Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Seneca regarding the problem of pain:

"One can do nothing better than endure what cannot be cured and attend uncomplainingly the God at whose instance all things come about. It is a poor soldier that follows his commander grumbling. So let us receive our orders readily and cheerfully, and not desert the ranks along the march - the march of this glorious fabric of creation in which everything we shall suffer is a strand."

Letter CVII has much more regarding this. The problem of pain in a nutshell is the rhetorical question "How can a loving God allow X to happen?", where X is something nasty. Seneca has covered many topics as I near the end of this book, but this question doesn't seem to have crossed his mind. On the contrary, he seems to think that adversity is something which allows us to develop and prove a noble spirit and only a churlish god would deny us some adversity.

A similar sentiment is throughout the Bible, so in James 1:2, we have this:

"Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds"

Maybe I missed something, but it seems to me that the problem of pain is something which wasn't a problem until rich intellectuals in the 20th century started raising the question. Seneca's god was Jupiter and we might protest that there were no pretenses of love in Jupiter. The God of all creation, however, sent us his son as a sacrifice for our sins and takes a personal interest in us, yet now we complain that he isn't nearly loving enough.

I think that the problem of pain reflects much more of our modern mindset. In the 19th century, philosophy lost its ability to proceed logically and took to playing with words in rhetorical questions. (OK, Seneca says there was plenty of this in his time.) With our modern wealth and self-centered mentality, everything is about 'me' and there seems to be nothing that we can't expect from God. When these two worlds combine, the result is a me-centric irrationality culminating in the problem of pain. God, why don't you allow me and my loved ones to indulge our desires? Better to go back to Seneca.


Delirious said...

Great post! I think too that we are a very spoiled generation, one that wants instant gratification. We don't want to have to suffer at all, and get indignant when we are forced to. Road rage is a perfect example of a people who can't tolerate the least inconvenience or discomfort.

You have brought up a great point for me to remember when talking to my athiest friends. They often ask me how there can be a God if He allows bad things to happen. They ask, "Shouldn't God be nice?". In the past, I have focused on telling them that God allows us free agency to choose, but often that free agency hurts others. But I need to remember to focus on the great love He has shown us, and explain that He does show us love because He has sent His Son to not only pay the price for the wrongs that we do, but to suffer so that He would know "how to succor His people". THAT is the mark of a loving God.

Bunc said...

The problem of pain or adversity is of course somewhat different for the non believer. I know few non believers who's views have been formed by the reaction that a loving god wouldnt let X happen so there cant be a god. Thats certainly not my view.

For me pleasure and adversity or pain are just two aspects of our existence. What cannot be avoided must be endured. The pleasure in our lives is often thrown into starker focus exactly because of the pains and losses that we experience. This is the human condition.

In the west we are indeed very me centric and forget that for many in this world adversity and pain are everyday conditions and joy has to come from small things where it can be found.

For me I see this as historically one of the contributions that religions made. Marx described them as opium for the people. This is disparaging in one sense - it implies that it numbs people to conditions that they should be changing. But when humans are living at subsistence level and seeing death and destruction all around them seeking some numbing pain relief is understandable and I can well see why the notion of an afterlife etc would be comforting.

A life without some adversity or pain on the other hand would be no life at all. What would one measure joy or hapiness against? I also think that facing adversity sometimes can be an opportunity for growth. (I dont wish to be ridiculous of course by implying that someone facing the adversity of famine should see it as an opportunity for personal growth !)

LoneRubberDragon said...

I don't know ... it seems that pain and suffering with an accompanying unceasing complaining to God, are actually quite old, even ancient. Take the following few passages, of many others, showing the ancient nature of murmuring against adversity and God:

Genesis 4:13-14,
Exodus 14:10-14,
Exodus 15:24-25,
Exodus 16:7-8, 12,
Exodus 17:2-4,
Exodus 32:1-10,
Exodus 32:23,
Numbers 11:1-6,10-11
Numbers 13:31-14:4,11-12,26-29,35-36
Numbers 20:2-5
Numbers 21:4-5

Instant gratification, is nothing new, though common misconception, as only looking at the last ten years might color judgements, as:

Ecclesiates 1:"9 The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. 10 Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us. 11 There is no remembrance of former things; neither shall there be any remembrance of things that are to come with those that shall come after."

Spoiled generations are we all!