Saturday, May 14, 2022

Nietzsche and Christ on suffering

Over and over we are taught in scripture and tradition that suffering is the lot not only of mankind in general, but of the Christian in particular.  Christ, the “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), is our model.  When he warned that he must suffer and die, “Peter took him and began to rebuke him, saying, ‘God forbid, Lord!  This shall never happen to you,’” which prompted Christ’s own famous rebuke in response:

But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan!  You are a hindrance to me; for you are not on the side of God, but of men.”  Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matthew 16:22-25)

St. Paul tells us that he repeatedly begged God to relieve him of some persistent source of torment:

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”… For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12: 9-10)

The lives not only of the martyrs, but of the saints more generally from the time of the early Church to the present, witness to suffering’s being the norm in the Christian life.  Pope St. John Paul II even spoke of a “Gospel of suffering” (a phrase also used by Kierkegaard), the message of which is that suffering redeems us and makes possible a particularly intimate union with Christ. 

Take up your cross

In the Christian understanding, then, suffering is, to borrow the software programmer’s phrase, a feature, not a bug.  It is not an inexplicable fact about the human condition, nor an embarrassment to Christian theology that the tradition would prefer to distract us from.  On the contrary, the tradition puts the reality of suffering front and center, and insists that it is an inevitable consequence of original and actual sin.  In an earlier post, I developed this theme, and argued that modern bafflement at the suffering that exists in the world is more a consequence of apostasy from Christianity than a cause of it.  It is largely an artifact of the softness and decadence of modern Western affluence.

That contemporary Christians have themselves been corrupted by this softness and decadence is evident from the way they deal with resistance to the Church’s hard teachings, especially on matters of sex.  They are keen to reassure our sex-obsessed society that sexual sins are not the worst sins.  This is like reassuring Bernie Madoff that fraud is not the worst of sins, or Watergate conspirators that perjury is not the worst of sins – it is true, but not exactly where the emphasis needs to be.  Sexual sins, while not the most serious, are still serious, for they are uniquely destructive of rationality and social order.  They are also very easy to fall into and can be very difficult to get out of, and as a result are extremely common (much more so than fraud and perjury, for example).  Their prevalence and intractability, and the widespread irrationality and social disorder that are their sequel, are on vivid display all around us.  Yet even most conservative churchmen and theologians would prefer to talk about almost anything else.  Why?

Naturally, cowardice is a factor.  But it is not just a matter of failing to do one’s duty on this or that particular uncomfortable occasion.  It is, I would argue, a more general unwillingness to face up to the unavoidability of suffering, or to require others to face up to it.  The litany of complaints about Christian sexual morality is familiar: But I’m in an unhappy marriage.  But I’m in love with someone else.  But it’s a habit I can’t break.  But I can’t help feeling this attraction.  But I was born this way.  But I’m frustrated and can’t find anyone to marry.  But I feel like I’m in the wrong body.  But I can’t handle a baby right now.  But, but, but.  You mean I cannot fulfill my desires?  You mean I have to suffer with these feelings, possibly for the rest of my life?

The traditional Christian answer would be: “Yes, that’s exactly right.  Take up your cross.”  But the modern Christian gets weak in the knees, changes the subject, and perhaps even feels guilty for having raised it in the first place.

Note that I am not saying that “Take up your cross” is all that need be said.  By no means should that be the last word.  But it must be the first word.  Modern Christians suppose otherwise because they confuse mercy with feeling sorry for someone.  These are not the same thing.  More precisely, though mercy typically does involve feeling sorry for someone, not everything that is done out of feeling sorry for someone amounts to mercy.

The quality of mercy

Mercy, as Aquinas teaches in Summa Theologiae II-II.30.3, is a virtue.  Now, a virtue is a mean between extremes, falling between a vice of excess and a vice of deficiency.  The vice of deficiency in this case would, of course, be mercilessness.  What would be the vice of excess where mercy is concerned? 

Aquinas notes that “mercy signifies grief for another's distress.  Now, this grief may denote, in one way, a movement of the sensitive appetite, in which case mercy is not a virtue but a passion.”  What he means is that sometimes what we have in mind when we speak of “mercy” is a kind of passion or feeling, namely a feeling of grief over the distress another person is experiencing.  This feeling is not itself the virtue of mercy.  Rather, it is typically associated with the virtue.  (Many feelings are like this.  For example, love is typically associated with feelings, but it is not itself a feeling.  Rather, it is the willing of what is good for someone.  That can exist even when the feelings are absent, and the feelings can exist when genuine love is absent.  There is a rough-and-ready correlation between a given virtue and certain feelings, but they must not be confused.)

When the feelings in question are governed by reason, then we have genuine mercy.  But Aquinas distinguishes genuine mercy from “the mercy which is a passion unregulated by reason: for thus it impedes the counselling of reason, by making it wander from justice” (emphasis added).  An example would be feeling so sorry for Bernie Madoff that one advocates letting him off scot-free, even if he is unrepentant. 

This would be what we might call a vice of sentimentality, which involves putting feelings in the driver’s seat where reason should be.  To be sure, because we are rational animals rather than angelic intellects, we need feelings to give us rough-and-ready everyday guidance.  When all goes well, they prompt us to do the right thing when reason is weak, or when there is no time to think through a problem.  Still, they are only ever a highly fallible assistant to reason, and, like all things human, can become distorted.  This is what happens when the feelings associated with mercy for a sinner become so strong that they lead us to ignore the fact that he is a sinner.  To be sure, genuine mercy does more than merely call for repentance and penance.  But it does not do less than that.  And it helps the sinner (as gently as possible) to accept the inevitability of the suffering that results, rather than pretending that it is avoidable, or simply changing the subject.

From Christ to antichrist and back again

That the acceptance of suffering is necessary to perfecting us is basic Christian moral wisdom, but at least to some extent it is even part of the natural law.  That is clear from the example of someone who in other respects couldn’t be further from the Christian view of things, namely Friedrich Nietzsche.  

Like Aquinas, Nietzsche distinguishes between two kinds of pity, and favors one while rejecting the other.  There is, Nietzsche says, a kind of pity which sees man in his lowly condition and seeks to ennoble him.  But there is another kind of pity which makes man smaller, and is born of sympathy with “those addicted to vice” and with the “grumbling” and “rebellious” elements of society more generally (Beyond Good and Evil 225, Kaufmann translation).  Under the influence of this false pity, Nietzsche says:

Everything that elevates an individual above the herd and intimidates the neighbor is henceforth called evil; and… the mediocrity of desires attains moral designations and honors.  Eventually, under very peaceful conditions, the opportunity and necessity for educating one’s feelings to severity and hardness is lacking more and more; and every severity, even in justice, begins to disturb the conscience. (201)

The inevitable result, Nietzsche argues, is collapse into a general licentiousness:

There is a point in the history of society when it becomes so pathologically soft and tender that among other things it sides even with those who harm it, criminals, and does this quite seriously and honestly.  Punishing somehow seems unfair to it, and it is certain that imagining “punishment” and “being supposed to punish” hurts it, arouses fear in it.  “Is it not enough to render him undangerous?  Why still punish?  Punishing itself is terrible.”  With this question, herd morality, the morality of timidity, draws its ultimate consequence. (201)

The hard truth, Nietzsche teaches, is that to achieve what is truly good for individuals and society requires the discipline of suffering, and that those who blind themselves to this are not the friends of mankind, but its enemies:

You want, if possible – and there is no more insane “if possible” – to abolish suffering.  And we? It really seems that we would rather have it higher and worse than ever.  Well-being as you understand it – that is no goal, that seems to us an end, a state that soon makes man ridiculous and contemptible – that makes his destruction desirable. 

The discipline of suffering, of great suffering – do you not know that only this discipline has created all enhancements of man so far? (225)

Similarly, in The Will to Power, he writes:

To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities – I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not – that one endures. (910, Kaufmann and Hollingdale translation)

It is ironic that a man who characterized himself as an “antichrist” should ape Christ’s call to take up the cross.  But it is not entirely surprising, for the enemies of the Faith typically mimic it in some respects, even as they reject it.  And Nietzsche’s embrace of suffering is certainly not identical with that of the Christian.  Nietzsche is an elitist who neither calls all men to excellence nor thinks all capable of it; Christ teaches that all are made in God’s image, calls all to repentance and holiness, and sacrifices his life for all (even if not all will accept this sacrifice).  For the strength needed to bear up under suffering, Nietzsche would look within; the Christian knows that it is possible only through grace.  The Nietzschean superman glorifies himself; the Christian glorifies God. 

But if Christians can love their enemies, they can learn from them too.  It is a sign of the diabolical disorder of our times that they need from one of their greatest enemies a reminder of the difference between true and false mercy, and of the suffering entailed by the former.

Related posts:

The “first world problem” of evil

Against candy-ass Christianity

Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part I: Nietzsche

57 comments:

  1. Interesting post Prof.Feser. I agree with the gist of it. But it does seem to generalise a bit. Like for example, at the public level as a preacher it is indeed important to emphasize and be clear about the seriousness of sexual morality. But as you get down to the personal level, it becomes more prudential, at that level there seems to be a proper time or place for everything, like if you go out for a movie with someone, it wouldn't be right to keep nagging them about their particular sin during the movie or dinner. It's also important to make distinctions, like for example there's a difference between someone who acknowledges they are struggling with a sin and someone who doesn't. In the case of someone who doesn't acknowledge their sin, it's important to make clear where you stand on the issue and your principles etc. In some cases, it might actually be helpful to help the person who is struggling with something to focus on other things as a distraction from their vice. Like take for example a person with gender dysphoria, while it's important to make your stand clear, it's also important to note that one of the key issues in this condition is that person is almost always obsessing with that aspect of their self. The current environment which also keeps obsessing with that aspect doesn't help with but keeps reinforcing that obsession and makes it central to one's identity. So while not encouraging anything wrong, it would also be helpful to help them focus on different aspects of themselves, people have so many different aspects to their personality with regards to food,art,sport,movies and other interests. It's important that these people realise that there is more to them than just that aspect with which they are confused and it's our job to help them realise that., That you are a person who likes baseball, likes to cook, loves music and there is more to you then the dysphoria, it doesn't have to be at the center of your life. However if one takes the opposite tack and keep telling that person, "You are a Boy,! "You are a Boy! etc! every single time you meet them, it reinforces the obsession with the issue and it just might just lead them to push you away and they will lose that healthy distraction and might succumb to the temptation of the culture to inflict surgery etc where they might have not, if you were there helping them to deal with that suffering by focusing on different aspects of themselves. Obviously if they come to you about it, you have to make your stance clear and not condone something. Or it may be prudent to clarify your position from the start so there are no wrong assumptions. Overall prudence is key.

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    1. Its often thrown around in arguments that there is too much "calling out" of peoples sin. Like as if we live in a society where people constantly are being confronted as to their sexual sin; In reality in the rare cases you've met someone who has even approached the level of frankness you describe in your comment, chances are they've already lost their job, receive death threats on the regular, are regarded as on the far right fringe, been doxed, and are basically considered as untouchable by anyone who knows them.

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  2. Years ago---the 1960s---my brother studied philosophy at a Midwest university. Conversation with him on the sufferings of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard led me to a realization on this::my own notions about their sufferings, along with those of Kafka, were not new. How we feel affects our temperament, as recently reiterated by Kevin Currie-knight. Nietzsche had bad health; Kafka was a hypochondriac and Kierkegaard was conflicted by faith. So, this is one reality concerning philosophers. And anyone else.

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  3. I agree that the aversion to suffering in the USA is pathological and at the root of many broader social issues. However, isn't part of the problem that, in our advanced technological age with plenty of surplus wealth, it is hard to distinguish between (a) suffering that is necessary and ultimately for our good, as in forms of various mundane self-denial, and (b) suffering ehich can and shluld be ameliorated by technological intervention? We don't want to make the error of weird cults who won't accept medical treatment on the theory that suffering from disease is an intended "good" suffering and the only acceptable way to treat/avoid it is divine intervention...right? Are we going to say that mass vaccinations, literacy campaigns, etc., which we call good because they diminish suffering are actually errors of modernity? I think that calling people to accept suffering is not very helpful without more - without the ethical content that tells us what is worth suffering for vs. what is suffering that it is ok to seek to avoid. Plus, our culture is fully willing to suffer for subpar goods like wealth, career, luxury consumption, infertile sex. The problem is bad catechesis/morals.

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    1. I took Ed as addressing suffering that accompanies the pursuit of some end/good natural to us, instead of downplaying it in order to alleviate those who may have difficulty in achieving those ends or at least not acting contrary to them.

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  4. Jesus did say, "Take up thy cross and come follow me." But crosses are not equally distributed. Some people carry a heavy cross throughout their lives. Some people carry multiple crosses. Some carry none at all. Suffering may be the lot of mankind, but suffering is not equally distributed. I've lived a long life and I have family members and friends who made it to their late 80s and early 90s virtually unscathed and passed peacefully in their sleep. Probably everyone knows people like that, either personally or from reading or hearing about them. Why is this so? It is part of the mystery of suffering.

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    1. Some carry none at all.

      While some have lesser and some greater, none get through life with NO crosses. At the very minimum, a person will have to contend with unruly passions and learn to control them by discipline, which entails the suffering of NOT giving in to those passions but resisting them. But more generally, nearly everyone has some illness or other (even if minor ones), and nearly everyone has some frustrated hopes that don't pan out, and absolutely everyone loves someone who is suffering.

      The mystery of why some suffer more and some less is the mystery of God's providential plan that we cannot fully fathom in this life. We will only know at the end.

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    2. I've lived a long life and I have family members and friends who made it to their late 80s and early 90s virtually unscathed and passed peacefully in their sleep

      We can pay now, or pay later.

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  5. It’s amazing how full-circle things come. Science abandons Aristotelian concepts like final causality, and then scientists like Dawkins popularize ideas like genetics being a sort-of “cause” for our behaviour and existence. Psychology abandons God (e.g. psychoanalysis like Freud), and then moves more towards towards like CBT (or similar) models as a way to treat certain anxiety or mood disorders. What do these therapies often involve? Facing the anxiety, accepting the anxiety (viz. rather than “getting rid” of it), and identifying certain cognitive errors to adapt more functional ways of thinking and behaving.
    What does “accepting your anxiety” sound like? Taking up your cross, and suffering gracefully.
    My point is simply that they’re not reinventing the wheel, in many areas. Many things confirm the perfect wisdom of Christ, the saints, and The Church.
    -Adam Fitzgerald
    (Can’t log into Google account for some reason; that’s why I’m “Anonymous”).

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  6. I am having to learn this lesson - not for myself - but for my children. My kids are starting to grow up. My oldest is 16. He is a good lad. And I am trying to raise him up to be a chaste and moral adult, with self control, mastery over his passions, and the ability to find a woman who is also similar in moral character. My instinct is to build high walls around them to keep them protected from the world. But I know that this is not preparing them for life outside of my home. And it also neglects the fact that the battle for moral self mastery is within his own heart. And the victory he has to win over his own self cannot be won without the grace of Christ. And that grace cannot be had cheaply. It comes by following him, taking up his cross, and following him.

    Its a little easier to see my sons carry their crosses and turn into men of character. I'm finding it somewhat harder to see my daughters do the same. Their crosses are different. What constitutes virtue and a strong moral character for a woman is different. And I feel less equipped to guide them. They also need self mastery and self control. I also hope to guide them to seek the company of others with similar virtues. And yet the culture around them is so full of self indulgence, moral laxity. And the very concept of womanhood is so tainted nowadays. Motherhood is denigrated. Self control and charity seem non existent.

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  7. 'The litany of complaints about Christian sexual morality is familiar: '

    There is an unintentionally revealing but important omission from Prof. Feser's list of sex-related complaints:
    'O.K. I grant you, the animal that I married provides me with shelter, security, food, clothing, status, a car, medical insurance, holidays and more spending money than I can use, but the brute seems to think that I ought to sleep with him once in a while. And this with our fifth wedding anniversary next month!'.

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  8. An honest question for those familiar with Nietzsche:
    Should human beings endure suffering for some noble goal, or for its own sake, i.e. as a virtue in and of itself? If the former, what purpose does it serve?

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    1. As i get the guy: suffering just is a inevitable part of life and if you want to accept life them you need to learn to accept it. Trying to abolish suffering is a way of negating reality. But it can have a good effect in that suffering can be a form of resistence that can be overcome, even if in accepting it, and so it can be a oportunity into having one will to power being greater.

      Why accept life? To Nietzsche, the normative is aways a human creation that reflects a person psycobiological configuration and nothing besides, so the idea that any constant like suffering, inequality etc is good or bad is just a reflection of a individual atitude. Perspectivism at work. This means that any move of judging suffering as bad is just the niihilist way of masking his insatisfaction on not having the capacity of taking it. The weakling them judges reality as a way of getting itself beyond it as a judge, "dominating" it on a hidden way.

      To Nietzsche, the higher person, instead of negating this or that aspect of life, can embrace it all and so "dominate" it in a way that the created values do not pretent that x or y is bad, but see existence positively as a oportunity that we make good use of or not. The higher person then has the courage to say "if it is good or not to live it depends on me, and i will make my life good".

      So there is a kinda of purpose to the atheist: accepting suffering is part of accepting life, of having a life worth living.

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    2. Talmid,

      That's my impression of Nietzsche as well.

      What is unclear to me is why, for Nietzsche, embracing suffering is "higher" than eliminating/avoiding it? It is personal, i.e., because he himself cannot do the latter, or is there some standard of nobility implicit in his assertion?

      If life is to be accepted as is, why shouldn't the individual also be accepted as is? Why should the person who wish to avoid/eliminate suffering be regarded as a "weakling"?

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    3. @Nemo

      I guess that it is a combination of:

      1. Eliminating suffering is just not possible, men and their technology will not create a utopia. The desire for it can't come from reason.

      2. The nature of the world is conflict, battle, will to power, so losers and suffering are part of the deal. The winners fight, put a lot of effort and win, becoming stronger as a result. Seeing how ethics are just a reflection of a individual psycology, the condemnation of the process can only come from the loser side, the one who can't win normally so needs to call the whole thing bullshit in order to feel like a winner.

      So to Nietzsche accepting suffering and struggle is a nobler act because it come from nobler persons, really. Condemning suffering is a loser perspective because it come from losers. The guys asks: what sense it makes to assert that a aspect of reality is bad? None, so it does not have a rational origin.

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    4. Talmid wrote, "1. Eliminating suffering is just not possible, men and their technology will not create a utopia. The desire for it can't come from reason."

      I doubt Nietzsche would argue "from reason" though. After all, he identifies himself with Dionysus, not Apollo.

      Granted that suffering cannot be eliminated for all people at all times, why is it unreasonable to eliminate it wherever and whenever possible?

      2. The nature of the world is conflict, battle, will to power, so losers and suffering are part of the deal.

      If the nature of the world is battle, isn't it a noble enterprise to battle against suffering, as opposed to battle against your fellow human beings? If anyone is unable or unwilling to battle against suffering, isn't he a loser too?

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    5. @Nemo

      Having to defend Nietzsche is aways weird! XD

      "I doubt Nietzsche would argue "from reason" though. After all, he identifies himself with Dionysus, not Apollo."

      I used the word more to make the case that he thinks that the problem people have with suffering is mostly emotional. But while he was not a rationalist* Nietzche do argue for his positions sometimes.

      "Granted that suffering cannot be eliminated for all people at all times, why is it unreasonable to eliminate it wherever and whenever possible?"

      Nietzsche thinks that to have a healthy society, with a good culture and all that, there is the necessity that most people labor more so a higher class can use its time to create art, beaulty etc(see The Greek State) and that the invalids and inferiors should perish so no resources are wasted on they. Both these together entail that opression and a general indiference to suffering are a thing. As you noticed in a review of one of his books, this is a bit similar to Plato Republic second model of the ideal city.

      The idea that suffering is bad and should be combated will weaken the support for these two necessities that society has and so make society waste his higher men in pratical affairs and waste resources in worthless people, as i think that he does make clear on The Greek State. While the idea of everyone having value is good for the chandala, it is very bad to the society in general.

      "If the nature of the world is battle, isn't it a noble enterprise to battle against suffering, as opposed to battle against your fellow human beings? If anyone is unable or unwilling to battle against suffering, isn't he a loser too?"

      The higher men do combat suffering in that they give it a meaning, they put themselves above suffering and say that is what they feel it is. The higher men see that the inevitable is there and accept it smiling, knowing that it can't win against they.

      Trying to combat every suffering, by contrast, come by a defeater atitude that does not want to accept one place, so tries to tear the hierarchy all down. Remember that to our boy Fred ideas are never neutral, the weakling ideas are aways tainted by their creators inferiority. To Nietzsche, the genetical fallacy is not a fallacy but a method.

      And remember that by "battling" other people Nietzsche does not necessarily means opression, even if he has no problem with that. His model of the higher person is a solitary artist like Beethoven that influences everyone, that create his own values and ends up "imposing" they on people. more like a melancholic than a choleric.

      *when talking pessimism i actually argue that the intuitive one is Schopenhauer, but this is another theme

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    6. Talmid wrote, "Having to defend Nietzsche is aways weird! XD"

      Ironically, for a Christian to defend Nietzsche is to be anti-Nietzshe, that is, to realize the worth of the seemingly worthless.

      I'm reminded of the famous hot air balloon problem: Imagine a large hot hair balloon with one representative from every class of society, a merchant, a farmer, an artist, a scientist, etc., and imagine that one of them must be thrown overboard to lighten the load and prevent the balloon from crashing, whom would you throw overboard?

      I suspect answers to the problem would vary, depending on the person's idea of (self) worth. Nietzsche would keep the artist, because he relates to the suffering artist the most. His idea of "healthy society" is also a reflection of his own psychological makeup, just as a horse, if given a choice, would prefer the country of Houyhnhnms.

      In the famous words of his favourite psychologist, ""If God does not exist, then everything is permitted". Why should one's notion of ideal society trump another's?

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    7. @Nemo

      That is exactly were Fred or any other post-modernist ideas just can't work anymore: he insists that there is no privileged perspective that is more that a individual view of the world while acting like his perspective is universal*. Nietzsche does argues for other perspectives like the christian or the socialist ones being unnatural, destructive to the individual and the society and untrue while defending that no one should be capable of arguing for that. While he would insist that somethings are just clear while talk of a Truth has no basis on our experience, this is now how things work.

      The whole notion of a certain culture being healthier than another is a way of crushing the guy whole system, as i think that is defended well here, for instance: https://appliedvirtue.substack.com/p/the-reality-of-goodness-and-beauty?s=r

      One could argue that Niezsche just wants to be persuasive and that he does not care about being "right", he is just doing what he wants for getting the changes he wants, but lets face it: he acts like a normal philosopher sometimes because he does think that his opponents are mistaken.

      Gomes Davilla aphorism about how Plato ressurrects on any reactionary is true even in a atheist like Nietzsche. Beyond all this defense of the sophist worldview there is a belief in truth just acting in the shadows, if we may say that.

      Also:

      "Ironically, for a Christian to defend Nietzsche is to be anti-Nietzshe, that is, to realize the worth of the seemingly worthless."

      Good point as well!

      *i would argue that the modern distinction between scientific knowledge(incontestable) and non-scientific domains(opinion) is just as fragile, but this is for another day

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  9. St. Augustine was driven by sexual desire, and famously said, "Lord, make me chaste but not yet." He was eventually converted by the unceasing prayers of his mother, St Monica, and later when he heard a voice in a garden telling him to, "Take up and read." He saw a Bible, opened it, and read Romans 13:13, where St Paul urged Christians to reject immorality.

    Most people do not have a mother like St. Monica, and most people do not hear a voice telling them to "Take up and read." We do have recourse to the sacraments, but nevertheless, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church states in Section 2342:
    " Self-mastery is a long and exacting work. One can never consider it acquired once and for all. It presupposes renewed effort at all stages of life."
    My mother will not be canonized a saint, but she was a saintly mother. Self-mastery for me took decades, because like Augustine, I wanted to be chaste, but yet. For some people it is a lifetime struggle. The Catholic writer, Graham Greene, ("The End of the Affair") struggled with Catholic morality and his sexuality throughout his life. Frank Sinatra, the singer/actor, was a notorious libertine, but toward the end of his life he became an usher at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Beverly Hills and received the Anointing of the Sick from Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles. Self-mastery can indeed be a "long and exacting work."

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  10. Deacon Robert V. ThomannMay 17, 2022 at 1:35 PM

    It is with a certain sadness that I must say that this post has missed one of the most central points of the Christian message: human nature on its own cannot accept the Cross. Much is said in this post, some appears rather diversionary, e.g., sex, mercy, so that the central thrust of the glory of the Cross of Christ is obscured. Therefore, to simply say to a deeply suffering person that they must “Take up your cross”, accept it, bear and carry it can be, unintentionally, deceiving. It is simply impossible for human nature to accept the Cross. In fact, the entire human worldly culture is built to avoid the Cross and its associated fear.
    Christ’s mission was to free us from the fear of death (He 2:15), the death associated with suffering, a mission that is accomplished in the measure that our human nature is bonded to and united to the Divine nature of Christ. Only through the reception of the grace of God in faith can this asymptotic oneness with Christ’s nature have the hope of not only accepting the Cross of our lives but embracing that Cross, indeed even welcoming it, even moving toward it, as Christ did.
    This is the radical Christian message that the Being of the World (Balthasar) refuses to accept. To rejoice in the suffering of the Cross is impossible for the human who seeks to continue to live their life centered on a self-centered strength of Cross-avoidance only to be crushed in front of the suffering of the Cross. But a Cross embraced and kissed with the nature of Christ is the Cross that is the essential means to eternal life, to freedom from fear of death, to Resurrection.

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    1. Did you actually read the post (as opposed to quickly skimming it)? I explicitly said that "Take up your cross" should by no means be all that is said to a suffering person, and that only by grace (rather than unaided human nature) can we accept the call to take it up.

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  11. I see this common rejection of the unavoidability of suffering, even among teachers in the Church, yes bishops and theologians, who foolishly teach so as to seem to say that the poor would cease to suffer if only the rich would give up their wealth and share equally with all. This fails on numerous accounts, but (just to pick two of them) (1) the rich themselves cannot avoid suffering, so how could sharing out the wealth make it that the rest would avoid suffering; and (2) the current amount of wealth you have (whether you are rich or poor) has little to do with whether you desire to have (a) more than you have, or (b) more than you can morally or legally obtain, (for greed is part of the picture of fallen humanity), and this desire will be a cause of pain. Both the poor and the rich can desire wrongly.

    Finally, even if all goods were voluntarily and lovingly shared out to produce near-perfect equality of possessions, that would still not create equality of outcomes because some people will be struck down with illness early and some late. And, no matter how rich a person is, he is going to have to suffer death in order to get out of this life and into the next, and it is by God's providence that we will come to that moment of death in order to live again in the next life. We can embrace it or reject it, but we cannot avoid it. The 'gospel of equality' cannot undo that.

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    1. The Bible clearly teaches that poverty can be eliminated from any society.

      "However, there need be no poor people among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as your inheritance, he will richly bless you." (Deuteronomy 15:4)

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    2. I think the issue with your reasoning is the difference in types of suffering I described in my post above. I think (?) everyone agrees that some forms of suffering are of the kind which it is good and right to ameliorate through technological intervention, seen most clearly in the example of diseases and pestilence. Catholics would rightly think it foolish to refuse to support medical advancements and particular treatments on the grounds that doing so would deprive people of beneficial suffering (even if that suffering would have some benefits - punishment for sins, purification of character, and so on). This category of suffering probably extends beyond those amenable to "technological" interventions to those that can be ameliorated through political/policy/community interventions. To the leftist (and many distributists and so on who are not Marxists in any sense), much of our society's poverty is just this kind of suffering which could and should be ameliorated through the interventions available to us. I do not think most leftists actually hold the view that all suffering would be cured through wealth transfer, just as not all suffering is cured through antibiotics and cancer treatments; rather, they are arguing that we can and should intervene to relieve people of their poverty as the Church has always taught. The real criticisms of lefty wealth redistributists is in the methods, not the goal of alleviating poverty, right?

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    3. @infinite growth... You say that "The Bible clearly teaches that poverty can be eliminated from any society." But the scripture you cite is addressed to the People of Israel, chosen by God from among the nations, not " any society".

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    4. @Infinite Growth: The same passage that refers to "there need be no poor people among you" goes on to say "if anyone is poor among you" and so on. Further, all must deal with the poverty implied by illness, in particular that illness that will kill in old age if some accidental injury does not take us earlier. (For, as we can manifestly see from the advances in medicine in the last 200 years, a very great many of the illnesses that killed people in past eras are curable, and in theory a great many that kill us today will also be curable in the future. Hence, had we but more resources (including inventions) we might have survived these.) God does not suggest that all men might escape physical death if only we follow his plan.

      @ScottD, I agree that we should be prepared to think about the difference between those sufferings which are themselves perfective of us, and those which are destructive of our physical welfare (even if we can benefit spiritually from them): e.g. the wholesome discipline of strong exercise versus excess work that wears down the body (and mind). Yet even in the former category, I suggest that the suffering entailed in the discipline of such hard effort is not "natural" to us absolutely speaking, but is natural in the qualified sense that it belongs to us GIVEN original sin (and personal sin): now that we have lost Original Justice and the preternatural graces, needed and wholesome activity that is physically demanding is unpleasant and superficially unwelcome - i.e. entails suffering - but originally man would have taken delight in the physical activities that produce optimum health and strength, and those activities would produce sweat and tiredness, but not distaste or suffering. Even more, men would not have needed to undertake activities meant to overcome the moral and spiritual defects of concupiscence, so there would have been no need for the unpleasantness of purely disciplinary acts of self-limitations (like giving up sweets for Lent); those acts intellectually discerned to be well-advised for developing moral strength would be desirable and enjoyed, not suffered. It is because of sin that we have lost the preternatural gifts such as freedom from concupiscence and need to undergo the suffering of such discipline. Thus it is unnatural in one sense, while natural given the condition of sin.

      I also agree that we should think it foolish to refuse to support innovation to develop better techniques to alleviate suffering, and that this covers both technology and better social platforms for delivering aid to everyone. I do not claim that all leftists actually think we could alleviate all suffering if we did have better distribution of available resources, but sometimes they speak as if that is their position. My central point is that EVEN IF we had morally and physically perfect distribution of all resources, people would still die, and (under God's Providence) would die at various ages from various causes producing different kinds of suffering, and so there will be unequal suffering no matter what. As a result, the notion of a theoretically "perfect" distribution of goods (to achieve absolutely equal outcomes) is basically wrong-headed, and we should be instead prepared to embrace such suffering as cannot be REASONABLY removed. This is implied in the Christian embracing the cross; the wisdom to know whether x suffering in the concrete can be reasonably removed is a prudential judgment that sometimes is known by the individual sufferer within his own condition, sometimes by societal constructs, and (broadly) by a confluence of internal and external factors.

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    5. The real criticisms of lefty wealth redistributists is in the methods, not the goal of alleviating poverty, right?

      To extend my comments above, Scott, while this is true in a sense, it is also not sufficient: it's not just the methods but also the EXTENT of the goal of equalizing. We should not only want but ACT for everyone's good, and "love your neighbor as yourself" implies desiring your neighbor's good as much as you desire your own. But even so, there are LIMITS to how far we can reasonably act to create equal distribution: if I was the first to invent a piano, say in 1500, I would be a (moral) idiot if I then spent enormous effort moving said piano all around the world making sure everyone on Earth had equal time to play it: 15 seconds each. The person on the top of a mountain in the Alps would tell me "I would just as soon you had brought me some shoes, you know - I don't have much use for 15 seconds playing that thing." There will not always be a viable, rational way of sharing out one specific good so that everyone can get equal use of it. What we can do, instead, is try to share out many goods so that we have opportunities for those goods which each of us might prefer - and that is, as such, a free market. (And no, a free market alone cannot produce a just and benevolent society). Because of how natural goods are distributed by nature (haphazardly, not evenly) and how invented goods will necessarily start out concentrated, there WILL be uneven distribution even in a perfect society, and it would necessarily take time to even out. And some would die before "their share" got to them - including (sometimes) medical goods that would have saved their lives. Thus good moral order implies accepting that unequal distribution may mean I will, by God's Providence, suffer some ill effects even though it is, in theory, preventable. Not ALL evils that are, individually, preventable can be ACTUALLY prevented.

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    6. Tony - great responses. Thanks. I especially agree that equality is a terrible end in itself and distorts a lot of moral reasoning.

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  12. Replies
    1. It is literally true. But screw it, he, Schopenhauer and Sartre/Beauvoir are to me the deepest atheist thinkers there are. Even if their views are on the "yea, the world is not like this" camp, they are very interesting to hear from.

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    2. @Talmid

      "Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Whoever does not have two-thirds of his day for himself, is a slave, whatever he may be: a statesman, a businessman, an official, or a scholar." - Freidrich Nietzsche

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    3. Seeing the strange uses of the word "freedom" on our modern economy, i admit that i can't help but see Nietzsche remark here as interesting, IG.

      Of course, his views in slavery are not the best...

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    4. @Talmid
      Which books would you recommend to start with for each of these philosophers you mentioned? (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, and Beauvoir).
      (One or 2 books from each of them, if you don't mind).

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    5. @Michael

      Oh boy, i admit that i read few books on thinkers! My usual way of proceding is reading academic articles on certain themes of they plus more informal articles and places like Stanford Encyclopedia. This for them reading the guys directly. It works to me but it sucks on helping people.

      The one where i can easily recomend a book is Sartre because he already writed a introduction to himself: Existentialism is a Humanism. It is quite a good little book and, being actually a lecture, is easy to understand. I think that Beauvoir Ethics of Ambiguity would be a good take on her unique way of doing existentialism, but i think that reading Sartre first would help.

      About the other two thinkers, hard to say. These two i took a year or too reading a thing here and there about they. I'am reading Niezsche works* but only after reading a lot of other things on him. I would say that something like Sebastian Gardner book Kant and the Critique of Pure Reason is very useful because both these thinkers begin with Kant and the way he changed epistemology

      Once you understand Kant, Schopenhauer is quite easy to get. Niezsche not do much,but it helps.

      If anyone could be more direct, with a list and all that, it would help, i admit that i need to read more books.

      *at a snail speed, but i'am

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  13. I like Tony's approach and insights. It mirrors thoughts I have shared with associates and friends---even when they told me I am full of baloney. Pretty much shoots Utilitarianism in the foot, seems to me.

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  14. There seems to be a disconnect here among things I and others have written about suffering. My remarks have not questioned suffering as a theological requisite of believers, under tenets of faith. Indeed, my only intent was to support what I and others have posited regarding how philosophers write---what they claim as their views, based on their own temperment(s). Mr. Currie-Knight had said something like this in an essay. The originator of this blog appeared to attack me, for something I never said. So, goodbye. And good luck to all. I have better fish to fry.

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    1. The originator of this blog appeared to attack me, for something I never said.

      ??? I haven't commented at all on anything you've written.

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  15. . I often reflect on the old admonition that our difficulties are "the necessary condition of our improvement".
    . While we cannot understand the seeming random distribution of trials among our fellows, I take solace in knowing that Providence assists in fitting the hair shirt that each must don.

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  16. I prefer the views of the Stoics with their indifference towards the positive and negative aspects of life. The only aspect of life under your absolute control is your character. Everything else ought be a matter of indifference. As we say: Amor fati! and Memento Mori!

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    1. The only aspect of life under your absolute control is your character.

      Not really. People with severe personality disorders (narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, etc...) can't ever change. So your character is outside of your control too. If you could choose your personality, character, and personality type, then Stoicism would be the correct, theory-of-everything philosophy and nobody would bother making up religions.

      The only thing under your absolute control is whether you pray.

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    2. Why do you say that people with personality disorders can't change? These conditions are treated all the time. (I'm in the mental health field.) Schizophrenia is indeed a psychotic illness (not a personality disorder) but even there, most schizophrenics have some choice, for instance, whether to take their medication. True, people with personality disorders have a harder time changing, but change they can. Otherwise, we wouldn't bother treating them. In fact, I would argue that borderlines and the like are even more in need of an ethical code to give them a healthy goal to aspire to. People with personality disorders grapple with distorted thinking but still are able to focus, contemplate, aspire and, ultimately, change.

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    3. Why do you say that people with personality disorders can't change?

      Because I was told by several world-class experts that I'm a freak and am incapable of either logical thinking or developing a real personality no matter how much effort or time I put into it.

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    4. People with severe personality disorders (narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, etc...) can't ever change.

      Even if those "world-class experts" were right about the current state of medical fields, they are not right about the principle of the matter: First, because those are disorders, God can correct them or alleviate them; and second, in the future possibly medical advances will make them amenable to treatment.

      In any case, I think it somewhat implausible that these experts would have been right that in the current state of medicine, nothing can be done to improve the state of someone with narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, etc, i.e. that their condition cannot even be ameliorated. I recall a man whose eyesight was damaged at infancy by retina problems, and in 6th grade his parents were told (by a leading specialist) he could never go to college, and was advised to enter him into a special school whose main design was to make such children accept their fate. Not only did he go to college, and graduate, he then went on to found a successful new college with 6 other men.

      My point is not that I know better than the specialists - I am not an expert. It is that there are sometimes pathways they didn't take into account in their (very broad) pronouncements.

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    5. Infinite- You were greatly disserviced by people who told you that. You are here and your in the discussion. You are capable of logic. I'm sorry you were called a "freak." You have an illness which is not your fault and is treatable. It is not easy and it is a long process but you can do it. I'd be happy to suggest resources if you want.

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    6. A person with a personality disorder is not a psychotic. A person with hallucinations will have a nearly impossible time, absent medication, (and even sometimes with it) pursuing virtue. A person with a pd is capable of seeing the truth but the truth is harder to follow because of very strong ( to put it mildly) emotions.

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    7. I'd be happy to suggest resources if you want.

      Sure thing.

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  17. It is quite beautiful that by baptism the christian becomes, in a way, a little Christ, a member of His Mystical Body and so he is also called to accept his suffering and not only that but see it as a instrument of redemption and sacrifice that pleases the Father. Truly them the baptized, even laity, becomes a royal priesthood that can aways give sacrifices!

    It is very, very dificult to actually do it daily but it is quite the oportunity, no? A shame that Niezsche burgeous lutheranism of his youth never showed him this.

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  18. Infinite
    I have struggled with chronic depression and anxiety for most of my life. Spent a fortune on therapy that really did nothing. Medications had unpleasant side effects. Personality disorders are extremely difficult to treat. You would really need to see a top rated psychiatrist for the best treatment.

    Pray to God for his help, even if you don't believe in God. My niece is a cloistered nun. She once told me God has a special love for the mentally ill. Someday you will be made whole again. If not in this world, then in the next.

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    1. Thank you for this. I will pray.

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    2. And I promise I will pray for you.

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    3. That is a nice exchange. I will pray too.

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  19. As someone who has struggled (and still does) with excess concern for suffering and sometimes self-pity, Nietzsche has helped me to gain a healthier, more resilient outlook on this. As a Christian, I generally reject his outlook as whole, but there are bits that I agree with and that turned out to be even personally helpful. Even his severe critique of Christianity has ironically only made my faith more authentic and deeper, in the sense that I have gained some insight and avoided some easy crutches and answers by "working" through his critique. I am not really sure that was his intended purpose, but that's how it worked out for me.

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    1. I have a similar relation with Nietzsche. His thought is very helpful in perceiving some ways that vices can mask themselves as virtues on a christian life and on taking serious the, if this is the right word, harsh demands that this path makes. He also invite us to take worldviews more serious, it sure matters what you believe.

      This was by no means his objective, but i doubt that the guy would apreciate we never questioning a dead guy thought just because he is respected, so in a way we are doing what he wanted us to do.

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  20. A very interesting and relevant philosophical connection between Christian ethics and its enemy Nieztsche. Speaking from experience the idea of bearing your suffering rather than hoping to have its type eliminated via grossly naive political action is almost nonexistent in todays discussions.

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