Journal of Religion and Health

, Volume 48, Issue 3, pp 368–380

Relaxed Bodies, Emancipated Minds, and Dominant Calm


Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10943-009-9263-9

Cite this article as:
Capps, D. J Relig Health (2009) 48: 368. doi:10.1007/s10943-009-9263-9


William James presented “The Gospel of Relaxation” (James in W. James, Writings 1878–1899, 1992) to the 1896 graduating class of Boston Normal School of Gymnastics and a decade later he delivered his presidential address “The Energies of Men” (James in W. James, Writings 1902–1910, 1987) to the American Philosophical Association. Both lectures focus on the body’s influence on emotions and on the liberating effects of live ideas on the body’s natural energies. They also reflect his use of the popular spiritual hygiene literature of his day to support his arguments. The first address draws on Hannah Whitall Smith’s views on disregarding our negative emotions and on Annie Payson Call’s writings, specifically her views on relaxation; the second on Horace Fletcher’s writings, specifically his views on anger and worry. I use these original sources to expand on key ideas in the two addresses, i.e., the role of imitation in altering unhealthy physiological habits and the energy-releasing role of suggestive ideas.


William JamesHannah Whitall SmithSigmund FreudAnnie Payson CallHorace FletcherRelaxationEnergySuggestible ideasImitative modelsCalm


William James delivered addresses to two very different audiences on the subject of how Americans could make better use of their physical and mental energies. “The Gospel of Relaxation” was an address to the 1896 graduating class at Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. It was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1899. The same year, he included it in a collection of his lectures titled Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (James 1992). “The Energies of Men” was the presidential address delivered at Columbia University on December 28, 1906, to the American Philosophical Association. It was published in the January 1907 issue of The Philosophical Review (James 1987).

The Gospel of Relaxation

As indicated, James gave his talk on “The Gospel of Relaxation” (1992) to the graduating class at Boston Normal School of Gymnastics. He states his topic in his opening sentence: “I wish in the following hour to take certain psychological doctrines and show their practical applications to mental hygiene—to the hygiene of our American life more particularly” (p. 825). Americans, he notes, especially those in academic circles, are turning toward psychology these days with great expectations, but if psychology is to justify these expectations, it must do so “by showing fruits in the pedagogic and therapeutic lines” (p. 825).

The Theory

Next, James introduces the Lange–James theory of the emotions. He presented this theory in his 1884 article, “What Is an Emotion” (James 1884) and the following year Carl Lange, a Danish psychologist and physician, presented the same theory in his book on emotions. According to this theory, emotions are due to “organic stirrings” aroused in us by the stimulus of an exciting object or situation. For example, fear is not the direct effect of the feared object’s impression on our minds. Instead, it is an effect of an earlier physiological response excited by the object. Instead of running away because we feel afraid, we feel afraid because we run away. Thus, by regulating these responses, we can indirectly regulate our emotions. Also, because our physiological responses are under the direct control of our will, we are better able to exercise greater control over our emotions by regulating our physiological responses than if we tried to regulate our emotions more directly. For example, in order to feel kindly toward someone with whom we have quarreled, we should make a deliberate effort to smile, make sympathetic inquiries, and force ourselves to say congenial things. If, instead, we wrestle with our bad feelings toward the person this merely draws our attention to these feelings and no change occurs.

We might have expected James to support this rather revolutionary theory with citations from his own article on emotions or from Lange’s book. Instead, he cites “an admirable and widely successful little book,” Hannah Whitall Smith’s The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life (1983). This book teaches this fundamental lesson on almost every page: “Act faithfully, and you really have faith, no matter how cold and even dubious you may feel” (p. 826). For example, Smith writes, “It is your purpose God looks at, not your feelings about that purpose; and your purpose, or will, is therefore the only thing you need attend to,” so “Let your emotions come or let them go, just as God pleases, and make no account of them either way” because “they are not the indicators of your spiritual state, but are merely the indicators of your temperament or of your present physical condition” (p. 826).

Next, James turns to an unnamed “Viennese neurologist of considerable reputation” (p. 827), undoubtedly a reference to Sigmund Freud. According to this neurologist, “no physician can get into really profitable relations with a nervous patient” until he gets some sense of a person’s “buried life,” i.e., the “unuttered inner atmosphere in which his consciousness dwells alone with the secrets of its prison-house” (p. 827). Freud’s chapter in Studies on Hysteria on “The Psychotherapy of Hysteria” indicates that this means unearthing a patient’s sexual fantasies (Breuer and Freud 1957). However, James is more interested in the nervous patient’s old regrets relating to ambitions and aspirations that were inhibited by shame and timidity and in localized bodily discomforts which produce “a general self-mistrust and sense that things are not as they should be” (p. 827).

Here, James employs the Lange–James theory of emotions by noting that emotions derive from physiological reactions and responses. In this case, however, the emotions are not the result of a physiological reaction to an external stimulus. Instead, the stimulus is an internal one, namely, some physical discomfort that gives rise to morbid feelings. Significantly, the feelings in this case have little if anything to do with past frustrations and everything to do with the current state of the body. If James endorses Freud’s proposal that physicians probe the “buried life” of their patients, this does not mean that they should focus on the distant past. Rather, they should concern themselves with the “inner atmosphere” of the patient’s present condition, i.e., current physical discomforts. The patient’s emotional state is the central issue, but its improvement lies in the rehabilitation of the patient’s physical condition.

James reinforces this point by noting “the effects of a well-toned motor-apparatus, nervous and muscular, on our general personal self-consciousness, the sense of elasticity and efficiency that results” (p. 827). He points to the changes that have occurred in the lives of Norwegian women simply because they have taken up skiing, a sport previously reserved for the men. As a result, a “revolutionary” change in their lives has occurred. Fifteen years ago, these women were “votaries of the old-fashioned ideal of femininity, the ‘domestic angel,’ the ‘gentle and refining influence’ sort of thing” (p. 827). Now, however, “these sedentary fireside tabby-cats of Norway have been trained” by their snow-shoes into “lithe and audacious creatures for whom no night is too dark or height too giddy.” They are saying good-bye to the traditional female pallor and delicacy of constitution” and “taking the lead in every educational and social reform” (pp. 827–828). James suggests that the current “tennis and tramping and skating habits and bicycle craze” among American women has the same potential to produce “a sounder and heartier moral tone, which will send its tonic breath through all our American life” (p. 828). One imagines that his audience of women dedicated to teaching gymnastics would have applauded at this point.

James goes on to cite a book he read years ago by an American doctor that prophesied that as the social environment changes, humans will be called upon to develop more mental power, and there will be correspondingly less need for physical strength. After all, machines will do all of our heavy work. The author celebrated the prospect of humans no longer needing muscular strength and suggested that we should live in anticipation of this future prospect. When James first heard this “apocalyptic vision” enunciated, it made his “flesh creep” (a significant physiological reaction). He “cannot believe that our muscular vigor will ever be a superfluity,” for even if the day comes when it is not needed to fight the old heavy battles against Nature, “it will still always be needed to furnish the background of sanity, serenity, and cheerfulness to life, to give moral elasticity to our disposition, to round off the wiry edge of our fretfulness, and make us good-natured and easy of approach” (p. 829).

The Problem

Having contended that the body has an enormous influence on the emotional state of the individual, James zeroes in on the rather bad physiological habits of Americans. On a visit to the United States many years earlier, Dr. Thomas Smith Clouston, Scotland’s “most eminent” asylum physician, said that “you Americans wear too much expression on your faces, are living like an army with all its reserves engaged in action, take too intensely the trivial moments of life, and ought somehow to tone yourselves down” (pp. 829–830). Agreeing that “intensity, rapidity, vivacity of appearance, are indeed with us something of a nationally accepted ideal,” James cites a story he read recently in a weekly newspaper in which the writer summarized the heroine’s charms by observing that “to all who looked upon her an impression of ‘bottled lightning’ was irresistably conveyed.” James exclaims: “Bottled lightning, in truth, is one of our American ideals, even of a young girl’s character!” (p. 830).

To be sure, “there are plenty of bottled-lightning temperaments in other countries, and plenty of phlegmatic temperaments here” (p. 830). Also, one could argue that the problem about which he is “making such a fuss is a very small item in the sum total of a nation’s life and not worth solemn treatment at a time when agreeable rather than disagreeable things should be talked about” (pp. 830–831). However, it is not a thing’s size but its place and function that measure its importance. By itself, the “general over-contraction” of the body may seem small, yet “its importance is immense on account of its effects on the over-contracted person’s spiritual life” (p. 831, emphasis in original) After all, “the over-tense excited body” produces an “excited habit of mind” and “the sultry, threatening, exhausting, thunderous inner atmosphere never quite clears away” (p. 831). If, for example, you never wholly sit down in a chair but always keep your leg and body muscles prepared for a rise, and if you breathe eighteen or nineteen instead of fifteen or sixteen times a minute, what “mental mood can you be in but one of inner panting and expectancy, and how can the future and its worries possibly forsake your mind?” (p. 831). On the other hand, “how can they gain admission to your mind if your brow be unruffled, your respiration calm and complete, and your muscles all relaxed?” (p. 831).

The Explanation

What causes “this absence of repose, this bottled-lightning quality in us Americans”? (p. 831). James considers various possible explanations, including the variability of the climate and the work we do and the pace at which we do it, but notes that there is little if any difference between America and every great European capital in this regard. The real explanation lies in what psychologists and sociologists call the “imitative impulse,” which, together with the inventive impulse, forms the entire warp and woof of human social life. The over-tension, jerkiness, breathlessness, intensity, and agony of expression among Americans is largely a function of the imitative impulse: “They are bad habits, nothing more or less, bred of custom and example, born of the imitation of bad models and the cultivation of false personal ideals” (p. 832). James compares these habits to the idioms of phrase and accent peculiar to a given locality. Just as these idioms resulted from “an accidental example set by someone, which struck the ears of others, and was quoted and copied till at last everyone in the locality chimed in,” so it is with national “fashions of movement and gesture, and habitual expressions of face” (p. 832). How these fashions and expressions came about is impossible to trace, but climate and work conditions have little if anything to do with it.

Thus, the reason that so many Americans collapse and need to be sent abroad to rest their nerves is not that they work so hard; instead, the culprit is “those absurd feelings of hurry and having no time, in that breathlessness and tension, that anxiety of feature and that solicitude for results” and “that lack of inner harmony and ease” that accompany the work being done (p. 833). The blame lies with “these perfectly wanton and unnecessary tricks of inner attitude and outer manner in us, caught from the social atmosphere, kept up by tradition, and idealized by many as the admirable way of life” (p. 833). These “are the last straws that break the American camel’s back,” the overflow “of our measure of wear and tear and fatigue” (p. 833). Even the voices of Americans have a tired and plaintive sound, and we suffer the “wretched trick of feeling tired by following the prevalent habits of vocalization and expression” (p. 833).

If talking at a high and/or tired pitch and living excitedly and hurriedly actually enabled us to do more than we are doing, and to do it well, this would at least compensate for continuing in our habitual ways. In fact, however, the very opposite is the case: One need only compare the “dull, unhurried worker” who covers a great deal of ground because “he never goes backward or breaks down” with the “intense, convulsive worker” who “breaks down and has bad moods so often that you never know where he may be when you most need his help—he may be having one of his ‘bad days’” (p. 833). The relaxed and easy worker, who is not in a hurry, and does not give a great deal of thought to the consequences of the work, is “your efficient worker,” while “tension and anxiety, and present and future, all mixed up together in our mind at once, are the surest drags upon steady progress and hindrances to our success” (p. 833).

The Remedy

If the imitative impulse is largely responsible for why Americans are the way they are, the remedy is clear: “We must change ourselves from a race that admires jerk and snap for their own sakes, and looks down upon low voices and quiet ways as dull, to one that, on the contrary, has calm for its ideal, and for their own sakes loves harmony, dignity, and ease” (p. 834). And how are we to realize this fundamental change? We need to return to “the psychology of imitation,” for the only way to improve ourselves is “by some of us setting an example which the others may pick up and imitate till the new fashion spreads from east to west” (p. 834).

Now, some persons have a natural advantage in this regard because they are simply “more striking personally” and imitable for this very reason. But no one is not in a position to be imitated by someone. After all, the patients in our mental institutions imitate each other’s peculiarities. So, “if you should individually achieve calmness and harmony in your own person, you may depend upon it that a wave of imitation will spread from you, as surely as the circles spread outward when a stone is dropped into a lake” (p. 834).

Moreover, we do not have to be “absolute pioneers” in this regard. After all, a society has already been formed in New York for the improvement of our national vocalization. Better still, because it is more radical and general, the “gospel of relaxation” is being preached by Annie Payson Call, of Boston, in her “admirable little volume called Power through Repose, a book that ought to be in the hands of every teacher and student in America of either sex.” With these precursors, one need only be a follower on a path already opened by others (p. 835).

This remedy, however, leads to a cautionary note: If your example of easy and calm ways is to be effectively contagious, the less you aim at getting imitated and the more unconscious you are of trying to influence others, the more likely your success will be. So, “become the imitable thing, and you may then discharge your minds of all responsibility for the imitation” for “the laws of social nature will take care of the result” (p. 835, emphasis in original). This, James notes, is a psychological principle that we Americans “most grievously neglect.” In technical terms, this principle says that “strong feeling about one’s self tends to arrest the free association of one’s objective ideas and motor processes” (p. 835, emphasis in original). The extreme example of this inhibition is found in the mental disease known as melancholia, for the melancholic patient “is filled through and through with intensely painful emotion about himself” (p. 835). His mind “is fixed as if in a cramp on these feelings of his own situation; and in all the books on insanity you may read that the usual varied flow of his thoughts has ceased” (p. 835).

This inhibitive influence is not merely because the emotions themselves are painful ones. Joyous emotions also inhibit the association of our ideas. After all, a saint in ecstasy is as motionless and irresponsive as a melancholic patient (pp. 835–836).

Thus, if we want our ideas and volitions to be abundant, varied, and effective, we need to “form the habit of freeing them from the inhibitive influence of reflection upon them, of egoistic preoccupation about their results” (p. 836). This, too, is a habit that one can learn: “Prudence and duty and self-regard, emotions of ambition and emotions of anxiety, have, of course, a needful part to play in our lives,” but, James advises, “confine them as far as possible to the occasions when you are making your general resolutions and deciding on your plans of campaign, and keep them out of the details”; then, “once a decision is reached and execution is the order of the day, dismiss absolutely all responsibility and care about the outcome” and unclamp “your intellectual and practical machinery, and let it run free; and the service it will do you will be twice as good” (p. 836).

To illustrate this “unclamping” of one’s intellectual and practical machinery, James returns to Americans’ verbal expression, and suggests that social life is fatiguing because of Americans’ over-active conscience which makes us “afraid of either saying something too trivial and obvious, or something insincere, or something unworthy of one’s interlocutor, or something in some way or another not adequate to the occasion” (p. 836). He asks, “How can conversation possibly steer itself through such a sea of responsibilities and inhibitions as this?” (p. 836). On the other hand, “conversation does flourish and society is refreshing, and neither dull on the one hand nor exhausting from its effort on the other, wherever people forget their scruples and take the brakes off their hearts, and let their tongues wag as automatically and irresponsibly as they will” (p. 836). In support, he cites Annie Payson Call’s As a Matter of Course (2007), noting that it presents “the gospel of moral relaxation” (p. 837).1

The gospel of moral relaxation, however, is likely to come up against a continuing inhibitive factor: the tendency of Americans to worry. Worry causes the “inhibition of associations and loss of effective power” (p. 838). Here, though, is where religious faith comes to our rescue, for “the sovereign cure for worry is religious faith” (p. 838). Why religious faith? Because “the turbulent billows of the fretful surface leave the deep parts of the ocean undisturbed, and to him who has a hold on vaster and more permanent realities the hourly vicissitudes of his personal destiny seem relatively insignificant things” (p. 838). Thus, “The really religious person is accordingly unshakable and full of equanimity, and calmly ready for any duty that the day may bring forth” (p. 838).

James closes the address with an observation and a hope. The observation: The “need of feeling responsible all the livelong day has been preached long enough in our New England” and “What our girl-students and woman-teachers most need now-a-days is not the exacerbation, but rather the toning down of their moral tensions” (p. 840). The hope: That no one will leave the lecture hall resolved “to become strenuously relaxed, cost what it will, for the remainder of her life.” This is not the way to live the gospel of relaxation:

The way to do it, paradoxical as it may seem, is genuinely not to care whether you are doing it or not. Then, possibly, by the grace of God, you may all at once find that you are doing it; and, having learned what the trick feels like, you may (again by the grace of God) be enabled to go on. That something like this may be the happy experience of all of my hearers is, in closing, my most earnest wish (p. 840).

Thus, James concludes on a graceful note, as graceful, perhaps, as a member of his audience skating circles on the Charles River on a winter day.

Imitating Nature

As noted, James felt that Annie Payson Call’s Power through Repose should be in the hands of all teachers and students. Through Amazon’s used-book service, I got my hands on an 1891 copy for four dollars plus shipping and handling charges. I discovered that she discusses the power of imitation, but she does not recommend that we necessarily imitate other persons. Instead, she advises us to follow Nature’s ways, to imitate “the work of quiet and economy, the lack of strain and of false purpose, in fine old Nature herself” (p. 165).

To me, she makes an excellent point, for among the models that are available to us to develop good habits of living we can hardly improve on Nature herself. As she suggests, Nature teaches us that there are times when we may say to ourselves, “I can do this, now that I know how to relax.” At the same time, Nature teaches us that there are times when “the thing is out of reason, and we should say, ‘Because I know how to relax, I see that I must not do this’” (p. 161). In effect, she supports the “gospel of relaxation” with a natural theology, one that says that we should be guided in all things by fine old Nature herself. After all, as an imitative model, Nature is the best there is: despite what we melancholy-prone humans have done to her, her longevity speaks for itself.

The Energies of Men

In “The Gospel of Relaxation” (1992), James was concerned with the influence of the body on emotions and with the importance, therefore, of a well-toned motor apparatus. In emphasizing Americans’ misuse their physical energies, he paid particular attention to the socializing effects of negative imitative models and the need for positive ones. In “The Energies of Men” (1987) he focuses on the fact that Americans do not use the physical energies that are available to them, explores the reasons for this, and presents some ideas for how they may avail themselves of these energies for their mental and moral operations.

James begins by observing that practically everyone knows “the difference between the days when the tide of this energy is high in him and those when it is low” (p. 1224). He notes, however, that functional psychologists have not been of much help in explaining the difference. So he turns to the clinical psychologists and specifically to the French psychiatrist Pierre Janet, who has observed that hysterical patients are victims of a chronic sense of weakness, torpor, lethargy, fatigue, and powerlessness of will, but that the one activity in which they engage (such as patients who do nothing but eat or pull out their hair), deleterious as it may be, has “the temporary result of raising the sense of vitality and making the patient feel alive again” (p. 1230). Thus, their morbid state is due to the fact that there is only one activity that reanimates them, so the treatment of their condition involves helping them discover “more usual and useful ways of throwing their stores of vital energy into gear” (p. 1230). Like the melancholic patients discussed in “The Gospel of Relaxation,” these clinical cases of hysteria are extreme, but they show how one may feel cut off from one’s mental resources because of certain inhibitive factors.

How might one begin to release these inhibited mental resources? James identifies three liberating factors that unleash unused mental energies: emotional excitations, efforts of will, and suggestive ideas. To illustrate the effect of emotional excitations, he presents a British colonel’s first-hand account of his ability to draw on extraordinary stores of energy during the 6 weeks’ siege of Delhi in 1857. To illustrate efforts of will, he presents a European friend’s first-hand account of how he had been beset with an unstable nervous system that caused him to live for many years in a circular process of alternating lethargy and over-animation. Then, however, through Hatha Yoga training, he experienced a remarkable regeneration. To James, the recipient of his letters, the most remarkable change was in their moral tone: “Compared with certain earlier letters, these read as if written by a different man, patient and reasonable instead of vehement, self-subordinating instead of imperious” (p. 1235).

Perhaps because he is addressing a group of philosophers, however, suggestive ideas interest James the most. Noting that even “as certain objects naturally awaken love, anger, or cupidity, so certain ideas naturally awaken the energies of loyalty, courage, endurance, or devotion,” he suggests that the word “conversion” is an apt term for what happens when an idea has such an effect that “bound energies are let loose” (pp. 1236–1237). However, for such a conversion—whether political, scientific, philosophical, or religious—to occur, the idea must be a “live” idea for this particular person, and it is impossible to predict in advance what idea will have this effect. Religious conversions are especially interesting in this regard because in such cases there is often “so fine an adjustment that the idea may be in the mind of [a person] for years before it exerts effects; and why it should do so then is often so far from obvious that the event is taken for a miracle of grace, and not a natural occurrence” (p. 1238). Whatever the idea may be, however, it typically lets loose bound energies and acts as a challenge to one’s will: moral refusals once thought impossible (e.g., abstinence from alcohol) become easy and moral affirmations previously rejected as too demanding (e.g., commitments to progressive causes) are now entered into with enthusiasm.

The moral effects of religious conversions prompt James to discuss the new forms of “spiritual philosophy” currently “passing over our American world” (p. 1238). The common feature of these optimistic faiths is their tendency to suppress what Horace Fletcher, in his Happiness as Found in Forethought Minus Fear-thought (1897) calls “fear thoughts” or “the self-suggestion of inferiority” (p. 1238). As James points out, when “fear thought” is suppressed a counter-suggestion of power is bound to occur and this power, whether small or great, “comes in various shapes to the individual” (p. 1238). To illustrate this counter-suggestion of power, he cites the case of a friend, the “most genuinely saintly person I have ever known,” who suffers from breast cancer. She has rejected the advice of her doctors. It is not for him to judge whether this is wise or not, but the point he wants to make is that she is “an example of what ideas can do” (p. 1238). In fact, they have “kept her a practically well woman for months after she should have given up and gone to bed” and they “have annulled all pain and weakness and given her a cheerful active life, unusually beneficent to others to whom she has afforded help” (p. 1238).

James concludes from this discussion on the power of ideas—providing that they are the right ideas for this particular person—that we humans possess powers of various sorts which we habitually fail to use, that in the use of our basic mental faculties and mental coordination our lives are “contracted like the field of vision of an hysteric subject—but with less excuse, for the poor hysteric is diseased, while in the rest of us it is only an inveterate habit—the habit of inferiority to our full self—that is bad” (p. 1239).

Here, therefore, James circles back around to the problem he identified in “The Gospel of Relaxation”: we have developed bad habits “born of the imitation of bad models and the cultivation of false personal ideals” (1992, p. 832). Although he does not mention his earlier proposal that each of us, whatever our station in life, may become a model for others to imitate, he obviously considers the woman with breast cancer to be such a model and this for the simple reason that she exemplifies the power of ideas.

He concludes the address by returning to the issue with which he began: the fact that functional psychology has not been of much help in identifying the powers we have at our disposal or the means by which we may unlock these reserves of power. He suggests, therefore, that some members of his audience might want to make this problem the object of their own research. Where these researches might go he does not profess to know, but he is certain that they would need to focus on the actual lives of individuals, for, however useful laboratory research may be, it cannot replicate the actual situations in which individuals find themselves, largely because it will never tax individuals’ energies in ways as extreme as those forced upon them by the emergencies of life (p. 1241). The British colonel during the siege of Delhi and the saintly friend with breast cancer are cases in point. Together, they illustrate the fact that these emergencies of life may be caused by internal threats (e.g., cancer) as well as external ones (e.g., war). Moreover, the case of his European friend with the unstable nervous system indicates that constitutional or temperamental vulnerabilities may also tax an individual’s energies in ways that laboratory research cannot begin to replicate.

The Case of Horace Fletcher

As we have seen, James suggests in “The Energies of Men” that the optimistic faiths currently sweeping the country have in common the suppression of what Horace Fletcher calls “fear thoughts” (p. 1238). In much the same way that Annie Payson Call’s writings inform “The Gospel of Relaxation,” so Horace Fletcher’s writings influence “The Energies of Men.” James did not tell his learned colleagues that they should get their hands on Horace Fletcher’s writings, but I acquired Fletcher’s Menticulture (1896) in a local used book store and his Happiness as Found in Forethought minus Fear-thought (1898) through Amazon’s used-book service. I will focus on the former because it presents the kind of material that James encouraged his colleagues to consider: the life-changing effects of a suggestive idea.

Fletcher’s account of his own experience of a life-changing suggestive idea occurs in the second chapter. In the first chapter, he had asserted that the evil passions may be traced to one of two roots: anger (the root of all aggressive passions) and worry (the root of all cowardly passions). Apparently playing on the prevailing view that masturbation causes mental diseases, Fletcher claims that anger and worry are “the most potent forms of self-abuse, for the reason that in many cases anger is the result of misunderstanding, and in most cases worry’s prophesies never come true; or, if they do, the fulfillment is generally caused by the worry itself” (p. 14). Like other forms of self-abuse, however, one can learn to control them by recognizing that they serve no useful purposes and are therefore expendable.

Fletcher employs a horticulture analogy to make several of his key theoretical points—for example, that anger and worry are as parasitical on the mind as are the cankerous worms that attack plants and that the solution is the same in both cases: “The intelligent horticulturist knows that the worms are parasites, picks them off his plant, and throws them away too far to return,” and the “intelligent menticulturist of the future will treat anger and worry in the same intelligent manner” (pp. 15–16). The intelligent menticulturist also knows that “anger and worry cannot be eliminated through a gradual process of repression any more than a weed can be killed by cutting down the stalk” (p. 15). Therefore, total eradication is both the easiest and most effective method.

Once anger and worry have been eradicated, the mind itself can begin to grow: “The natural tendency of the emancipated mind is toward growth, both intellectual and spiritual, just as the tendency of plant life is toward vigorous growth and perfect blossoming, if it is kept free from the gnawing of cankerous worms” (p. 15). In this regard, “love, appreciation, and gratitude—the ever-present and ever-faithful handmaids of Emancipation—are the natural and only conditions favorable to growth; they are the less assertive but stronger attributes which are always waiting to occupy the places left vacant by anger and worry, and to fill the ‘void that Nature abhors’” (pp. 21–22).

With this horticultural analogy as background, Fletcher moves to his account of the personal experience that changed his life: One evening he was visiting the philosopher, Professor Ernest Francisco Fenollosa, in his Boston apartment. Almost every object in the apartment was the work of a Japanese artist, a personal friend of Fenollosa. The odor of incense added to the “calming influence of the environment” (p. 25). Years earlier, he had met Fenollosa in Japan and this evening they were relating their experiences in the intervening years. Fenollosa told about the wonderful degree of culture and self-control attained by some of his Japanese friends through the practice of Buddhist discipline. This recital, together with the spell of the surroundings, was so interesting and beautiful that Fletcher “longed to taste some of the sweets of the calm” his friend described, and “begged him to tell me the process of the discipline, so that perchance I might follow it and reap some of the benefits” (p. 26).

Perceiving that Fletcher was serious in his desire, Fenollosa’s face lit up with approval and he said that it is not easy to communicate at one sitting what it took him years of study to learn but he could at least tell Fletcher where to begin to grow: “You must first get rid of anger and worry” (p. 26, emphasis in original). Fletcher asked if this is really possible and his host replied that even as it is possible to the Japanese, so it ought to be possible to us (p. 26). Fletcher was “startled at the suggestion of the possibility of the entire repression of anger and worry” and as he walked the two miles back to the Parker House, he could not think of anything else but the words “get rid,” “get rid.” He adds:

The idea must have continued to possess me during my sleeping hours, for the first consciousness in the morning brought back the same thought, with the revelation of a discovery, which framed itself into the reasoning, “If it is possible to get rid of anger and worry, why is it necessary to have them at all?” I felt the strength of the argument and at once accepted the reasoning. The baby had learned that it could walk. It would scorn to creep any longer (pp. 27–28).

From the moment he realized that the “cancer spots of worry and anger” were removable, they left him, and with the discovery of their weakness they were completely exorcized: “From that time life has had an entirely different aspect” (p. 28).

Fletcher’s experience supports James’ observation that the catalyst for a life-changing conversion experience may be a suggestive idea: in this case, that it is possible to rid oneself of anger and worry. The words “get rid” prompted a mental association by analogy with another situation where something is gotten rid of: the intelligent horticulturist gets rid of parasites and weeds, throwing worms too far away for them to return and uprooting weeds so that they cannot continue to grow. From this, it follows that he will become a menticulturist, treating his mind as though it were a garden and viewing himself as its cultivator.

Fletcher acknowledges that “it took me some months to feel absolute security in my new position” (p. 28). However, “as the usual occasions for worry and anger have presented themselves over and over again, and I have been unable to feel them in the slightest degree, I no longer dread or guard against them, and I am amazed at my increased energy and vigor of mind;—at my strength to meet situations of all kinds, and at my disposition to love and appreciate everything” (p. 28). For example, he has traveled more than 10,000 miles by rail since that morning and has encountered the same Pullman porter, conductor, hotel waiter, peddler, book-agent, cabman, and others who were formerly a source of annoyance and irritation, and not a single incivility has occurred between them. On one occasion, he missed his train because the baggage did not arrive in time from his hotel. The hotel porter came running and panting into the station just as the train was pulling away. The porter feared a scolding from Fletcher and began to relate how his path had been blocked on a crowded street. Fletcher replied, “It doesn’t matter at all. You couldn’t help it, so we will try again tomorrow. Here is your fee. I am sorry you had all this trouble earning it” (p. 31). The look of surprise on the porter’s face was so filled with pleasure that Fletcher felt he had been repaid on the spot for the delay in his departure. The next day, the porter would not accept payment for the service and the two men are now “friends for life” (p. 31). As if to suggest that the porter’s delay was providential, Fletcher adds that the train he would have taken was involved in an accident resulting in two deaths and several wounded passengers.

The porter’s delay incident illustrates getting rid of anger. Ridding himself of worry has especially been reflected in the “absence of timidity in the presence of any audience I am called on to face, whereas I had never before conquered a tendency to partial paralysis on such occasions” (pp. 33–34). Worry traceable to a childhood incident has also been cured. When he was a boy he was standing under a tree which was struck by lightning and received a shock. From the time he “dissolved partnership with worry” lightning, thunder, storm-clouds, and wind-swept torrents of rain “have been encountered under conditions which formerly would have caused great depression and discomfort, without experiencing a trace of either” (p. 34). He is also “less liable to become startled by unexpected sights or noises” (p. 34). In citing these examples, he is aware that individual “temperaments may differ, but Emancipation strengthens all” (p. 34).

In chapter seven titled “Scraps of Evidence” Fletcher discusses his conversations with other persons who have also experienced “emancipation” from anger and worry. In almost every instance “the emancipated condition has dated, not from infancy and inheritance, but from some incident in later life that exposed the passions to ridicule, or showed them to be a cause of danger; such as death as the result of worry, or crime as the result of anger” (p. 78). The chapter consists of fourteen cases of persons whose minds have been emancipated from anger and worry.

The Case of the Division Superintendent

One case is especially instructive because it illustrates the interactive effects of anger and worry. Fletcher’s correspondent notes, “I was too apt to worry” and “If I had not worried I would not have gotten angry” (p. 96). It began when he was promoted to division superintendent in the railroad company for which he worked:

When I got to be superintendent I thought that one of the things that I had to do was to be sure and maintain my dignity, and show it by occasionally making believe mad at something. At first I did not feel it half as much as I showed it; but I thought it was part of the business of a boss to get mad, until finally it got to be a habit, and grew on me till I was in a state of anger most of the time. I also thought that I had to worry about things, or I would not show the proper respect for my responsibilities. It was the way I had of letting myself feel that I was carrying a terrible burden and earning my salary. The trouble was that, while it was partly play-acting at first, it came to be a habit, and worked on my health in the end (pp. 96–97).

He began to experience dizzy spells and facial twitching, consulted several doctors who prescribed various medicines, all to no avail, then finally went to a doctor who asked him a lot of questions about himself, his habits and duties, then said:

There is no use giving you any medicine, you have got to quit worrying and take it easy; that is the only trouble with you. If you keep on with your worry I will have to give your family a certificate of death; so, if you don’t want me to do that, you just have to quit your worrying and take life easy. Whatever you do, don’t get into fits of anger, for that is more wearing to a man in your condition than anything else (p. 97).

He took the doctor’s advice. At first, he felt he was shirking some of a superintendent’s duties when he quit getting angry and worrying but he “squared it with myself by saying to myself, ‘Better be a tame donkey for the company than a dead one’” (p. 98). In time, these guilty thoughts disappeared, largely because the change in him had a positive effect on the other workers in his division, an effect which also pleased his employers.

This case supports Professor Fenollosa’s view that anger and worry are the major impediments to mental emancipation, but it also supports James’ view in “The Gospel of Relaxation” that Americans’ bad mental habits have resulted from poor imitative models. As Fletcher’s correspondent says, “I thought that one of the things that I had to do was to be sure and maintain my dignity, and show it by occasionally making believe mad and something” and “I thought it was part of the business of a boss to get mad” (p. 96). He was imitating his predecessors and the consequences were not good for him, the other workers, and the company itself. The man that he became is, however, a positive model, thus supporting James’ point that Americans can change their mental habits if positive imitative models become more prevalent.

The Natural State of Dominant Calm

In my concluding comments on James’ “The Gospel of Relaxation” (1992) I cited Annie Payson Call’s advice to follow nature’s ways—to imitate, as it were, “the work of quiet and economy, the lack of strain and of false purpose, in fine old Nature herself” (1891, p. 165). Fletcher makes a similar appeal to Nature. Some of his detractors have pointed out that “in Nature there is sunshine and shadow, and that every height must have a corresponding depression,” and therefore, “immunity from the black or shadowy passions is an unnatural condition” (pp. 34–35). He disagrees:

In the process of growth and evolution, conditions that once were natural, are changed to other conditions equally natural. Weeds are pulled up by the roots to clear the field for the growing grain. Why should not mental weeds be pulled up by the roots also, and the mind cleared for growth? My experience teaches me that the natural evolution of the emancipated mind is dominant calm, varied by seasons of exaltation, but never of depression. It is a healthful succession of energy and rest, all blessed with loving appreciation, which finds expression in ever-present gratitude (p. 35).

On the other hand, one could argue that even fine old Nature herself has her bad days (not only lightning but also tornados, hurricanes, and blinding snowstorms come to mind), so it would not seem to be a sign of moral weakness were we at such times to invoke that other venerable imitative model we learned about when we were children:

But the ship was now in the midst of the sea, tossed with waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. And when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were troubled, saying, It is a spirit; and they cried out for fear. But straightway Jesus spake unto them, saying, Be of good cheer; it is I; be not afraid (Matt. 14:24–27 KJV).

Under ordinary circumstances, however, Fletcher is right: Let Nature be your guide and let her set your course. This means that when the mind avails itself more fully of its available energies it does not become frenetic or agitated. Rather, the primary quality of the emancipated mind is one of dominant calm, and its secondary characteristics are seasons of exaltation without corresponding shadows of depression, a healthful succession of energy and rest, and the release of enduring emotions of loving appreciation and gratitude.

Those of us who have chosen the academic world as our locus of occupational endeavor could do worse than to set as our primary educational objective the emancipated mind that Fletcher describes. It is also nice to know that his life was converted through a suggestive idea planted in his mind by a Professor and that it occurred in a conversation in which the two of them were simply relating their personal experiences to one another. This conversation occurred in a context where the only possible association with formal religion was the incense that “added perceptibly to the calming influence of the environment” (p. 25) and even the incense would have been for naught had not the Professor exemplified the dominant calm of the emancipated mind.


As a Matter of Course (Call 1894) covers a range of topics (e.g., physical care, amusements, moods, tolerance, sympathy, one’s self, children, and illness) but a particularly prominent chapter is the one that concerns itself with false, mistaken, or disagreeable “brain-impressions.” Call is confident that the “brain-impressions” that keep the self in bondage can be eliminated. For example, if we have the habit of being unpunctual and emphasize it by deploring it, no real change will occur. If, however, we create a vivid mental picture of ourselves being on time for the next appointment, this picture will impress itself on our minds and free us to arrive on time or even early.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009