There are few problems that are as ancient and unanswerable as the existence of suffering. In ancient times the tragic was affirmed, with the rise of Christianity suffering was moralized, and in the late modern age suffering is a malady to be treated. Dostoevsky is known for his literature on suffering and the problem of evil, often responding with religious faith. Aldous Huxley presents the clinical perspective to suffering as an emotional chemical that can be easily altered, and the questionable authenticity of such contentment. These two polar opposite yet similar positions are just as relevant today in our overly sanitized and denialist society.
Dostoevsky experienced firsthand the collision of Russian Orthodox with Socialist ideology. Suffering, especially among the least fortunate, was in no short supply and Dostoevsky was explicit in his writing to reflect the atrocities he witnessed. In response to suffering, Christianity moralized the endurance of pain. The Church has explained away suffering as a necessity to achieving salvation. Dostoevsky does not eagerly accept this rationalization at face value as this same rationalization is what the downtrodden and exploited tell themselves as they endure daily misery. Dostoevsky responds with a profound ‘redemptive salvation’; that suffering is the cause of greater consciousness and only by self-knowledge as well as acceptance can one achieve salvation. No doubt Dostoevsky had religious salvation in mind, but the role of ontological redemption is particularly present. Suffering for the sake of suffering, or suffering explained away as a divine plan is insufficient. Likewise the response by Socialist ideology aspired to a manmade utopia and believed it should be achieved by any means necessary was equally insufficient. History demonstrates what an atrocious attempt that was and the needless suffering that was inflicted in the name of a ‘higher cause’. Dostoevsky is remarkably organic in his contemplation of suffering and does not hesitate to admit our uncertainty and mystery concerning the problem of evil. There are few literary figures and philosophers that have taken it on so directly.
In the dystopian work Brave New World the role of suffering is a primary theme. Huxley contrasts two starkly different realities, one in which freedom is sacrificed for absolute security and absolute contentment, and second is total freedom which includes suffering, physical pain, and discontentment. Huxley makes the argument that what makes us human, conscious, and sentient requires the tragic aspect of existence. Without that we are simplistic creatures, to live and die in futile pleasure, such is the engineered society in BNW. There is a contrasting definition of the Good or Happiness which differentiates both societies. In the engineered society the citizens are medicated with pleasure inducing Soma, noncommittal sex is encouraged, and sensory input is flooded with pleasure. There is no sense of ennui, no painful boredom or existential sorrow, there is only futile pleasure from birth to death. Huxley presents this as inauthentic when compared to those who live in freedom, who know the pain of loss, and the throes of existential questioning. The engineered society defines happiness as purely pleasure of the sense, to keep the nervous system in a state of euphoria. The free society defines happiness, or rather the Good, as flourishing and living an authentic life. It is not an argument of suffering for the sake of suffering, but suffering for the sake of self-knowledge and expansion. Huxley does not argue for redemption as Dostoevsky, but that suffering and physical struggle is a necessary part of living an authentic life.
It could be argued late modernism has become an incessant flood of purposely stimulating sensory input. Be it news, social media, television, movies, advertisements, consumer products, wireless communication, streaming music, infinite choices surround us, and we voraciously devour this in fear of facing an underlying ennui, for fear of confronting boredom. Feelings of sadness, melancholy, and pessimism are frowned upon and instead a relentless cruel optimism is preached. In the news there is constant tragedy, but with this increase in exposure there is an equal increase of denial. If there was such a pharmaceutical that delivered a feeling of happiness and euphoria without negative biological side effects, society would eagerly adopt and consume it. Society already consumes any sensory input, food, or drug that provides temporary relief from suffering, negative side effects be damned. There are those few who do care about authenticity and flourishing, but who among us, even the ones who declare that for themselves, truly mean it I do not know. In political matters if it reinforces the status quo with little cost then I predict it would be completely supported, and I would not support a strict regulation of such a pharmaceutical. Concerning social conventions it seems as compatible as the alcohol we drink, the fast food we eat, the constant bombardment of media we consume, and the widespread use of prescription medication.
The deeper question is not concerning social convention, rather is such an externally induced happiness or contentment equal to the Good or contentment spoken of in religions and philosophy. It is popular opinion, though rarely action, that the latter is a higher form than the former. One is purely carnal, and the other is spiritual. This mind/body dichotomy is false, and with particular alteration a ‘spiritual experience’ can be induced through psychedelics or certain physical experiences. The line between chemically induced euphoria or contentment and ‘spiritually’ induced euphoria or contentment is a blurry line. Everything we do or consume alters our biology to varying degrees, tiny or large. It is convenient rationalization that we categorize one as legitimate and the other as illegitimate. Overall we have engineered a society in which we must have sources of escape and relief. It surprises me anyone could endure the absurdity without turning to alcohol, marijuana, or some form of mind altering substance at times. It has been jokingly said ‘God’ put alcohol and marijuana on earth because he knew our life would be difficult. In similar defense a statement by Anton Artaud sums up my position succinctly, “So long as we have failed to eliminate any of the causes of despair, we do not have the right to eliminate those means by which man tries to cleanse himself of despair.” While it is not practical for a society to allow hard drugs which will destroy it over time, it is wise to allow a great many other vices and alleviations for the people.
Although it can be argued that one may be temporary and the other long lasting, or one has a sharp come down and the other stable. It could also be argued that one is skin deep pleasure and the other an existential or religious contentment. Again this cannot be so easily divided, the experience of one easily lapses into the experience of the other. If this ideal euphoric pharmaceutical existed then yes I would take it, not daily, but whenever I had the desire to do so. No different than indulging in liquor or fine foods. I do not find the above to be at odds with one another, to me the sensual is as much the divine as the divine can be sensual. The Decadent Movement embodied this marriage of sensual and spiritual with poets such as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Huysman, and D’Annunzio. Sex, wine, psychedelics, and other substances are not divorced from the spiritual or living authentically. What does matter is the intention, if a substance is used for petty pleasure or for something meaningful makes all the difference.