James wrote, “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” Explain why you agree or disagree and give an example from your own experience.
William James is certainly one of the most prominent philosopher within American history. It is a bit difficult to be in agreement or disagreement with his statement “The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.” because of the way it is worded. In order to properly critique this idea, I think it is only fair to break it into two parts:
Part A: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that…”
Part B: “…a human being can alter his life by altering his attitudes.”
I will first focus on part B, because that is the meat of his statement. From the perspective of virtue ethics, this is absolutely true. Since the times of the stoics, the well-being of a human is entirely, 100%, dependent on their perspective. To put this into perspective, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected upon this very concept through a thought provoking quote “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” (Hays, V 16). The perspective of the individual is the sole driving source behind your perception and acceptance of the world, and a shift in the way you think can alter your life. On the merit of the second portion of this statement, I agree with it.
Part: “The greatest discovery of my generation is that…”
Here is where the quote is shaky. This idea of internal perception of the outside world and having control over your life has existed long before the generation of James. The idea presented in his quote is not novel for the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, and even was not novel during the time and height of the Romans. I’m sure if you looked back far enough you might find some of the same sentiment from pre-Bronze age times as well. Perhaps James meant “re-discovery”? On the basis that he claims ownership of this idea for his entire generation puts me at disagreement.
I have experienced a shift in my life based on my attitudes in the past. Growing up I always imagined that it was my duty to change the world for the better, and that it was wrong if something “bad” happened. For instance, if someone’s pet escapes from the house and was eaten by a mountain lion, that was a travesty that needed to be fixed. After being exposed to some of the thoughts about how nature runs its course, and nothing you can do will change that, my attitude about this change. I realized that things happen that may be unpleasant to think about. You must come to accept the way the universe works. After coming to the realization that there is going to be “bad” (but natural, and thus actually amoral) things occurring, that one must learn to accept them. To go back to the original example of a pet becoming dinner for a wild animal, I had to realize that if it was not for the pet being eaten that the wild animal may have starved. It is just the way things work, and it is inevitable. This shifted a lot of my focus towards things that are actually alterable, and coming to a state of acceptance with the way things are. The world is only a rough place to live in if you perceive it as such.
Aurelius, Marcus, and Gregory Hays. Meditations: a new translation. New York: Modern Library, 2003. Print.