Scheler's Theory of the Meaning of Suffering

Max Scheler's theory of suffering suggests that this feeling has a purpose. Find out more here.
Scheler's Theory of the Meaning of Suffering

Last update: 09 April, 2022

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering bears important similarities to the ideas of Viktor Frankl, who also addressed this issue in depth. Indeed, both thinkers focused their attention on these painful experiences and wondered if they had any meaning.

In the West, the idea that, whatever the circumstances, suffering demands avoidance strategies, has been established. Even so, no one can eternally avoid experiences of this type, no matter how much they try to avoid or deny them. The result is a denialist attitude in the face of an imposing reality.

Thinkers, like Scheler and Viktor Frankl, tried to go further. They suggested that, while suffering isn’t pleasant, it’s an experience that can be both approachable and meaningful from the right perspective. At least, this is what Scheler’s theory of the sense of suffering claimed. We’ll discuss his theory below.

Things are perceived, concepts are thought, values are felt.”

-Max Scheler-

Sad woman

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering, like others, raised the idea that the experience of pain must have a purpose. In other words, it happens for a reason. In the framework of ethics, each individual has the task of finding the reason for their own suffering.

Scheler pointed out that, when facing suffering, it’s advisable to take on two challenges. The first is to discover its deep meaning. Secondly, is to collect oneself, remain silent, reflect, contemplate, and meditate. In his view, this is what leads to mastery of the spirit. In fact, it makes an individual  “calm, vigorous, free, and ready for action.”

This German philosopher considered that suffering is one of the features that distinguish us from animals. The latter act according to purely biological objectives. On the other hand, the behavior of the human being has a sense of perfection and they act according to their spirituality.

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering is considered an approach that coincides with the Christian vision. In this doctrine, suffering is seen as a path of redemption that’s reached through sacrifice. Therefore, even in the worst moments, suffering would be positive, since it’s part of the positive process of evolution.

The positive view of suffering

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering claims that the feeling has different interpretations, depending on the level of depth at which it’s felt. For this philosopher, there were three possible levels: biological, psychological, and spiritual. Each of them corresponds to three conditions of being. The biological to the organism; the psychological to the ‘I’; and the spiritual to ‘the person’.

In his approach, the meaning of suffering can only be found when the human being is located in the dimension of ‘the person’ which corresponds to the spiritual. On a psychological or organic level, the act of suffering has no real meaning, since it implies passive suffering. However, the dimension of the person makes it possible for action to take place in the face of that pain.

Scheler pointed out that suffering in the person is equivalent to sacrifice. In this sense, it can be positive. The word ‘sacrifice’ refers to an action that’s carried out deliberately and that causes pain but in order to obtain or result in a higher value. For example, you give up something that you appreciate so you can reach another milestone that you value more. Consequently, in Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering, you don’t suffer pain, but rather direct it, according to your specific objective.

Sad woman

The meaning of suffering

The question that emerges from all of these approaches is, finally, why do we suffer? Picking up the central ideas of Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering, it may be said that suffering only has a reason for being if it’s approached from the idea of spiritual development. In this kind of suffering there is, in itself, a source of consolation. You suffer to obtain something higher.

Therefore, suffering is seen as a free and responsible act. As with Viktor Frankl’s approaches, the conditioning that causes pain isn’t decisive. Rather, it constitutes circumstances against which an individual can assume an existential attitude or posture. This only makes sense in the spiritual framework, since from the biological or psychological point of view it has no reason to exist.

Scheler’s theory of the meaning of suffering indicates that each human being can find meaning in this experience if they interpret it from a spiritual perspective. Therefore, it’s possible to sustain and avoid pain, since it’s understood that it implies merit, an elevation, a step forward. From this point of view, it may be seen as a step toward fulfillment.

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  • Miramontesa, F. (2013). La teoría del sentido del sufrimiento: fundamentación filosófica de una terapéutica: Scheler y Frankl. Realitas: revista de Ciencias Sociales, Humanas y Artes, 1(1), 51-55.