Black and white photo of feet in chains

Does Suffering Serve a Purpose?

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In this post I’ll be giving a snapshot of the life and thought of Anicius Boethius, a figure who lived around the 6th century AD and has been described as the last of the Romans and also the first of the scholastic philosophers.

Who Was He?

Generally regarded as one of the most important philosophers of the Middle Ages, Boethius was imprisoned for some time by Theoderic the Great, who was King of Italy for a time and controlled a stretch of the Roman Empire. Boethius was accused of plotting to overthrow Theoderic, who eventually executed him, but not before he wrote his most famous work entitled Consolation of Philosophy.

Stylistically similar to some of the Socratic dialogues of antiquity, the book features a dialogue between Boethius and the spirit of philosophy personified as a woman. The work was translated into old English by King Alfred the Great in the 9th century (although some scholars dispute Alfred’s part in the translation), and later by the famous English poet Geoffrey Chaucer.

What’s the Big Idea?

In the Consolation of Philosophy Boethius argues that there is a higher power and that all suffering serves a purpose. He wrote that true happiness cannot be gained through the pursuit of money and power, but is found through philosophical detachment and the acceptance of hardship.

My Reflections

I think we all wonder at one time or another whether our suffering serves a purpose. In some religions, such as Hinduism, we are seen as responsible for our suffering due to the karmic consequence of our prior actions either in this lifetime or previous lifetimes. Within Christianity, suffering for the sake of the gospel is seen as honouring to Christ and to the glory of God.

I believe God is in control of all our suffering, and contrary to the perspective of many atheists, I would agree with Boethius that the suffering God brings us through serves a higher purpose. There have been times in my life when I have been truly broken by suffering, but without fail God has always turned my life around and brought me into a place of greater clarity and healing. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate.

I believe God is working out a plan for all His creatures, that may not make sense in this lifetime. When faced with life’s trials, the rather stoic acceptance of hardship recommended by Boethius can be seen as admirable, although I would add that we need a tremendous amount of grace in order to be able to see suffering, which at times can seem gratuitous, in a positive light.


In next week’s Friday Philosophy post I’ll be profiling Saint Anselm, whose ontological argument for the existence of God has been highly influential in the history of philosophy. If you’d like to receive an email with every new post, please consider subscribing. Thank you for reading!

13 comments

  1. Steven,
    Loved reading about Anicius Boethius. I read about him in my European history class, but they go through everything so fast that they only mentioned his name once calling him a “philosopher.” I concur with your reasoning that suffering brings us closer to God. I have been through tremendous amounts, and whenever I am in the midst of it, I cling closer to God rather than draw away, and it is in those moments that I am strengthened in Him. He becomes closer than ever, even. I think of what C.S. Lewis said, “…suffering is not good in itself. What is good is, for the sufferer, his submission to the will of God, and, for the spectators, the compassion aroused and the acts of mercy to which it leads.”
    Great post!
    With joy in Christ,
    Emily 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Dear Emily,

      Thank you so much for reading and for your thoughtful comment! That’s cool that you took a European history class, I’m sure I could learn a lot from you. I love studying philosophers and learning a bit about history along the way 🙂

      Peace and blessings!

      Steven

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m no history buff, so this is cool to read about. It reminds me of a novel called the Wothing Saga, which is a Sci-fi where there are people who take away all pain and suffering throughout the universe. When they encounter someone who convinces them that they are depriving people of some of the best parts of life by denying them pain it’s a real eye opener. It changed the way I view suffering anyway.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Absolutely I believe there is a beautiful purpose in suffering. And in fact this knowledge can bring some joy in suffering, knowing that there is something greater in the other side. I best example was when my son died. It was the worst (and best) thing to ever happen to me (so far). How?! Why?!! How can this be?? Because as one reason alone (although there are many honestly) before I had my son, I was cold-hearted and unsympathetic, seeing the world in stark black and white. Then through the trial and pain of holding my son in my arms as he lived and died, I felt Love literally plant itself in my heart. At some point later, once the initial shock had worn off and I was able to think and reflect, I gained the gift of sympathy and empathy. A hard lesson learned. I have much more patience and peace than I had. And I could go on and on… but suffice it to say, his life (and death) was a Gift to me and I am forever grateful for that.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Wow, Tara, thanks for sharing about your son. I can relate somewhat, as losing my mother taught me some similar lessons. My mother’s illness and spiritual journey have been a huge influence on my own path through life. Blessings and hugs xx

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Your style is lucid. I just need to add that within Hinduism, most schools of thought agree that Karma which you mention implicitly, can be & is wiped out entirely by the action of Ishvara qua YHWH. But a more faithful reading of Hinduism is that all suffering evolves in every aeon, and with the end of an aeon, all suffering evolves anew. The problem with this is, the English language is dualistic Either/Or. Suffering is, as it were, not a function of our actions, but is within the esse of Ishwara. Therefore, all that appears evil including radical evils will recur endlessly. I hinted at this in an essay I wrote long ago: https://philpapers.org/rec/CHACAT-15 … it is erroneous to think Hindu time as either cyclical or Hindu understandings of suffering as being causal.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excellent article, Steven Colborne. Your ref to Karma resonates with me. In Hinduism, there is no escape from law of Karma. It gives us enough indications, based on our actions, how the effects are going to be. Good Karma results in good things and bad karma results in bad things. Once the person undergoes suffering, he or she will realise, repent and dare not do the mistake again. It’s always a pleasure reading your posts. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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