A visit to Harvard’s Holden chapel, where William James once asked the question, “Is life worth living?”

John Kaag in Harper's:

HarpersWeb-Postcard-Maybe-622pxHarvard University’s Holden Chapel always struck me as the proper home of a crypt-keeper: an appropriate place to die, or at least to remain dead. The forty-foot brick structure has no front windows. Above its entrance are four stone bucrania, bas-relief ox-skull sculptures of the sort that pagans once placed on their temples to keep away evil spirits. In 1895, when William James was asked to address a crowd of young Christian men at the Georgian chapel, it was already more than 150 years old, a fitting setting for the fifty-three-year-old philosopher to contemplate what he had come to believe was the profoundest of questions: “Is life worth living?”

For centuries, philosophers and religious thinkers, from Maimonides to John Locke, coolly articulated the belief that life, for any number of unassailable reasons, was worth living. In the thirteenth century, Aquinas argued that all things—be they amoebas or human beings—have a natural life cycle put into place by an intelligent designer. Far be it from any of God’s creatures to disrupt it. Kant’s argument, five hundred years later, was less theologically speculative. Rational beings, he said, have a duty not to destroy our own rational capacities. In Kant’s words, “Suicide is not abominable because God has forbidden it; on the contrary, God has forbidden it because it is abominable.”

James had pondered the abominable since at least his twenties.

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