Buddhism and Aristotle on the Appropriateness of Suffering Grief: A Further Mark Against Buddhism

In the well-known parable of the arrow, the Buddha responds negatively to the usefulness of answering certain metaphysical questions. The point that he makes is that they are not important for furthering the goal of alleviating dukkha (suffering/existential dissatisfaction):

Whether the view is held that the world is eternal or not, Malunkyaputta, there is still birth, old age, death, grief, suffering, sorrow and despair – and these can be destroyed in this life! I have not explained these other things because they are not useful, they are not conducive to tranquility and Nirvana. What I have explained is suffering, the cause of suffering, the destruction of suffering and the path that leads to the destruction of suffering. This is useful, leading to non-attachment, the absence of passion, perfect knowledge. (Found here. My emphasis.)

The Buddha seeks to live a full life, but one that eliminates suffering and the cycle of rebirths. Since the whole purpose of Buddhism is to alleviate suffering, it isn’t wrong to say that suffering has a negative value for Buddhists. This need not imply that it is never instrumentally valuable for the Buddhist; nevertheless, any instrumental value it has is to be transcended, ultimately leaving the suffering behind, negatively valued. For more detail on the value of suffering, see here and here.

Buddhism’s view of suffering and happiness is not as crude as Bentham’s, for whom pain varied only in intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty, and propinquity/remoteness, but not quality: consider the difference between stubbing your toe, nausea, and the death of a loved one. Nevertheless, for both suffering is bad and happiness is good, even if “happiness” means very different things for each. An important difference between Buddhists and Bentham is that the Buddhists don’t understand all pleasures as being intrinsically valuable. They would presumably say the pleasure of meditating is positive (barring attachment to it), whereas the pleasure of heroin and a dozen donuts at one sitting is negative. Bentham, on the other hand, seems to say that when considering actions, it’s simply a matter of summing pleasure and summing pain, and if the balance is on the side of pleasure, then the act tends toward good and vice versa (See chapter IV of Bentham’s An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation).

This leads us to the views of Aristotle, as explained by Martha Nussbaum in her “Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology.” As she emphasizes, emotions are centrally connected to judgments about how things are in the world:

Fear, for example, involves (in Aristotle’s view) the thought that there are serious damages impending and that one is not entirely in control of warding them off. Anger (again in Aristotle’s view) involves the thought that a serious and inappropriate damage has been willfully inflicted on me or someone or something one cares about, and also the thought that it would be good for that damage to be made good somehow. (S92)

This view of the emotions has implications on the appropriateness of our emotional responses. If I get angry because you have not invited me out to join you at the restaurant for which I have given you a gift certificate (think of Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm, season 7, “the Hot Towel”), we can explain the inappropriateness of my response by pointing out that my judgment of my being wronged is problematic. Thus, as Nussbaum writes:

For all the ancient thinkers, a necessary and sufficient condition of an emotion’s being truly positive—in the sense of making a positive contribution toward a flourishing life—is that it be based on true beliefs, both about value and about what events have occurred. Many instances of good-feeling emotion are actually quite negative, inasmuch as they are based on false beliefs about value. […]

By the same token, many negative-feeling emotions are appropriate, and even very valuable. […] Anger is a sign of what we care intensely about and a spur to justice. Aristotle does not urge people to be angry all the time; indeed, he thinks that the appropriate virtue in this area should be called “mildness of temper,” in order to indicate that the good person does not get angry too often. But if someone did not get angry at damages to loved ones or kin, he would be “slavish,” in Aristotle’s view. (S93. My emphasis.)

This brings us to the issue of the death of those dear to us and grief. I take it that grief is a clear example of an intensely difficult, painful, and unpleasant emotional state. As such it is inconsistent with the Buddhist’s goal of alleviating suffering: enlightenment, Nirvana. That is not to say that an enlightened Buddhist could not prefer that the deceased were still alive or regret the loss, but such states of mind would not amount to the suffering that typically characterizes grief for the unenlightened. And, again, this more typical grief is inconsistent with the Buddhist goal of the cessation of suffering.

From the Aristotelian perspective, this goal of ending suffering, and the instances of suffering involving grief, is abhorrent. While the Buddhist has a number of reasons (I’m leaving aside whether they’re any good) for thinking that the death of a loved one should not give rise to suffering, those reasons are ultimately motivated by the negative valuation of suffering. And it is the judgment that suffering is always essentially negative that the Aristotelian perspective claims is false. Thus, to respond to the death of a loved one without grief reflects poorly on the character and judgment of the “bereft.” Moreover, we might imagine the Aristotelian response to the Buddhist’s desire to bring an end to suffering as itself slavish, even if that desire was, for the Buddhist, properly free of craving and attachment.

I have not given reasons for thinking that the Aristotelian perspective is right and the Buddhist perspective wrong. However, as much as I value Buddhism, I do think that its blanket negative valuation of suffering is flawed. One of the reasons for that is because of what it implies for human greatness and achievement. See again here. Another reason Buddhism’s negative valuation of suffering is flawed is because of its implications for the appropriateness of emotions like anger and grief. There is something deeply human about responding to the loss of loved ones with deep grief, the willful harm inflicted upon us with anger, and the perception of imminent harm with fear. The Buddhist will have a response to this – part of which will be that these negative emotions stem from delusive impressions of a substantial self or atman. Such responses are, I believe, inadequate. I’m not arguing that here; the point of this essay is to articulate clearly the nature of the dehumanizing defect in Buddhist thought, its negatively valuing emotional responses such as grief.



Nussbaum, Martha. 2008. “Who Is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology.” Journal of Logical Studies, vol. 37. S81-S113.

4 thoughts on “Buddhism and Aristotle on the Appropriateness of Suffering Grief: A Further Mark Against Buddhism

  1. I ran across your article while doing research for my dissertation. I had to comment about your theory that the negative valuation of suffering is flawed, and that suffering is good in some instances. I think you’re missing the point. The difference here is the clinging to suffering; suffering is an inevitability.Buddhists don’t want ANY beings to suffer. Suffering is not good — but the way it is dealt with can be. It is about dealing with suffering that matters. See Jon Kabat-Zin. Hope this helps.

  2. I meant to say that suffering is an inevitability in samsara. Buddhists are trying to get everyone out of it.

  3. One more thing that I have to add, and I apologize but I’m working on a million other things right now, but you are missing also the point of right intent. When your relative dies and you are unhappy, that is natural and Buddhists will not fault you for that because your intent is to transcend the suffering, maybe you’re arguing that the value of suffering is at least creating that lesson, I’m not sure, but we are, as human beings, working on right intent and skillful means — we don’t say wrong or right — we say unskillful. It is unskillful to have an improperly dramatic reaction to the relative’s death, as much as it would be unskillful to have no reaction, as that would be emotionally barren. Think of that — what kind of emotionless sociopathic world do you imagine Buddhists to want to inhabit? You are trying to hard, here. Buddhism is just so simple. Compassion and right intent lead to skillful means and transcendance. Meditating helps you grasp this.

  4. Mrs. Poix, thank you very much for your comments. I appreciate them. What is your dissertation on, if you don’t mind saying?
    Regarding your comments, you write, “The difference here is the clinging to suffering; suffering is an inevitability.Buddhists don’t want ANY beings to suffer. Suffering is not good….” Part of what I was trying to get at is that the blanket condemnation of suffering as “not good” is problematic. I take it that things such as old age, sickness, and death are inevitable, but suffering is not, according to Buddhism. It is the clinging that stems, ultimately, from ignorance of no-self that is what leads to suffering. Pain (both physical and psychic) are inevitable, but not suffering.
    Leaving aside the problems with the idea of no-self and its relationship to clinging and suffering, a case can be made, and Nietzsche does it, for example, that suffering does not necessarily have negative value. The broader point I was making in this blog post is that to want to end all suffering is problematic, that there are times when it is legitimate to cling to certain things (people) and experience their loss as suffering and not just some sort of diminutive psychic pain. I understand that Buddhism doesn’t call upon people to become emotionless zombies. However, if one is well on the path, if one is being skillful, in the Buddhist way, then certain emotional responses (those characterized by suffering, not just psychic pain) either won’t happen or if they do, then they’ll be seen as unskillful, i.e., undesirable.

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