Is it necessary to endure pain to achieve good things in life? Ancient Roman Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus seems to think so, and in fact wonders why the same people who will suffer for the sake of an illicit affair or to gain fame–things that will provide little of value–will not suffer as readily for the sake of doing the right thing, which will ultimately provide total happiness.

We have all experienced our share of pain this pandemic year, to varying degrees. Those who have not lost a loved one to COVID-19 can consider ourselves lucky, even as we are nonetheless cut off from friends, family, and our normal routines. When I read Musonius’ lecture 7, I wanted to see if I could fit our current global situation into the framework of his words. 

Photo by The Humantra on Unsplash

Musonius says that humans acquire all good things by pain. Whether we want to help our friends, improve our community, or “the most important and weighty reason of all, to be good and just and self-controlled”–all of these things are painful to achieve. But unlike the pain that people undergo to be wealthy, or cheat on their spouse, this pain that we go through to achieve good things leads to “complete happiness.” Sometimes Stoics have the reputation of being self-abnegating, even dour people who are above desiring happiness. But Musonius reminds us that there is “no other reason” for becoming good than to be completely happy as a result.

What if we imagined for a moment that we chose for there to be a pandemic? While this may sound insane, consider what Musonius’ student Epictetus taught: “Demand not that things should happen as you wish; but wish them to happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” Enchiridion, Ch. 8.

Following this reasoning, we can then imagine the pandemic as part of the pain we must endure to achieve a better, more virtuous life–a life where we reach our full human potential. Then this whole thing wouldn’t be merely a gigantic inconvenience at best, and at worst a total nightmare in which our loved ones are suffering and dying. If it is part of the pain that Musonius says we must go through to improve ourselves, then let’s focus on how exactly we are going to do that. 

What will we emerge from the pandemic having learned? How will we be different? How will we support our loved ones and friends? What can we do for our community?

There is a similar theme running through Buddhism. As Bhante Gunaratana writes in Mindfulness in Plain English, addressing the proper attitude in meditation, “View all problems as challenges. Look upon negativities that arise as opportunities to learn and to grow.”

Going back to Epicetetus’ words, it is a useful change of perspective to tell yourself that no matter how bad things are, you wouldn’t have them any other way. It’s a bit absurd to think anyone would have chosen for coronavirus to ravage the world. But let’s face it–we can’t do anything about it. That part has been done, without our input. We can either cower and sulk, or we can embrace the moment and treat it as a challenge. Musonius ends his lecture by saying that the person who is unwilling to undergo pain has essentially condemned himself to “being worthy of nothing good.” He goes on to say that pain is of little importance.

It’s crucial to note that Musonius does not say pain doesn’t exist. He doesn’t say we should love being cut off from friends and relatives or that it’s great that we can’t throw a party. He simply weighs the burden with the reward and concludes that the reward is worth it. If we can imagine that we chose this pain, it may help us move forward and transform suffering into happiness. Perhaps there is a sort of virtue in forced introspection, more time spent in nature, a reduced focus on material goods, increased amounts of time with the members of our pandemic “pods,” not worrying so much about our appearance, and not trying to impress people at parties.

2 thoughts on “Putting pain to good use

  1. superb analysis — both of Musonius, and of an attitude for addressing our current virus-induced situation. I am also reminded on one of my favorite sayings of Chairman Mao: Learn how to turn bad thing into a good thing; and Nietzsche’s aphorism: everything which does not kill me, strengthens me. But there is certainly much in our very troubled times that we can learn from such subtle readings of the ancient Stoics.


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