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Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering

What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All

Scott Samuelson


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It’s right there in the Book of Job: “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward.” Suffering is an inescapable part of the human condition—which leads to a question that has proved just as inescapable throughout the centuries: Why? Why do we suffer? Why do people die young? Is there any point to our pain, physical or emotional? Do horrors like hurricanes have meaning?
In Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, Scott Samuelson tackles that hardest question of all. To do so, he travels through the history of philosophy and religion, but he also attends closely to the real world we live in. While always taking the question of suffering seriously, Samuelson is just as likely to draw lessons from Bugs Bunny as from Confucius, from his time teaching philosophy to prisoners as from Hannah Arendt’s attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust. He guides us through the arguments people have offered to answer this fundamental question, explores the many ways that we have tried to minimize or eliminate suffering, and examines people’s attempts to find ways to live with pointless suffering. Ultimately, Samuelson shows, to be fully human means to acknowledge a mysterious paradox: we must simultaneously accept suffering and oppose it. And understanding that is itself a step towards acceptance.
Wholly accessible, and thoroughly thought-provoking, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering is a masterpiece of philosophy, returning the field to its roots—helping us see new ways to understand, explain, and live in our world, fully alive to both its light and its darkness.

Praise For Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All

"A compelling and highly readable assessment of modern and perennial responses to suffering."
— Christian Century

"Excellent. . . . 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. . . 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. . . . 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."

— Times Higher Education, Book of the Week

"You can keep your gratitude journals, but make no mistake about it: this world is a vale of tears, a world of seemingly senseless suffering. How we understand and relate ourselves to this suffering will shape our lives both morally and otherwise. A gifted author with a feathery writing touch on the weightiest of subjects, Scott Samuelson has succeeded in carefully distilling the wisdom of a wide array of philosophers on what St. Paul called 'the groaning of creation.' Rife with engaging personal stories, Samuelson's meditation is both intellectually substantive and uplifting."
— Gordon Marino, author of The Existential Survival Guide

"In this eminently readable but subtle book, Scott Samuelson opens up new ways of thinking about suffering. Weaving together philosophical reflections with compelling stories of his time teaching in prison, Samuelson shows us the various roles undeserved suffering plays our lives, and indeed in life itself. This book is a necessary read for those of us who want to reflect on the place of pain in human existence."
— Todd May, author of A Fragile Life

University of Chicago Press, 9780226407081, 272pp.

Publication Date: May 4, 2018

About the Author

Scott Samuelson lives in Iowa City, Iowa, where he is professor of philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. He has taught the humanities in universities, colleges, prisons, houses of worship, and bars. He has also worked as a movie reviewer, television host, and sous chef at a French restaurant on a gravel road. He is the author of The Deepest Human Life and Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, both published by the University of Chicago Press.