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Scott Samuelson: The Deep Mystery of Being Alive

Scott Samuelson, winner of the 2015 Hiett Prize in the Humanities, is the author of The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone (University of Chicago Press, 2014) and has published articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Huffington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Philosopher’s Magazine, and Christian Century. His article “Why I Teach Plato to Plumbers” in The Atlantic has been widely circulated. He’s been interviewed on NPR and given various public lectures and talks, including a TEDx talk “How Philosophy Can Save Your Life.”

Prof. Samuelson also teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City, Iowa as well as at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a.k.a. Oakdale Prison. He draws on his prison teaching in his second book, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering: What Philosophy Can Tell Us about the Hardest Mystery of All. His upcoming book, Rome as a Guide to the Good Life, is slated to release in the Spring of 2023.

For more information, please visit https://scottsamuelsonauthor.com/.

How did you become interested in this area?

When I was sixteen, I noticed a book in the Iowa City Public Library about philosophy. I knew nothing about the subject, but I was intrigued and started flipping through it. One section was entitled “Five Proofs of God”—by someone named Thomas Aquinas. That there could even be one proof of God was mind-blowing enough—but five!? Since the section wasn’t all that long, I sat down and read it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of the proofs. Strangely, they insinuated doubt into my mind about God’s existence.

If we can do things like prove God, I wondered, doesn’t that mean we’re also capable of inventing God? Nevertheless, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that whatever Thomas Aquinas was doing was the greatest thing a human being could do. I wanted in. I wanted to be a philosopher, even though I had no clue what philosophy was. I started reading other philosophers (the existentialists at first) and have never looked back. There are probably several good ways of navigating life but let me stand up for heading down an alluring path with no idea where you’re going.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

Socrates famously suggests that the unexamined life is not worth living. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but I consider it my mission as a teacher and writer to show the beauty of living the examined life. My first book The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone is my most concerted attempt to get this point across. What does the examined life involve? Among other things, paying loving attention to the world, reading widely, listening to people, trying to understand what they’re doing and why, thinking clearly and honestly about what matters most, being willing to face suffering and tragedy, adjusting your beliefs in light of experience, and reminding yourself that the truth is always bigger than what you think it is.

There are two great impediments to the examined life. The first is the belief that you’re already in possession of what gives meaning and value to life, and anyone who disagrees with you is wrong. The second is the view that nothing gives meaning and value to life, so everyone is equally right. Both of these positions, admittedly, contain an element of truth. The dogmatist is right that there’s something real to understand, and the relativist is right that it’s hubristic to believe any one person is in full possession of it. But I take the essence of philosophy to be (as its etymology suggests) the love of wisdom: not the possession of wisdom but the desire for wisdom that you don’t yet—and may never fully—possess.

If all we do is war against suffering and death, we miss out on the deep mystery of being alive.

Scott Samuelson

What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?

In a sense, it’s a variation on the old adage memento mori. In my book Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering, I make the case that it’s worthwhile to remember our mortality—and our vulnerability more generally. We’re used to trying to fix suffering and death (for instance, with medicine) and trying to forget about suffering and death (for instance, by distracting ourselves). But I argue that we should also face suffering and death. The arts can be especially helpful here, as can religion. I think philosophy at its finest—for instance, Stoicism—is particularly good at it.

If all we do is war against suffering and death, we miss out on the deep mystery of being alive. So, my piece of practical advice is that the good life involves the paradox of simultaneously opposing and accepting suffering and death. My metaphor for this is the martial arts. Martial artists fight as hard as they can against their opponents, but they always bow to their opponents before and after sparring. Likewise, we should try to minimize the misery in the world and prolong our lives up to a point, but we should also bow before the tragic mysteries—not just because they’re inevitable and intrinsic to life itself, but because doing so enhances the quality of our lives.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

I’m quite fond of Paul Valéry’s observation: “You can’t get drunk with the labels on the bottles.” In my view, people waste far too much time trying to get drunk on labels like Buddhism, evangelicalism, liberalism, Platonism, surrealism . . . Though I’m not opposed to labels, I prefer the wine.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

Here’s another good quotation from a poet, this time from Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim!” I
would also recommend looking at whim, conversing at whim, and thinking at whim—at least if you want to learn more about the kind of philosophy I do.

Suppose you were able to give a talk or workshop at the original location of Plato’s Academy, in Athens. 

I’d feel honored—but also intimidated. I’d imagine Plato’s great teacher cornering me with his withering irony, “Rare friend, how much you must know to feel qualified to speak in this
illustrious place! Let me become your disciple so that I may walk away from our conversation enriched by your great wisdom. Surely you will not mind, since I am an ignorant man, if I ask you a few questions first . . .”

What do you think?

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