On Sadness

“Why is it that men enjoy feeling sad at the sight of tragedy and suffering on the stage although they would be most unhappy if they had to endure the same fate themselves? Yet they watch the plays because they hope to be made to feel sad, and the feeling of sorrow is what they enjoy. What miserable delirium this is! The more a man is subject to such suffering himself, the more easily he is moved by it in the theatre. Yet when he suffers himself, we call it misery; when he suffers out of sympathy for others, we call it pity. But what kind of pity can we really feel for an imaginary scene on the stage. The audience is not called upon to offer help but only to feel sorrow, and the more they are pained the more they applaud the author. Whether this human agony is based on fact or is simply imaginary, if it is acted so badly that the audience is not moved to sorrow, they leave the theater in a disgruntled and critical mood; whereas if they are made to feel pain they stay to the end watching happily.

This shows that sorrow and tears can be enjoyable. Of course everyone wants top be happy; but even if no one likes being sad, is there just the one exception that, because we enjoy pitying others, we welcome their misfortunes, without which we could not pity them? If so, it is because friendly feeling well up in us like waters of a spring. But what course do these waters follow? Where do they flow? Why do they trickle away to join that stream of boiling pitch, the hideous flood of lust? For by their own choice they lose themselves and become absorbed in it. They are diverted from their true course and deprived of their heavenly calm.

Of course this does not mean that we must arm ourselves against compassion. There are times when we must welcome sorrow on behalf of others. But for the sake of our souls we must be ware of uncleanness. My God must be the keeper of my soul, the God of our fathers, who is to be exalted and extolled for evermore. My soul must guard against uncleanness.

I am not nowadays insensible to pity. But in those days I used to share the joy of stage lovers and their sinful pleasure in each other even though it was all done in make-believe for the sake of entertainment; and when they were parted, pity of a sort led me to share their grief. I enjoyed both the emotions equally. But now I feel more pity for a man who is happy in his sins than for one who has to endure the ordeal of forgoing some harmful pleasure or being deprived of some enjoyment which was really an affliction. Of the two this sort of pity is the more genuine, but the sorrow which it causes is not a source of pleasure. For although a man who is sorry for the sufferings of others deserves praise for his charity, nevertheless if his pity is genuine, he would prefer that there should be no cause for his sorrow. If the impossible could happen and kindness were unkind man whose sense of purity was true and sincere might want others to suffer so he could pity them. Sorrow may therefore be commendable, but never desirable. For it is impossible to stab you Lord God, and this is why the love you bear for our souls and the compassion you feel for them are pure and unalloyed, far purer than the love and pity we feel for ourselves. But who can prove himself worthy of such a calling?

However in those unhappy days I enjoyed the pangs of sorrow. I always looked for tings to wring my heart and the more tears an actor caused me to shed by his performance on the stage even though he was portraying the imaginary distress of others, the more delightful and attractive I found it. Was it any wonder that I, the unhappy sheep who strayed from your flock, impatient of your shepherding became infected with a loathsome mange? Hence my love of things which made me sad. I did not seek the kind of sorrow which would wound me deeply, for I had no wish to endure the sufferings which I saw on stage; but I enjoyed the fables and fictions, which could only graze the skin. But where fingers scratch, the skin becomes inflamed. It swells and festers with hideous pus. And the same happened to me. Could the life I led be called the true life, my God?”

Saint Augustine, CONFESSIONS
Book III; Chapter 2
Translated by R.S. Pine-Coffin

Just in time for St. Augustine Day, June 15. Laboriously, lovingly transcribed by yours truly. This, like much in “Confessions” so true and impossible at the same time. At least for the heart today. “Could the life I led be called the true life, my God?” Got a better question? Let’s hear it.