The End of Suffering: Who’s Right: Ancients, Moderns, or Christians?

Before our present day, until even a generation ago, human beings generally seemed to accept suffering as a natural part of life. People cried coming into the world, cried living in it, and cried leaving it. But all of these tears were not thought incompatible with joy and an appreciation of life. They may even have been thought necessary. From time beyond memory, generation after generation, common folk ground their bodies into dust, struggling most immediately in the hope simply of leaving things a little better for their children. Against this pervasive, almost unnoticed acceptance of suffering, our present generation clings to the fervent belief that human agency can eradicate regret, pain, poverty, and all of the various forms of human grief.

In the last few generations, our intellectual and political elite has dedicated itself, not merely to the alleviation, but to the final eradication of human suffering with an altruistic fervor and overweening ambition unparalleled in the frequently dismal course of human history. The results have been decidedly mixed. Indeed, many attempts to end suffering have caused a great deal of pain. Each new advance in medical technology seems to bring us closer to a black market in still warm human body parts. Repugnance at institutional oppression abandons the elderly on the street, like unwanted pets, and care for the young consigns them to the zoos of the foster care system. Honest attempts at international relief are perverted into tyrannical exercises in population control, with peoples being herded across Africa like so many cattle. Promethean aspirations to restructure and rationalize societies have resulted in the gross exterminations of whole populations, as in Cambodia and Ukraine. Obviously, there is something wrong with the translation of our good intentions into practice.

Even successful analgesia exacts a cost. In the attempt to eliminate our own misery, we in the comfortable West have grown increasingly, pathologically soft and sensitive to the slightest annoyances. Think of our peevishness about smoking, our anxiety about additives and cholesterol, and our self-righteous indignation about possible violations of our “rights.” With a gruesome seriousness, we seek to satisfy every appetite and fear the effects of “repression.” Most humiliating of all, we place such nervous trust in our doctors. Our doctors will, someday, find for us the secret of immortality. For now, we depend upon them to keep life painless and to provide a painless passing, if necessary. We endure living only when it is not too much trouble. For many couples, children, being entirely too much trouble, are entirely out of the question. Parents save them from the trouble of living in the handiest possible ways.

How did we come to be so fretful? Why has the alleviation of the pains of life become so joyless? Look at the records of our forefathers two-, four-, eight-hundred years ago: filthy, cold, lice-ridden, teeth rotting without the aid of a dentist and children dying without recourse to antibiotics. Yet in the words of Lincoln, Swift, Shakespeare, More, Jonson, we find a calm, sometimes melancholic, sometimes amused, yet always grateful love of life. Kings’ and bishops’ lives lacked the comforts we think necessary, and yet, to discipline the flesh, they dressed in horsehair and slept on the cold ground. How did we come to be so soft, so small, so pathetic? Was the endeavor to eradicate human suffering a self-defeating one?

The Modern Project

Modern times, the modern West, began slowly in the fourteenth century with a kind of political and philosophic subversion of what was once known as Christendom, especially the pious acceptance of sorrow. By the seventeenth century, the modern project was sufficiently confident to become increasingly explicit. The intellectual air became laden with the scent of technological activism, “man’s seizing control of his own fate.” Modern secular humanism sought and still seeks (in the words of Francis Bacon) “the relief of the estate of man” by enlisting science and political organization in the search for a comfortable self-preservation.

Of course, human beings had always been tool-makers and innovators, but previously technology dedicated to man (like the waterwheel) had eased the life of many dedicated to God. The highest expressions of human art (like architecture) were enlisted directly in His praise. In short, prior to the modern age, technology was assumed subordinate to man’s moral purpose, and any technological innovation was suspected of both distracting man from his divine duties and feeding his vanity. All technology was understood to be two-edged, and so it was thought necessary that innovation be morally and politically contained.

Modernity, however, introduced a faith in the necessary goodness of technical innovation, the faith that technological progress will necessarily result in human happiness. The fathers of the so-called “Renaissance” and “Enlightenment” — Machiavelli, Montaigne, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, and others — all were confident that, freed from piety and the machinations of clerics, human life could be fundamentally transformed through technological progress.

But they nevertheless took for granted several unacknowledged premises of the Christian world to which they were opposed. They took for granted that the world is orderly and its causes intelligible, that human understanding has stewardship (or even ownership) over this world, that men could exist as “mankind” and not merely as irreconcilable tribes. Most importantly, the proponents of modern humanism believed that death need not always foreclose on human happiness. They rejected the “slavish” Christian acceptance and supposed conquest of death, and they believed, with Hobbes, that men made materially prosperous would become more or less reconciled to death; or they believed, with Descartes, that the development of medical technique could render this life practically immortal. Today, both in our material hedonism and in our health hysteria, we are living the consequences of the attempt to become “masters of our own fate.”

In its origins, and even today, peculiarly modern humanism is an elite movement. It is now well understood that the talents necessary for technological progress are the preserve of the few, even when those talents are enlisted in the service of the many. And it was understood, at least initially, that only the brave few could free themselves from the priest-ridden superstitions of the many.

In the old days of Greece and Rome, before men were taught to fear the judgments of an Almighty God, men did stand tall, without all of the genuflecting, bead-rattling, and alms-giving. Mankind celebrated human strength and beauty, without always worrying about “sin.” To be sure, ancient heroism also entailed a sense of the tragedy of human existence. In the classical vision, human nobility will always be subjected to and finally crushed by forces beyond human understanding or control. But, the early moderns contended, that ancient sense of tragedy arose from the poverty of classical science. Because the classical world did not understand the natural causes of things, it felt human existence to be buffeted by unseen and unsympathetic demons and divinities. Only the liberation of science and technology — and the consequent freeing of politics from the images of a glowering Father-God — could supply mankind with an understanding of the natural causes of things and enable man finally to be at home in the world, the master of his own fate.

Ancients vs. Moderns

The early moderns, then, agreed only in part with the understanding of the ancients. They agreed with the ancients that mankind was without allies in the cosmos, but they disagreed with the idea that there were demons and that, being isolated, man’s condition was hopeless. In the tragic, classical world, hubris — overweening pride and divine ambition — was understood to veil from man his puny animality and mortality, so that the exercise of his beautiful strength inevitably drew him towards his own destruction. Yet the modern revolutionaries were confident that the science of natural causes would entail the mastery of human nature. Natural political science would give human beings the technology for controlling their own behavior and thus eradicate not merely the suffering resulting from physical causes, but also the suffering brought about by the human will.

For their part, Christians agreed with the ancients that man naturally aspires to a fulfillment which his natural powers are incapable of attaining. Further, in the notion of original sin, Christians made yet more explicit the source of human sorrow: human misery is a result of ignorance only in a derivative sense; insofar as human beings wish to usurp divine prerogatives in the conduct of their lives, they find themselves continually, profoundly disappointed by the limitations of their existence.

For both the Christian and the ancient, the misery inherent in the human condition cannot be relieved by any technical mastery or modification of human behavior, be-cause that misery is the consequence of the moral order of the soul. Both Christian saint and ancient philosopher speak of the need for conversion, the turning of the whole soul away from the pursuit of petty glories and towards the contemplation of that higher order of being which is the source of its own existence. For both, any modification of behavior, whether caused by government or psychologist, would be irrelevant in the alleviation of the misery that is the consequence of the human ambition to mastery over the human condition. For example, the very modern Kant might suppose that the vicious would abide by the rules of civil justice if only they were taught to be prudent, but both the Christian and the ancient will object, however, that the vicious would still live the misery of being vicious.

Stepping back from the secular debate between ancient, Christian, and modern, it becomes apparent that there is no essential disagreement between the Christian and the ancient regarding the natural condition of man. They differ on whether there is a supernatural solution to man’s natural tragedy. And that is a dispute which both parties agree cannot be settled by means of man’s unaided, natural reason. On the other hand, the modern disagrees with both, precisely because of his assumption that human happiness is a consequence of material circumstances — or rather, the technical mastery of those circumstances. This is a disagreement concerning man’s natural condition, an issue which can be addressed by unaided human reason. At issue is whether suffering is merely an accident of life, correctable by art, or a necessary consequence of human nature and unavoidable in any possible human life, however happy.

The Ages of Man

With the coming of the Christian revolution, the pagan world did, for the most part, “vote with its feet,” converting en masse to the new faith. But modernity, for its part, came less as a revolution and more as a subversion of Christian culture. Both its self-conscious proponents (the new philosophers) and its dupes (“reformed Christians”) presented the new, mechanical humanism as striving for the very same worldly goals for which Christians themselves strive. Christ had said, Feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and care for the sick, and the liberation of technology promised to do just that. Indeed, in the West, it has been only since World War I that this secular humanism has felt itself to be in a sufficiently commanding position to declare its opposition to its more pious host.

Yet not surprisingly, though Christendom endured for a millennium, the modern movement has begun to lose its vigor almost as soon as it has come of age. For one thing, now in a commanding position, it no longer hides its essential self-serving elitism. In the words of the contemporary Jewish Platonist, Leo Strauss, it is now plain that “the increase of man’s power over nature means little more than an increase in the power of some men over other men.” And however much we may all be grateful for the blessing of antibiotics, it is not clear that we should trust technologically adept but culturally barbarous physicians with decisions concerning the “quality of life.”

More fundamentally, modernity seems simply to have underestimated the human hunger for the transcendent. The liberation of technology required that people consent to be ruled by grey eminences in pinstripes and lab coats, all for the sake of comfort. The assumption was that, made comfortable, people would lose their love of vestments. But the domination of rational technologism is now in question. A Fourth Age, the “New Age,” may be peeking over the horizon. The time may be fast upon us when, like the sorcerer’s apprentice, humanistic scientists scurry back to the Christian clerics to save them from the demons they have unleashed. If unbridled technology has not lived up to its promise to eradicate human suffering, the people of what was once Christendom must reconsider the unconditional trust placed in the promises of technologists.

In fact, it is not clear that humanistic modernity deserves all the credit for the technological advances of the past three centuries, so much as it deserves blame for flattery. Man has been a tool-maker and technology has been accumulating since the Stone Age without men thinking themselves divine. In antiquity, Sophocles said that there is “nothing more marvelous than man” precisely because of the marvels of technology; yet these did not blind Sophocles to the essentially tragic debility of the human condition. Christendom experienced a tremendous explosion in water-power technology at the turn of the last millennium, but this did not delude Christians into thinking that happiness could come simply of more efficient millstones.

Further, insofar as the new technological elite is now explicitly anti-Christian, it is no longer clear that they will find the charity to devote their skills to the good of real human beings. Increasingly, the “new knowledge class” speaks of the necessity of harming particular people “for the good of the species” or even “for the good of the Earth”— preferring, for example, seals to fishermen.

Though the public vocabulary can be stunted and stymied by elite presumptions, public debate still continues because its discourse is made up of the hopes, lusts, virtues, and vices of ordinary people. If people become conscious of needs not addressed by the reigning vocabulary, then they will indeed cast about for the words to address those needs. They may, unfortunately, end up with the vocabulary of the New Age. Exchanging one impoverished vocabulary for another, they may find themselves trading one sort of unhappiness (“consumerism”) for another (“spiritualism”).

But should this happen generally, it will not be be-cause “historical epochs” travel a one-way street. It will be because the human soul continues to range about for its fulfillment, sometimes not quite knowing what it is looking for. Indeed, the assumption of an inevitably unfolding “history” is itself merely part of the propaganda of modernity. By identifying the moral status and happiness of humanity with its scientific and technological prowess, and then appealing to the age-old accretion or “progress” of technology, moderns encouraged a flattering belief in an inevitable moral ascent of all mankind. Now, even as the dream tarnishes, our times still cling to the assumption that there is no going back.

But, of course, we can go back — perhaps not back to where we began, but at least back in the right direction. To repeat, the modern subversion of Christendom began with the promise of the “relief of the estate of man,” to be made possible by unfettered technological innovation. Well, we have had at least two generations of unfettered technological innovation, and there does not seem to have been any great diminishment of sorrow in the world.

Understanding Suffering

What we need, then, to undertake the debate between modern technologism, on the one hand, and both Christian and pagan classicism on the other, is an understanding of the nature of suffering, a natural understanding. It may be best to try to recover a natural understanding of suffering, not through the Christian tradition, but through the ancient one. We need to look plainly at examples of suffering, see them in their species, and thus attempt to understand suffering’s nature. In fact, we can find appropriate examples, reported without prejudice, in that eloquent expression of the tragic perspective, Homer’s Iliad.

The Iliad is an epic poem about a young and vigorous man, Achilles, who discovers much of what is paradoxical in life. He is a commander in the army of the Greeks besieging the city of Troy, and he is simply the best soldier in his army — so much so that eventual victory depends upon his participation. Before he went to war, he had received a prophecy that this war would mean his dying young, yet he fights because it is the honorable thing to do. One day, he is dishonored by the leader of all of the Greeks, and the human dilemma begins to strike him. He can return home and lead a long but quiet life, or he can remain in the fighting and live a glorious but short one. He withdraws. Then, however, the fighting goes against the Greeks, and, as many of their comrades begin to drop, Achilles allows his dearest friend, Patroclus, to return to the fight in his place.

Patroclus ends up dying in his place. At this point, the human dilemma hits Achilles fully; in attempting merely to preserve his life, he lost that which he most loved in it.

The species of human suffering stand out clearly in Homer’s poem, and we need only look to find examples for our contemplation. The most immediate species of human suffering, of course, would seem to be raw pain. We say “would seem to be” because careful consideration of the experience reveals something curious about the specifically human experience of pain:

Tydeus’s son caught up in his hand a stone, a huge thing

. . .  he threw it, and caught Aeneas in the hip,

In the place where the hip bone turns inside the thigh,

the place men call the cup-socket.

[The stone] smashed the cup-socket and broke the tendons

both sides,

And the rugged stone tore the skin backwards,

So that the fighter, dropping on one knee,

Stayed leaning on the ground . . .

We notice, first, that Homer does not present us merely with the vision of Aeneas writhing in agony, with his experience of the physical sensation of pain; rather, he shows us the damage, what the pain means. What is distinctive about particularly human pain, as opposed to the experience of animals, is that for humans pain means something; it signifies damage to one’s body and damage to one’s life. Thus, for example, a fiercer sensation (like well-earned fatigue) might trouble us less, when it signifies nothing, than might a lesser sensation (a heaviness in the chest) of unknown significance. Modernity’s attempt to eradicate pain stumbles for precisely this reason: a reduction in the sensation does nothing to relieve us of the meaning of our pain, and may even make us more sensitive to the mere sensation of it.

The very fact that we are “condemned to be intellects” means that, for we human beings, simple pain is not the most difficult part of human suffering. Rather, all lives are pervaded, to a greater or lesser extent, by anxiety, by the sorrow which is the constant expectation of sorrow. As Achilles’ foe Hector pauses in his effort to defend Troy from the Greek army, he says to his wife:

I know this thing well in my heart . . .

There will come a day when sacred Ilion shall perish . . .

It is not so much the pain to come of the Trojans

That troubles me, not even of Priam the King or Hecabe,

Not the thought of my brothers, in their numbers and valor,

Dropping in the dust under the hands of men who hated them,

As troubles me the thought of you, when some bronze-armored

Achaean leads you off . . .

May I be dead and the piled earth hide me under,

Before I hear you crying, and know by this

That they drag you captive.

If momentary pain, like animals feel, was the worst of our experience, there would be nothing to justify Homer’s judgment that “there is nothing more dismal than man.” But it is common experience that the fear of pain, the second species of suffering, is often a greater affliction than pain itself. And the pain we fear is not necessarily our own. Because our own body is not another’s, we cannot feel another’s pain. But, because we have minds, we can fear another’s pain as we fear our own, as damage to body and impairment of life. Truly, among the sorrows, anxiety does precede even pain.

When we consider our lives as anticipation, it becomes clear that there is a curious asymmetry in the human condition. The anticipation of pain is certainly painful, but anticipation of pleasure is not necessarily pleasant; indeed, as St. Augustine observed, desire is often painful. Of course, not all anticipation is anxiety; we do also hope. But our hope for good usually proceeds from our trust in our own powers, and these we know to be limited. Our fear, however, proceeds from all that is unknown, and what we do not control is unlimited.

All the progress of science cannot allay our anxiety of the unknown, for hopes and fears dwell upon the concatenation of particular causes and effects that collide with each of us. Even as science proceeds to grasp general causes, it reveals the horrible complexity of particular causes, interwoven. Where once we would have worried about growing old, now we worry about cardiac infarctions, strokes, and Alzheimer’s disease. Science may multiply knowledge of causes, but hope of controlling them does not keep pace with fear of their uncontrolled effects.

Some may believe that the balance of pleasure and pain in life tilts in favor of pleasure. Thus, they may believe (questions of faith aside) that they have more for which to hope, from their own powers, than they have to fear from their own weakness. But strangely enough, it is precisely hope which opens us up to the possibility of the third species of suffering, humiliation. Hector had thought to beat back the Greeks from Troy; against the counsel of a fellow citizen, he led the Trojan army out of the city to do battle. Then, enraged by the death of his friend, Achilles descended upon the Trojan army and caused immense slaughter, killing so many Trojans that bodies clog the nearby river. As the Trojans try to flee back to the safety of their walls, Hector debates what to do:

Now, since by my recklessness, I have ruined my people,

I feel shame before the Trojans and the Trojan women

. . .  someone, who is less of a man than me, will say of me,

“Hector believed in his own strength and ruined his people.”

Thus they will speak. For me, then, it would be much better

To go against Achilles and slay him and come back,

Or else be killed by him in glory in front of the City.

Certainly there is a kind of humiliation which comes of vanity revealed. But, as in the case of Hector, what truly hurts is the betrayal of a justified hope, the promise of the past which we know to have been true, which humiliates because the present pain should not have been. We cannot let go of the past hope, because it should have been, and this makes the current pain seem such an injustice. Of course, not all past promises are betrayed in the present: however limited our powers, we do grab success, here and there. We may ignore the disappointment that comes of realized promises rarely having their expected luster, but we cannot ignore the fact that each glory — each promise of the past not ending in disappointment—is wilted almost as soon as it blooms by the next necessity, the next repair, the next trouble.

Thus we are brought to the next sorrow of human existence. In a sort of summation of anxiety, pain, and humiliation, we find human life blighted continually by toil, constant, numbing toil. Homer, describing the confrontation of the two contending armies, makes war seem more fearsome precisely by emphasizing how toilsome it is:

The men, like two lines of reapers, who, facing each other,

Drive their course all down the field of wheat or barley

. . .  and the cut swathes drop, showering,

So the Trojans and [Greeks], driving in against one another,

Cut men down,

Nor did either side think of disastrous panic.


What is horrible about Homer’s description of the two, mutually-reaping battle lines, is that it reduces the men in the battle lines to the level of anonymous stalks. Likewise, what is horrible about toil is that it reduces life’s victories (such as they are) to the status of mere cobblestones in an endless alley. Of course, not all toil is pure drudgery; the very repetitiveness and seeming endlessness of labor allows us opportunity to meditate upon it, even as we labor. There can be a kind of romance to drudgery, the romance of a Sisyphus, precisely in that the work seems endless. When we accept it as such, we labor even in a sort of indifference to the hoped-for product of our labor, so that drudgery can become almost play. But, of course, when we dwell on it, we really cannot think it play, for the labor is not endless. This brings us to the fifth sorrow, death.

Not surprisingly, many languages preserve an ambiguity in the term designating “the end.” The “end” is the goal, the purpose, the reason why. And the end of man is the grave. The other ills of life — fear, pain, humiliation, toil — all of these have their countervailing alternatives — hope, pleasure, glory, play. So, life has its compensations. But death has no compensation.

As he went back, Meriones let fly at him with a bronze- shod arrow,

And hit him beside the right buttock,

So that the arrow was driven on through under the bone,

To fix in the bladder.

There, sitting within the arms of his beloved companions,

He gasped out his life, and then he lay like a worm,

Extended along the ground,

And his dark blood ran.

Certainly death may be painful, but it is not the pain that agitates our awe. What is horrible, what is incomprehensible about death is precisely that it is an end, a finish. We are sickened by the thought that our passing is as if we never were, as if human beings were the sort of things that should never come to an end. Leaves drop from trees, but do not anticipate doing so, nor do they know it when they do.

More than any other fact of our existence — un-avoidable, inevitable, brute injustice of our existence —it is death which mocks our very nature. We have the aspirations of gods and the helplessness of sheep. Using the word injustice may seem strange, but we do so because the better the life, the greater and less deserved the loss in death. It does seem that the good die young, younger than is deserved, almost as if excellence required its own dissolution.

“Poor fool, do not speak to me about ransom . . .

There is not one who can escape death, not one of all the Trojans…

So, friend, you die also. Why all the clamor about it?

Patroclus too is dead, who was by far a better man than you.

Do you not see what a man I am? How huge? How splendid?

Born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal,

Yet even I also have my death and my strong destiny.

There shall be a dawn or an afternoon or a noontime,

When some man in the fight will take the life from me also.”

. . . then Achilles, drawing his sharp sword, Struck him beside the neck .

The sword plunged full length inside.

He dropped to the ground . . .  the black blood flowed

. . .  Achilles caught him by the foot and slung him into the river to drift .

“Lie there among the fish; they will lick the blood away.”

How could it be that we are lovers of beauty who must watch beauty crumble, that we seek a good life that trips as soon as it can walk, that we seek a truth dimly heard in dying echoes?

Finite and Infinite

These species of human suffering have in common the confrontation of finite being with its limits. The tragedy of this existence is that this finite being is capable of confronting its limits. Distracted by pains it cannot ignore, it thrusts itself forward into a future it cannot rule, embarrassed by old expectations it cannot forget, plodding from task to task, cutting a trail quickly overgrown, towards an end at which it hopes not to arrive. The inevitability of our sorrow is the inevitability of our living in time: as we confront the future, fear; the present, pain; the past, humiliation; the whole of our span, toil; its end, death. No technology can eliminate the suffering essential to our existence, because no technology can make us infinite, without limits. Technology may soften our impact upon these limits, but this, paradoxically, makes us more sensitive to them. We come to believe that these limits are accidents, and thus we fail to be resolved to them, fail to work them into any possible fulfillment.

Now the Christian reader, having been presented with an account of five species of suffering, may well be reminded of the ancient account of the Five Sorrowful Mysteries, the Mysteria Dolores of Jesus Christ: The Agony in the Garden, the Scourging at the Pillar, the Crowning with Thorns, the Carrying of the Cross, the Death upon the Cross. Mention of these sorrowful mysteries might even suggest some resolution to the natural human tragedy. But, before we discuss any possible resolution of our condition, we must first consider an implication of the fact that some sufferings are essential to the human condition (as testified by the Christian faith’s belief that they were suffered by the Incarnation of the Living God).

To suggest that certain sorrows are essential to the human condition may well be to suggest that others are not. For example, among the retrospective sorrows can be numbered not only humiliation, but also envy. Among the prospective pains is not only fear, but also anger. Normally, we tend to think of the distinction between passions and actions as being the distinction between the things that we feel and the things that we do. We may not be free not to feel our anger, for example, however free we may be not to act upon it. If, however, we can distinguish between those sorrows which are essential to human nature — which are, within a Christian understanding, sanctified — and those which are not, then we can identify those sorrows capable and perhaps deserving of suppression. Our fears and pains, and those of others, are worthy of acceptance, but petty resentments are not. Indeed, unlike toil and humiliation, such pains as disgust and boredom may be less passions we suffer and more actions we do.

Talk of acceptance, though, returns us to the issue of working our inevitable suffering into some possible happiness. Again, speaking simply within the natural condition of man, we must distinguish between two different sorts of responses to our finitude. First, there is the response of productive art itself. From time beyond memory, man has attempted to extend his control over his circumstances, precisely in order to widen and soften the limits of his life. Agriculture seeks to overcome anxiety as to the future supplies of food, as medicine attempts to reinforce our natural healing after physical harm. The response of art to the limits of human existence is as natural and inevitable to us as those limits themselves.

The other sort of response to our finitude, the response appropriate to beings who are not merely bodies but also minds, is the constant and most important effort to make sense of this existence. Human beings being human, being intellects, cannot escape from the impulse to cosmology, and the impulse to live in accordance with their understanding of the cosmos.

Without attempting any grand typology of natural human cosmologies, we may simply place them within the context of natural attitudes towards suffering. In this context, it is sufficient for us to distinguish between the barbaric, the tragic, and the technical perspectives. Without the gloves of civilization, the barbarian has little choice but to watch the calluses grow. He must simply harden himself to the bumps and stabs of life and take pride simply in being unfeeling. Thus, the old Norseman said proudly, “A hard heart Wotan put in my breast.” The way of the world is to break the weak; to live in accordance with this life is to cultivate an insensitivity to it. For example, one’s own body becomes a kind of object of fascination, and one wonders how much damage it can endure; one’s children are less objects of affection and more simply disposable investments. Being hard oneself, one’s major amusement is the suffering of others. The gods themselves (such as they are) must delight in suffering, as they do little to allay it.

Humanity’s greatest debt to its arts and crafts is, in fact, its softening of human pain to a level at which human beings can bear to feel it. One might say that civilization is that level in the development of productive and political arts at which, for example, human beings are able to love their children or admit sympathy for the destruction of their heroes. The tragic perspective presupposes civilization because it presupposes the possibility that particular sorrows are somehow related to human volition. It presupposes the possibility of distinguishing between ordinary sorrows and extraordinary sorrows — the consequence of extraordinary effort or nobility. The tragic, like the barbaric, recognizes the necessity of enduring the unavoidable. But in the tragic, unlike the barbaric, the spirit is cultivated sufficiently to feel sorrows as sorrows. Tragedy does not see suffering as a good to be chased after, but it does understand that any positive human good entails suffering. Thus, suffering takes on the beauty of the good for which it is suffered. Seeing in man a fragility and impermanence more pathetic than that of any flower, the ancients reconciled themselves to the human condition by appreciating a human nobility more wonderful than any flower.

In contrast to the sublime acceptance of the ancients, modernity has all the unseemliness of squirming before unavoidable punishment. To the extent to which the technocratic presumption has come to dominate public discourse, resentment has become our dominating sentiment. As the hope grows that human art can satisfy us, we become increasingly fretful and impatient and demanding of some explanation of why we are not yet happy. If technology is in fact capable of making us happy, then our unhappiness must be the result of technology’s being prevented from doing so. And if our happiness is being prevented, someone must be preventing it.

Thus, in the West, in an age in which, as never before, politicians have harnessed the collective resources of a polity to satisfy without question the whims of the people, the people increasingly distrust their leaders. Every evidence of continuing sorrow lengthens the indictment against those who have continued to promise a “relief of the estate of man.” While we wait for heaven on earth, our peevishness grows. The question of our time is, Will the people now become skeptical of the original promise of earthly contentment, or will they become so much more fretful in seeking the power for contentment that they turn to the “higher” arts of the “New Age,” the supernatural technology of the shaman, and attempt to be free finally of the ache of life?

Coming to Terms

If the natural condition of man is indeed tragic, if human nature aspires to transcend its limits in time and space, then the hope for human happiness lies in somehow transcending those limits. The ancients had learned to live with our pervasive sorrow by appreciating suffering as the vehicle for a vision of human beauty and nobility. They transcended any despair of the moment by idealizing the strength demonstrated in endurance. Thus they treated particular pain simply as an opportunity for a timeless display. But while this aesthetic acceptance of human limits encourages us to endurance, it provides no real justification for the mundane, workaday predominance of pain. After all, only the spectacular pain — which no one sanely chooses — demonstrates human nobility, but there is little real beauty in resisting the abrasive annoyances of the day, however worthwhile such resistance may be. Nevertheless, the tragic perspective was healthful because it encouraged, not the hope to avoid suffering, but the hope to endure it.

What the early modern propagandists failed to appreciate was that the success of Christianity did not come from any promise of a practical, earthly escape from suffering. Rather, Christianity offered an explanation as to why there was suffering. Our inevitable sorrows are the consequences of our confrontation with our limits, but the Christian faith indicated how those limits are provisional, in a sense self-inflicted, and ultimately to be overcome. In the words of the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my savior, because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid; for, behold, all generations henceforth will call me blessed, because He Who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is His name, and His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear Him. He has shown might with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the conceit of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones and has exalted the lowly.

Christians, while not eradicating suffering, overcome their finite limits by a deliberate alliance with what is Infinite. Indeed, human suffering itself is understood as a consequence of rebellion: “man’s attempting to make himself as God,” his failure to accept the finite limits that mark the bounds of his proper freedom, bounds to be overcome not through assertion, but through submission to divine will.

If it is the case that suffering is the inevitable consequence of our colliding with our natural limits, we cannot eradicate our sorrow, but must be reconciled to it. In the first instance, we must be aware that there are pains, fears, humiliations, and toils beyond any particular person’s capacity to be reconciled to them, and that different persons have different capacities for bearing different degrees of suffering. The Christian ministers to those suffering, not with the intention of achieving technically their contentment, but with the hope of diminishing their pain to the level at which they can become reconciled to it. Yet, the recognition of the limited efficacy of ministration — that nothing can substitute, ultimately, for their own attempt to be reconciled to their suffering — leads us to the second, more important intention in Christian ministration: the intention to suffer with those suffering.

Given the choice between complete but solitary analgesia or, on the other hand, the diminishment of pain with the care of another, virtually all human beings would choose the company. The summit of human pain, the summit of man’s confrontation with his own, solitary limits, is the grief of human solitude. The second, more important intention of Christian ministration to the suffering — the effort to “suffer with” them — involves not the elimination of their pain but rather the attempt to diminish it in a way such that they may be relieved of the horrible burden of their solitude. Opened to another of their kind, they may then be opened to something more. As Isaiah says, “Share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor. Clothe the man you see naked and turn not from your own kin. Then will your light shine like the dawn, and your wound be quickly healed over.”

In our luxurious West, the attempt to eradicate suffering has, in fact, aggravated the sorrowful solitude of human existence. However great our suffering, our presumption that it can be overcome has, in fact, intensified our inevitable pains with a distracted solipsism. Despite all of our wealth and technique, life still vexes us. Unable to find any explanation in our diets and distractions, we wander our offices and malls, suspecting that we suffer a purely personal maladjustment. Ultimately, this suspicion is but an inkling of what the Holy Father has called our “spiritual vacuity.” Some explanation for this vacuity lies in our attachment to luxury, but the growing irony of our times suggests a general skepticism of the possibility that happiness lies in consumption. Still, unlike the pagan, we are not easily convinced that the endurance of pain constitutes any sort of evidence for the possibility of its relief.

The virtuous pagan could come to see mankind’s general weakness and blindness as consequences of our general sinfulness. But today, given the astounding multiplication of the toys of technology, we assume the general strength and implicit wisdom of mankind, despite constant and personal evidence to the contrary. Still, however “soft” may be our suffering, it remains the fundamental fact of our isolated existence. The effort to convince us that there is something greater than ourselves, worthy of our attachment, might well require that we first be encouraged to see our sorrow. Only once we have actually seen our sorrow can we begin to see it for what it is, the fruit of our futile efforts to become “masters of our own fate.”


  • Joseph Woodard

    Joseph Keith Woodard, PhD, was until retirement the Citizenship Judge for Calgary, Canada. He has degrees from the University of Alberta, Dalhousie, St. John's College, and Claremont Graduate School. He taught at too many universities; was the religion editor at Western Report and Calgary Herald; and he has one wife, three sons, and seven daughters, now bearing grandchildren.

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