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Suffering and VirtueReview - Suffering and Virtue
by Michael S. Brady
Oxford University Press, 2018
Review by María D. García-Arnaldos
Jul 23rd 2019 (Volume 23, Issue 30)

It is risky to talk about pain. It is one of those subjects in which we move as in a pendulum; or, we avoid talking about it and we choose to silence it; or, we cannot hush it.

We cannot deny that pain is repugnant to human nature and that, in principle, it would be unbearable if we did not have someone by our side for whom to continue living or with whom to cope with suffering. Some people understand that, in a broad sense, the pain has no other result than to produce further suffering, something absurd and meaningless. A person who is in a state of pain seems to stop being subject because he does not act, he is the object of a cruel, unjust, capricious and arbitrary destiny. On the other hand, the fact of enduring suffering is seen as something valuable that boosts the growth of virtues in a person's life. But, does pain make us better?

In Suffering and Virtue, Michael Brady justifies the value of suffering from a virtue-theoretical perspective, whether we focus on individual virtues or social virtues. While Brady is best known for his works on the philosophy of emotions and its links with moral philosophy and epistemology, he also has investigated the value of suffering in different projects.

Well written, clear and sound structured, Suffering and Virtue (SV) is a critical study that attempts to drive the aspects of a difficult subject matter as suffering in the current context. In this research, Brady has a major purpose: to explore why do we suffer (SV, p. 2), which are the causes of physical and emotional suffering and what is the value of suffering. At the very beginning he defines virtues as "excellences of a person or group, and in particular are traits or dispositions that enable the individual or group to respond correctly in important spheres of human experience" (SV, p. 3). Then, he analyses the theme of the nature and role of suffering and affective experience in general and argues that suffering is vital for the development of virtue and, therefore, to reach a fulfilling life. His thesis seeks to demonstrate that suffering is essential for virtue because: (i) it is constitutive, that is to say, pain can itself constitute virtuous responses; (ii) it is developmental; suffering also promotes the development of virtues associated with strength of character, such as tenacity, virtues of vulnerability, such as intellectual flexibility, moral virtues, such as honesty and wisdom. Finally, (iii) suffering is essential to virtue because of its communicative capacity (SV, p. 4). There are forms of suffering that communicate virtues to others and foster social virtues related to justice, love and trust. That is, through suffering, we communicate our strength, which is a way to promote trust. In turn, social virtues such as solidarity, trust or justice, support the development and manifestation of virtues such as resilience or tenacity. In this sense, suffering is essential for the social virtues; so, for individual virtues to develop within a community, social virtues are needed. We improve and enrich ourselves more as individuals when we improve as a collective. Consequently, according to Brady, suffering is also essential for the growth of social groups.

The book itself contains six chapters:

Chapter I: What Suffering Is. This chapter is concerned with two kinds of suffering (physical and mental) and nature of suffering. Brady offers a Componential Account to explain how suffering involves a motivational element like desire. Finally, he presents a Desire View of Suffering, that is, an account of suffering that involves two essential elements: a negative affective state (unpleasantness) that is itself a desire (SV, p. 27).

Chapter II: The Nature of Unpleasantness, it is a discussion that seeks to analyze different views (internalist and externalist) about unpleasantness as a core element of suffering. Brady introduces the question about the nature with the distinctive feeling theory of unpleasantness. Besides, he presents Hedonic Tone views and he defends a version of an externalist account that appeals to desire. In conclusion, he considers some objections about his account and he states that the new desire view avoids these objections and it is presented as the most plausible account of negative affect.

Chapter III: Suffering as a Virtuous Motive. This chapter is concerned with the nature of suffering from Brady's virtue-theoretical perspective: pain and remorse as a faculty virtue. More specifically, it is a critical exposition of virtue and the idea of suffering which primarily refers to intrinsic value. Forms of suffering, according to Brady, can be appropriate responses and can constitute virtuous motives (SV, p. 65). Here Brady does not limit himself to an analysis of suffering and virtue, but also consider and respond to some objections, and defends that virtue-theoretical approach points out how important suffering is to our physical and emotional well-being.

Chapter IV: Suffering and Virtues of Strength and Vulnerability. Brady examines how suffering plays a role in enabling us to develop and express virtues as strength of character and vulnerability. He offers an analysis of the Suffering and Strength in Nietzsche' perspective. According to Brady, virtue-theoretical account deals well with Nietzsche's view. Without such an idea of the strength of character or virtues of vulnerability, people tend to radically undervalue the value of life. Indeed, for Brady as for Nietzsche, virtue grows, paradoxically, a result of the pain, wretchedness, grief…. Moreover, if we accept that suffering is a core component of illness, regarding virtues of vulnerability as adaptability, humility or creativity, suffering plays an important role to develop these virtues because of its epistemic-motivational function (SV, p. 109).

Chapter V: Suffering, Morality and Wisdom. In this chapter, Brady explains the importance of suffering for the exercise of the moral virtues. It begins with the discussion of the problem of evil and the "virtue solution" and focuses on particular virtues related to correct behavior. It develops the idea of soul-making and the importance of (i) one's suffering for moral virtue, (ii) suffering for understanding, (iii) reflection on experiences of suffering. It finishes explaining how suffering is necessary for the development of the virtue of wisdom which unifies both the practical and epistemic virtues.

Chapter VI: Suffering, Communication and Social Virtue. This chapter summarizes the previous chapters and engages in a holistic critical analysis of the topics discussed from the social point of view. Suffering has an important epistemic and motivational effect not only individually but for the development of social virtue. Brady offers the communicative theory of punishment and presents suffering as an expression of love and as a test of virtue.

I would now wish to develop some ideas on Brady inspired by reading Nietzsche' work and by my understanding of Nietzsche's philosophy.

According to Brady, Nietzsche' view about suffering not only is essential for strength but it provides the conditions in which it is possible to embrace challenges and overcome adversity. He presents Nietzsche's ideas about psychological weakness and psychological strength. On the one hand: "For Nietzsche, psychological weakness consists in a particular kind of negative response to the unavoidable fact of suffering: the weak person is someone who despairs over the fact that they suffer, who is hostile to this fact, who resents it" (SV, p. 93). On the other hand, psychological strength has to do with to take a positive attitude towards different ways in which we suffer: "To be strong is to regard such things as challenges, as things not to be resented or feared but to be overcome. The right kind of attitude towards suffering is thus to welcome and embrace it, as an opportunity for resistance and overcoming" (SV, p. 94).

To simplify, the goal is not to point out pain as suffering but as an opportunity. Brady distinguishes this vision of pain versus the idea of "actively seek out suffering, to demonstrate and express our strength in overcoming it. At the very least, this seems imprudent or masochistic" (SV, p. 97). To clarify this point, it could be helping to consider the notion of pain as "work of art" in Nietzsche and especially his Zarathustra.

In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche presents a new conception of the world based on fundamental ideas such as tragic thought and the eternal return. The undertaking that Ancient Greeks wanted to carry out was to transfigure suffering into a work of art, but is it possible that pain becomes a work of art? Nietzsche's ontology of the artist aims to recover the vital instincts of the human being, inhabiting the extremes (Apollonian and Dionysian) and taking the sensible form as a point of arrival. For Nietzsche, suffering is essential to promote strength. Suffering does not simply provide the opportunity for one to respond excellently, but the strongest people must embrace suffering, must seek adversity and pursue it so that they can overcome and conquer such things through their strength and the will of power.

It is an essential problem for understanding the virtues of strength as a whole since Nietzsche begins and ends his writings by praising this notion rather than explaining or developing it. On the one hand, when Nietzsche finished writing The Birth of Tragedy was full of doubts between the return to the Greeks and the problems of culture in 1870, problems that are not eliminated with the resort of the tragic. According to Nietzsche, there is an abandonment of the hero of the classic tragedy concerning the way of being before the destiny: the hero hides the pain but lives in it. His mask is what allows him to live in pain: it is the dialectic of appearances. In the prefatory essay of 1886, "An Attempt at Self-Criticism", he shows that he has taken on the point of view of art to explain culture; but he has fallen to the romantic point of view (the weak dimension of the hero). Thus, in his "An Attempt at Self-Criticism", Nietzsche abandons the metaphysics of the artist, the classical form that the art of sublimation has over life. Now, the existence of the world is no longer justified as an aesthetic phenomenon, the traditional form of sublimation was based on the privilege of the form of art, on a concept of language capable of representing the contents of experience. From my point of view, a "moral" of aesthetic order is problematic; in fact, the problem of a view too individualistic is to pursue only the flourishing life of the solitary self, but the goal is not the own enhancement forgetting the least and the poorest. I contend, all in all, the unfeasibility in a globalized era, of neglecting the rules that allow the survival of the community and ensure the coexistence of individuals.

On the other hand, Nietzsche makes a transposition, speaks of the unfeasibility of the tragic man; and presents Zarathustra as the new Bildung (culture). He aims to recover the vital instincts of human beings, transform the man who has become something petty, mediocre, indifferent, lazy, servile. That is why, as it appears in Zarathustra, he invites us to recover the Greek innocence of the future through the "three metamorphoses". It is about becoming a child: The superior man is a child and a great dancer because the child has no prejudices, is innocent, plays with life; the dancer makes the game a permanent risk, walks through the "loose rope" of becoming, makes his life a continuous experience himself.

We asked ourselves before if it was possible for the pain to become a work of art. You see the misfortune, the "bad luck", but from Nietzsche's vitalist perspective, a disease that carries a burden of suffering can be a mediation to prepare us to death. From death we have an external experience (see our fellowmen die); in fact, who sees death is, rather, who is on the side of the one who dies, who sees him die. In addition to external experience, we have an internal experience: the experience of aging itself. But no one can doubt that each of us has its "moment" which is the end of our existence. Then, when we accept suffering because we are aware that this moment will come, both physical pain and diseases, we can consider degrees that prepare us for that purpose. Also, for Brady, suffering does not only provide the opportunity for one to respond excellently; sometimes we benefit by overcoming suffering. But, while for Nietzsche, the strongest person must embrace suffering –they must seek adversity and pursue it so that they can overcome and conquer such things through their strength and will to power–, the responsibility of those who accompany people marked by pain or at the end of life, it becomes a much greater conquest.

As for the edition of the book, the cover is unfortunate; in my opinion, it conveys an equivocal idea regarding the content of the book. Maybe because it is not clarified what is the difference between suffering and to know how to suffer. These are different things. One thing is to suffer and another one is to know how to suffer, accept suffering out of love, for example, the suffering required by love. The cover presents an image that misunderstood and misrepresents a positive and affirmative vision of the relationship between suffering and virtue. Anyway, Brady's contribution through this volume that addresses such a current issue not only helps our understanding of suffering but also puts the question back on the table of the debate about how to learn to suffer and overcome difficulties virtuously.

 

© 2019 María D. García-Arnaldos

 

María D. García-Arnaldos - PhD USC, University CEU-San Pablo (Madrid -Spain), dolores.garcia.arnaldos@usc.es


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