William James: Once Born and Twice Born People

A black and white photograph of James

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, May 28, 2016.)

William James, in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience,  draws a contrast between what he calls “once born” and the “twice born” people.  Once born people appear biologically predisposed to happiness. They are relatively untroubled by their own setbacks as well as by the suffering the world; they rarely speak ill of others; they don’t complain much; they tend not to be fearful or angry. Today we might call them happy-go-lucky, easy-going or upbeat.

By contrast twice borns feel there is something wrong with reality that must be rectified. They have a pessimistic view of the world; they experience more ups and downs in life; they wish the world could be different from it is. Today we might call them neurotic, anxious, or unstable. James describes them like this:

There are persons whose existence is little more than a series of zigzags, as now one tendency and now another gets the upper hand. Their spirit wars with their flesh, they wish for incompatibles, wayward impulses interrupt their most deliberate plans, and their lives are one long drama of repentance and of effort to repair misdemeanors and mistakes. (p.169)

However this doesn’t mean that twice borns are unhappy. The reason is that their attitude often leads to a crisis, experienced as clinical depression, in a desire to understand the meaning of life. But the incompatibility of their desire for making sense of things and their pessimism demands a resolution if life is to be loved again. And it is this demand that can lead to rebirth. As an example, James considers the crisis of meaning experienced by Leo Tolstoy. (I have written about his crisis here.) James describes Tolstoy’s transformation like this: “The process is one of redemption, not of mere reversion to natural health, and the sufferer, when saved, is saved by what seems to him a second birth, a deeper kind of conscious being than he could enjoy before. ” (p.157)

While the sense of being “born again” often describes so-called religious or mystical experiences, James uses the term to describe any experience where there is a strong sense of renewal after a tragic event. The point is that challenges and tragedies can be seen as a means to a happier and more meaningful life.

As for the happy life, James said it consists of four main ingredients. First we must choose to view the world as positive even though life contains sorrow and pain. Second we must take risks by acting from the demands of our hearts. Third we must act as if we are free and life is meaningful even though we can’t be sure that any of this is true. Finally we should remember that a crisis of meaning often leads to the happiest life. Thus a crisis for twice borns presents the possibility of renewal.

Postscript – William James knew a lot about all this, as he suffered from depression for much of his life. A number of other people of historic importance suffered from major depression as well including: Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O’Keeffe, William Tecumseh Sherman, Franz Kafka, and the Buddha.

I really think there is a lot to this. Given the reality we live in and the ubiquity of suffering, we do best by trying to learn from it and thereby reduce its power over us as much as possible. Victor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, Gift Edition that enduring suffering nobly was one of the ways we find meaning in life. Perhaps we all must endure our own self-made purgatories in order to experience true happiness. (On the other hand I don’t believe that twice-borns are necessarily led to clinical depression. Perhaps, for example, they are led to a philosophical search for meaning instead.)

Still I don’t believe that pain and suffering are intrinsically good no matter what good outcome they might lead to. Like my colleague David Pierce, who first articulated the hedonistic imperative, I too believe that all pain and suffering in life should be eliminated. The meaning of life is to create a heaven on earth.

As for the contrary view, that suffering is somehow necessary for redemption, it was best captured in these lines by Shelley from his “Ode To A Skylark,”

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter
With some pain is fraught;

Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

Yet if we could scorn
Hate, and pride, and fear;
If we were things born
Not to shed a tear,
I know not how thy joy we ever should come near.


Quotes are from William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (London: Penguin Books, 1902, 1982)

(This entry borrows from this article on the website The Pursuit of Happiness.)

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