The Confessions of St. Augustine

 “It is always the case that the greater the joy, the greater is the pain which precedes it. Why should this be, O Lord my God, when you are your own eternal joy, you are Joy itself and you are always surrounded by creatures which rejoice in you? Why is it that in this part of your creation which we know there is this ebb and flow of progress and retreat, of hurt and reconciliation? Is this the rhythm of our world?”

Confessions of St. Augustine, Book 8, Chapter 3

In the first sentence of this passage, Augustine seems to be implying that joy cannot exist without pain, that one cannot experience joy without having the experience of pain against which to counter it.

This brings to mind other dichotomies encountered in Augustine’s writing and the writings of other mystical theologians, such as good/evil and righteousness/sin. These pairings all beg the question whether one is necessary for the other to exist, or, more specifically, whether pain, evil, and sin are necessary in order for joy, goodness and righteousness to exist.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia - Saint Augustine.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia – Saint Augustine.

The obvious logical problem here is that if God himself is goodness and righteousness and joy, which Augustine believes him to be, and if God exists independent of everything and everything exists in him, then goodness, righteousness and joy cannot possibly be dependent on evil, sin, and pain.

Augustine acknowledges this problem in the second sentence, asking God “Why should this be…when you are your own eternal Joy, you are Joy itself and you are always surrounded by creatures which rejoice in you?” Augustine recognizes the disconnection between these two ideas.

In the third and fourth sentences of the passage, Augustine offers a kind of answer to his own question. This answer comes in the phrase “this part of your creation.” The part of creation that Augustine is referring to is the physical world, the realm of humanity and sensuality and temporality. It is in this realm that joy is dependent on pain, that there is, in his words, “an ebb and flow of progress and retreat, of hurt and reconciliation.”

This implies that the dependence exists only in perception, and not in reality. It is the condition of being separated from God that creates the necessity of opposites against which to measure goodness, righteousness, and joy.

It is humanity, not God, that needs sin in order to recognize righteousness, evil in order to recognize good, and pain in order to recognize joy. This is, as Augustine puts it, “the rhythm of our world.”

Readers Bureau Contributor