Immortality and suffering

I came across a reference in Cicero, to a philosopher who maintained that the soul could not be immortal, since it could suffer. All suffering, it seems to be held, foreshadows extinction, or reflect damage to being. A person who is stabbed, or is starving, feels pain because somehow his being is put under threat.

This seems to make sense- physical pain is a ‘warning’ that something is threatening or damaging our physical being. Hunger and want seem to reflect the absence of something necessary for being. So, if being is assured, the pain would be meaningless- it could serve no function.

Now, if this apparently reasonable paradigm is accepted, how could an immortal being (such as a soul in Hell) possibly experience suffering?

Such a position is adopted by Cicero- who says either the soul ceases to exist in death (in which case, there is no suffering), or, if it goes onto some immortal state, it exists in bliss, since its being cannot suffer an diminution or compromise.

Let’s take the example of Prometheus- his immortality is assured. Why then, would the bird attacking his liver each day worry him, since, in fact, his liver is not necessary for his being?

And imagine existing in Hell, using the traditional images of fire and torture. Since the soul(or entity, if you prefer) in Hell is immortal, it would seem thast it could not actually be ‘burnt’ since that would involve some damage or diminution of its ‘being’. If it is not actually being burnt or otherwise damaged, how could the sensation of being so (in which pain seems to subsists) actually occur?

P.S. I do not raise this point for a doctrinal answer, which I know well. But rather- I am seeking ideas upon what is the meaning and nature of pain, philosophically speaking.

How about, pain is being in a state different (more different, more pain) from that for which you are designed or intended.

Physical pain most of the time tends to be a warning to the body that natural biological laws are being broken or were broken- eating the wrong thing, drinking too much, drinking too little, eating too little, scraping the skin against something rough, etc. Your body is saying to you, “I see what you did there. Stop it or fix it.”

Even immortal Prometheus would have felt pain, but his pain was two-fold. The pain of razor sharp surgical knives is bad enough, but birds of prey such as rocs are not the cleanest eaters. They rend flesh and muscle to get what they want. Prometheus was immortal and so could not die, but he could only look forward to the drudgery of pain every day because his body regenerated. He probably wished he could have died and not suffered anymore. In death, there is no more suffering in the physical sense.

The spirit is a little strange because it lives forever, but can be disheartened. Like Prometheus, it can be tortured but it will live on. Like virtue, we can’t fully describe what spiritual pain looks like, but we know it when we experience it or when it is reflected in the body. We know that while in spiritual pain, we do not feel like doing what we normally like to do, what gives us pleasure. We don’t feel like achieving goals or bettering ourselves. We can experience that pain for the sake of others, unlike when someone else is in bodily pain.

Hell is somewhat of a mystery. It is portrayed as fire and brimstone, but it doesn’t answer as you said, how bodily harm could harm the spirit. I think I read somewhere that it’s an allusion to how the soul feels disconnected from God and fellow human beings- that the pain caused to the soul is likened to burning fire on the flesh. If the soul died as the body died, it could not suffer because death would end the suffering. To the suffering, death is a welcome guest- such as in the case of St Francis. There are limits on bodily suffering, but there are no limits to spiritual suffering- which is why Hell is so terrible.

The major problem that I have with Cicero’s logic is that if a soul can exist in eternal pleasure, then then it must be able to exist in pain as well. In one sense, suffering grants greater purpose because it does not allow for complacency. If a body is in pain, it will go through great lengths to either avoid that pain in the future or mitigate the pain. We, Christians, also speak of “refining fire”, and it is that pain which allows our souls to recover virtue which we need to be happy. It is “good” pain which obviously does not kill the soul, but actually enriches it.
I don’t think Cicero has adequately disproven that the soul is immortal.

Hopefully, I have somewhere in my rambling answer brought something to the conversation. Thank you for posting your question. It’s a fun philosophical exercise.

Although pain is a priori a protective response to a threat to being, in a being with a mind, pain or distress can exist without such a threat, and the threat to being may exist without intense pain or distress.

John Donne observed 350 years ago that death itself may not cause grievous pain because “the most vital [body] parts are not the quickest of sense”. Our skin and limbs are liberally provided with pain receptors, while the brain has none at all.

In the Promethean example, even though he knew he would not die, the tearing of his liver still generated the same physical pain each time it occurred. Anticipated physical pain is fearsome to the mind even without a threat to being. In fact, although it is a protective mechanism, when pain is severe enough it can itself pose a threat to being.


While this is certainly a valid supposition, it may not always hold true…
Ever held a baby who is teething? They are suffering pain, but the result is growth.
Ever undertaken physical conditioning? Here too pain is encountered but the result is physical growth in strength, stamina, mental growth in endurance, “mental toughness” etc.

In the case of the teething baby, the pain is simply a side effect of a healthy and natural and necessary growth. Likewise, pain from exercise is an indicator of growth - of the body building into something stronger and more robust.

I don’t know how this might effect your line of thinking…but I thought I’d toss it in.


Cicero does not actual believe the the soul is mortal- but considers the possibility.

His argument is that either the soul is extinguished at death, or that it goes on to a state of god-like immortality. In either case, he says, there is no need to fear death. The same approach is taken by Marcus Aurelius.

The idea is that, freed from the body and mortality, the soul must be happier than what it is now.

Poor Prometheus…

Ah, I see where you’re going now. The Jewish Sheol is also not necessarily a fearsome place after death either, from what I understand.
It can be uncomfortable to think that at the end of one’s life we will be judged according to how we acted during life on earth- uncomfortable if your conscience feels unsatisfied. I haven’t studied Aurelius and Cicero all that much- I know approximately who they were but what were their attitudes toward war? Depending how they felt about war, it might shape their attitudes toward death. After all, if you are leading soldiers into battle, you don’t want them to fear death or the afterlife. This sort of belief would also help shape attitudes toward Euthanasia, infanticide, and suicide- none of which the Romans had a problem with from my recollections. According to them, why should the suffering/infirm remain suffering/infirm needlessly?

The soul cannot experience physical pain since it is spirirt. It is the body which experiences the physical pain. The soul can experience " intellectual " pain of various sorts.:thumbsup::thumbsup::thumbsup:

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