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 existence, 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 inclination 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 meaningless 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 indicates, it is organised around seven philosophical figures or traditions that tackle the problem of meaningless 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 philosophy: 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; Stoicism in ancient Greece and Rome; Confucianism; and the African American blues tradition.
Samuelson argues that pointless suffering is not simply an accidental hazard of living but an essential 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 challenge 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 transmute 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 innocents: 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, self-deprecating 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.
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
Published 17 May 2018
Scott Samuelson, who teaches at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, grew up in Ainsworth – a town, he says, with a population of 500 “when you add in the dogs. Although I used to spend evenings chucking gravel over the grain bin and longing to be anywhere but there, I’m grateful to have grown up where every virtue and vice had a face. It turns out that 500 is a good-sized sample for understanding humanity and dogs.”
When he attended Grinnell College, also in Iowa, Samuelson recalls, “the first thing my first philosophy professor assigned was Plato. A Nietzsche scholar who had the imposing beard of Karl Marx, he defended Plato with all the vehemence of a high-powered defence attorney. That class turned me into a philosophical pluralist”.
Many in the academy, according to Samuelson, think that teaching philosophy to prisoners or in community colleges is “like Philosophy for Dummies: ‘What corners should I cut to make it simple?’ In fact, cutting corners is what happens among those with a background in philosophy – through jargon and generalisations. My good students at community colleges and in prison believe, naively and correctly, that philosophy can make a difference in their lives. They call out any bullshit and get right to the main points…I learn from them.”
So which philosophers has Samuelson turned to during crises in his own life?
“Seneca, Montaigne, Pascal, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Arendt,” he replies, “not because they solve the problem, but because they dignify the mystery.” He especially takes heart from the words of William James: “Be not afraid of life...turn to the faint-hearted, who here decline to go on, with words like those with which Henry IV greeted the tardy Crillon after a great victory had been gained: ‘Hang yourself, brave Crillon! We fought at Arques, and you were not there.’” Then, he adds, “I put on [Sidney] Bechet’s Blue Horizon.”