For most people throughout history, the fundamental existential question is about suffering: why is it, and what does it mean?
The answer to the first question is obvious. Rocks don’t suffer, but people do. People suffer because they have desires, and many of those desires are embodied in interests–things whose possession makes life go well. I use the term ‘things’ loosely here. Our interests can be in material objects, but our strongest needs are for relationships with other human beings, for immaterial goods like friendship, love, power and honor. If we did not care about such things, we could not suffer their loss. Thus some philosophers, such as Heidegger, go so far as to define man as the careful being, the being whose fundamental relationship with the world is one of concern.
This insight provides several suggestions about how to answer the second question about the meaning of suffering. If suffering is caused by concern, then the value of suffering depends on the value of our concerns. Suppose (as materialists do) we learn that the world is not ultimately inherently valuable? Then suffering is both meaningless and irrational, since the cause of suffering is our penchant for seeing in the world something that isn’t there. The rational cure for suffering will be to eliminate unnecessary desire, to live, so far as possible, without concern. The Epicurean or Stoic sage who does this will have achieved ataraxia, untroubledness, though the world breaks against him. As Anaxagoras replied when he learned of the death of his son, “I knew my child was mortal.”
Suppose, on the other hand, you believe that the world is inherently valuable. Then suffering is both meaningful and rational, since it marks the lack or loss of some real good. What we need to determine in this case is what the good is, and whether it can be possessed by us. (The former is an ontological question, the latter a metaphysical one.) If you’re an atheist, the goods of this world are all there are, but they are difficult to possess: the world fights us for possession of her goods. The solution to suffering, then, as Francis Bacon argued, is the ‘rape of Nature,’ to force her to give up what she so selfishly prizes. We do this through power, through our technological mastery of the world. The solution to suffering is the utilitarian application of empirical science.
If one is a theist, however, the atheist has answered the ontological question poorly. For how could the creation be a greater good than its Creator, a Being who is, by definition, perfect? The source of suffering for the theist isn’t illusory desire (as it is for Lucretius or Marcus Aurelius), or miserly nature (as it is for the technologist), but loving lower goods that are incapable of satisfying our infinite desire in place of higher goods that are. Suffering, as Augustine saw, is a mark of disordered love:
Late have I loved you, O beauty so ancient and so new;
late have I loved you.For behold you were within me, and I outside;
and I sought you outside and in my ugliness fell
upon those lovely things that you have made.You were with me and I was not with you.I was kept from you by those things,yet had they not been in you,they would not have been at all.You called and cried to me and broke upon my deafness;
and you sent forth your light and shone upon me,
and chased away my blindness;You breathed fragrance upon me,
and I drew in my breath and do now pant for you:I tasted you and I now hunger and thirst for you;
you touched me, and I have burned for your peace.(Confessions X.27)
To borrow from another Augustinian, Søren Kierkegaard argued that “purity of heart is to will one thing,” God above all things. This is not to say that the world is bad. It is to say that the world’s goods can be a temptation to the purity of one’s love, as a rich woman’s wealth or beauty can be a temptation to a suitor who desires to love her well. The metaphysical question for the theist, then, is at bottom a moral question: how to be pleased and pained by real goods and real evils rather than their impostors.
False suffering is sin (it evinces disordered love), while sin is the occasion of true suffering. How to tell the difference? If only we had some guide, someone willing to descend into the darkness of sin and show us the way to truth. A suffering servant.
For this do we hope.