SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART VIII

“…man can learn from life only to the extent that he can accept suffering such learning demands.” – Jacob Needleman, Consciousness and Tradition.

 

 

In college I stumbled on a fascinating writer of the early 20th century, the German-born Hermann Hesse. It started with Steppenwolf, one of his remarkable late novels, then I backtracked to his earlier Bildugsroman novels – Peter Camenzind and Beneath the Wheel – then to the psychological drama of Damien. This left only one remaining Hesse book on the Vanderbilt library shelf, Siddhartha,* his most philosophical book, which one can read in an afternoon.

Hesse’s grandfather was a missionary to India, and his mother was born there, thus he grew up under the influence of his family’s knowledge of and artifacts from India. At age 28 he traveled to East Asia by sea, but was disappointed with the ship’s brief stop in India and the Westernization he found there. It was not until age 45 that he wrote Siddhartha, which is based loosely on the Buddha’s life with a key difference: the real Buddha started life as a prince exposed to worldly luxury and became an ascetic hermit, whereas the fictional Siddhartha starts life as the son of a Brahmin holy man and, after a brief period as a hermit, becomes a worldly man of business before returning to a spiritual path.

Hesse’s Siddhartha starts life as a good student and avid learner, but discovers that enlightenment cannot be taught, but must be experienced. For this reason he leaves first his father, then the Samanas (strict ascetic hermits), and finally the Buddha himself. He complains to the Buddha that his teachings, while clearly wise, are flawed by an inconsistency between belief in the unity of the world and enlightenment by rising above it. The Buddha responds, “The teaching you have heard…is not my opinion, and its goal is not to explain the   world to those who are thirsty for knowledge. Its goal is quite different; its goal is salvation from suffering.”1

Nonetheless after crossing a great river by ferry, Siddhartha enters the world of common men and after several years as a successful man of business, given to lust, materialism, and gambling, becomes disillusioned with his suffering in that environment and returns to the river. The ferryman, who is Krishna incarnate, takes him under his wing. Siddhartha experiences suffering for the last time when his illegitimate son becomes his ward but scorns him and departs. Siddhartha at last comes to his own enlightenment.

Next time we will see what he discovers.

(continued next post)

*Siddhartha Gautama was the Buddha’s original name.

SUFFERING – THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART VII

“Diversions assuage the sense of our miseries, only by causing more real and substantial misery, for more than any thing else, they prevent self-reflection, and cause our time to elapse unnoticed. Were it not for them, we should be weary of ourselves, and this weariness would lead us to seek for some more effectual method of relief. But diversion deceives and amuses us, and brings us to the grave by imperceptible advances.”- Blaise Pascal,  Pensees.

 

Moving forward in the Western philosophical tradition we arrive at Friedrich Nietzsche who remarks on Buddhism in The Antichrist. Clearly his focus there is a complete repudiation of Christianity – a religion he believes praises weakness, condemns power, and discounts life in this world in favor of a sham afterlife in a non-existent divine realm – for him a nihilistic creed. But he contrasts it with Buddhism – still seen as nihilistic and decadent – but more realistic, free of the myth of God, and “the only genuinely positivistic religion in history.” 1

Nietzsche notes that instead of urging a struggle against sin, Buddha targets a struggle against suffering. He praises Buddhism for the absence of the self-deception of morality, noting “it stands beyond good and evil.”2 In his view, Buddhism originates in response to two realities: (1) excessive sensitivity to pain and (2) over-spiritualization and subordination to the impersonal. These lead to depression which the Buddha treats with ‘hygienic measures’ such as open air living, moderation, and cessation of worry. Prayer, asceticism, compulsion, monasticism, and conflict with nonbelievers are discouraged. Buddha, in Nietzsche’s opinion, “fights with a rigorous attempt to lead back even the most spiritual interests to the person. In the Buddha’s doctrine, egoism becomes a duty, ‘the one thing needful,’ the question ‘how can you escape from suffering?’ regulates and limits the whole spiritual diet.”3

Unlike Christianity which is a response to the suffering of barbaric man’s cruelty, Nietzsche sees Buddhism as a response to suffering related to late man’s excessive sensitivity and susceptibility to pain. Buddhism is thus more truthful and objective; suffering and pain are not made “respectable by interpreting them in terms of sin – it simply says what it thinks: ‘I suffer.’ ”4  Barbaric Christianity requires an exegesis and the devil.

So Nietzsche recasts the First Noble Truth; suffering is due to over-sensitivity, but is effectively existential – a blunt fact of a mature human’s subjectivity. In elegant words he offers his view, contrasting the Greek tragic worldview (he identifies as Dionysian) with Christianity:

“Life itself, its eternal fruitfulness and recurrence, involves agony, destruction, the will to annihilation. In the other case, suffering – ‘the Crucified One as the Innocent One’ – is considered an objection to this life, as the formula of its condemnation. Clearly the problem is that of the meaning of suffering: whether a Christian meaning or a tragic meaning. In the first case, it is supposed to be the path to a sacred existence; in the second case, existence is considered sacred enough to justify even a tremendous amount of suffering. The tragic man affirms even the harshest suffering; he is sufficiently strong, rich, and deifying for this; the Christian negates even the happiest life on earth; he is sufficiently weak, poor, and disinherited to suffer from life in any form. The God of the cross is a curse on life; a pointer to seek redemption from it; Dionysus cut to pieces is a promise of life; it is eternally reborn and comes back from destruction.” 5

1Kaufmann, Walter (editor), The Portable Neitzsche. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-0150629, page 587.

2Ibid.

3Ibid. Page 588.

4Ibid. Page 590.

5Ibid. Page 459.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART VI

“Siddhartha stopped fighting his fate this very hour, and he stopped suffering.”– Hermann Hess, Siddhartha.

 

 

Next we examine some of the commentary by Western philosophers on Buddha’s Noble Truths regarding the human condition. The first major thinker we consider is Arthur Schopenhauer who sees will as more basic than thought in understanding man. Intrigued by Immanuel Kant’s distinction between the phenomenon or sensation of a thing and the unreachable thing-in-itself, Schopenhauer says we can in fact know the thing-in-itself for ourselves. By introspection we see it is the will, especially the will to live. He projects this upon the world and concludes will is the thing-in-itself for all entities, and the cosmos is a single vast will to exist.1

Ever the pessimist, Schopenhauer thinks this eternal striving prevents peace – hence “all life is suffering.”2 For him, willing arises from need, therefore from deficiency. Fulfilling a need gives only temporary satisfaction. Even pleasure is the mere temporary relief of suffering. “As long as we are the subject of willing, we can never have lasting happiness or peace.” 3 He comes to  recognize the correspondences of his philosophy with Buddha’s first three Noble Truths. He answers Buddha’s implicit question as to why birth (and theoretically rebirth to believers) is the origin of suffering – because birth is the origin of the striving will.4 However, like Buddha, Schopenhauer does not believe suicide can relieve this suffering as suicide too is an action of the will.

Rather Schopenhauer sees two remedies: temporary and permanent. The temporary solution is to lose one self, and thereby suppress the will, in aesthetics – the visual arts and especially music. Such experience allows one to free oneself from the will albeit briefly. Permanent relief is found in selflessness manifest in asceticism and saintliness. Schopenhauer accepts that the ultimate wisdom is found in Nirvana, the reduction of one’s self to a minimum of desire and will: “The less the will is excited, the less we suffer.” 5

So we see that Schopenhauer comes to the same conclusions as the Buddha although by a different path. Both feel a level of self-denial and highly virtuous living are the solution to the problem of human suffering.

1 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8 pageS 845-848.

2Schopenauer, Arthur, The World as Will and Idea, Orion Publishing Group, London, UK, 1995. ISBN 9778-0-4608-7505-9, page 197.

3Ibid. Page 120

4Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1954. ISBN 0-671-54800-X,  Page  427.

5Durant, Will, The Story of Philosophy. Garden City Publishing Co., Inc.: Garden City, New York, 1927. Page 369.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART V

“Now this, O monks is the noble truth of the cause of pain: that craving that leads to rebirth, combined with pleasure and lust, finding pleasure here and there, namely, the craving for passion, the craving for existence, the craving for non-existence.” – Buddha, (the second Noble Truth).

There is much commentary on Buddhism in Western historical and philosophical traditions and some Western philosophers have even integrated portions of Buddhist dogma into their own philosophy. Today we will discuss the Western analysis of the historical context of Buddha’s enlightenment.

First Arnold Toynbee emphasizes the political environment of the Buddha’s life as one full of troubles, destructive wars, and “in a bad way… and this evidence is corroborated by the life and outlook of his contemporary, Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, and by the lives of others of the same generation in India who were turning away from This World and seeking to find another through asceticism.”1 According to Toynbee the Buddha “lived to see his native city state Kapilavastu sacked and his Sakyan kinsmen massacred.”2 Toynbee surmises that the Buddha responded to these challenges by renouncing his inhospitable world. Effectively, the Buddha’s concept of suffering arose out of his historicity.

Will Durant follows a different line of reasoning. While he grants difficulties for the natives caused by the Aryan invasion, he highlights the philosophical milieu that followed the establishment of Hinduism with its priests and caste system.  In “an age of amazingly free thought and a thousand experiments in philosophy,”3 skeptics criticized and mocked orthodox clergy and creeds. Traveling Sophists – the Paribbajka, or Wanderers – taught logic as the art of proving anything, including the non-existence of God and the inexpediency of virtue. Finally the nihilistic Sutras of Brihaspati led to a school of Hindu materialists, the Charvakas who ridiculed the Vedas, divine truth, deity, the soul, immortality, and morality.4

Durant, in his typical fashion and contrary to Toynbee, sees the decline of religion and morality and the rise of epicureanism and materialism as the consequence of Indian prosperity, and Buddhism (and Jainism) as a religious reaction. Against that backdrop, the legendary story of the Buddha involves three interstices of suffering. First there is the witnessing of suffering (the dead man, old man, and sick man) that arouses the search for enlightenment. Second is the self-imposition of suffering through asceticism which leads to a dead end. Last is the return to the middle way and the recognition that suffering is sustained by rebirth, itself due to karmic retribution for evil in this life, making rebirth stoppable by virtuous living.

Durant sums it up beautifully: ”If one could still all desires for one’s self, and seek only to do good, then individuality, that first and worst delusion of mankind, might be overcome, and the soul would merge at last with unconscious infinity. What peace there would be in the heart that had cleansed itself of every personal desire! – and what heart that had not so cleansed itself could know peace? Happiness is possible neither here, as paganism thinks, nor hereafter, as many religions think. Only peace is possible, only the cool quietude of craving ended, only Nirvana.”5

1Toynbee, Arnold, A Study of History – Abridgement of Volumes I-VI by D.C. Somervell. Oxford University Press, New York & London, 1956. Page 21.

2Ibid, page 227.

3Durant, Will, Our Oriental Heritage. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1963. ISBN 0-671-54800-X, page 418.

4Ibid. Page 428

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART IV

“To seek is to suffer. To seek nothing is bliss.”- Bodhidharma

 

 

As Buddhism moved out of India and into China, it blended with Taoist philosophy and transmuted into ‘ch’an’ or Zen (meaning meditation). Today we will examine what this now mostly Japanese discipline offers on the concept of universal suffering.

Described by Professor Joel J. Kupperman as “like a philosophical iceberg where almost all of the philosophy is beneath the surface,”1 Zen generally implies rather than states the traditional Buddhist proposition that desires and attachments are the main cause of suffering and that detachment from desires eliminates suffering. D.T. Suzuki seems to take this even further in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism where he writes “There is no knowledge, no ignorance, no destruction of ignorance…There are no four truths, viz. there is no pain, no origin of pain, no stoppage of pain, and no path to the stoppage of pain.”2 This Parmenides-like skeptical denial of the appearance of reality is foundational to Zen.

Still Suzuki tells us Zen does assent to the four noble truths, but the focal point is not external or psychological suffering, but the struggle in each of us between the finite and the infinite. “Zen is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being” where one finds resolution of the conflict through a direct grasping.3

Suffering then falls within the purview of an ephemeral wisdom, the recognition of the limitations and futility of all propositional truth or dogma.  Verbal explanation and analysis are viewed as distracting; instead the practitioner seeks pointers to truth, sometimes in the experience of pain itself (Zen masters have been known to slap students to facilitate understanding). It turns out study of the four noble truths and the Buddhist canon can actually interfere with achieving serenity and enlightenment or satori, meaning intuitive introspection rather than an intellectual exercise. In the end, it may only be through the experience of suffering that one can attain the wisdom that is wanted.4

In summary, Zen offers an alternative perspective on suffering. Suffering is not a symptom, but a sign – effectively incidental to our misconception of the nature of things and of our selves. The cure does not come from learning and is not found through an intellectual process of understanding, but coincident to a sudden grasping of the true nature of reality and one’s make-up. I find this mystical and mysterious, but ultimately optimistic as most of us have the opportunity to grasp that reality before our individual suffering becomes intense or unbearable.

Next we will look briefly at some of the influence of Buddhism on Western philosophy, and some Western commentary.

1 Honderich, Ted, The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 969.

2 Kaufmann, Walter, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1958.p.187

3 Magill, Frank. Masterpieces of World Philosophy. HarperCollins Publsihers.  1990. ISBN 0-06-270051-0. Pages 623-632.

4 Kaufmann, Walter, Critique of Religion and Philosophy. Harper and Brothers Publishers, New York, 1958.p.190

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART III

“To perceive is to suffer.” – Aristotle, De Anima.

After examining Buddha’s metaphysics behind the Four Noble Truths, the Dalai Lama offers a more concrete description of suffering and a more practical means to free oneself. He exposes the specific types of suffering, their sources, and methods to make them cease.

He identifies three types of suffering: (1) out-and-out pain; (2) the suffering of change – that is reappearing needs such as hunger, or discontent from waning pleasures; and (3) pervasive conditioning – deeper afflictive or counterproductive emotions.  Examples for each are (1) a headache, (2) the eventual tiring of a new amusement, and (3) hatred, respectively. The Dalai Lama summarizes the human condition in this way: between the suffering of birth and of death are not only illness and aging, but also a series of discontents and disappointments. His immediate remedies are hope, positivity, and disciplined meditation.1

The sources of pain, he tells us, are twofold: afflictive emotions and ‘contaminated karmas.’ The former are negative or counterproductive feelings that contaminate karma. Some are better expressed such as fears from the past which diminish with recounting and confrontation. Other are better not expressed, that is, the counterproductive emotions such as jealousy, belligerence, or hatred. These increase in frequency and intensity with expression and are must be replaced by positive emotions such as love or satisfaction. The root of these is ignorance.  On the other hand, contaminated karmas are the consequences of former non-virtuous actions and can be life-altering karmas or can project into the next life as a “bad transmigration.”2

The Dalai Lama stresses the ultimate cause of most suffering of change and pervasive conditioning is the  ignorance of the true nature of persons and things, that is, their emptiness or selflessness – “the absence of a permanent, unitary, and independent self or, more subtly, the absence of inherent existence either in living beings or in other phenomena.”3 In steadfast meditation one becomes fully aware of the truth, and the power of one’s wisdom increases defeating the negative emotions rooted in ignorance.4

The Dalai Lama’s mixed psychological, ethical, and mystical approach to suffering is well-adapted to the Western mindset without disavowing Buddha’s metaphysics. In the final analysis, hopefulness, optimism, and deep reflection make an excellent triple therapy for non-physical suffering. Before we address the more refractory issue of sustained physical suffering, we will pause to look at Zen Buddhism and the  influence of the Buddhist concept of suffering on Western philosophy.

 

1The Dalai Lama, How To Practice. Atria Books, New York, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7434-5336-3, pages 31- 42.

2Ibid, pages 43-46.

3Ibid, page 142.

4Ibid, pages 57-58.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART II

“This monks, is the Noble Truth of Suffering; birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering; presence of objects we hate is suffering; separation from objects we love is suffering; not to obtain what we desire is suffering…” – Buddha.

 

Last time we saw how Buddha’s First Noble Truth that life is suffering is the critical premise of his philosophy. Today we will expand his doctrine, and next time we will look at the interpretations of a contemporary authority, the Dalai Lama.

First we need to review briefly Buddha’s three primary metaphysical principles. The first is anatta or impermanence, the non-sustainability of things in the world. Attachment to temporal things that is the main cause of our suffering. The second is anicca or the ‘no-self’ by which he means the non-substantiality of the self. Contrary to common belief and the tenets of most philosophies, Buddha says there is no soul, nor even an inner self. Our material being is anatta and our concept of self is illusion.

The third principle is pattica samuppada or ‘dependent organization.’ Unlike Western philosophy which sees reality deterministically as a linear series of causes and effects, Buddha teaches that whatever is, depends on something else, and yet there is a mutual dependence of all things. In fact all things are mutually self-creating and thus there is neither God nor independent beings. Reality has the nature of process, and things (including space and time) are merely abstractions. There is no being, only becoming.1

From these doctrines is derived the bhavacakra or ‘Wheel of Becoming.’ Each of us is the sum of  continuous processes which include the cycle of birth, death, consciousness, perception, and so forth. The wheel’s segments demonstrate the cyclic dependence of causality with old age and death as symbols of dukkha or suffering. Ignorance is the root-process of suffering. Buddha does not maintain that non-existence is the way to non-suffering, rather the recognition that there is no self beyond these processes means that there is no subject to suffer as long as there is no attachment to the parts of the wheel.2

Buddha’s lesson is powerful but challenging. Most of us recognize the impermanence of all things, but  nonetheless remain attached to them – loved ones, material goods, modern pleasures, society, and life itself. Detachment sounds easy, but turns out being extremely difficult. The illusion of self is still harder to fathom; our own self seems the most certain reality we know. Letting go of that foundation seems unthinkable. The interdependence of all things is easily accepted, but the wheel itself is unfamiliar especially in the West where reincarnation is not generally accepted. However, if we consider human history or even the many vicissitudes of an individual’s life given modern longevity, the cyclic nature of reality becomes more recognizable.

Perhaps we can  learn from a less didactic presentation on the place of suffering in Buddhism and a more practical approach to deal with it. Next time we will explore that possibility through the wisdom of the Dalai Lama.

1Koller, John M., Oriental Philosophies, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1970. ISBN 684-13668-6, pages 126-127.

2 Ibid. pages 128-129.

SUFFERING –   THE FIRST NOBLE TRUTH – PART I

“It is by our power to suffer, above all, that we are of more value than the sparrows.” – Edith Hamilton, The Greek Way.

 

 

 

 

 

After the modern analytical consideration of suffering an opposite of happiness we go back in time to one of the greatest spiritual masters in history, the Buddha. We learn from Asvaghosha’s Buddha-Karita that Buddha was the son of a King, prophesied to “embrace transcendental happiness.”1 His father wishing him to succeed him as monarch rather than become a holy man “turned him to sensual pleasures” and tried to protect him from any “inauspicious sight which could disturb his mind.”2

But one day, the future Buddha saw an old man, a diseased man, and a dead man, and recognized that life involves suffering and so resolved himself to the ascetic life and the search for Nirvana or enlightenment. He left the palace and spent six years in meditation and bodily withdrawal sometimes living on little more than grass and dung with other hermits. His enlightenment came when he decided to sit facing east under a Bo-tree until he “attained the supreme and absolute wisdom.”3

What did Buddha ultimately discover? He identified three main doctrines, the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.4  The Four Noble Truths are:

1.   There is suffering (Dukkha).

2.   Suffering is due to thirst or desire (Samudaya).

3.   To eliminate suffering, eliminate desire (Nirdoha) through Nirvana.

4.  To achieve Nirvana, follow the Eightfold Path.

The Eightfold Path consists of: Right Views (Buddha’s teachings), Right Thoughts (aspiration to purity and charity), Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Livelihood, Right Effort (avoid lapses and frailty), Right Mindfulness (awareness of the truth of the doctrine), and Right Concentration (spiritual exercises leading to awakening).

Here we find a beautiful and surprisingly comprehensive path to a meaningful life and the Greek notion of eudaimonia. For our purposes however, the first Noble Truth is the focal point. Next time we will explore its expanded form, followed by a commentary by a current Eastern authority, after which we will look at the impact of Buddha’s teachings, particularly that life is suffering, on Western philosophers.

 

1Stryk, Lucien (editor), World of the Buddha. Grove Press, New York, 1968. ISBN 0-8021-3095X, page 24.

2Ibid.

3Ibid, pages 36-37.

4Ibid, page xxxviii.

SUFFERING – THE OPPOSITE OF HAPPINESS?

“You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature, but perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering that you could have avoided.” – Franz Kafka.

 

Last time we ended on the scientific approaches to suffering touching briefly on psychology as the means to reduce mental suffering. Of course psychology has been migrating away from the mere treatment of mental disorders to the search for a positive science of mental well-being. Today we will look at one thesis in this area, that of understanding happiness by identifying its opposite and their relationship.

James Pawelski of the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania provides a scholarly account.1 First he points out that there are three types of opposites: (1) binary contradictory – such as male and female (one or the other), (2) continuum contradictory – such as light and dark (gradations of more of one and less of the other), and (3) subcontrary –such as pleasant and unpleasant (non-exclusive or concurrent, e.g. bittersweet)

He then points out how the prefix un- indicates opposites linguistically – for example affordable and unaffordable. Thus logically unhappiness is the presumptive opposite of happiness. This pairing has some features of a continuum contrary and some of subcontraries. It is our experience that the removal of unhappiness does not lead to joy but rather a neutral state, and psychologists find that there is at best a weak correlation between the increase in positive emotions and a reduction in negative emotions. Barbara Fredrickson has found it takes three positive emotions to overcome one negative emotion. Corey Keyes proposes that a complete state model of human mental health includes independent salutogenic and pathogenic scales. Pawleski concludes that subjective well-being requires a composite of high positive affect, low negative affect, and high life satisfaction. The implication is evident: two processes will lead to happiness –  an increase in positive states and conditions and a reduction in negative states and conditions.1

Pawelski also considers several philosophical approaches to the pursuit of happiness: Stoic, Epicurean, and the teaching of Epictetus and Boethius. The reader can review the last two posts for my discussion on such approaches. However, my immediate interest in Pawelski’s discussion is to consider whether the true opposite of happiness is not unhappiness, but suffering.  If joy, meaning, and flourishing make up eudaimonia, then dysdaimonia is misery, alienation, and languishing –something more than the bland feeling of dissatisfaction or unhappiness, much more akin to suffering. But like unhappiness the relationship of happiness and suffering is as subcontraries. Indeed suffering while regrettable is inevitable and can serve as a stimulus for happiness, growth, and meaning. Next time we will look at Buddhism where this opposite of happiness is the starting point for enlightenment.

1Pawelski, James O., Happiness and Its Opposites, in David, Susan A. et. al., The Oxford Handbook of Happiness. Oxford University Press, Oxford, U.K., 2014. ISBN 978-0-19-871462-0, pages 326-336.

SUFFERING – INTERPRETATIONS AND RESPONSES (CONT’D)

Last time we looked at the Hindu, Stoic, Epicurean, and Christian interpretations of and responses to suffering. Next we consider Existentialism which offers still another interpretation of suffering. In this philosophy where man defines himself, suffering is seen as one impediment to self-actualization. Friedrich Nietzsche criticizes the traditional responses to misery, guilt, and the fear of death as cultural deceptions and considers the Christian suggestion that suffering is the means to a sacred future as completely fraudulent. In its place he asserts “existence is considered sacred enough to justify even a tremendous amount of suffering…”2  By affirming even the harshest suffering, man achieves strength and deification in the only life he is allotted.

Karl Jaspers, who is an existentialist and theist, agrees to a large extent with Nietzsche. He views the inevitability of suffering, struggle, and death as ‘ultimate situations,’ and “Along with wonder and doubt, awareness of these ultimate situations is the most profound source of philosophy.”3 He rejects Stoicism which offers no consolation or opportunity for inner transformation and fulfillment. He also doubts the truth of redemption offered by Christianity and other religions. Instead he recommends the philosophical life of  (1) solitary meditation focused on self-reflection, transcendence, and selection of life tasks and (2) communication with men of mutual understanding. In this way the individual can find authenticity and participate in meaning.4

The last major approach to human suffering is the scientific. Physical suffering such as pain, illness, disease, and death are viewed objectively and fully understandable with an eye to identifying physical means to alleviate them through diagnosis and treatment with medications, therapeutic procedures, and compassion. Science also offers tremendous opportunities to relieve suffering of want such as hunger through technology. It is worth emphasizing that in the modern realm, the first effort must always be to ease all physical suffering possible before pursuing philosophical remedies.

Science however is less amenable to other forms of suffering especially the external and situational forms. Psychology, one of our younger sciences, seeks to alleviate internal suffering and has made some progress. Medications may lessen some mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and psychotic disorders. Psychotherapy and counseling have value in particular cases, but on the whole cannot cure grief, guilt, feelings of failure, alienation, loneliness, or rejection, and are especially limited with situational distress such as exposure to war, crime, disasters, and so on. We conclude that science and psychology are simply unable to eliminate all human suffering even as modernity adds new miseries for man.

We will dive a little deeper next time as we investigate one psychological construction of suffering as the opposite of happiness.

 

1Edwards, Paul (editor), The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. & The Free Press, 1972.   Volume 34, page 326.

2Kaufmann, Walter (editor), The Portable Neitzsche. Penguin Books, New York, NY, 1976. ISBN 978-0-14-0150629, page 459.

3Jaspers, Karl, Way to Wisdom. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1954. ISBN 0-300-00134-7, page 20.

4Ibid. pages 120-131.