Con­stant sor­rows

Life is a vale of tears, but we can’t give in and give up

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - K. E. Gover is pro­fes­sor of phi­los­o­phy, Ben­ning­ton Col­lege, Ver­mont, and the au­thor of Art and Au­thor­ity: Moral Rights and Mean­ing in Con­tem­po­rary Visual Art (2018).

Seven Ways of Look­ing at Point­less Suf­fer­ing: What Phi­los­o­phy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mys­tery of All By Scott Sa­muel­son Uni­ver­sity of Chicago Press 272pp, £19.00

ISBN 9780226407081 Pub­lished 17 May 2018

The French philoso­pher and au­thor Al­bert Ca­mus fa­mously opens his es­say “The Myth of Sisy­phus” by an­nounc­ing that the “one truly se­ri­ous philo­soph­i­cal prob­lem” is whether or not one should go on liv­ing. Sisy­phus was pun­ished for his hubris by hav­ing to roll a heavy boul­der up­hill only to watch it roll back down once he reaches the sum­mit, over and over for eter­nity. For Ca­mus, the myth serves as a clas­sic im­age of the point­less striv­ing and suf­fer­ing that ex­em­plify the hu­man con­di­tion.

But the prob­lem of whether to com­mit sui­cide, given the Sisyphean ab­sur­dity of our ex­ist‑ ence, is a ques­tion that phi­los­o­phy is ill‑equipped to an­swer. We cling to life for rea­sons that are un­touch­able by rea­son alone, and so it seems un­rea­son­able to ask phi­los­o­phy to jus­tify our in­clin‑ ation to keep on rolling. Tak­ing this as our start­ing point, how­ever, we can ask phi­los­o­phy to weigh in on a different but re­lated ques­tion: how should we com­port our­selves to­wards the sense­less losses and in­jus­tices that in­evitably find their way into a hu­man life? And can phi­los­o­phy help us to make sense of mean­ing‑ less suf­fer­ing with­out thereby in­scrib­ing it within some larger schema of mean­ing?

This is the para­dox and project at the heart of Scott Sa­muel­son’s ex­cel­lent Seven Ways of Look­ing at Point­less Suf­fer­ing. As the ti­tle indi‑ cates, it is or­gan­ised around seven philo­soph­i­cal fig­ures or tra­di­tions that tackle the prob­lem of mean‑ in­g­less suf­fer­ing. The first three ex­em­plify what the au­thor sums up as the “fix it” and “face it” ap­proaches, rep­re­sented by three piv­otal fig­ures in modern philoso‑ phy: John Stu­art Mill, Friedrich Ni­et­zsche and Han­nah Arendt. The sec­ond half of the book goes back in time to ex­am­ine four dis­tinct cul­tural tra­di­tions that re­spond di­rectly to the prob­lem of suf­fer­ing: the Book of Job in the Bi­ble; Stoi‑ cism in an­cient Greece and Rome; Con­fu­cian­ism; and the African Amer­i­can blues tra­di­tion.

Sa­muel­son ar­gues that point­less suf­fer­ing is not sim­ply an ac­ci­den‑ tal haz­ard of liv­ing but an es­sen‑ tial in­gre­di­ent of hu­man life. As he puts it: “The prob­lem of point­less suf­fer­ing doesn’t re­fute God, nor does it re­fute us. It con­sti­tutes God. It con­sti­tutes us.” The chal‑ lenge that Sa­muel­son lo­cates in the philo­soph­i­cal tra­di­tion, and which he passes on to the reader, is to re­flect deeply on what it means to live with point­less suf­fer­ing while re­sist­ing the temp­ta­tion to trans‑ mute it into mean­ing­ful pain, which is some­thing else en­tirely.

It is some­what sur­pris­ing that Sa­muel­son does not de­fine what he means by “point­less suf­fer­ing” (per­haps he as­sumes that it is self‑ev­i­dent), but the ex­am­ples he men­tions make it clear that he means the suf­fer­ing of inno‑ cents: chil­dren who are abused, ne­glected, im­pov­er­ished or dy­ing of can­cer; peo­ple liv­ing with de­bil­i­tat­ing con­gen­i­tal dis­eases,

and the fam­ily mem­bers who care for them; vic­tims of so­ci­etal in­jus­tice and op­pres­sion. Th­ese forms of gra­tu­itous suf­fer­ing stand in con­trast to in­stru­men­tal suf­fer­ing. While we of­ten quite cheer­fully ac­cept pain and suf­fer­ing in our lives when it is a means to a de­sired end, such as bud­get­ing for a va­ca­tion, or en­dur­ing a tough work­out at the gym, the pain in such cases is mit­i­gated by its mean­ing. Point­less suf­fer­ing, on the other hand, is ex­cru­ci­at­ing be­cause there is no “Why”, no pay­off, no rea­son. Sisy­phus’ pun­ish­ment is not that he has to push the rock, but that his ef­forts come to noth­ing and never will – and he knows it.

This brings us to an­other para­dox­i­cal di­men­sion of Sa­muel­son’s project: if mean­ing­less suf­fer­ing, as he in­sists, is con­sti­tu­tive of a hu­man life, if it is in­escapable and in­eluctable, then we must rec­on­cile our­selves to this fact with as much grace and re­silience as pos­si­ble. And yet, at the same time, we can­not sim­ply roll over and ac­cept suf­fer­ing if and when we are able to in­ter­vene. The can­cer should be treated; the child should be saved. Sa­muel­son ar­gues that we must both fight against and face up to point­less suf­fer­ing. As he puts it: “The goal of this book is to re­vive the para­dox of ac­cept­ing and op­pos­ing death, mis­ery, and in­jus­tice – in short, to re­cover the mys­tery of suf­fer­ing, which is also the mys­tery of be­ing hu­man.”

It is a sad irony, as Sa­muel­son points out, that we mod­erns have ben­e­fited from tech­nolo­gies that elim­i­nate many forms of suf­fer­ing and dis­ease, but at the same time th­ese ad­vances have en­abled the ap­pear­ance of new and more di­a­bol­i­cal forms of hu­man mis­ery such as weapons of mass de­struc­tion and sys­tems of mass in­car­cer­a­tion. The lat­ter case, dis­cussed through­out the book, in­cludes the US pe­nal sys­tem, which houses al­most 25 per cent of the world’s pris­on­ers even though Amer­i­cans make up less than 5 per cent of the world’s pop­u­la­tion.

This brings us to an­other dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of the book, which is that it is deeply in­formed by Sa­muel­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence of teach­ing phi­los­o­phy to in­car­cer­ated men. This trope works on two lev­els. First, it pro­vides a real-world in­stan­ti­a­tion of the com­plex­ity of his sub­ject. As he puts it, “What is prison but our prac­ti­cal at­tempt to rec­on­cile suf­fer­ing and jus­tice?” Sec­ond, he al­lows the reader to eaves­drop on his con­ver­sa­tions with his stu­dents as they grap­ple with the thinkers and con­cepts he dis­cusses.

One of the many virtues of Sa­muel­son’s book is that the reader of­ten feels as though she were his stu­dent. His wry, self­dep­re­cat­ing and con­fes­sional style is both se­ri­ous and play­ful – and se­ri­ously play­ful. The ex­po­si­tion of different philoso­phers and tra­di­tions is care­ful and schol­arly with­out be­ing pedan­tic. For ex­am­ple, in ex­plain­ing that the an­cient Greek word “stoa” means “porch”, Sa­muel­son sums up by ob­serv­ing that the la­bel “Sto­ics” ba­si­cally means “those guys on the porch”. He deftly weaves to­gether ob­ser­va­tions about the lives of the thinkers he is dis­cussing to re­flect on how their bi­ogra­phies in­form their the­o­ries, with­out re­sort­ing to a re­duc­tive de­ter­min­ism. Be­cause the aim of his book is pre­cisely to bring phi­los­o­phy to bear on the tri­als and chal­lenges of liv­ing a hu­man life

– a life that is al­ways ex­pe­ri­enced in its sin­gu­lar­ity even while shar­ing in the uni­ver­sal ex­pe­ri­ences of joy and pain – it is wholly ap­pro­pri­ate that he should take the lives of his sub­jects, his stu­dents and him­self into ac­count.

An­other great merit of Sa­muel­son’s in­sight­ful, in­for­ma­tive and deeply hu­mane book is that it is a gen­uine plea­sure to read. Herein lies a fi­nal chal­lenge to the reader: after lux­u­ri­at­ing in his re­flec­tions, we must close the book and re­turn to daily life with re­newed de­ter­mi­na­tion and courage to ap­ply its lessons.

We of­ten cheer­fully ac­cept pain and suf­fer­ing in our lives when it is a means to a de­sired end, such as bud­get­ing for a va­ca­tion. Point­less suf­fer­ing, on the other hand, is ex­cru­ci­at­ing

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