Once-Born and Twice-Born People

A black and white photograph of James

William James, in his famous book The Varieties of Religious Experience, drew 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 they are to love life 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 of either. 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 depression as well including Abraham Lincoln, Sigmund Freud, Georgia O’Keeffe, Franz Kafka, and the Buddha.)

I think there is a lot to this. Given our reality, we should try to learn from suffering. Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that enduring suffering nobly was one way to find meaning in life. Perhaps we must endure a sort of purgatory in order to experience true happiness. On the other hand, I don’t believe that twice-borns necessarily become depressed. Maybe they find joy in 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.

(I’m not saying I agree with this sentiment, but Shelley sure had control of language.)


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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8 thoughts on “Once-Born and Twice-Born People

  1. From WJ: “ Suppose that the world’s author put the case to you before creation, saying: ‘I am going to make a world not certain to be saved, a world the perfection of which shall be conditional merely, the condition being that each several agent does its own ‘level best.’ I offer you the chance of taking part in such a world. Its safety, you see, is unwarranted. It is a real adventure, with real danger, yet it may win through. It is a social scheme of co-operative work genuinely to be done. Will you join the procession? Will you trust yourself and trust the other agents enough to face the risk?” .Should you in all seriousness, if participation in such a world were proposed to you, feel bound to reject it as not safe enough? . . . Of course if you are normally constituted, you would do nothing of the sort. . . . Most of us, I say, would therefore welcome the proposition and add our fiat to the fiat of the creator.

  2. Here’s an oblique observation, more applicable to another time, perhaps, but allowable,I think: everyone is searching for a road map, even those who have not yet found a road. It has been years, decades, since I read James. He was a giant. Compared to some ideas emerging now, his were those of genius…I guess things go that way. Meaning is intensely personal…even metaphorical. It varies, just as religious experience varies. And happiness. And, fulfillment. Attainment, achievement, discovery of any of those states depends on interests, preferences and motives. One faith, a departure from the dogma of another, claims perfection resides in perfecting, the worm ouroboros, chasing his own tail (see: the discovery of the benzene ring). I have claimed infinity is pointless. It is neither objective not destination. You can’t get there from here, because there is no ‘there’, there. Yet, we toy with quantum mechanics. Because we can.

  3. Another once-born—twice-born dogma that always questioned faith for me is the salvation/sanctification process, fairly worshipped by some Christian fundamentalism groups. I always found it puzzling, like that worm chasing his tail. One might be saved, often before puberty or not long after. Later, behaviors notwithstanding, came another trip forward to the altar, for the sanctification step, purported to seal the envelope of eternal life. But, no. Backsliding always lurked. There was no escaping this. And, as the Jewish grandmother said: guilt was the gift which kept on giving. Religions of many stripes subscribe to control of their minions…one way or another. What a horrible way to live.

  4. I’ve been on an involuntary trip around the sun more than a few times. And have found no universal sense of meaning. It strikes me a little more than futile such as waiting for Godot to appear. Man may be the measure of all things, in his mind, but the Universe takes little notice of his hubris. If we are born tabula rasa, we are responsible for painting our own meaning, be it a depressive blue or a bright yellow, depending on one’s personality. I’ve worked with poor who were extremely happy and had great dignity, while many of the wealthy I counseled spent fortunes on therapy. Tolstoy is believed to have said he didn’t trust a man that had not fallen, and this hitting the bottom may have worked for him, but these may be the exceptions to the many that don’t/couldn’t pick themselves up. Just as many road let to Rome, there are many way to insure a meaningful life no matter where you’re born in life. One way that increases your chances rest with something Aristotle said about brave heroes: “The hardest victory is over self.” Achieve this and you give yourself, along with the assistance of Freedom, good genes, mentors and, perhaps most importantly, opportunity. Meaning lies within us. Lucky is the man that finds it.

  5. Doing a bit of cross-commenting here. Philip Roth one time said, roughly, it is only the period during which we are alive. Well, that comports reasonably with what I wrote about things blowing up; breaking down; falling apart or wearing out. Admittedly, I did not account for getting shot, stabbed, run over and or falling into a volcano. The volcano thing is metaphorical…there is not always fire down below. One in Ecuador is replete with farmland at bottom, growing beans, corn and potatoes. I stand by my assessment, however. Respecting life, time is inert, for the reasons postulated above. I love swimming upstream. Keeps me alert. And, refreshed…

  6. If one wants to live indefinitely, there’s X probability one will do so. If one wishes to die, there is a 100% chance that one will die.

  7. I am not very good with words, so I will make my case with a quote from my favorite philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer:
    “As a reliable compass for orientating yourself in life nothing is more useful than to accustom yourself to regarding this world as a place of atonement, a sort of penal colony. When you have done this you will order your expectations of life according to the nature of things and no longer regard the calamities, sufferings, torments and miseries of life as something irregular and not to be expected but will find them entirely in order, well knowing that each of us is here being punished for his existence and each in his own particular way. This outlook will enable us to view the so-called imperfections of the majority of men, i.e., their moral and intellectual shortcomings and the facial appearance resulting therefrom, without surprise and certainly without indignation: for we shall always bear in mind where we are and consequently regard every man first and foremost as a being who exists only as a consequence of his culpability and whose life is an expiation of the crime of being born.”

  8. thanks, Jennifer. I’m familiar with the quote and A.S. is on of my favorite philosophers. I’ve written about him many times on the blog.


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