Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering (Samuelson)

Book #14, read December 2018

Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All (Scott Samuelson)

When I stumbled across this book, I ordered it right away and let it jump the rest of my book queue. It’s not specifically a book about death and dying, but the relevance is obvious. Samuelson is eloquent and measured beyond belief, fresh qualities in an intellectual environment littered with hot takes and oversimplification. I wish he were my uncle or something, I’m glad that people like him simply exist.

It’s not like I was previously unfamiliar with the perspective that suffering is inherent to human life, provides regrettable though undeniable opportunities for meaning-making, blah blah. But the spokespersons for this view are just usually so cheap, so coarse-spoken.

It’s not really appropriate to tell most people who are deep in grief, loss, and misery that life couldn’t have been otherwise, or that their suffering in effect makes possible their previous or future joy. Even though I am slowly coming around to these positions, it had to be academically (as via this book) and not via the bullshit off-the-cuff pronouncements of the random people drifting through my sad orbit.

I’ve procrastinated on writing this review for several months because I simply don’t know how to summarize the value in such a far-reaching work. In his first pages, Samuelson hones right in on the essential dilemma: whether we should “fix” or “face” our suffering. Our ancestors largely seem to have learned to face suffering with grace (or at least resignation), simply because they were forced to by circumstances: there was precious little “fixing” available.

Now, humans (at least in the developed world) are largely accustomed to enjoying a certain large degree of control over their lives. Yet, this control is not complete, and never will be. An expectation to be able to fix all suffering (or even most of it, or even just the worst of it) is destined to be frustrated. Deeply, miserably frustrated. As de Toqueville observes, “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable, become intolerable when once the idea of escape from them is suggested.”

The art of human suffering, then, is twofold. It consists in practiced judgment about which things to try to fix, and when. It consists in facing all the rest of the suffering with poise, not necessarily raging against the dying of the light. 

Samuelson pursues his exploration of human suffering over vast terrain: the now-established hegemony of utilitarianism (and its missteps), Arendt, Nietzsche, theodicy, the Book of Job, the jazz of Sidney Bechet, his own experience teaching philosophy to prison inmates. Seven Ways ends up serving as kind of a philosophy book, kind of a history book, kind of an anthropology book. Samuelson manages to take many different ways of looking at suffering seriously, without dogmatically committing to one or refuting each in turn as you might observe in a mediocre introductory philosophy course (of the kind I used to teach). 

If you are a person who has any interest in philosophy, ethics, cultural history, anthropology, or religion, I can wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. 

“Without death, we wouldn’t be able to have life, a process that depends on the metabolic exchange of matter. Without pain, we couldn’t be animals, whose nature is to feel their desires. Without freedom, we couldn’t be humans whose nature is to stand back from the world and reflect on and redirect the ends of our actions.”

You don’t have to like it, but it is what it is.