Chapter II.—In Public Spectacles He is Moved by an Empty Compassion. He is Attacked by a Troublesome Spiritual Disease.
2. Stage-plays also drew me away, full of representations of my miseries and of fuel to my fire. 218 Why does man like to be made sad when viewing doleful and tragical scenes, which yet he himself would by no means suffer? And yet he wishes, as a spectator, to experience from them a sense of grief, and in this very grief his pleasure consists. What is this but wretched insanity? For a man is more affected with these actions, the less free he is from such affections. Howsoever, when he suffers in his own person, it is the custom to style it “misery” but when he compassionates others, then it is styled “mercy.” 219 But what kind of mercy is it that arises from fictitious and scenic passions? The hearer is not expected to relieve, but merely invited to grieve; and the more he grieves, the more he applauds the actor of these fictions. And if the misfortunes of the characters (whether of olden times or merely imaginary) be so represented as not to touch the feelings of the spectator, he goes away disgusted and censorious; but if his feelings be touched, he sits it out attentively, and sheds tears of joy.
3. Are sorrows, then, also loved? Surely all men desire to rejoice? Or, as man wishes to be miserable, is he, nevertheless, glad to be merciful, which, because it cannot exist without passion, for this cause alone are passions loved? This also is from that vein of friendship. But whither does it go? Whither does it flow? Wherefore runs it into that torrent of pitch, 220 seething forth those huge tides of loathsome lusts into which it is changed and transformed, being of its own will cast away and corrupted from its celestial clearness? Shall, then, mercy be repudiated? By no means. Let us, therefore, love sorrows sometimes. But beware of uncleanness, O my soul, under the protection of my God, the God of our fathers, who is to be praised and exalted above all for ever, 221 beware of uncleanness. For I have not now ceased to have compassion; but then in the theatres I sympathized with lovers when they sinfully enjoyed one another, although this was p. 61 done fictitiously in the play. And when they lost one another, I grieved with them, as if pitying them, and yet had delight in both. But now-a-days I feel much more pity for him that delighteth in his wickedness, than for him who is counted as enduring hardships by failing to obtain some pernicious pleasure, and the loss of some miserable felicity. This, surely, is the truer mercy, but grief hath no delight in it. For though he that condoles with the unhappy be approved for his office of charity, yet would he who had real compassion rather there were nothing for him to grieve about. For if goodwill be ill-willed (which it cannot), then can he who is truly and sincerely commiserating wish that there should be some unhappy ones, that he might commiserate them. Some grief may then be justified, none loved. For thus dost Thou, O Lord God, who lovest souls far more purely than do we, and art more incorruptibly compassionate, although Thou art wounded by no sorrow. “And who is sufficient for these things?” 222
4. But I, wretched one, then loved to grieve, and sought out what to grieve at, as when, in another mans misery, though reigned and counterfeited, that delivery of the actor best pleased me, and attracted me the most powerfully, which moved me to tears. What marvel was it that an unhappy sheep, straying from Thy flock, and impatient of Thy care, I became infected with a foul disease? And hence came my love of griefs—not such as should probe me too deeply, for I loved not to suffer such things as I loved to look upon, but such as, when hearing their fictions, should lightly affect the surface; upon which, like as with empoisoned nails, followed burning, swelling, putrefaction, and horrible corruption. Such was my life! But was it life, O my God?
The early Fathers strongly reprobated stage-plays, and those who went to them were excluded from baptism. This is not to be wondered at, when we learn that “even the laws of Rome prohibited actors from being enrolled as citizens” (De Civ. Dei, ii. 14), and that they were accounted infamous (Tertullian, De Spectac. sec. xxii.). See also Tertullian, De Pudicitia, c. vii.60:219
See i. 9, note, above.60:220
An allusion, probably, as Watts suggests, to the sea of Sodom, which, according to Tacitus (Hist. book v.), throws up bitumen “at stated seasons of the year.” Tacitus likewise alludes to its pestiferous odour, and to its being deadly to birds and fish. See also Gen. 14:3, 10.60:221
Song of the Three Holy Children, verse 3.61:222
2 Cor. 2.16.