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.