“Only a Prisoner May Speak of It”: Or, How to Teach about Happiness in Suffering

…et factus est mihi carcer subito praetorium, ut ibi mallem esse quam alicubi.

…And the prison suddenly became a palace for me, to that I wanted to be there more than anywhere else. (Passion of Perpetua and Felicity 3.9)

I have often struggled to try to communicate classical and Christian asseverations of happiness in the midst of physical and mental torment without feeling like a fraud, or–worse, I fear–have indicated that such a claim is scarcely believable. How could it really be true that someone imprisoned unjustly for years, or being burned alive, or having their limbs cut off, is happy?

And yet we have many testimonies, not only from Christians but also from ancient Stoics, that such a state is both good and possible. We have the same from concentration campus in the twentieth century.

But the problem nags. Can I–ought I–tell students of an ideal to which I am not at all certain I could attain myself? Are the only options, then, lying (deceiving them) or skepticism (deceiving myself), crossing fingers in one direction or another? Of potentially preparing them for despair when they find themselves unable to meet an ideal I have shared with them, or–again, perhaps worse–preparing people who are much likely better than I to dismiss as impossible something that is not, in fact, impossible for them?

Yesterday, flipping through a collection of essays by the Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt, I finally found my answer in a remark made about the related notion of freedom in the midst of bondage.

In a 1977 acceptance speech for the Buber-Rosenzweig Medal called “On Tolerance,” Dürrenmatt, referring to the prohibition of political opposition in the Eastern Bloc, says this:

[T]he right to opposition is an existential right of the individual. It is absurd to accuse him of intolerance towards and intolerant political system and thrust him forcibly into the position of the individual–into that of the outcast. For the position of the individual is a position of freedom, not of force. There is also such a thing as a freedom of the prisoner, but only a prisoner may speak of it. In the mouth of a prison warden these words are blasphemy.

“There is also such a thing as a freedom of the prisoner, but only a prisoner may speak of it. In the mouth of a prison warden these words are blasphemy.”

This statement gets precisely at the dilemma I feel in expounding the martyrs of Christianity or of philosophy, or, in the case of Boethius, of both, it resolves it just as precisely. The phenomenon of happiness and freedom in suffering is real, and no one has the right to speak of it as real except those who have endured the latter and, in so doing, have found the former. It is the approach I shall take in the classroom henceforth.


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