THEOSOPHY, Vol. 53, No. 3, January, 1965
(Pages 78-79; Size: 7K)


[Article number (27) in this Q&A Department]

What is the essential nature of pain, or anguish? And what is the essence of joy? We all, of course, experience these things, but we do so automatically, and seem to have little understanding of them.

One perfectly sane approach to this question would be to fall back upon Croce's famous definition of art: that it is what we all know it to be; and perhaps, in the last analysis, there is little more to be said. Another approach, though, might be to challenge the question, asserting that "we all, of course," have had very little experience of either the most intense pain or joy; and the proof of this is that we can "sit around" and philosophize about it. But even if both these (perhaps contrary) stances have a certain validity, we will eventually find it necessary to look for a third approach -- a compromise, perhaps, but a position which at least would allow room for discussion.

A stray footnote by James Agee, in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, may provide one such fruitful compromise: "The essences of anguish and of joy are ... identical: they are the explosion or incandescence resulting from the incontrovertible perception of the incredible." There appears to be real truth in this, and some significant implications. First, the thought that the essences of both are the same seems a quite striking paraphrase of The Bhagavad-Gita's teaching of the kinship and inseparability of the opposites, implying an unmoving center, a perceiver which is the common source for all these perceptions. But the second half of Agee's statement seems significant, too, for it makes us suspect that if the presence of the "incredible" is essential, then anguish and joy are relative states, since they depend upon degrees of man's ignorance. For example, if we should come upon a small flower in early spring, perhaps when there is still snow on the ground, we may suddenly be filled with joy, but if so it would be primarily because it seems to us a kind of miracle, a wonderful inconsistency with all immediately apparent possibilities. Yet we must not be too ignorant either, or else, instead of anguish, we will know only discomforts and petty disappointments, and instead of joy, only amusement, or at most a kind of bodily exhilaration. True anguish and true joy -- these belong in their essentiality to a Job or a Lear; to those, that is, who have fought their way out of the usual human muddle and pettiness, and yet find themselves appearing as nothing when confronted with the absolutes and irreconcilables of existence itself.

But what does this imply about those even greater ones, the Adepts? Are they above such feelings, just as the extremely ignorant are below them? In some areas, it may be that they are. They are not likely, for example, to undergo agony at the confrontation with death, for living on several levels of existence at once, they would know death for the mere stage curtain that it is, and would welcome its closing for a time while they carried on their business elsewhere. We might say, then, that in such usual areas of human life as this, they would not know sharp anguish but (considering man's recalcitrant imperfection) deep sorrow, and not sharp joy but (watching the aspiration of any one human soul) deep happiness.

And yet we must avoid being too schematic. The Adepts are after all human beings; and probably a good deal more human (in the true sense) than we know how to be. Thinking back to that flower: might it not be possible that an Adept would feel a much more acute joy at the sight of it than we could conceive of -- and might he not in fact experience a powerful "shock of recognition," an understanding of just how incredible that flower really is?

It is only we, in our most blasphemous ignorance, who are ever bored by simple things.

COMPILER'S NOTE: The following is a separate item which followed the above article but was on the same page. I felt it was useful to include it here:


The wise man will have both joy and sorrow, for nothing can be added to him or taken from him. If they are equally wise, the rich and the poor man will be equally happy; for if external goods cannot add anything to intelligible things, how can they add aught to intelligible happiness? Happiness is of the soul so that even the change of death has no power to disturb it. 


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