“Pain is one of the keys to unlock man’s innermost being as well as the world … Tell me your relationship to pain and I will tell you who you are!” – Ernst Jünger
This article will serve as an addendum to what I’ve written earlier about how conservatives must embrace the eternal. In my previous article, I mentioned that we must go wherever it may lead us, but I would like to further say that we must also go no matter how painful it is. Given the state of contemporary society, this might be the biggest hindrance to completing the task we have been given. So, let us consider the proper role of pain.
Our current bourgeois society may be defined, in part, by the improper relationship to pleasure and pain. For many, life is reduced to a series of pleasure maximizations and pain minimizations where aspirations to any higher good are subordinated to the whims of pleasure and pain. We can see this excess in the way the medical industry focuses on treating “pain” as a symptom in itself. This became official medical dogma in 1999 with the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations stating that all its accredited organizations (which included virtually every major healthcare facility in America) must “recognize the right of patients to appropriate assessment and management of pain.”
This focus on pain, rather than solving the underlying causes of the discomfort, has spurred an opioid crisis from doctors prescribing highly addictive opioid pain-relievers to mitigate pain (rather than addressing its causes) that in 2021 alone took the life of over one hundred thousand people. This phenomenon of people dying in their quest to escape pain seems to vindicate Hegesias, the Hedonic philosopher of the ancient world, who, in his search for pleasure, came to embrace suicide as the only means to escape our world of pain– the natural end of hedonism? The massive abundance of postindustrial society, combined with our idolization of pleasure, is why in the US 42% of adults and 20% of children, and rising, are obese. More evidence of this relationship can be found in the prevalence of pornography (that so-called “victimless crime”) in our society. It is the ultimate form of modern art, a completely sterile and safe form of escapism that promises pure sexual pleasure and gratification without any of the pain, risk, and nuance involved with an actual human relationship.
Here, we must give liberalism its due. When it comes to producing hedonic pleasure and meeting the basic material needs of life, no other system comes close to liberalism’s track record. It has successfully shifted the perennial question of how to deal with so little, to how to deal with so much, and it is precisely this success which makes change under liberalism so hard. Offering people the riches of the world in a way that Communist countries never did, liberalism offers a seductive promise to fulfill the lowest desires in man– no hardship or risk required. In this way, liberalism is to life as pornography is to love. Just as porn increases divorce, chills marriage beds, and dissuades men from marriage, so too liberalism atomizes people and teaches them to be content with bread alone.
Since liberalism has appealed so successfully to the corporeal part of man (whilst ignoring the incorporeal entirely), any political or social project which doesn’t promise a greater quantitative satisfaction of these desires will face the uphill battle of qualitatively changing what people ought to value. They will be treated like the drug addict treats the doctor taking away his drugs. Remember, drug addicts are not addicted to drugs for its pleasure but because of its ability to take away the pain.
Aristotle says, “moral excellence is concerned with pleasures and pains; it is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.” Modern society has made us associate pleasure with the good, instead of the good with pleasure– the ability to achieve the good. Thus the good– and by extension the eternal– is made ever harder due to our inappropriate relationship with pain. To go beyond liberalism, we must change our relationship with pleasure. We must come to view it as a mere by-product of the good, rather than as an end in itself. Pain, conversely, must be seen as a fact of life to be confronted and overcome, not avoided and masked with the technics of the modern age.
Once pain is conquered, pleasure is tempered, and the good is seen as the highest end of our lives, our horizon of possibilities will expand, and the eternal will come within our reach. As Jünger explains it, “whenever one approaches the points where man proves himself to be equal or superior to pain, one gains access to the sources of his power and the secret hidden behind his dominion.” Having adopted this new attitude, we will be able to raze the foundations of our society for we will realize that all it gives us is pleasure – not the good – and the allure of a pain-free life which gives us mere subsistence.