1 Suffering and Transcendence Mary Lemmons Suffering and Hope Conference University of St.

Thomas November 10-13, 2005 In this world, suffering is inescapable. But what is suffering? Is it simply physical pain? If so, then the deaf, the betrayed, the bereaved, and the comatose do not suffer. But they do. Suffering is thus a broader category than physical pain. Let us then define suffering as undergoing a disadvantage or harm from which escape is not currently possible, although it may be possible in the future. For example, a new love may ease bereavement and cataract surgery may restore sight. In any case, the inability to escape, here and now, the disadvantage or harm focuses one’s attention upon suffering. This focus may even become the sole or paramount focus of one’s concern. If it does, suffering becomes a threat to one’s spirituality. For suffering focuses one’s attention on either a natural or moral evil, while spirituality thrives upon truth and goodness. In this way, suffering may seduce one’s attention away from goodness. To lose sight of the good is to lose sight of the truth and to open oneself to the lies of suffering; namely, that evil is all-encompassing, that one’s life lacks meaning, that there is no benevolent God, and, finally, that these lies are compatible with a free and just society. If these lies are not defeated, the sufferer is viewed both by himself and, most chillingly, by his family and the state as better off dead. At this point, the killing begins, either by the sufferer’s own hand or by the hand of pharmacists, as in the State of Oregon. Once begun, the lies that justify killing the innocent continue to seduce until spasms of nihilism and social unrest propel the healthy into the totalitarian’s powerful hand. It cannot be otherwise; because the sufferer can be killed only when his or her life is evaluated as having a merely instrumental value. And once that judgment is made, every one’s life is reduced to having only an instrumental value; because, if human life lacks intrinsic dignity in one situation it lacks it in all situations. And if human life lacks intrinsic dignity, it becomes legitimate to use others for one’s own ends — or, for the ends of others. To see others not as beings of intrinsic dignity but as fodder for ambition cannot but increase lawlessness and social unrest to the point that most yearn for the order imposed by tyrants; they, at least, make the trains run on time. The instrumental view of human life is thus a threat to free society. The seemingly perennial struggle against tyrants has taught the human race that the best bastion of opposition is the natural law, since this ethics defends human dignity by identifying human life as intrinsically good and thereby as able to transcend any kind of instrumentality or usefulness. It was this ethics, after all, that enabled America’s founders to identify King George as a tyrant who was violating the God-given inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.1 The goodness
For an extended and definitive treatment of natural law’s role in the American Revolution see Forrest MacDonald, Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. (Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1985.
1

. and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people . it is necessary to ascertain whether human life is indeed intrinsically good. 2 Human history thus shows not only that the importance of identifying human life as an intrinsic good cannot be underestimated. The second way that the goodness of life can be known is through the realization that life is but the bodily instantiation of existence.html .un.. But the difficulty here is that the contingency of human existence fills one with dread unless one is sure that a benevolent Creator can be trusted to hold one’s existence in perpetuity. The State of Oregon’s assisted suicide law thus threatens to loosen upon American society the instrumental view of human life that rejects the inalienable right to life proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. for then no right would be inalienable and all rights would have only an instrumental value that could vary by law. Bodily existence participates in the goodness of existence. sadness moves us to deny life’s goodness. There are three key arguments that this is the case. whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind. but also that free and respectful societies need laws that acknowledge the intrinsic goodness of human life and forbid suicide and euthanasia. 2 http://www. justice and peace in the world. I leave it to the reader to gauge whether the typical American can find these theological arguments compelling. The first is through the experience of joy: joy enables us to affirm the goodness of life. its preamble reads: Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom. We thus come to the American Rubicon: were the American founders correct in identifying life.. just as. as an inalienable. one will not be able to resist the devaluation of life that occurs when one is suffering.org/Overview/rights.2 of human life and human dignity were also affirmed in 1948 by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The General Assembly proclaims this Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations . The second way thus relies upon theological arguments known through philosophy or divine revelation. Hence.. if one’s awareness of life’s goodness is known only on the emotional level. To settle this question of whether the value of human life is extrinsic or intrinsic. God-given right that is so basic to free society that it cannot be abrogated without endangering that free society? Or is the State of Oregon right in creating a right to die? Or is it the case that the right to life and the right to death are compatible with each other? To answer these questions it is necessary to determine whether human life has intrinsic or extrinsic value. For the right to life and the right to death can be compatible only if human life lacks intrinsic value and possesses an extrinsic and instrumental value.

but it cannot cease to exist. however. painful. and if inalienable. it assigns an instrumental value to human life whereby it is valuable only when suffering is absent. . is not to conclude that human life must be supported by any and all means possible. An organism’s life is its standard of value. the flourishing human life serves as the basic criterion for all that is good and for all that is evil. that is. life cannot underwrite death. These things are thus goods because they advance the flourishing human life—both for oneself and for one’s society.. no free society can afford to legalize suicide and . To conclude this. while whatever harms or hinders that flourishing is evil. When that life can no longer be promoted. there can never be a right to death. intellectually. self-determining being. . To recognize that human life is the basic good is to recognize it as intrinsically good. life . For the basic good is the flourishing human life. whatever promotes life’s flourishing is good for human beings. the life that befits a human being as a self-consciously. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. oxygen and exercise are goods that advance physical flourishing as laughter and love promote psychological well-being as contemplating God and caring for others promote intellectual and moral flourishing.. Where no alternative exists. human life is the metaphysical foundation that makes value possible. or expensive treatments may be suspended as long as the patient’s death is not intended. no goals and no values are possible.. Hence... that which furthers its life is the good. regardless of the State of Oregon’s legalize. and morally. The existence of inanimate matter is unconditional. is an end in itself. either because the patient is irreversibly comatose or because the patient is too ill.. This attack on the goodness of human life attacks the very foundation of objective morality as well as the very foundation of free society. that which threatens it is the evil. Metaphysically. For when human life is the foundational good.. It is thus a category mistake of the worst sort to place death in the category of rights and assert a right to die. futile. 16-18. . Accordingly. And. There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence–and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. For the intention to kill denies the order of goodness by identifying death as good and life as evil. In other words. psychological.. As a result. it presupposes an answer to the question: of value to whom and for what? It presupposes an entity capable of acting to achieve a goal in the face of an alternative.. This means that the right to life is inalienable. It is only a living organism that faces a constant alternative: the issue of life or death.. the right to life cannot underwrite the right to death. For instance: food. For..3 The third way is to know the goodness of human life is by focusing on the question of value: why is human life valuable? Why is anything of value? What does it mean to value? Ayn Rand explains it in this way: “Value” is that which one acts to gain and/or to keep. Matter is indestructible. Death can never really be a right. As intrinsically good. The concept ‘value’ is not a primary. it changes its forms.. This is true on all levels of human existence: physical. . the existence of life is not . there can be no opposition between what’s good for the individual and what’s good for all. Virtue of Selfishness pp. the value of human life can never be alienated by one’s circumstances.

When we are young. To triumph over suffering in this way requires either the conviction that how one suffers makes a difference to some one who is deeply loved. and the foundations of free societies seem supercilious and even vicious. Within this context. the suffering so dominants that it threatens to define one’s entire life and to rob it of meaningfulness. But when we are mature. if the latter. life increasingly becomes a matter of despair. Life is the ultimate practical activity: it requires one to make and execute long range plans without denigrating the short range plans and activities that give life its gusto. it would not be able to threaten the sufferer with meaninglessness. suffering is never the dominant feature of one’s life and so it is not too hard to keep it subordinated as irrelevant to the goal of acting virtuously. from the meaninglessness of suffering? The answer to these questions require a philosophical analysis of meaning and suffering. kindness. and a full appreciation of God’s goodness. a gentle spirit. philosophical arguments about the nature of human rights. happiness is living virtuously by contemplating God and being moral. But in cases of heart-rendering bereavement. although we expect to run our race with various pains and ailments. the State of Oregon has done so. There are various ways to assign meaning to intense suffering. Thus. or terminal illness. and. we assume that the goals of life are a certain state of affairs: an exciting job. This meaning must be extrinsic rather than intrinsic. it demands an escape. or . we consider our race well-run if we do it without immorality.4 euthanasia. For suffering demands recognition. life is happy and satisfying. Now happiness is no longer seen as a future state of acquisition but as the mental state of running well. or a serious loss like paralysis. it is necessary to assign meaning to suffering. a wonderful lover. after all. we realize that life is a never ending race that can only be run well or poorly. rather than having the indignities of suffering determine one’s perspective. if suffering possessed intrinsic meaning. For the twin engines of Oregon’s threat are the instrumental view of human life and the mind numbing awfulness of suffering. and dignity. As a result. But from what? From life itself? Or. put it like this: shall I choose to be worthy of my suffering? To choose to be worthy of one’s suffering is to choose to recommit to one’s moral and spiritual values. As Aristotle put it so long ago. in this context. who witnessed intense and degrading suffering in the Nazi concentration camps. And the culture of death thereby instigated will continue to inveigh against the foundations of free society until American society moves beyond a discussion of rights and adopts a philosophy of suffering. Yet. We begin this analysis by seeking to understand the sources of life’s meaning and how suffering undercuts life’s meaning. intense suffering forces one to face the ultimate question: What kind of person shall this suffering make me? Will I allow suffering and the seeking of relief to become my most important value? Will I choose to counter the meaninglessness of suffering by deepening my spirituality? Viktor Frankl. a concern for others. None want to see a loved one suffer. After all. such a life is happy. The first way is to view suffering as challenging one’s humanity: will I suffer as a human being with gentleness. Such a life is meaningful. no state of affairs can guarantee an easy run. we identify life’s meaning with the goals that we seek. none want to suffer. and with good-humor. To avoid this. Acting for these goals can either be fulfilling or nullifying: if the former. suffering is inescapable. like a drowning rat ready to claw and chew whatever is within reach. and category mistakes. or. and a cool car.

he was certain that. Princeton.3 Buried within this answer is the philosopher’s confidence that the human soul is immortal. . Aquinas will acknowledge this point by stating that suicide offends against the Creator. Aquinas also argues that suicide violates the principle of proper self-love as well as transgresses against the common good by harming one of society’s members. But intense suffering is also tests medical associations. civil society and the law. See the Summa Theologica secunda secundae. and we men are one of their possession. gentlemen of the jury. Ed.4 We must not let fear and suffering lead us to abandon that mission. namely. which is certain–that nothing can harm a good man either in life or after death. and that the gods commission each of each with a divine mission — which we may not even understand. will they permit and even encourage the suffering to achieve transcendence by recognizing that the absence of suffering is not the highest value and that suffering is a spiritual test? If transcendence in suffering is to receive public and legal recognition in the United States.” Trans. that it betrays our divine mission. that the gods are our keepers. Cebes. the meaning of suffering — according to philosophy—is that suffering is a spiritual test both for victims and for their families. societies and the law succumb to the instrumental view of human life? Or. I believe that this much is true. Hugh Tredennick in The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters. philosophy must join forces with religious belief. and fix your minds on this one belief. To recapitulate: philosophy identifies intense suffering as the crucible of human values and spirituality: for the sufferer can either choose transcendence or succumb to the meaninglessness of suffering. So if you look at it in this way I suppose it is not unreasonable to say that we must not put an end to ourselves until God sends some compulsion like the one which we are facing now. and his fortunes are not a matter of indifference to the gods.” Phaedo 62b-c: “All the same. . In the same article. Socrates at his trial gave witness to this latter kind of spirituality when he proclaimed that although he did not know whether death was an endless sleep or eternity’s doorway. as a good man. even if it sounds rather comical. Will these respect the transcendent value of human life or treat it as valuable only when more pleasurable than painful? How will families. .” Ibid. he would not be harmed. For not only are a sizable proportion of Americans religious. 5 4 3 . that it is to be endured for the sake of our divine mission. New Jersey: Princeton University Press.5 the choice to deepen one’s spirituality and remain faithful to goodness. Hence.5 Socrates thus give us another way to assign meaning to suffering. that the gods are good. Centuries later. societies and the law view the truth about human beings? What will they identify as the higher value: the absence of suffering or meaningful suffering? Will families. that the gods have charge over human beings. This confidence led Socrates to formulate one of the strongest arguments possible against suicide. question 64. article five. but the religious meaning of suffering is also superior to the philosophical meaning in so Apology 41 c-d: “You too. 1961 Apology 30e: “It is literally true. we must live out that mission until the gods decide otherwise. To choose transcendence is to view suffering as an opportunity for affirming spiritual values or as the mysterious path of a divine mission. that God has specially appointed me to this city. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. namely. must look forward to death with confidence.

6 far philosophy can only treat suffering as a spiritual challenge to be met. Hence. Moreover to kill. In conclusion: America is at the crossroads between honoring and abandoning the insight of her founders into the intrinsic value of human life. Human life is not valuable only to the degree that it is valued by others. But this is a lie. Indeed. For instance. a transcendent being with eternity on the horizon. Herein lies the ultimate cruelty. The State of Oregon’s legalization of suicide and assisted suicide not only allows suffering to alienate the right characterized as inalienable in the Declaration of Independence and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This means that adequate pain relief does not in any way diminish the meaningfulness of suffering. we should remind ourselves that since suffering occurs when a difficulty or harm cannot be here and now avoided. but also the status of being an end in itself. killing thus betrays the inalienable right to life as well as objective morality and the foundations of free society. the Christian can readily adapt the Socratic perspective and identify his divine mission to be to use his suffering as a way of participating in the redemptive suffering of Christ on the Cross. For no matter the degree of suffering. although it is morally permissible to achieve adequate pain relief through the use of drugs that shorten life when the pain would otherwise be unending and unbearable. but unleashes an instrumental view of human life into American society. whereas religion is able to value suffering as the means of atonement or reparation. In all these ways. This view is incompatible with a free society that requires the mutual respect that can only arise when human beings are deemed to be ends-inthemselves with lives of intrinsic value. to treat suffering as the worst of all possible evils — as if transcendence were not possible. is to allow pain and suffering to triumph over the value of human life. suffering can take on a spiritual value that is able to counter the meaningless that renders suffering so awful. that is. it is inhumane to allow suffering to bestow upon a human being the status of a pet or a research animal that may be killed when its suffering becomes troublesome or disturbing. Free society must thus reject the instrumental view embedded in the use of death as a pain-killer. no value. it is always immoral to use pain relief as an excuse to kill patients. The religious meaning thus strengthens the Socratic meaning of suffering. For killing seeks death as if it were good and assigns an instrumental value to the patient’s life. if suffering lacks intrinsic meaning so does pain. and no goodness able to contravene the meaninglessness of suffering. the vicious cruelty of assisted suicide and euthanasia: they intensify suffering by reinforcing the lie that the sufferer’s life has no meaning. then. namely. These truths about pain and suffering as well as those about the human need for meaning and transcendence obligate all involved in palliative care to do what they can to provide adequate pain relief as well as attempt to diminish suffering by facilitating the patient’s and the family’s spiritual life. a human being’s life retains not only inalienable dignity and goodness. Indeed. Likewise. In this regard. even with the goal of alleviating pain. it is important to note that. But society cannot do so without a philosophy of suffering and transcendence that is capable of joining with religion to assign the spiritual and . Killing demeans human beings and trivializes human lives by presuming that it is possible for suffering to wipe out the intrinsic value of human life. suffering need not involve pain. the Buddhist or Hindu can identify suffering as a means of atoning for offenses against karma. At this point.

7 religious meanings to suffering that enable suffering to be transcended and the intrinsic goodness of value of life to be affirmed. Unless suffering is thus transcended. . the truth about human beings and their ability to unite in free and respectful societies will be lost.