Human Suffering and Relationality: A Thomistic Account
What is the relationship between evil and suffering? What is it about being human that causes us to experience suffering in the ways and to the extents that we do? What is suffering? These are questions of fundamental human importance, but surprisingly little of the vast literature on suffering deals with them directly and at length. The present work fills this gap by providing a multifaceted response from a Thomistic perspective. I show how human sufferings occur within a vast web of relationality. In the process, I also undertake a fundamental recovery of the interpersonal orientation of the human creature in Aquinas’s thought.
The framework that I develop for understanding suffering addresses the cognitive, volitional, and bodily components of our nature as deeply relational human persons who are made in the image of God. I argue that suffering is significantly constituted by the deprivation of relational goods in the natural and supernatural orders, and contextualized by other such goods. We long to know, love, and be in communion with beings outside of ourselves: especially with other personal beings, in shared enjoyment of truth and goodness; and, to a lesser extent, with the natural goodness of non-personal creation. This interior orientation points us toward the good things out there that make for our flourishing. And evils, broadly understood, are lamentable lacks and corruptions of the good things out there or of the bodily and internal goods that enable us properly to interact with and assess reality. The present work investigates the deep contextualization of suffering within our life histories and expectations, our understandings and our relational cares.
Part I frames the account of suffering by considering at length what makes for human flourishing. I make explicit the relational emphasis that is latent in Aquinas’s depiction of human nature. Part II addresses the metaphysics, epistemology, and psychology of evil and its implications for how we should understand suffering. Finally, Part III constructs a synthetic account of suffering that brings together considerations of relational flourishing, evil, and human affectivity. I end by examining what I call suffering’s tripartite encounter with evil, the role of awareness in suffering, and the notion of finding meaning in suffering. I argue, inter alia, that this Thomistic characterization of suffering supports a tripartite understanding of suffering vis-à-vis evil: There is the evil that causes suffering, the negative affect that results, and the sufferer’s often-painful awareness of these first two. I also argue that the idea of finding meaning in suffering might helpfully be understood as the possibility of new creation ex nihilitate mali—out of the nothingness of evil.
In building this account, I show why Aquinas is an underappreciated resource for understanding the dynamics of human suffering. In particular, his metaphysics of evil, combined with his relationally oriented anthropology, allows for an incisive diagnostic account of suffering. The present work also makes several interpretive and synthetic contributions to the Aquinas scholarship. My aim throughout is to develop an account that is illuminating for any theorist who seeks to better understand the deceptively complex and ever-pressing issue of human suffering.
Works are deposited here by their authors, and represent their research and opinions, not that of Duke University. Some materials and descriptions may include offensive content. More info