The Great Conversation:
Pleasure & Pain—Part II

By Gabriel Blanchard

Having discussed Epicurus, whose "hedonism" was not hedonistic, let us turn to the problem of suffering, which does not exist, has been solved, and is unsolvable.

Go here for Part I.

In the liturgical calendar of many Western churches, the tenth of August is the Feast of St. Lawrence, famously martyred by burning during a persecution of Christians in 258. According to the conventional story, Lawrence, one of the deacons* of Rome, was approached by an official who offered to turn a blind eye to his orders in exchange for a hefty bribe from the riches of the Church; the saint returned days later with a mass of the city’s poor and told the official, “These are the riches of the Church.”† Unamused, the official turned Lawrence in, and he was executed, with just enough time to get in one more quip: while on the pyre, he called out, Manduca, jam coctum est, or “It’s done, have a bite.” The annals of history record few instances of gallows humor quite so brazen—other top contenders include Anne Boleyn, who while imprisoned in the Tower of London referred to herself as “Queen Lackhead,” and murderer James French, who suggested in an interview a few days before his execution by electric chair that the journalist use the headline “French Fries.” Clearly not everyone reacts in quite the same way to either the threat or the fact of pain.

Defining pain is tricky, as is often the case for immediate sensations; “trying to explain red to a man born blind” has become proverbial for a reason. In an appendix to The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis proposed two definitions which, interestingly, only partly overlap. The “A” sense is a particular type of physical sensation, “probably conveyed by specialized nerve fibers” and recognizable as a distinctive feeling whether or not the person experiencing it dislikes the feeling; this is why we can enjoy things like a little bit of ache in the legs while settling into a hot bath, or the lingering burn of spicy food. The “B” sense is pain in the sense of “suffering,” i.e. anything disliked by the person experiencing it, physical or not, which seems like about as good a definition as can reasonably be wanted. He also points out that, while individual tastes differ a great deal, pains in sense A always become pains in sense B if raised above a certain threshold. It also turns out that Lewis was correct in his guess about those “specialized nerve fibers”: congenital analgesia is an exceedingly rare but real medical condition in which, although the patient’s senses mostly work perfectly fine, the sensation of pain—and the flinch reflex that goes with it—don’t occur. Congenital analgesia is an extremely dangerous condition, since the lack of an aversion response means injuries and illnesses frequently go untreated and even unnoticed by sufferers.

Speaking of The Problem of Pain, one of the great riddles of philosophy and theology has been that eponymous problem—often instead called the problem of evil, embracing not only pain but other evils like malice and death. The subject’s popularity is partly an artifact of the overwhelming dominance of Christianity, Islam, and (since the eighteenth century) deism in the West. Not all religions propose an intelligent, absolutely good, omnipotent God, and those that don’t have no “problem of pain” to answer; but the tradition of Abrahamic monotheism proposes exactly that, and thus lands us in the pickle: If there is a God like that, why is there evil in the world?

Behold, and see if there be any sorrow like unto my sorrow, which is done unto me, wherewith the LORD hath afflicted me in the day of his fierce anger.

Replies to this question are called theodicies, from θεός [theos] “god” and δίκη [dikē] “justice.” Think of Milton‘s famous lines in the opening book of Paradise Lost, explaining his purpose and invoking the aid of the Holy Ghost: “That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, / And justifie the wayes of God to men.” Most theodicies can be placed into one (or more) of four groups, which we may nickname Minimists, Optimists, Avengers, and Mystics.‡

Minimists are those who consider evils, including pain, necessary—and therefore in some sense beyond criticism. In the second century, St. Irenæus taught that suffering and even sin were inevitable “growing pains” for ignorant creatures like ourselves, and Lady Julian seems to be saying the same thing when she says that “sin behooves us”; along slightly different lines, both Avicenna and Leibniz proposed that this is “the best of all possible worlds,” and that there was no sense in asking for a better one (at least at this stage of creation). The Optimists consider pains justified on account of some greater good they are linked to. The exact nature of the link can vary: e.g., things like healing or forgiveness cannot exist unless illness or offense go before them, or (as in the example of congenital analgesia) the possibility of evils may be a necessary side-effect of something good. For instance, the defense proposed by Lewis in the aforementioned book posits that there could not be a world full of beings that were really free, and therefore capable of love, unless that world also had the possibility of suffering “baked in.” The Avengers are those that consider pain and suffering to be punishment—either in the superstitious mode suggested by Job’s friends, or in the more sophisticated mode of the Hindu doctrine of karma, which states that present suffering is a penalty for misdeeds in past lives.

Finally, the Mystics are those who treat the question as unanswerable. (“Mystic” comes ultimately from μῡ́ω [muō], meaning to shut, close the mouth or eyes, especially of a person who had been initiated into secrets.) The Mystics differ from the other three groups, more closely resembling the author of Job. The first three all assume that pain calls for some kind of rationale, and that this can be supplied by taking thought. The Mystics tend to deny this. Sometimes they deny only the last bit, doubting our capacity to even grasp a proper answer (let alone figure it out on our own initiative); others, like the author of the pseudo-Dionysian documents, are more metaphysical. With variations, the most typical philosophic view in the West has long been that evil is not real—not in the sense that we don’t encounter it or need to deal with it, but in the sense that it does not have its own independent being. It is, from root to fruit, parasitic. On this view, theodicy seeks to give a rationale for what is essentially irrational, tries to justify injustice. The exercise is, therefore, both a contradiction in terms and a dangerous means of rationalizing cruelty.

The mention of cruelty brings us to our next point …

Go here for Part III.

Suggested reading:
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
The Epistle to the Hebrews
St. Augustine, Confessions
St. Catherine of Genoa, Treatise on Purgatory
Samuel Johnson, The Idler No. 17, “Expedients of Idlers
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory

*The role of deacons has taken on more ceremonial aspects, but the diaconate was originally an administrative office whose main concern was care for the poor.
†If this part of the account is true, it’s possible that St. Lawrence was thinking not only of Scriptural texts to this effect, but of a famous story about Cornelia, mother of the reforming senators Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus. Cornelia was an old-fashioned Roman matron who lived by the virtue of frugalitas, or simplicity; when a friend visited her to show off her costly new jewels, Cornelia (rather than openly rebuke her friend’s vulgarity) kept her talking until her young sons came home, at which she embraced them and told her friend, “These are my jewels.”
‡To be clear, these groups are of the present author’s devising, not normal categories among scholars.


Gabriel Blanchard serves as the editor at large for CLT. He holds a degree in Classics from College Park, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you’re enjoying this series, you might also like this essay on evolution in science and culture, this one on hospitality, our two-parter on the concept of Scripture, or this one on the idea of truth. Thank you for reading the Journal.

Published on 10th August, 2023. Page image of an illustration of the Bull of Phalaris by Pierre Woeiriot (date uncertain, but between 1550 and 1562). The Bull of Phalaris was a torture device, famous in Greek legend and possibly historical; according to Diodorus Siculus (fl. ca. 60-30 BC), the Athenian Perilaus designed it for Phalaris, the infamously cruel tyrant of Akragas (now Agrigento) in Sicily. It was life-size, made of bronze, and hollow, with a door in the side by which to insert victims. A fire would be lit beneath it, and ingeniously devised pipes in the interior would turn the screams of the victim into the bellowing of a bull. Diodorus further reports that this last sadistic detail disgusted even Phalaris, who made Perilaus the Bull’s first victim; when he was overthrown, Phalaris in turn was condemned to the Bull.

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