Last time we started our conclusions on the topic of suffering by noting its place in the human condition, pointing out its ironies, and reminding us of the value science offers us for its diminution. Today we will review philosophical mechanisms to co-opt suffering into a tool for the twin summum bonum: meaning and happiness. First our ethical duty is to eliminate unnecessary suffering especially with the machinery of science. Next we divide suffering into spontaneous (itself divisible into ordinary and extraordinary forms), and voluntary (asceticism).

Ordinary unavoidable suffering is overcome and re-purposed using: (1) Hinduism – i.e. the principle of Karma with the response of acceptance as consequence of vice and prevention through virtue, (2) Buddhism – the understanding of ignorance as its cause, and detachment, positivity, mindfulness, and meditation as remedies, (3) Stoicism – the acquiescence to fate and Providence with the antidote of apathiea. (4) Epicureanism – the recognition that human needs are very limited with contentment through ataraxia,  (5) Christian – for people of faith, that God’s purposes may be obscure, but are nevertheless divine, and offer the opportunity of the sacred path, and (6) Existentialism – the endurance of suffering is one we freely choose and a peak experience of human existence. For the unfortunate who must endure extraordinary suffering, Viktor Frankl urges they avert nihilism and recognize that standing up to and being worthy of suffering is one of the three primary tracks to human meaning. Alternatively, for those of us spared, the suffering of others is the call to provide supererogatory assistance and sacrifice.

This leaves for discussion only the philosopher’s instrument of asceticism. Countless men and women have demonstrated that controlled or limited, self-initiated suffering – for example, Buddha’s Middle Way or Tillich’s inner-worldly asceticism – can facilitate meaning, tranquility, and mystical union. All of us can find in its practice greater self-discipline, virtue, and harmony with nature. It turns out suffering is both existential and essential: it offers the tincture of transformation, awakens us to ignorance, facilitates our grasp on reality, thrusts us into presence, and may lead to wisdom and enlightenment.

Next time we begin on our final special topic, certainty. Please join me then.


“Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it.” – Helen Keller.

At last we conclude our survey of the philosophy of suffering. As with other subjects, a superficial consideration of suffering is faulty. Suffering is not evil itself, rather at times a consequence of evil. It is not identical to pain although many pains involve suffering and some suffering involves physical pain. It is not always to be avoided and at times should be welcomed, even sought. As such, human suffering (excluding perhaps in the case of young children and the mentally challenged) is not indisputable disproof of deity and, on the contrary, can be seen as a path to the divine. It does not preclude happiness nor undermine a meaningful life, instead at times is an instrument of both. Suffering  is not unusual, rather universal and to be expected by simply existing.

We find suffering is a domain of ironies. It may be the opposite of happiness, but is likely necessary to achieve happiness. It is universal but need not be inevitable. The pleasures we seek to increase happiness unexpectedly lead to suffering. A strong ego and selfishness intended to protect oneself from unhappiness often lead not to fulfillment, but to suffering. And perhaps most paradoxical of all – even extreme suffering can be the catalyst for finding meaning in endurance and making oneself worthy of it.

What else do we learn? Suffering is integral to human existence itself; it is part of the human condition. While we imagine that if we were perfect beings in a perfect environment, we would be free from suffering; logic tells us that the inevitable boredom or complete lack of anything to accomplish make this belief self-contradictory. In fact, dealing with suffering and a courageous willingness to take it on may be the greatest power of humanity. No other creature known to us, perhaps not even God himself, should He exist, has this power (although Christians might argue the story of Jesus disproves this).

We also learn that man’s approach to suffering is the key to a full understanding of life. Of course science, man’s greatest discovery, offers us the means to relieve many pains and misfortunes, and wisdom and ethics oblige us to utilize its arts whenever suffering can be avoided. Where science fails or does not apply, philosophy offers the best means to alleviate or endure it, and to find meaning and flourishing in spite of it.

(continued next post)


“Forsake all and thou shalt find all.” – Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ.



In the last two posts we looked at the arguments for and against asceticism; now we need to extract the most valid benefits while filtering out the objectionable elements to articulate a practical and philosophically sound synthesis. This means the final version should not be contingent on uncertain dualism – the presumption of a higher spiritual facet of man distinct from his lesser material body. It must be logically consistent, that is, its self-imposed suffering must be ethically universalizable, compatible with continued existence of its practitioner, and in balance physically and mentally salutary rather than harmful. It must, in net, be ethically defensible with respect to duty to family, friends, and society, and it must allow a meaningful role in the world. Last it should encourage humility instead of pride, and it must not be used as a justification of one’s failure of purpose or happiness.

A philosophically sound version of asceticism must not only survive these filters, it must be justified offering the greatest benefit with the least amount of suffering. Using these criteria, the following net benefits appear to be plausible by means of self-denial:

1)   Individual health – such as optimal weight and aversion of addiction and substance abuse.

2)   Atonement – for relief of the primary suffering of guilt.

3)   Contribution to contentment and happiness – the achievement of ataraxia without the negatives of hedonism. Life in harmony with nature – allowing concurrent environmental benefit and thriving of other species.

4)   Self-discipline – mastery of the self and character development with the added benefits of reduced harm to others, greater self-sufficiency (a social duty), potential for meaningful work (purpose), and true freedom.

Limited asceticism for salvation by those of certain faiths and the temporary deployment of strict asceticism in the search for mystical union may also be rational, but must be analyzed on a case by case basis. These alternatives should be entered into thoughtfully and are perhaps safer with the guidance of experienced practitioners. In addition the choice of ascetic exercises such as those described in Pantajali’s Yoga Sutra must be carefully undertaken. Finally the austere choice to follow the path of the hero and the saint with their ultimate charity and sacrifice requires the greatest calculus of all.

From this analysis, we conclude that for most of us philosophically sound asceticism boils down to the classic positions of moderation propounded by the ancient Greeks, Buddha’s Middle Way, and/or John Calvin’s inner-worldly asceticism. The subtlety here revolves around the elusive faculties of temperance and prudence. Nonetheless such self-discipline offers significant advantages to living an ethical, purposeful, and contented life and therefore justify our utmost effort.

Next time we will pull together the various facets of human suffering into a final whole. Please join me then.


“Man cannot survive as anything but man. He can abandon his means of survival, his mind, he can turn himself into a subhuman creature and he can turn his life into a brief span of agony just as the body can exist for a while in the process of disintegration by disease. But he cannot succeed as a subhuman, in achieving anything except the subhuman…” – Ayn Rand, The Objectivist Ethics.



Last time we investigated the practical, dogmatic, and spiritual justifications for asceticism. Needless to say there are many thinkers who feel austere living is unnatural and counterproductive; their arguments are the subject of today’s analysis.1 These fall into three basic categories: philosophical, psychological, and moral.

Philosophical objections include: (1) the difficulties of dualism which is a vital premise for spiritual benefit, (2) the inconsistency of any theory that suffering is good as the consequence is that the best world would then be the one with the least pleasure and most pain, (3) asceticism cannot be consistently practiced as it is contrary to human nature (consider primitive peoples), and (4) self-denial leads to frustration and unease which make clear thinking more difficult.  Psychological concerns include: (1) self-mutilation reduces mental health, (2) suppressed desires emerge in negative ways (Freud), and (3) its effects are harmful and may lead to neurosis or negate vitality. Last the moral arguments include: (1) asceticism offers no guarantee of virtue or escape from vice (e.g. it naturally leads to pride), (2) human suffering is inconsistent with the benevolence of God, (3) natural desires are the creation of God hence are ‘good’, (4) abandonment of family and society is immoral, and (5) if suffering is good, then we have a moral duty to make others suffer.

Western philosophers’ commentary on asceticism (other than Schopenhauer) are generally unfavorable. Friedrich Nietzsche offers the ad hominem argument that those who are unable to live well disguise their weakness by inverting morality – good is recast as evil and vice versa. Other thinkers point out that natural desires are in fact morally neutral whereas self-denial makes one callus to the suffering of others. Still others argue that while suffering may be a necessary evil, the duty for man is to better the world rather than worsen it by eliciting suffering in oneself and encouraging it in others. Among followers of Ayn Rand (called Objectivists) is Nathaniel Branden who argues that “neither mysticism nor the creed of self-sacrifice is compatible with mental health or self-esteem.”2 He thinks the sacrifice of one’s desires assures the sacrifice of one’s happiness. Asceticism is contrary to the logic of morality since man must be able to live in order to be worthy to live. Therefore, “these doctrines are destructive existentially and psychologically.”3

Again we arrive at an apparent impasse – asceticism can be viewed intelligently from two poles – as the means to moral and spiritual summit and as unnatural and contrary to human happiness. Next time I will try to formulate a concluding synthesis of this topic.


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, pages 172-173.

2Branden, Nathaniel, Mental Health versus Mysticism and Self-Sacrifice in Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness. The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., New York, 1964. Page 37.



“This is the truth, if a monk regards contempt as praise, poverty as riches, and hunger as a feast, he will never die.” – Macarius of Egypt.

We have looked at the three best known forms of asceticism – Hindu, Cynic, and Christian – noting their function in self-purification, enlightenment, moral strengthening, and salvation. Today and next time we consider arguments for and against asceticism from which we can hope to extract a sound approach.1

The traditional justifications for ascetic practice fall into three groups: practical, dogmatic, and spiritual. Practical reasons for austere living include recognition that (1) our lower desires require great effort and are ultimately insatiable, (2) some lower desires are unethical or indifferent, hence of no genuine value, (3) even when good, lower desires are less good than higher virtues, and (4) they  interfere with knowledge and reason. All of these rationales are indirect and defend partial or limited self-denial rather than strict abstinence.

Dogmatic justifications for austerity include: (1) Biblical authority, (2) analogy to taking up the cross of Christ, (3) the requirement of denial of sinful desires for meaningful penance and elimination of guilt, (4) proof of devotion to God, and (5) character development. Most of these are direct obligations of Christian faith, but also partial restrictions.

Spiritual justifications such as those promoted by Hindus and Buddhists are direct and more complete. They use  asceticism to eliminate desire in order to allow liberation from this world of pain. Of modern philosophers, only Schopenhauer advocates rigorous asceticism, in his opinion, as the means to annihilate the will to live which is for him the primary cause of human suffering.

Next time we will look at the arguments against ascetic practice before we determine the place (if any) of asceticism in the meaningful life


1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 1, pages 172.


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)