Saturday 12 March 2011

Suffering in the world


Since we are creatures of this world, we are motivated by a desire to attain pleasure and to relieve suffering; yet since we are transcendentally-orientated creatures this desire cannot be primary.


So long as we perceive suffering in the world - even if that suffering is just insufficient pleasure or mere boredom - then we will be motivated to end it.

Indeed, we are motivated to end suffering everywhere and for everyone for all time - simply as a matter of security.

(Because so long as suffering happens, it could happen to us - and if there is no more suffering, then we need not fear it.)


But suppose that there was no such motivation to end suffering - either because all suffering has been ended, or because all suffering as been ended so far as we know.

What then?


Do we imagine that when all suffering has been ended then we can shift our aspiration to higher things?

Do we really think that is what would happen?


Is this, in fact, what we observe?

Are the societies that suffer least, those which aspire highest?

Are those individuals who are most free from suffering, also those individuals who have their sights set on the highest ideals?


 Do we, in a word, conceive high ideals as luxury goods?


(And what is our society's idea of higher things, anyway? Well, obviously we don't mean religious ideals, because as a society we don't believe in God, nor even the immortal soul. And spirituality without religion is just psychotherapy - so just another way of seeking pleasure; not higher at all. Like the lifestyle arts - restaurants, clothes, holidays... merely fashions, therefore the opposite of 'high'. Ummm - The Arts?  Shakespeare, Beethoven, Rembrandt - that kind of thing... oh, I forgot, we are beyond all that now; shock, disgust, subversion - that's what we like, isn't it. Not exactly 'high'. Philosophy and Science?... well, this is just getting embarrassing, we've just got rid of these and replaced geniuses with committees of sensible bureaucrats. How about having unrestrained and passionate political discussions in bars and cafes, is that it? Exploring new forms of sexuality and morality - are these the higher things? Somehow it doesn't seem right... Simmering self-loathing and slow cultural suicide? -Now you're talking! Those are the sort of high ideals that we love.)


Or could it be that high ideals are, in some way or another, a product of suffering - or, if not exactly suffering, of a state of discontent?

Um - yes, that is right.

Isn't it?

It is our suffering that prompts us to look beyond the mundane.

(Prompts us - but does not force us.)


Is suffering then good?

Obviously not.

As worldly creatures we are, and must be, motivated to escape suffering in some sense.

But suffering is - if not good - surely necessary in this world.

And - surely - a primary devotion to the elimination of suffering (i.e. the new religion, the new 'Christianity' indeed) is therefore not merely utopian or futile - but is actually evil.


Repeat: although suffering is obviously not good; a primary devotion to the elimination of suffering is actually evil.

Because suffering is a prompt to look higher, to look beyond.


I am saying that it is - not that it ought to be: suffering just is that which prompts us to transcendence; suffering that ultimately derives from the perceived insufficiency of the world.

We just are creatures who perceive the world as insufficient.

And the only way we can get rid of this perception is to kill it.


We cannot make the world sufficient, we can only kill the perception that the world is insufficient.

But we can do that: for most of the people, for most of the time.

And that is, of course, precisely what we are doing.


Indeed, although we are, and must be, and should not try not to be, creatures of this world; a primary devotion directed at anything of this world (including the elimination of suffering) is evil.

Our primary devotion must be The Good - the transcendental Good, a something not of this world.


Or else we (and everyone else) might as well be dead, or never live in the first place, as the surest means of avoiding suffering...

... just as we 'put down' a suffering animal; whom we suppose not to have a soul, and whose role is to serve humans and/ or be happy - and if the animal can no longer serve humans nor be happy and is suffering, then it might as well be dead

- so we kill it.

And anything else we suppose not to have a soul - from humane motives - to eliminate suffering.


Here is the hard bit.

The real sin here is not in the killing, whatever its scale, but in the reason for killing.

A soul-less society of soul-less individuals (that's how we perceive ourselves), killing soul-less entities as and when... necessary; because it is rational to kill soul-less entities when they suffer, or will suffer, or may cause suffering...

Note the paradox.



The Crow said...

"And spirituality without religion is just psychotherapy - so just another way of seeking pleasure."

The sort of spirituality you refer to is all too common, but it is not - in fact - spirituality at all. Like most things, practiced by westerners, it is a facsimile of something, not the thing itself.
Spirituality without religion is the most rewarding spirituality of all. It requires the utmost responsibility and integrity.
Most people will never witness either it, or its effects.

Religion is important. No civilization of any note ever arose without it. And none may survive its abandonment. Yet as long as any of the component members of a civilization succeed in attaining a realized life, that civilization will not be truly extinct.

You have the knowledge, talent and drive to do a great deal of good Bruce. If that is your choice.

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

Dr Charlton, as you intimate and have previously avowed explicitly, religion separated from society and the State - as the liberal capitalists and republicans succeeded in Europe - Britain as early as 1688! - (even earlier if one conceives Protestantism as being so far a heretical perversion of Christianity to be no religion at all, as the best judges do) is a dead religion; the society wastes away, and the State becomes so unsure of the obedience of the people that it turns devilishly - and irrationally- despotic, which we witness at present.

The most important classes in society are the priests, and the warriors - in that order.

The great mischief is that for so many centuries no one has been controlling the direction of our nations. In the Middle Ages, Pope Innocent III and the emperor Conrad jointly decreed the prohibition of cross-bows in warfare as they deemed them cowardly and unchristian. Such wisdom, such temperance and restraint! Can you fancy the childish, incontinent and above all inhumanly godless Epicureans of today showing such love of virtue and sobriety? We are the same moderns who dropt two atomic bombs on defenceless townspeople!

Moreover, can you fancy the Byzantine emperor and patriarch suffering huge, clunking, noisy and filthy machines - called motor cars - barrelling down the city streets taking away hundreds of lives a year in the name of convenience, or leisure? Where are these people travelling to so fast, like a bat out of Hell, that they need these frightful personal tanks?

As I commented in another discussion, we don't even know what we are, let alone where we're heading in the future. The Christian emperor which Providence shall set over Europe by the end of this century will be justly wrath with all of us for our weak and effeminate scepticism, and for giving up Europe to the ravages of foreign bankers and infidel Barbarians.

Peter Arnold (Australia) said...

I should have added that in the past we - the Christians of Europe - controlled technology, and the economy. We shaped them to serve us. Now, with the idol Progress ascendant over Christ, technology controls us and the economy compels us to live in ways so unwholesome, solitary and soul-destroying.

James Kalb said...

A good entry.

Finitude means suffering, since it means deprivation of some good. If suffering is the greatest of evils then nonexistence is the greatest of goods for everyone who isn't God. So why not just kill everyone and be done with it? People who think that way should remember that charity begins at home and there's no time like the present.

The degree of suffering does seem to correspond somehow to the reality and seriousness of our situation. So a world with less suffering would not necessarily be a better world. If you say that people think you're saying suffering isn't really bad or you shouldn't do anything about it. The idea seems to be that reality and seriousness can be something we construct, for example by multiplying suffering to make everything more dramatic. The point though is that suffering--and reality--are things we don't construct and can't in the end avoid.

TE said...

"although suffering is obviously not good; a primary devotion to the elimination of suffering is actually evil."

Having been raised in a liberal environment, I naturally absorbed the message that devotion to the elimination of suffering was the ONLY good. Something within me always found this sort of worldview flawed... yet I've usually felt guilty for "allowing" myself to think outside of this paradigm.

Great post, I think you're really getting to the core of things.

Brandon said...

Most so-called suffering is consequences of behavior, which most people, being walking dead men, are unconscious of.

Suffering is adversity, which keeps coming to you until you learn the lesson it brings. When you don't learn the lesson, or reject the fact that it is a lesson, then you have to keep going around in the circle until it comes to you again to have another opportunity to recognize it. The only thing is it comes in a different form at each go around which is a form of disguise.

Suffering appears to be an "evil", but is actually "God coming to the individual" in disguise...

Suffering is opportunity to overcome, disguised as a "bad" thing...

chris said...

Hormesis for the soul, perhaps?

Bruce Charlton said...

@ The Crow and TE - thank for your encouragements!

@ Peter Arnold - I think I agree with your statement of what Providence will do in a qualitative sense; but I don't think humans know the timescale nor the geographical scope (indeed, I understand scripture to state that we do *not* know these things) - prophecies usually come true in surprising ways.

Gabe Ruth said...

Dr. Charlton,
Came to you at one remove through Mr. Moldbug. This was excellent. As you are writing from the UK I'm sure you are aware of George MacDonald, whose ideas are echoed here (I am new to your blog, will find out if I'm preaching to the choir). The modernist mindset leads ineluctably to compulsory abortion and euthanasia, not "freedom", and will progress further to something like the dystopia of Logan's Run.

One question: "We cannot make the world sufficient, we can only kill the perception that the world is insufficient." I'm pretty sure I understand what you mean, but it seems a little misleading. Maybe "can be sufficient" instead of "is insufficient"? As written it sounds like a materialist/progressive denouncing superstition and saying we need to make our own future. Are you saying that the world is sufficient for God's purpose for us?

Bruce Charlton said...

@GR Thanks.

I means that (according to the Christian belief) the world (this world) is not enough and cannot be made so; cannot be made perfect, nor even adequate.

By George Macdonald do you mean the 19th century Scottish divine beloved by CS Lewis?

Gabe Ruth said...

Yes indeed. A disgraced Calvinist, but all the better for that.

I think it should say "the belief that the world is sufficient", then. And I agree.