Finding myself shut indoors until further notice and scouring my home library for a book that could provide solace in these trying circumstances, my eyes fell upon a work by Thomas Aquinas: Literal Exposition on Job. As you will recall, Job is the biblical patriarch who, despite being a manifestly good man, suffered a dramatic reversal of his fortunes: his children suddenly died, his wealth was swept away, he was covered with boils from head to toe, and the friends who came to console him ended up blaming him for his predicament. The biblical narrator makes clear, however, that these afflictions did not result from Job’s misdeeds; his friends were wrong to view Job’s condition as God’s punishment for his past sins. Aquinas makes the larger point that as our ultimate happiness is not to be found in this world, it is wrong to conclude that current misfortune is a sign of divine disfavor .
God was not the author of Job’s suffering; the narrator relates how Satan was its cause. No gloss should be put on Job’s suffering, say by claiming the body is an illusion or that mind alone matters. What Job suffered was bad, inherently so. But God nonetheless allowed this evil in view of a good. What good could that be? Aquinas identifies two complementary possibilities.
First, there was a benefit that would accrue to Job, namely increased self-knowledge. Being pressed to the limits of endurance, Job gained clarity on his own attachments, commitments, plans, and goals. In ordinary times these are shrouded from us. Collectively and individually, in our present crisis, hardship can serve as a valuable occasion to rethink our personal and collective priorities.
Second, in being put to the test, Job could teach future generations how to exercise virtue under conditions of adversity. For Aquinas, this represents one of two main modalities of moral virtue, the other being the moderation of pleasure-causing activities. Apart from those of us who are enjoying the comforts of working from home (a welcome relief from the fatigue of the daily commute and the stress of workplace interactions) the disruption of well-established routines brings with it a pervasive sadness. Albeit, this pales in comparison with what others currently face: serious illness, death of loved ones, loss of livelihood, confinement in tight quarters.
Aquinas characterizes sorrow as the emotion we undergo in the presence of a deprivation. A valued good has been taken away and we grieve its absence. This is appropriate, and not to feel sorrow at the loss of a good – whether my own good or that of another – would be callous and inhumane. Sorrow does, however, raise a distinctive challenge to virtue, insofar as it erodes my ability to endure, and in so doing weakens my engagement in needful activities. For this reason, Aquinas emphasizes how we must strive to experience sorrow according to a mean, avoiding excess on the one hand and deficiency on the other. Allowing myself to be overwhelmed by sorrow will lead to spiritual paralysis, and worse yet, a loss of commitment to life itself; inversely, not to sorrow at all, denying my own feelings of loss or remaining insensitive to the losses of others, will degrade my humanity. Both extremes should be avoided. This regulation of sorrow he assigns to the virtue of patience; through it I hold fast to an arduous good, a good I refuse to abandon despite my present suffering.
The moral challenge of adversity arises not only from the suffering caused by present evils. Another, related challenge arises from the prospect of future harms. I dread their arrival and recoil at the prospect. The emotion thereby aroused is fear; and it constitutes a distinctive mode of suffering. Anticipated harm can often seem even worse than the harm that afflicts me in the present. After all, my present suffering, however bad it might be, has fixed parameters; it is what it is, while the harms of the future will often seem unbounded. Young adults worry, for instance, that they may never again enjoy gainful employment; that their lives will be one long series of deprivations. Here again, Aquinas emphasizes how virtuous emotional regulation is needed. The relevant virtue is courage; when allied with hope it strengthens our endurance, thereby enabling us to hold fast in our tasks and to undertake new ones with an enterprising spirit.
More could be said about other virtues that Aquinas would posit as applicable in the present context. For instance, when endurance continues over a long duration, new and unfamiliar obstacles often supervene, aggravating the weight of those already present. These are overcome by constancy, the virtue which consists in remaining loyal to my path. The pressure of these obstacles is lightened by the perception of the benefits I have received from others – their help and encouragement; this prompts gratitude. And when cultivated this perception assumes the form of virtue, namely a firm and stable disposition to recognize how my well-being (and the well-being of those I love) depends on the contributions of others, sometimes at the peril of their own safety. Think of today’s healthcare workers, who, out of devotion to our good, have knowingly placed their own good in harm’s way. Finally, in these days of isolation we should not forget the importance of civic friendliness; by this virtue we reach out to strangers, acknowledging how we are partakers in a shared humanity – that we will get through this with body and soul intact in the measure we hold together. These are some of the lessons about adversity, which, on Aquinas’s urging, we can learn from the virtuous example of Job.