Welcome to my page of quotations from “Is Life Worth Living?,” an 1895 speech by psychologist and philosopher William James about mind over matter, free will, belief, faith, and optimism. I first studied James nearly thirty years ago in a college psychology course, and many of his words have stayed with me to this day. Note: I’ve modified some of these quotes from their original wording. Full bibliographical attribution is at the bottom of the page.
For this hour, I ask you to ignore the surface-glamour of existence, the buzzing and jigging and vibration of small interests and excitements that form the tissue of our ordinary consciousness, and instead turn your attention to the profounder bass-note of life.
With many men the question of life’s worth is answered by a temperamental optimism which makes them incapable of believing that anything seriously evil can exist. Our dear old Walt Whitman’s works are the standing text-book of this kind of optimism. The mere joy of living is so immense in his veins that it abolishes the possibility of any other kind of feeling: —
“To breathe the air, how delicious!
To speak, to walk…
O amazement of things, even the least particle!…
I too throb to the brain and beauty of the earth…
I praise with electric voice,
For I do not see one imperfection in the universe,
And I do not see one cause or result lamentable at last.”
And so Rousseau, writing of the nine years he spent at Annecy: “…happiness followed me everywhere… it was all within myself…”
But we are not magicians to make the optimistic temperament universal.
So far as man stands for anything, 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. 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… you roll in the abyss.
Refuse to believe, and you shall indeed be right. 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.
Suppose 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, are integral parts of the whole thing, and necessarily help to determine the definition.
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.
God himself may draw vital strength and increase of very being from our fidelity.
For my own part, I do not know what the sweat and blood and tragedy of this life mean, if they mean anything short of this. If this life be not a real fight, in which something is eternally gained for the universe by success, it is no better than a game of private theatricals from which one may withdraw at will.
It feels like a real fight, — as if there were something really wild in the universe which we, with all our idealities and faithfulnesses, are needed to redeem; and first of all to redeem our own hearts from atheisms and fears. For such a half-wild, half-saved universe our nature is adapted.
The deepest thing in our nature is this Binnenleben (as Viennese neurologist Sigmund Freud lately has called it), this dumb region of the heart in which we dwell alone with our willingnesses and unwillingnesses, our faiths and fears — as he terms it, the buried life of human beings. Here is our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things — for here possibilities, not finished facts, are the realities with which we have actively to deal; and to quote my friend William Salter, “as the essence of courage is to stake one’s life on a possibility, so the essence of faith is to believe that the possibility exists.”
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.
—William James (1842–1910), “Is Life Worth Living?,” address to the Young Men’s Christian Association of Harvard University, May 1895, as reprinted in William James, The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy, May 1897 edition