One of the advantages of breaking your leg and going through extensive rehabilitation is the possibility for considerable time spent in reflection. This year will long live in my memory as one associated with pain: the pain of breaking my leg and the pain of surgery, the humiliation and pain of turning up to my daughter’s wedding on crutches, the pain from impinged tendons in my shoulders from the wheelchair, a strained planter ligament in my foot and the burning pain in my neck and arm that have been my constant companions for the last two months.
Inevitably, as I have spent much time alone and in pain, this year, I have pondered that ancient question, Why do human beings suffer? You can’t dig around in this type of subject matter without those other thorny questions arising: Does God cause suffering? What should we do about suffering and can we prevent it?
Today I read an article in the British magazine Philosophy Now (Benjamin Kerstein) about the Greek philosopher Epicurus (341 – 270 BC) who pondered these questions. Epicurus may have broken his leg skiing and had time to sit round and philosophise about this causal event in his life. Maybe not. Maybe he just sat around a lot.
Anyway, Epicurus seemed to believe that suffering is a defining feature of human life. Suffering forces us to confront some of the most fundamental and difficult questions of human existence: Why do we exist? Why are human beings condemned to an inevitable death? Why is suffering and injustice heaped on apparently good people, while the wicked prosper and flourish. Is there a God? And if there is, why does He allow suffering to continue? Inevitably does this lead humans to conclude that God is evil? I certainly have reached that conclusion on numerous occasions this year.
Alison Krauss, the US folk-singer, asks “Why do we suffer, crossing off the years, there must be a reason to it all.” Epicurus, who may have been a fan of her music, asked – is there really a reason? He believed that the world and everything in it was the result of the random activities of indivisible particles of matter (he postulated a philosophy called atomism. (The word atom means indivisible). He concluded that the world was not good nor bad, just indifferent. Human beings as part of this indifferent universe, will endure both good and bad fortune and all sorts of suffering. He concluded, rationally, that in the face of indifference and pain, the most reasonable response for a human being is to seek to minimise suffering – in particular one’s own suffering. To achieve this he believed people should cultivate pleasure, and seek enjoyment and tranquility in life. Mr Kestein said Epicurus cautions against seeing this as a call to hedonism – it is not a philosophy of sensual, pleasure seeking. Epicurus was apparently quite explicit about this. Instead, his philosophy advocated a search for ataxia – a form of happiness that was defined by an absence of pain, or at least an attempt to keep pain to an absolute minimum. Ataxia could not be achieved by hedonism. Epicurus advocated seeing a middle way between pleasure and pain thus there is pleasure to be had in food and drink but neither should be consumed to excess or suffering will result. Epicurus recommended a lot of moderation, derived from the pleasures of intellectual excellence, virtuous behaviour, the fulfilment of basic material needs and genuine, lasting friendships.
To my great relief, Epicurus also philosophised that suffering was not insurmountable. Suffering was the result of our inability to avoid all pain and sorrow. He also believed that death, as the end of all sensation, was nothing to be feared. In fact, it was something of a deliverance. Funny, I’ve felt that way a few times this year. He had a very interesting idea that nothing awaits us after death. It is the end of ourselves, the dispersion of our constituent atoms into the void. However, it’s also the end of all human suffering. As a result suffering should not be feared – suffering does not last.
Epicurus then, answered my question and that posited by Alison Krauss, through a rational philosophy of moderation as a means of moderating suffering. Life has no essential meaning according to Epicurus. What meaning we bring to it, we bring through our efforts to moderate its negative aspects, which we achieve by moderating ourselves and our behaviour. As a rationalist, Epicurus believed that the management of suffering is within human capabilities (Hope so). He was thus quintessentially Greek and was delving into questions which still trouble us today. They obviously also trouble US female, bluegrass singers.
I looked up some of Epicurus’s writings and he has some great quotes
- Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance.
- It is not so much our friends’ help that helps us as the confident knowledge that they will help us.
- Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.
And to top it off he left us the English word Epicurean which means somebody who derives pleasure from food and drink. He was a busy man.