I posted this on Quora, in answer to someone who wanted to know if there is such a thing as necessary suffering. To see the complete thread, click here (you’ll need to create a log-in ID if you want to add comments).
In an age before anaesthetics this question could hardly even have been asked. Suffering was unavoidable, inevitable, inescapable, and therefore, given the belief in a benign deity, it had to serve a purpose, to be necessary in some way. Today the assumption is often that suffering is avoidable and should be avoided wherever possible, but in terms of the history of ideas, belief in the necessity of suffering is actually fairly close behind us.
During the early modern period people were trying to reconcile classical ideas like Stoicism with Christianity, and at the beginning of the 17th century there were still people who held up Stoic practices as an inducement to Christian virtue. The message was something like, “If those pagans could suffer so much, could you not suffer for Christ, who also suffered so much for you?”.
Unlike Catholics, Protestants did not on the whole go in for self-imposed penances, but they nevertheless believed that, as a rule, if you wanted to get to heaven you had to suffer. Not only that, but you had to rejoice to suffer “for Christ’s sake”. This was slightly different from the aim of the Stoics, which was to inure oneself equally to pleasure and pain, but it was clearly related.
Suffering was of two types, punitive and redemptive. If one was merely suffering, one was probably simply getting a foretaste of the suffering one would endure after death and damnation. If one gladly bore the burden of one’s sufferings one was thereby purified and made suitable for entry into heaven.
The belief in the necessity of suffering in these terms put an incredible psychological strain on people. If you weren’t suffering, well, you were very likely going to go to hell, but if you were suffering and not rejoicing in it, then you were also probably going to go to hell!
It’s perhaps not surprising that this way of thinking, which was particularly widespread among puritans, resulted in fairly widespread depression. Alec Ryrie writes well about this in Being Protestant in Reformation Britain, though, since his interest is in showing the life of everyday Protestants, he largely overlooks Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy.
As Gowland puts it, ‘Burton’s medicalisation of the moral and theological traditions of melancholy gave them a conceptual coherence which they had previously lacked’ (Burton’s Anatomy and the Intellectual Traditions of Melancholy). Burton opens up the debate on the whole issue of whether we have to suffer and be miserable in this world, or whether we have a right to be happy. He’s not the only one, of course, but his is a coherent and influential voice.
By the end of the 17th century, attempts to incorporate or adapt Stoic attitudes in a Christian context were more or less routinely rejected (Yamamoto-Wilson, Pain, Pleasure and Perversity: Discourses of Suffering in Seventeenth-Century England, p. 32) and the idea gained ground rapidly that, yes, it is OK to be happy, and if you pursue a path of suffering you are being perverse.
In our modern world suffering has become something of a taboo. We don’t (thankfully) whip, hang and disembowel convicted criminals on the street, as they did in those days. People don’t flagellate themselves for the good of their souls, as many Catholics routinely did even into the 20th century. We don’t see lepers dying on street corners (though, in many cities, we see junkies and the homeless).
Most crucially of all, though, perhaps, most of us don’t go through the kind of mental agonies of people like John Bunyan (see, in particular, his Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners) about whether we are or are not chosen of God or predestined to eternal torment. Except in a very few spheres (notably training for sports, swotting for exams, etc., with a clear goal in this world, or news stories that, in part, satisfy some morbid atavistic curiosity in the suffering of others), suffering is mostly swept under the carpet.
But this comfortable, anaesthetized world has its own weaknesses. OK, it might seem unduly heavy to say that we should spend our days anticipating and preparing for our inevitable death, instead of frittering our lives away in pursuit of shallow pleasures, but there must be many, many people who spend their final days and hours – or even weeks, months or years – in terrible physical pain, totally unequipped, mentally or emotionally, to deal with it, because they have never given this prospect a moment’s serious thought in their lives.
Equally, there are many many people who have no insight at all into what others are going through, no empathy, no ability or even wish to care about the pain of others. This is a difficult one; even back in the 17th century, people like Hobbes were of the opinion that to be pitied is to be looked down on and dishonoured ( Leviathan, page 43). He was also pretty clear – like many others of his period – that there were occasions when to be kind was actually a form of cruelty in itself. For example, if you deal with a murderer with compassion and let him/her go free then you are responsible for the consequences when that murderer maims and kills others. From the 17th-century point of view, there are times when it is necessary to impose suffering, a view that modern society still reflects in its penal system.
At the same time, compassion, in particular loving one’s enemies, formed a very important part of 17th-century discourse, especially among Protestants. The ability to put oneself in another’s shoes, to imagine their plight and do what one could to alleviate it was extolled as one of the highest virtues. One of the functions of suffering was to awaken sympathy in others.
On the whole, I’m glad we’ve left the 17th century behind, with its plagues, its massacres, its public spectacles of brutality and so forth. At the same time, I think we have a lot to learn from the past. We can avoid suffering for a while, with money to cushion us and medicines to salve us, but we are fooling ourselves if we think that suffering can ever finally be done away with. And if we think we can routinely turn our backs on the suffering of others with impunity we make the world a worse, not a better place.
For all its faults, 17th century society knew this, whereas today there are a lot of people who are in danger of forgetting or ignoring it.