George Bernard Shaw on the Meaning of Solidarity and Suffering as Our Supreme Conduit to Empathy
“What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be.”
By Maria Popova
“Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself,” C.S. Lewis wrote in contemplating how suffering confers agency upon life. But what is the use of our agency if we can’t enlist it in ameliorating our suffering?
The counterintuitive relationship between the two is what George Bernard Shaw (July 26, 1856–November 2, 1950) examines in a portion of The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (public library) — a clever and surprisingly timeless treatise published in 1928, shortly after Shaw received the Nobel Prize in Literature. Don’t let the title trigger an aversive reflex — Shaw was an ingenious playwright, and his title was an ingenious dramatic device. By addressing the book to this particular imaginary reader in an era when civic and educational opportunities for women were limited, Shaw was giving his actual reader permission to start from scratch; he was giving himself permission to clear the slate in order to reexamine and redefine his subject, stripping politics of the limiting labels slapped onto it — socialism, communism, capitalism — to reflect on its proper purpose in human life.
Among his central concerns is how society — the civic and political ecosystem to which we belong — can begin to address and alleviate the perennial problem of human suffering, brought into ever-sharper relief by inequality. Nearly a century later, this aspect of Shaw’s treatise comes alive anew, particularly his counterintuitive point about the nature of human suffering and human wellbeing — a point so poignant and perceptive that it impressed even Borges, who cited it in his masterful meditation on time. Shaw writes:
And now a last word as to your own spiritual centre. All through this book, we have been thinking of the public, and of our two selves as members of the public. This is our duty as citizens; but it may drive us mad if we begin to think of public evils as millionfold evils. They are nothing of the kind. What you yourself can suffer is the utmost that can be suffered on earth. If you starve to death you experience all the starvation that ever has been or ever can be. If ten thousand other women starve to death with you, their suffering is not increased by a single pang: their share in your fate does not make you ten thousand times as angry, nor prolong your suffering ten thousand times. Therefore do not be oppressed by “the frightful sum of human suffering”: there is no sum: two lean women are not twice as lean as one nor two fat women twice as fat as one. Poverty and pain are not cumulative: you must not let your spirit be crushed by the fancy that it is. If you can stand the suffering of one person you can fortify yourself with the reflection that the suffering of a million is no worse: nobody has more than one stomach to fill nor one frame to be stretched on the rack.
But while suffering isn’t cumulative, Shaw argues, wellbeing is, and therefore so is the opportunity to contribute to our collective wellbeing. He writes:
A thousand healthy, happy, honorable women are not each a thousand times as healthy, happy, or honorable as one; but they can co-operate to increase the health, happiness, and honor possible for each of them.
The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism remains a superb primer on the ideas and ideologies that shaped the modern world and laid the foundations of the social, political, and cultural systems that govern our lives today. Complement this particular portion with Nietzsche on why a fulfilling life requires embracing rather than running from suffering, Simone Weil on how to make use of our suffering, and Borges on collective tragedy and collective joy, then revisit Shaw on the paradox of marriage.
Published September 22, 2016