The Virtue of Suffering

I was reflecting this morning and something strange occurred to me. There is a surprising overlap between biblical faith, Socratic philosophy, and the doctrine of Nietzsche, a place where all three meet and have some kind of agreement.

It is in their exhortation to an acceptance, or even an embrace, or celebration, of sorrow and pain.

People raised in a Catholic context (and also other religious groups from the Abrahamic faiths) are often portrayed in popular depictions as holding an almost fatalistic resignation to the inevitability of misfortunes and unhappiness. This stereotype grows ultimately from deep and ancient theological reflections on the beneficial place of suffering in the spiritual life.

Socrates says that a rhetorician with a true understanding of what is good would go about persuading juries to indict him and punish him for his failings and turn him toward virtue.
And the phrase of Nietzsche that is most ubiquitous in at least the English-speaking world, is, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

On one level, we might say this fact means only that all three seek to encourage bravery and discourage cowardice, and there is some truth to that. But I think it merits some unpacking as well.

Someone could also seek to draw out the incompatibilities of how each arrived at its similar conclusion. Christians interpret pain typologically, as a participation in Christ’s suffering. A Platonist might degrade physical pain as inhabiting a lower, non-intellectual plane of reality. Perhaps the Nietzschean sees pain as a necessary feature of the road to power.

That sort of differentiation is a very basic step in the process of thinking through these relationships, and although it’s an important step, it’s not all that interesting to me here and so I won’t dwell on it.

The image that is most enticing to me as I reflect on these three intersecting viewpoints, is the accomplishment of the Renaissance.

In his book The Antichrist, Nietzsche speaks approvingly of the Italian Renaissance. He believes that its legacy was spoiled by the interruption of the Reformation, but that for an instant it was a thing of glory. He says that the Christian faith strained to become something great in the Renaissance, in that moment of flourishing culture brought about in large part by the recovery of classical learning.

The Renaissance was, in the main, a deeply Christian movement. It had a powerful fascination with the Socratic philosophical tradition as it was elaborated throughout the Greek and Latin classical literary tradition. And it was an event that, according to Nietzsche, nearly accomplished in itself precisely what Nietzsche claimed to be seeking to bring about in the modern world.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be so surprising that there would be at least one area of profound agreement (or possible agreement) between the three.

But then, what does pain have to do with anything? Why do they meet on this point?

Here’s something that comes to mind: If we believe that pain is the worst thing that can happen, then we make pain our master. It is almost the essence of nobility, in contrast with what is ignoble, to know there are things that are worse than pain, things that must be avoided at all costs, things that can relativize pain and open us to a larger perspective.


PS: It is fair to comment that we could probably expand this investigation and say that the question of pain is a central concern of Buddhism and Hinduism and Taoism etc as well, but as I’m not knowledgeable enough about them to speak intelligently, I’ve tried to stick to subjects where my observations might have some worth.

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