Last time we looked at the earliest forms of Christian asceticism as demonstrated by the life and crucifixion of Jesus, the martyrs of pagan Rome, the desert Fathers of Christian Rome, and the early development of Catholic doctrine that included the sacrament of penance.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, strict asceticism in isolation was restructured as monasticism, most notably by Benedict of Nursia who founded a monastery and imposed the Benedict Rule in the 6th century. He thought following the individual Eastern way failed due to relapses, and thus he urged communal living, without rivalry between monks, under a leader or abbot, with self-denial that stopped short of harm to health or mind. His maxim was “Give up your pride and freedom, and find here security and peace.”7 But this early austerity and poverty eased over time as monasteries grew rich, and new movements appeared, for example that of St. Francis (13th century) with nomadic, penurious monks called mendicant Friars. Their goal was not salvation per se, but to be the instruments of God’s will. Still later, Christian mystics such as St. John of the Cross (16th century) resumed a solitary, rigorous self-denial as prefatory to spiritual union with God.


Eventually, Protestantism appeared in the 16th century as a revolt against the apparent corruption of the Roman Church and increasing indulgences. Protestants rejected saints, monasticism, salvation through individual effort, and especially severe self-denial – the last on the basis that all of God’s creation including human physical needs should not be interpreted as evil nor rejected. Instead leaders such as John Calvin urged an inner-worldly asceticism meaning sobriety, chastity, temperance, and profit through work. Paul Tillich distinguishes Catholic ontological asceticism, the devaluation of finite being; from Protestant moral asceticism, discipline for creative work and the unity of the human and the spiritual. “The [Protestant] saint … knows where to go and where not to go. He knows the way between impoverishing asceticism and disrupting libertinism.”8

In conclusion, asceticism in its many forms has been integral to Christian thought either as (1) utter self-denial for personal salvation, as example for others, in service to God, or for mystical union, or (2) in moderation for divine forgiveness or ethical creativity. Monasticism, sacramental penance, and inner-worldly asceticism persist to this day. For Christians then, as with the Hindus and the Cynics, the choice of some level of self-imposed suffering is instrumental for self-purification, ethics towards others, individual purpose, personal apotheosis, and union with the ultimate.


1Dobbin, Robert, The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian. Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2012. Pages xxxviii-xxxix.

2Tolle, Eckhart, Living a Life of Inner Peace. New World Library. 2003.

3Durant, Will, Caesar and Christ. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1972. ISBN 0-671-11500-6, page  657.

4Merton, Thomas, The Wisdom of the Desert. New Horizons Books, New York, 1960. Page 7-8.

5Catechism of the Catholic Church, Doubleday, New York, 1997. ISBN 0-385-50819-0, page 399.

6Ibid. Pages 398-399.

7Durant, Will, The Age of Faith. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1950. ISBN 0-671-01200-1, pages 517-519.

8Tillich, Paul, Systematic Theology. The University of Chicago Press. 1967. ISBN 0-226-80336-8. Volume II, pages 210-211, and 270.


“For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. – 1 Peter 3.17.






The voluntary acceptance of suffering has permeated Christianity from the beginning and took eight major forms: (1) the asceticism of Jesus and the disciples, (2) Jesus’s assent to crucifixion, (3) martyrdom in pagan Rome, (4) the asceticism of the desert fathers in Christian Rome, (5) the doctrine of the sacrament of conversion (penance), (6) medieval monasticism, (7) mystical self-denial, and (8) Protestant internal asceticism. Let’s look at each of these briefly.

Some historians see Jesus as a virtual ‘Jewish Cynic’, living a nomadic lifestyle, without possessions, and depending on the charity of others. It is thought that Hellenism and Judaism converged in Galilee, as Gadara, a center of Cynic activity, was a mere day’s walk from Nazareth. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus advocates poverty and at other times in the New Testament he assures his disciples that God (nature) will provide for them.1 Jesus’s acquiescence to torture and crucifixion can be seen as the ultimate ascetic act – personal suffering and the surrender of life as atonement for the sins of humanity. It is no accident that the tool of that suffering became the very symbol of the divine.2

Jesus’s ascetic example endured among the early Christians who at least initially committed to communal living and rejection of personal property. However the more notable form of Christian asceticism for the next 300 years was in the choice of the martyrs to relinquish their lives rather than deny their beliefs. Salvation was found in gruesome deaths in the arena sometimes at the jaws of wild animals or by other forms of painful execution. Historians assure us persecution of Christians was fairly uncommon in the pagan Roman Empire, but we can should not underestimate the powerful impression even a few martyrs made on others. This supreme ascetic practice thus served the philanthropic goal of inspiring others to Christian beliefs.

After Christianity became the official religion of the Empire under Constantine in the 4th century, martyrdom was no longer viable and the Church became wealthy and indulgent. A new group of ascetic hermits, called the desert fathers, appeared in protest of Christian materialism. They followed the custom of the Cynics by renouncing all possessions, donning the ragged robe of the philosopher, and subsisting on alms.3 Their escapist asceticism enforced a resistance to temptation in the quest for salvation.4

Meanwhile Church doctrine developed with seven sacraments; one called conversion is the means for the sinful to reconcile with the divine (the other sacraments are baptism, communion or Eucharist, confirmation, marriage, holy orders, and anointing of the sick). Conversion begins with confession, followed by penance, and finally forgiveness. Internal conversion is associated with “salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit).”5 Penance takes the form of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, all of which are emphasized on special days of penitential practice such as Fridays and Lent.6

(continued next post)


“For the person pressing on towards happiness must even be prepared to go through fire and sword” – Diogenes of Sinope.



Today we pick back up where we left off on the subject of asceticism by returning to the ancient Greeks. The word asceticism is derived from the Greek word, askesis, meaning exercise, in this case the exercise of self-denial. Pythagoras (6th century B.C.E.) is often seen to be a proto-ascetic, a strict vegetarian and celibate who lived very modestly – a practice he may have adopted from the East – and a paradigm for his school in ancient Italy.

The epitome of Greek asceticism is thought to be Diogenes of Sinope (4th century B.C.E.), a student of Antisthenes who is considered the father of asceticism and who was a student of Socrates. Diogenes was known as “the dog” (cyn in Greek) because of the life he adopted; but he inverted this moniker by asserting that the happiness of a dog is possible for men. The cynics were not a school but rather an erratic succession of individual philosophers who renounced worldly desires to pursue a life in accordance with virtue and independence. They led a simple life of eating just enough to survive, wearing a simple shabby cloak, and limiting additional possessions to perhaps a cup from which to drink water and a staff. They had great contempt of wealth, prestige, and lineage. Their logic is simple enough – the gods want nothing; therefore men most like the gods will want next to nothing. Only virtue is good and vice bad; everything else is of no value either way.

Virtue for the cynics is quite different from that traditionally associated with the ancient Greeks (courage, temperance, fortitude, and prudence) and includes: self-sufficiency (autarkeia), freedom, detachment, and training for moral toughness and endurance. For cynics, poverty is the paradoxical avenue to peace and contentment making them the first philosophers to eulogize poverty as a blessing in disguise. They affirm a rational distinction between natural and artificial (societal) values. Happiness is found by strength of mind to want nothing and to lack nothing, and the toiling and painful effort of this moral struggle is the short cut to virtue. While fundamentally antisocial, the cynics were not hermits; they advanced a form of philanthropy; serving as models of virtue for others to follow. They generally rejected intellectual arguments, instead offered an ideal practical example of autonomy which gave spiritual hope to the poor and oppressed.1,2

Cynic practice and thought was instrumental in the development of stoicism, Epicureanism, skepticism, and possibly influenced the early Christian hermits. Emerson echoes their philosophy when he says, “The amount of a man’s wealth consists in the number of things he can do without.” Its precepts continue to this day in the form of monasticism and perhaps the modern concept of simplifying life as a means to happiness. Materialism then can be seen as the basis for much suffering and its renunciation as a means to tranquility and moral strengthening. Ironically, the initially unpleasant detachment and relinquishing of goods and luxuries may reduce human suffering on balance and foster ultimate contentment.


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 2, pages 284-285.

2Dobbin, Robert, The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian. Penguin Group, New York, NY, 2012. Pages xxi-xxvi and 12-13.


This leaves only the matter of dealing with our own suffering. Of course we rely upon science and the healing arts to ease the physical suffering, limit the loss of life, and shorten the epidemic. However philosophy offers many voices of intellectual, spiritual, and even emotional consolation; the most developed analyses and responses include:

1.   Hinduism – suffering is due to karma, that is, the consequence of prior actions – not true perhaps of the virus per se, but likely of some aspects of suffering due to our inadequate planning. The Hindu solution is fulfillment of duty, piety, and virtue. I would add greater preparation for future crises.

2.   Stoicism – suffering is due to fate and providence which we do not control, but lessened by what we can control, our own reaction. Its solution is detachment and the reluctant acceptance of our plight.

3.   Epicureanism – suffering is due to deterministic providence, but our experience of it can be diminished by ataraxia, essentially contentment with what we can easily attain and avoidance of unnecessary stress or unease.

4.   Buddhism – life itself is suffering, universal, but not inevitable. Peace is achieved by meditation, elimination of desire, the adoption of optimism over negativity, hope, presence, and love.

5.   Christianity – suffering as original sin or the unfathomable purposes of God. Its consolation is endurance as proof of faith and a path to sacred existence.

6.   Existentialism – suffering as due to the indifference of the universe. Relief comes from transcendence, self-affirmation, courage, and the recognition of our vulnerability as a fact of the human condition. Viktor Frankl might add for those sick with the virus or who have lost loved ones to it, to find meaning in their suffering by being worthy of it.1

Last I would add that when seen against the canvas of the history and future of mankind, this pandemic reveals the sameness of our situation with those of all people. We perhaps of all of nature’s creation experience the pinnacle of suffering; it is the price we pay for the blessing of our great intelligence and knowledge of existence. But none of us is alone; times like these remind us of our tie to all men past, present, and future, of our interdependence, our mutual caring, and our incredible power when united to craft a sanctuary for human expression, creativity, and dignity. We alone can make of Earth either heaven or hell, and by choosing the former achieve a measure of the divine out of the simple chemicals that make up our species.


“…there came the death-dealing pestilence, which, through the operation of the heavenly bodies, or of our own iniquitous dealings, being sent down upon mankind for our correction by the just wrath of God, had some years before appeared in the parts of the East and after having bereft these latter of an innumerable number of inhabitants, extending without cease from one place to another, had now unhappily spread to the West.” – Giovanni Boccaccio, The Decameron (describing the plague in Florence in 1348).

Again I wish to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship to all during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.

In this last essay on the pandemic, I hope to pull together the four prior essays and those just before on the subject of suffering into a meaningful conclusion. First we must accept the ontological and existential certainty of human suffering, and as such we must develop a response and path to consolation. While suffering can be seen as an evil, it seems more accurate to say that suffering is the consequence of evil, including in this case the coronavirus. The evil of the pandemic has two manifestations: the natural evil of the virus itself, and that resulting from the free choices  or actions society makes for mitigation including for example the economic fallout and the curtailing of freedoms.

Within the framework of free will, each of us can choose an ethical course, at a minimum, siding against the pandemic by (1) avoiding being an agent of evil,  that is, spreading the virus, by social distancing, (2) assisting as possible the medical system’s fight against the virus, and (3) suppressing selfish ends like hoarding supplies. We can also assume the role of agents of good by the free offer of help to the most affected, the elderly, furloughed workers, and the needy. Last we can fulfill our civic duty by voluntarily following the directives of designated authorities and complying with the recommendations of medical experts (except in the unlikely scenario of unethical requests).

(continued next post)


Last time we looked at metaphysical issues of free will ,determinism, and fortune within the subject of the current crisis. In addition fate, the subjective sense of an inexorable march of events, is likely to be invoked in this epidemic. In an earlier post1 I identified three reasons we subjectively lean towards fatalism: (1) situational – the recognition that most events in the world that affect us play out without our meaningful input, making our circumstances precarious, (2) helplessness – our apparent inability to alter the course of events, (3) unpredictability of action –our experience that even well-conceived, freely chosen action frequently leads to unexpected and undesired consequences, often the very outcomes we struggle to avoid. Richard Taylor presents the metaphysical argument for fate: if statements in general are true or false, then statements of future events also are true or false, and therefore the future is fixed by those truths. As I observed previously, this is a fascinating and exceptional example of metaphysical and empirical concordance; our subjective sense of fatalism is substantiated by our concept of truth.2

In the case of COVID-19, the situational aspect of fatalism is existentially confirmed. However, we must shrug off the sense of helplessness. Actions we take such as social distancing and mutual assistance do impact the course of the outbreak and offer real hope of shortening its duration and limiting its lethality. While some of our planning may be of uncertain value, the real-time, science-based assessment of our efforts and appropriate legislative responses offer real opportunities to attenuate the harm from the pandemic. And just because the truth of future statements is metaphysically inviolate does not mean the future is grim; instead we can follow Immanuel Kant in an ethical design of the future we desire.

Our final metaphysical question for today is the impact of this and likely future pandemics on human destiny. Homo sapiens may be doomed to eventual extinction, but it seems to me that global lethal infection is an unlikely scenario for that future. It is more likely to occur due to our own self-annihilation through weapons of mass destruction or from environmental or planetary catastrophe. Dangerous infectious agents are both self-limiting (less likely to spread widely when highly lethal to hosts) and vulnerable to scientific investigation and elimination. Meanwhile, any enemy of humanity lowers barriers between peoples and encourages united effort. In earlier essays, I discussed how most thinkers predict man’s destiny as one of increasing cooperation and integration.3 One silver lining of this pandemic is the opportunity to witness societal evolution on the scale of a human lifetime rather than as an empty promise or mere future hope. And it gives us all a tangible opportunity to participate in that aspiration.

1See my post Fate – Part II; The Subjective Experience on this site 8/9/19.

1See my post Fate – Part III; The Metaphysical Argument on this site 8/12/19.

1See my posts on this site 9/9/19 and 9/11/19 (Fred Kohler), 9/13/19 (Fred Hoyle), 9/16/19 (John Fiske), 9/18/19 (Arnold Toynbee, 9/20/19 (Will Durant), 9/23/19 (Immanuel Kant), 9/25/19 (Karl Jaspers), and 10/4/19 (Teilhard de Chardin).


“No longer were there individual destinies; only a collective destiny, made of plague and emotions shared by all.” – Albert Camus, The Plague



Again I wish to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship to all during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.

Now I hope to perform a metaphysical dissection of the pandemic with respect to free will, determinism, fate, fortune, and destiny. We begin by noting the natural law that led to coronavirus superficially fits the cause and effect chain of determinism suggesting a measure of inevitability, or in Richard Taylor’s parlance, causal, but not logical, necessity. Aristotle might interpolate theories of potentiality and actuality – that is, if the correct conditions exist for a bat virus to mutate into one which can infect humans, this will occur eventually given sufficient time.

On the other hand, a role for fortune (chance) can be argued; traditionally genetic mutations are not seen as determined, but accidental or sporadic. In that case COVID-19 was not predestined to arise, but is just a case of bad luck. Boethius might remind us that fortune is fickle, and while specific instances of good and bad fortune cannot be foreseen, it is entirely predictable that fortune will change.

We cannot ascertain the place of free will in the origin of the virus; although actions freely chosen by certain Chinese market merchants may have unwittingly led to the conditions whereby the new strain of virus emerged. The theologian can thus replay the case that the Almighty is not culpable for this evil since it is man-made and an acceptable price for human free agency. However I think this argument is no more viable than one claiming the deaths in Lisbon in 1755 due to an earthquake were a just price for human free choice to live where one wishes.

(continued next post)


“I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath is completed.” Revelation 15:1





Again I wish to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship to all during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.

The next philosophical issue regarding the pandemic is the implications on our belief in God or theodicy. Would an all-powerful, all-knowing, morally perfect God allow such an evil to develop, that is, can this global scourge be justified?  It seems to me the answer is no; it is unimaginable that net moral good can derive from our current predicament, nor is it clear to me how viruses in general can be ethically justified by the science at our disposal. My only hesitancy is the possibility that we are ignorant of a role viruses might serve as a means of natural genetic engineering that facilitates the evolution of species. I find implausible any argument to the effect that a rampant infectious disease can be defended as the divine means to population control. Perhaps other readers can postulate a net balance of benefits I am missing.

Likewise I will leave it to theologians to justify the evil of the pandemic for the deity’s purposes for moral strengthening or as divine retribution. Of course I am not denying some good can come from this (or any) evil, but metaphysically the pandemic is undeniably, on balance,  an evil. I also appreciate the comfort religion offers to the frightened and grieving during a crisis, but that does not mitigate the inconsistency of a triply-perfect God and patently needless evil. Nonetheless, this site’s definition of God as the origin of the universe or the universe itself, contests the premises of logic-defined omnipotence and omniscience, in which case theodicy is not applicable.1

Next time I will explore the pandemic metaphysically with respect to free will, fate, fortune, and destiny.

1See posts on this site 3/18/19, 3/20/19, and 3/22/19 and Table 3 in the Appendix.


“All I maintain is that on this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” – Albert Camus, The Plague.





Again I would like to express my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship everyone around the world is experiencing during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing in these essays is intended to diminish the loss others have suffered. Instead I hope to find a philosophical grounding in order to extract the lessons and meaning of this tragedy and the possibility of consolation.

Last time I demonstrated that COVID-19 is the result of natural laws and appears to be a categorical, albeit blind evil. Now we are ready to construct an ethical response. In earlier blogs, I outlined William Frankena’s priority of ethical behavior in complex situations: first avoid and next eliminate evil, then promote good, and last, never choose any evil unless there is a clear excess of good from the choice.1 His approach works well in our current circumstances:

(1)   Avoid evil, in this case, spreading the virus to others – commit to shelter in place and social isolation.

(2)   Work to reduce the evil – this falls mainly on healthcare workers but can be met by the rest of us by facilitating their work, and voluntary plasma donation by those recovered from the virus.

(3)   Promote good – offer help to the most affected, the elderly, furloughed workers, and the needy.

(4)   Avoid acts whereby evil exceeds good – such as hoarding supplies, but also all illegal and unethical behavior.

Then there is the matter of duty; in dire circumstances, every citizen of a civilized nation has a responsibility to fulfill their civic duty: to follow the directives of our designated authorities and to comply with the recommendations of our medical experts – without question except in the unlikely scenario of unethical commands. The price for the benefits of membership in society is the commitment to comply with its legitimate rules in a crisis. Selfishness and disobedience are violations of one’s ostensible obligation to one’s community.

Last is supererogation, going beyond the ‘call of duty.’ Tragedy is the consummate opportunity to mitigate one’s past burden of errors, whether intentional or accidental, by looking every day for the opportunity to do good that exceeds societal expectations either by charity or unpaid service to those in need. Few of us have the potential to change the course of the epidemic, but most of us have the opportunity to be heroic in small ways.

Next time we will look at theological, metaphysical, and existential implications of the pandemic.


1See my post Ethics and Others on this site 12/17/18 and 12/19/18.


“Only individuals can suffer and only individuals have a place in tragedy.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.



I would like to express at the outset of this blog my sympathy for the loss of life, grief, and personal hardship everyone around the world is experiencing during this unprecedented pandemic. Nothing that follows is intended to diminish the terrible loss others have suffered. Rather my hope is to find a philosophical grounding from which to extract any lessons or meaning from this tragedy and identify some form of consolation.

It is a painful irony that the current epidemic is occurring just as I am working on the topic of suffering. It seems like stony detachment not to devote a few posts to some of the philosophical implications for the reader  and humanity. It will be my goal in this and the next post to generate from the ongoing course of this site some relevant philosophical points to be drawn from the world situation.

Starting with its origin: the pandemic seen scientifically appears to be the result of natural laws.1 Whether viruses meet the standard definition of life still perplexes me as a physician, but at a minimum they are  opportunistic ‘organisms’ which penetrate suitable hosts. The most successful are highly infectious requiring limited contact between potential hosts, but cause limited mortality to enhance the chance of spread. Whatever our particular revulsion, they do not benefit from host death which limits their ability to proliferate. In this regard they are analogous to humans in that, however unwittingly, we continue to maximize our numbers while working to avoid making the planet inhospitable for our species.

But evolution is a blind force, the survival of each species is generally indifferent to the destiny of others. COVID-19 is no different; our human ancestors desire to survive did not mean they wished to cause the extinction of the woolly mammoth. In short, COVID-19 is the result of forces in a universe that atheist existentialists taught us is indifferent and perhaps hostile to humanity – this is the simple, stark reality of our plight.

Next is the calibration of good versus evil: bracketing the guttural answer – where does COVID-19 fall ? In an earlier post, I defined good as that which contributes to the happiness, well-being, longevity, pleasure, or knowledge of oneself and others or at least does not diminish these for others; or which promotes existing non-human reality in the universe. Evil is defined as its opposite.2 Clearly the pandemic and its results are evils for humans by this definition. In addition, while viral spread may be nature’s indifferent promotion of a form of non-human reality, I believe we can say, with no fear of anthropocentrism, that the value of humanity and its works is far greater than the that of any virus on the scale of the universe.3 In short, COVID-19 is – both by common appraisal and philosophical analysis – a categorical evil.

Next time we will look at a philosophical analysis of ethics as applied to the pandemic.


1I am discounting the possibility of the epidemic being man-made by intention as expressed by some conspiracy theorists.

2See post titled Good and Evil, dated 1/16/19 on this site.

3Note that the same cannot be said with the same level of confidence when referring to polar bears, elephants, tigers, and other endangered species.