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«METAPHYSICAL SUFFERING, METAPHYSICS AS THERAPY I. The grammar of suffering: Contained in Greek grammar is an insight into the human condition. In an ...»

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I. The grammar of suffering:

Contained in Greek grammar is an insight into the human condition. In an irregular formation

of the passive voice, pa s c h e i‘to suffer’, is the ordinary passive form of poi ein‘to do’. That is to n say, in Ancient Greek, one does not distinguish between ‘suffering’ and ‘having something done to one’. Thus, while pain is no doubt one of the things we often suffer, it is the core of the concept of suffering, from which are built refinements, extensions and qualifications.

Instead, to suffer is to have something done to one, or happen to one. It is particularly defined then through its contrast class: doin g being active, and especially contrasted with, being in control. Lack of control is suffering. For to act, make or do is to have control and authority over your movements. One can of course cast the metaphysics of this picture into th doubt – doing so eventually became the so-called ‘free will’ debate by the 18 Century. But the Greek use of language nevertheless reveals a phenomenology and implicit way of conceiving the world and ourselves, one more widely spread than the Greeks, even more widely than those languages such as English which inherited some of the related linguistic markers. It is a conception of ourselves as agents, and not just patients in the causal structure. We can act, as well as be acted upon – and there is a great and important difference between the two, a difference is as great as that between ‘to beat’ and ‘to be beaten’. This picture is deeply felt, generally survives all purely metaphysical speculation about the coherence of ‘free will’. For such creatures as we feel ourselves to be, not to act but to be acted upon is to suffer.

We suffer when we are unable to determine our environment or conditions. We suffer b e c a u s e of this lack of control in determining our situation and circumstances. Presumably most of us do not choose physical pain most of the time; so pain is usually something we suffer. But even not-painful states can be unwanted, and so distressing; and if they arise anyway, we suffer them. Regardless of any ‘raw feel’, we suffer under such unwanted circumstances because they are unwanted; but also because, through their arising in spite of our wishes, we experience our impotence. More or less explicitly, we experience a new, mental pain at that very fact.

This interplay in suffering and control (or, power in determining conditions) is especially relevant in those aspects of our experience which are not predominantly physical. Thus,

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pleasure is ‘suffered’ in this way, no less than pain; it comes over us. Likewise desires. The related Greek pathē became ‘passions’, reflecting a view of human emotions within this picture of the human condition – emotions come over us, happen to us, are done to us. They are not ‘doings’, but that which is done to us, in the face of which we are called upon to act.

To the extent that these are not felt as suffering, it is because we recognize that we are, directly or indirectly, active in the production of our desires and pleasures. We assert them as our own – and when we do not, when we dissociate and yet they persist, then we do indeed suffer our desires, and even our pleasures, in the more obviously negative, and not merely grammatical sense of that term.

1 Such suffering is often, though not always, felt as suffering. While some of us can tolerate a larger or smaller measure of control, situations in which we are comprehensively deprived of any illusion of it are felt as hellish, and deeply inhuman. The situations in which most of us live, sensing our impotence at the margins of experience, are marked by a deep unease, unsatisfactoriness and even fear. Thus the fact of suffering – being in a situation of ‘being done to’ rather than ‘doing’ – and the phenomenology of suffering are deeply entwined, even if they can be distinguished conceptually.

Control, decision, activity, choice are the antithesis of suffering; and since action and choice are rational activities – activities that involve having reasons – engaging in meaningful activity is the antithesis of suffering. Indeed, a great deal of pain – mental and physical – can be sought and embraced, when it is conceived of as a meaningful part of rational activity. It is a way of redeeming suffering by asserting and determining its arising and its limits. On this view, there turns out to be a close connection between freedom and self-sufficiency, and a smooth slide from freedom as lack of force or determination by another, to freedom as lack of determination by anything external – external to myself, ultimately external to myself as agent of determination or choice. Thus, although I drew on the language of the Greeks, this basic view of the human condition and the suffering specific to it requires no such linguistic 1 Chance is clearly suffered in this ‘merely grammatical’ sense – it is what happens accidentally, without purpose or intention, and so for that reason ‘chance’ can never describe an event over which we have control. Necessity shares this same feature. And while the gulf between inevitability and improbability may seem vast, Aristotle was right to draw these two together and contrast the with purposive rational activity (Physics II). A world of pure chance and a world of pure necessity are both worlds of pure suffering, for they have eliminated any trace of agency.

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support. It is clearly preserved in Kant’s moral philosophy, although German words for feelings, emotions, suffering, and being acted upon do not share the etymological closeness of Greeks. Indeed, it is I think a way of experiencing our situation that resonated equally with people in India, 2,500 years ago, and with those whom Buddhism went on to touch.

II. The Problem: we are not in control

If this is the way we experience and relate freedom, suffering, pain, the passions, autonomy and so on, then it is then living is the experience of an intractable problem: For, w e ar e not Whatever marginal and transient success we may have in controlling our in c o ntr ol.

circumstances, we alw a y s fail to control them c o m p l et ely and ultim at ely. There always remain things outside of our control that press themselves upon us in undesired ways (incomplete); and the knowledge that this is so means that however much power we accumulate, no matter how far its reach or certain its grip, one can never be free from fear (ultimately).

The fact that the external world is quite evidently outside of our complete and ultimate control; the fact that striving to approach this particular unattainable goal actually creates more of the suffering it seeks to avoid, makes the felt experience of being alive a problem, and a problem crying out for a much better solution.

A Stoic solution: Only that whic h w e c o ntr ol is w orth havin g.

To this basic problematic, the Stoic replies by leaving all values in place, but recommending we look more closely what we ca n control, and value only that. Epictetus is the most eloquent advocate of this solution, and it is short work for him to conclude that the only thing absolutely under our control is our own power of choosing – determining the will, as a later age would put it. Determining our will always and only according to reason is the sole thing in our power, and it is the whole of virtue, according to the Stoic. Virtue, in turn, is the whole of human goodness or happiness, the only thing worth striving for. In this way, the problem of suffering is spirited away – and a great deal of humanity and common sense with it.

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The Athenian philosophers had a good deal more humanity and common sense than their Stoic successors. But neither Plato nor Aristotle challenge the basic problematic: lack of determining power is suffering, and we want to avoid that. The response, however, is a more realistic but rather resigned one: Control what you can to the extent you can, and you will minimize your suffering as much as it is possible, given the human condition. Aristotle advises us to strive for divine self-sufficiency, though we will always fail; Plato advises us to orient ourselves around the good ‘beyond being and better than it’, and structure our lives under its influence – though this too will never actually get us beyond being, or even becoming. On this view, control and self-determination are still good, and make things good.

It is unfortunate that they have limits, and unlike the Stoic view, these central goods cannot guarantee us all the kinds of goods there are. However, seeking to extend and improve our rational control and its reach is the central source of human happiness.

A Buddhist Approach: relinq uis h c o ntr ol, ac c e p t sufferin g

Buddhist philosophy is oriented around a profound appreciation of the in-built structure of suffering, an exploration of its internal logic and manifestations, and an insistence that the only way out of the problem is throu g h it, through facing it and understanding what we are facing. That is to say, the result of their analysis is that we should address suffering by accepting it, by eliminating our misguided and self-defeating desire to avoid it.


The forms of suffering can be put under three heads: pain, impermanence, and being :

1. pain : This includes most obviously sheer physical pain, whether the pains of injury, disease or aging, whether one in some way welcomes them or not. It can also be extended to include generally ‘not getting what one wants, and getting what one does not want’. The connection is a deep one, psychologically, for a great deal of brute suffering can be tolerated, redeemed and even chosen, provided it can be fitted into a necessary part of getting what is wanted, or considered good. Both of these sorts of suffering are an inevitable part of the human condition; they are also the sort of thing that we spend a great deal of time trying to mitigate, ameliorate (say, by fitting together into a good story) and avoid entirely.

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3. b ein g is sufferin g : Closely related to the transience of everything is the basic metaphysical fact that nothing enjoys or could enjoy the kind of sublime independence, the freedom from determination by what is other, that assures freedom from suffering. Everyone suffers, indeed, every thing suffers. There is no controlling agency anywhere, and everything is affected in its ‘inmost nature’ by others. This is as much as to say that there is no inmost nature, no true and inviolable essences. Epictetus’ retreat to the ‘will’ was a fantasy, a delusion; so is Aristotle’s appeal to a Prime Mover, organizing the order of reality through its own supreme and unchanging goodness.

The Buddhist observes that if we stop looking for consolation where none is to be had, then we stop indulging in false consolation and adding to our disappointment and frustration. So the first step in alleviating suffering is to accept it; and this is achieved by understanding correctly the nature of reality – that is, the path to happiness is the practice of metaphysics.

4 3 Even if I do not want to have forever the current object of enjoyment, I do want the state of having what I want and not having what I don’t want to endure and persist – that is, my internal state of satisfaction. But that too will pass.

4 And once again, this bears comparison with the Greek tradition’s injunction to ‘know thyself’.

Epictetus takes up this injunction: He advises you to investigate what is “really you”, and to disinvest

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The recommendation is to improve the pathē – the emotions, pleasures, desires that do come over us – through metaphysics, rather than by attempting to control. We should practice seeing things as they really are, in this specific respect – that is, myself, others and the world as without essence, without ultimate bearers, or ground, or goals that justify whatever pain or suffering that arises. This fundamental shift in perspective and presumptions will eliminate a great deal of self-created suffering – namely, all that which comes from lamenting our vulnerable state and trying to escape it, and that which comes from trying to hold onto what is transient. It breaks the feedback loop that makes more phenomenal suffering out of metaphysical suffering.

But it’s not clear that this will have much relevance at all to the first kind of suffering: pain.

Indeed, inasmuch as insight into the basic nature of reality does lead us to simply accepting that this is how things are, it might be an insight we are better off without, regarding pain.

Brute pain doesn’t hurt any less, just because I know it is a form of the general ‘beingexternally-determined’ to which all things are subject. In certain circumstances, it borders on morally offensive to be told simply to accept that is how things are. In other cases, it seems plain stupid.

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