An Exemplary Man Admired by William James

Walt Whitman's Unwillingness to Feel Anger

Posted Jan 27, 2019

     One of the hallmarks of a mature and mentally healthy person is an abiity to decide when and where he or she will respond to provocation or disappointment. Here is a century-old descripion of an eminently mature person by the Canadian psychiatrist William Bucke (1901) in his book Cosmic Consciousness. This description was cited just a year later by William James (1902) in a chapter on the “the religion of healthy-mindedness” in his The Varieties of Religious Experience. The person who Bucke and James so honored was the great American poet and humanist Walt Whitman (1819-1892). Here is how Whitman was described by Bucke:   

     "Perhaps no man who ever lived liked so many things and disliked so few as Walt Whitman. All natural objects seemed to have a charm for him. All sights and sounds seemed to please him. He appeared to like (and I believe he did like) all the men, women and children he saw…. [and] each who knew him felt that he liked him or her, and that he liked others also. I never knew him to argue or dispute, and he never spoke about money. He always justified…those who spoke harshly of himself or his writings, and I even thought he took pleasure in the opposition of enemies. When I first knew him I used to think that he watched himself, and would not allow his tongue to give expression to fretfulness, antipathy, complaint and remonstrance. It did not occur to me to be possible that these mental states could be absent in him. After long observation, however, I satisfied myself that such absence or unconsciousness was entirely real. He never spoke deprecatingly of any nationality or class of men, or time in the world’s history, or against any trades or occupations—not even against any animals, insects or inanimate things, nor any of the laws of nature, nor any of the results of those laws, such as illness, deformity and death. He never complained or grumbled either at the weather, pain, illness or anything else. He never swore. He could not very well, since he never spoke in anger and apparently never was angry. He never exhibited fear, and I do not believe he ever felt it".

      Anger is a feeling that most people assume is caused by an event (being victimized or treated unfairly, experiencing a bitter disappointment, etc.), but truly evolved people do not experience much if any anger, or any other strong negative feeling (such as depression) for that matter. It is not a matter of suppression (as Bucke once suspected) but rather of having a philosophical view of the world which does not assume that one’s needs are always to be met, that other people must behave as we would like them to, or that someone who opposes us is evil. Such insights can occur while in a mystical state (as Bucke, a hero of the psychedlic crowd, suspected happened to Whitman) but it can be trained through immersion in Skeptical philosophy or its offshoots, such as Rational-Emotive Therapy (RET) and Cognitive-Behavioral therapy. (Before I attended some lectures by Albert Ellis--founder of RET--I was a walking basket case, while today there is little that can upset me. Undoubtedly, some of my emotional evolution is due to normal aging, but I think mostly it reflects the emotional reframing and disputation techniques taught by Ellis).  

     Much foolishness is driven by strong emotion that overrides judgment, with anger probaby at the head of the list. One reason so many describe Donald Trump as both immature and mentally ill is that he is always angry about something and this anger often pushes him to say and do foolish things. Social effectiveness requires us to pick and choose when and how we react to other people. Learning to ignore some things is an absoute requirement, if we are not to be an emotional prisoner of events or of other people.

             Copyright Stephen Greenspan

Note: This piece will appear in my in-process book "Anatomy of Foolishness: The Problem of Risk Unawareness" (Hamilton Books/ Rowman and Littlefield, pub. expected June 2019).