By John Rieping | Published 28 Feb 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
"Empty is the argument of the philosopher that does not relieve any human suffering."
-- Epikouros (341-270 B.C.)
Greek philosopher Epikouros, one of the most popular of his day, saw pain as evil and the archenemy of happiness. To thwart it, he taught, one must fearlessly dwell on past or present enjoyments.
"Pleasure is our first and kindred good," he wrote. "It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing."
To maximize pleasure and minimize suffering, Epikouros advised avoiding marriage, religion, politics, the problems of others, and concern for the future. The well-being of the world is not one's responsibility, he claimed.
"The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd," he wrote.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3 B.C. - A.D. 65) also believed in enjoying the present without worry about the future. But the Roman statesman and writer saw value in suffering.
"To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature," he wrote.
Born in what is now Spain, Seneca followed the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which taught that everyone has a spark of the universe's intelligent divine fire (aka Fate or Reason). To be happy, one had to live in harmony with this divine fire by virtues, which are how we apply reason to our lives.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person,” he wrote in a letter.
It isn't that we should behave unnaturally, he felt, but rather the opposite. We should act according to human nature, which is rational. We should govern the fires of desires with reason instead of being slaves to emotions or circumstances.
"We should every night call ourselves to account," he wrote. "What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to confession."
He noted, "To err is human, but to persist [in wrongness] is diabolical."
Seneca believed virtue enables peace of mind, which lets us rise above suffering. It also allows us the pleasure of simply being ourselves instead of "assuming a pose."
"For it is torturous to be constantly watching oneself ... fearful of being caught out of our usual role. And we are never free from concern ... for many things happen that strip off our pretense against our will, and, though all this attention to self is successful, yet the life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety."
You may have already heard the words of Seneca more than you realize. Some of his sayings, such as "it's quality not quantity that matters," continue to be used by many to this day. The man who wrote, "The best ideas are common property," would surely approve.
Though Seneca wasn't a Christian, the ancient and medieval Christian Church recognized in him a kindred mind. One early Christian writer (Tertullian of Carthage, Africa) referred to him as "our Seneca."
Coincidentally, Seneca's elder brother, Gallio, appears in the Bible. The Roman official showed apathy towards a religious dispute involving the apostle Paul in the wealthy Greek city of Corinth (Acts 18:12-17).
In his letters, Paul would repeatedly display an attitude toward suffering that even today seems countercultural.
"I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church." (Colossians 1:24)
A core belief of Christianity is that God chose to become a man, Yeshua (aka Jesus), to suffer justice in place of all who have done wrong. By doing so, he earned for humanity a pardon for our crimes so that we could be free to return to God, who we reject by wrongdoing.
Paul's words point to this belief and a related one: the suffering of those united with God shares in the value of his anguish as a God-man who died for all.
Hence Paul could rejoice in suffering, because he -- like Jesus -- could offer it to God as a sacrifice for the benefit of those Paul loved.
So should we who claim to believe.