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The Utility of Suffering

I recently read Michael D. O’Brien’s Elijah in Jerusalem, a philosophically rich novel and a real page-turner. O’Brien often crafts brilliant dialogues, and his most recent novel is full of them. One in particular struck me:

“Suffering is a great teacher. And a test.”
“Yes, but we must never seek suffering.”
“Of course. Though when it comes, we should understand that it is not the destruction of life’s foundations. It can show us the measure of our character and how we must grow.”
“But God does not want us to be unhappy.”
“Human choices make happiness and unhappiness, and we live with the consequences.”

The first speaker, Fr. Elijah, is a Carmelite monk, living out consecrated asceticism. The other speaker, a liberal German bishop, questions the value of suffering and asceticism altogether. Both speakers’ views highlight a deeper truth: the conflict between utilitarian ethics and Aristotelian virtues ethics. Utilitarianism has permeated postmodern culture, and one of its problematic consequences is a total renunciation of suffering. According to utilitarianism, suffering offers no practical utility. So why would anyone value it? 

Yet what exactly does utilitarian ‘happiness’ truly entail? Something far different than the sort of happiness Aristotle had in mind. To our society that worships productivity yet shuns hard work, happiness is nothing more than pleasure, ease, and self-centered freedom—a far cry from the happiness found in virtue. Psychology Today’s most popular articles on maximizing happiness involve nothing more than money, relaxation, and sex. A brief scan of the latest People magazine reveals vacationing celebrities advertising perfect bodies, luxurious clothing, and humanly unattainable lives of leisure. According to postmodern society, happiness is simply pleasure, a doctrine utilitarian ethics would readily uphold.

And if this much is true—that happiness is no more than pleasure—humanity as a whole falls short of achieving exactly what it yearns to maximize. For pleasure—at least the pleasure glorified in Psychology Today and People—dies with age. In the end, time proves perfect bodies and god-like comfort unattainable. Utilitarian ethics sells us short, proposing a faulty happiness no one can really achieve. Yet perhaps true happiness has nothing to do with the useful, but rather the good: virtue. Fr. Elijah, in all of his Carmelite asceticism, proposes precisely the sort of happiness Aristotle affirms in his virtues ethics. To Fr. Elijah, asceticism leads to self-mastery: the intellect’s governance over the passions. Such self-discipline is vital to ordering our passions toward true happiness through virtue. The practical choice between virtues ethics and utilitarian ethics hinges on the question of suffering: is it useful? Will we deem suffering capable of cultivating virtue? Or will we shun it irrevocably?

This is the choice at the heart of our free will, and the consequences will define society.

Madeleine is a rising junior studying philosophy and classics at Christendom College. A first honors student, she loves reading Plato, Thomas Aquinas, and Cicero. She is a staff writer for GenYize, a blog discussing solutions to challenges facing Generation Y, and was recently accepted to intern with the Media Research Center in Reston, VA. Madeleine is also a member of Christendom’s Cincinnatus League, the Eta Sigma Phi Classical Society, and the Christendom Chamber Orchestra.


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