By the time this is published, somewhere between a quarter and a half a million people around the globe will have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Scenes of refrigerator trucks gathered around New York City hospitals to collect corpses have sobered even many starry-eyed optimists. When you add economic crisis and social unrest to the mix, it’s understandable that many people, whether optimists or pessimists, have paused to reflect on their own view of what’s important in life.
This has not escaped the notice of philosophers and religious thinkers. They have entered the fray of public debate to grapple with the question of how we should process the fact of widespread suffering and death. One answer that has emerged is worth highlighting, if only because it should be challenged by anyone searching for meaning in the fog of pessimism.
Bowing before suffering
Consider first the religious thinkers. In the New York Times, Ross Douthat urges us to consider Christian views about the meaning of suffering, such as the idea that it is a gift because bearing it allows us to demonstrate our goodness.1 Still, he takes seriously those who say there’s no obvious positive purpose achieved by suffering. In a recent sermon Pope Francis didn’t invoke any such positive: he emphasized merely how suffering shatters what he takes to be a negative. The pandemic “exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules.”2 In his view, we can’t save ourselves so we should instead have faith that the Lord will save us.3 Critchley says that there is a distinctively human strength in knowing of our mortality, but does not explain the nature of that strength. Roy Meredith in Quillette invokes the ancient Stoic view about what that strength might be: we should not try to rebel against mortality, but instead stop wanting the joy we cannot obtain. When we do, we can practice a kind of heroism in sitting on one’s couch at home under quarantine.4
All of these views emphasize the virtue of accepting suffering’s causes. None of them bother to celebrate the virtues of fighting to eliminate those causes.
Thinkers who counsel the virtues of acceptance often invoke the “serenity prayer”: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” There’s a lot of wisdom in this adage, even for those who don’t believe in a God. But the attitude shared by religious and secular thinkers alike accepts only the first piece of this wisdom while ignoring the rest; the result is a fetishizing of suffering.
The efficacious mind vs. suffering
Obviously no one can change the fact of their own mortality. But this does not mean that fear of death from a particular cause is irrational, let alone that we should “welcome death’s approach.” If we want to make the best of our chance to live a long and fruitful life, we should take steps to ward off threats to it.
One might be tempted to excuse the ancient religions and philosophies for thinking there was little point in exercising the courage to change the world in our favor. Their originators lived in a world filled with superstition in which scientific knowledge dealt mostly with intellectual curiosities with little application to practical life. Prayer and acceptance might have looked like the only alternatives. But today’s thinkers have no excuse for thinking that human beings have no control over how fragile or vulnerable we continue to be.
Consider one eloquent symbol of the human power over nature, even in the face of a pandemic. During the London plague of 1665, Isaac Newton, though quarantined at home, invented the calculus, discovered basic principles of optics, and laid the groundwork for his law of universal gravitation. The last of these required seeing how the motions of the planets, which had been observed by astronomers for millennia, provided data for laws of motion that govern the motion of objects on earth as well. His discoveries revolutionized science generally, paving the way for the Industrial Revolution that in so many ways improved standards of living, including the eradication of disease.5
Modern medical science, whether through the creation of vaccines, antitoxins, or countless other innovations, has since saved the lives of billions who might otherwise have fallen prey to one plague or another. One set of researchers estimates that only around a hundred scientists have contributed medical innovations that have saved over five billion lives.6One scientist, Karl Landsteiner, is estimated to have alone saved a billion lives through his discovery of blood groups, which enable safe blood transfusion.7 From these and other innovations, life expectancy in the modern West has risen from around 35 in 1760 to 75 or 80 today.8
Those who live in a world with such scientific achievements and take seriously that the only human distinction is our knowledge of our vulnerability are willfully blind. Suffering does not have to be accepted as an inevitable part of life. The efficacious human mind has the power to reduce its role.
A philosopher challenges the cult
We’ve considered what some mainstream religious and secular thinkers have said. Let’s now look at someone who swam against the mainstream. Though she was an atheist, Ayn Rand endorsed the secular, philosophic message contained in the serenity prayer, a message that the cult of suffering ignores. She celebrated the power of the human mind to change the world through science, technology, and industry, and urged us to be courageous enough to change it.
With that in mind, Rand said that those who bemoan the futility of human action and the inefficacy of human knowledge rob us of the serenity and courage described by the prayer. And in her notes on the drafting of Atlas Shrugged, she said the following, which I believe speaks directly to today’s cult of suffering:
Man does not exist for suffering. Suffering is an accidental, “marginal” part of his existence, which he must fight in order to be free to exist in happiness, which he must overcome as quickly as possible — and not spend his life seeking, thus making it the aim of his life. The suffering which threatens men from physical nature is negligible compared to the suffering he brings upon himself and others. If man functioned properly in the field open to him and determined by him — the field of his choice, his free will, his thinking and actions — he would eliminate most, and perhaps even all, of the “physical” suffering caused by the accidents of his physical nature.11
Suffering is real, and not always the product of the wrong human decisions. There are natural disasters, accidents, and destructive viruses. When we meet with pain and loss, whether as a result of natural or man-made disasters, it can be overwhelming, and while we experience this, it can be difficult not to see it as the ruling force of life. But if we want to live a truly human life, and not cower from the storm like an animal as the cult of suffering would have us do, we should remember that more is possible. What matters in life is the happiness that suffering is an obstacle to. This should give us reason to look for ways to overcome that suffering.
Most of us are not geniuses capable of finding a cure or vaccine for the coronavirus, but each of us can still derive inspiration from the heroes in our midst. Consider the doctors working on the frontlines of the pandemic, the entrepreneurs maintaining the technology and infrastructure that keeps our economy from sinking completely, and yes, the scientists working on a cure. Their efficacy benefits us directly, but their courage in the face of a crisis should be a psychological beacon. At the very least, it should shatter the illusion that there is some kind of virtue involved in giving up, accepting suffering as our lot in life, and being content to sit at home on a couch.
- Ross Douthat, “The Pandemic and the Will of God,” New York Times, April 11, 2020.
- Pope Francis, “Extraordinary Moment of Prayer,” Vatican.va, March 27, 2020.
- Simon Critchley, “To Philosophize Is to Learn How to Die,” New York Times, April 11, 2020.
- Roy Wayne Meredith III, “Sickness and Stoicism,” Quillette.com, April 4, 2020.
- For more on the connection between the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, especially regarding the steam engine, see Jason Crawford, “What Was the Relationship of the Scientific Revolution to the Industrial?,” RootsofProgress.org, October 29, 2017. For more on how the widespread availability of washable cotton clothing (enabled by the steam engine and industrialization) led to improved personal hygiene and sanitary conditions, see P. E. Razzell, “‘An Interpretation of the Modern Rise of Population in Europe’ —a Critique,” Population Studies 28 (1), March 1974, 5–17 (esp. 15–16).
- Steven Pinker gives an instructive list of medical heroes and the number of lives they saved:
- Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 64, citing ScienceHeroes.com.
- Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 54, citing Our World In Data.
- See Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, Book I, Aphorism 129.
- See Ayn Rand, “The Metaphysical Versus the Man-Made,” Philosophy: Who Needs It (New York: Signet, 1984), especially 34–38.
- Ayn Rand, journal entry dated May 19, 1949. Ayn Rand Papers, 06A 158_06A_002_008 and Folder 06A 158_06A_002_009. Courtesy of the Ayn Rand Archives. Edited transcript in David Harriman (ed.), Journals of Ayn Rand (New York: Dutton, 1997), 599.