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