend on you the liver. If you surrender to the nightmare view and crown the evil edifice by your own suicide, you have indeed made a picture totally black. Pessimism, completed by your act, is true beyond a doubt, so far as your world goes. Your mistrust of life has removed whatever worth your own enduring existence might have given to it; and now, throughout the whole sphere of possible influence of that existence, the mistrust has proved itself to have had divining power. But suppose, on the other hand, that instead of giving way to the nightmare view you cling to it that this world is not the ultimatum. Suppose you find yourself a very well-spring, as Wordsworth says, of—

“Zeal, and the virtue to exist by faith
As soldiers live by courage; as, by strength
Of heart, the sailor fights with roaring seas.”

Suppose, however thickly evils crowd upon you, that your unconquerable subjectivity proves to be their match, and that you find a more wonderful joy than any passive pleasure can bring in trusting ever in the larger whole. Have you not now made life worth living on these terms? What sort of a thing would life really be, with your qualities ready for a tussle with it, if it only brought fair weather and gave these higher faculties of yours no scope? Please remember that optimism and pessimism are definitions of the world, and that our own reactions on the world, small as they are in bulk, and necessarily help to determine the definition. They may even be the decisive elements in determining the definition. A large mass can have its unstable equilibrium overturned by the addition of a feather’s weight; a long phrase may have its sense reversed by the addition of the three letters n-o-t. This life is worth living, we can say, since it is what we make it, from the moral point of view, and we are determined to make it from that point of view, so far as we have anything to do with it, a success.

These, then, are my last words to you: Be not afraid of life. Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact. The ‘scientific proof’ that you are right may not be clear before the day of judgment (or some stage of being which that expression may serve to symbolize) is reached. But the faithful fighters of this hour, or the beings that then and there will represent them, may then turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV, greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: “Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.”

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