Sometimes it seems like you need a PhD just to open a book of philosophy. We leave philosophical matters to the philosophers in the same way that we leave science to scientists. Scott Samuelson thinks this is tragic, for our lives as well as for philosophy. In The Deepest Human Life he takes philosophy back from the specialists and restores it to its proper place at the center of our humanity, rediscovering it as our most profound effort toward understanding, as a way of life that anyone can live. Exploring the works of some of history’s most important thinkers in the context of the everyday struggles of his students, he guides us through the most vexing quandaries of our existence—and shows just how enriching the examined life can be.
Samuelson begins at the beginning: with Socrates, working his most famous assertion—that wisdom is knowing that one knows nothing—into a method, a way of approaching our greatest mysteries. From there he springboards into a rich history of philosophy and the ways its journey is encoded in our own quests for meaning. He ruminates on Epicurus against the sonic backdrop of crickets and restaurant goers in Iowa City. He follows the Stoics into the cell where James Stockdale spent seven years as a prisoner of war. He spins with al-Ghazali first in doubt, then in the ecstasy of the divine. And he gets the philosophy education of his life when one of his students, who authorized a risky surgery for her son that inadvertently led to his death, asks with tears in her eyes if Kant was right, if it really is the motive that matters and not the consequences. Through heartbreaking stories, humanizing biographies, accessible theory, and evocative interludes like “On Wine and Bicycles” or “On Zombies and Superheroes ,” he invests philosophy with the personal and vice versa. The result is a book that is at once a primer and a reassurance—that the most important questions endure, coming to life in each of us.
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The Deepest Human Life
An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone
By Scott Samuelson
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
Portrait of You as Odysseus
A Dialogue between two Infants in the womb concerning the state of this world, might handsomely illustrate our ignorance of the next, whereof methinks we yet discourse in Platoes denne, and are but Embryon Philosophers.
SIR THOMAS BROWNE
"What is philosophy?" Dr. Donald Livingston used to ask us graduate students. After a numbing pause, this old southern gentleman in various crinkled hues of white, a bright handkerchief spilling disconcertingly far out of his breast pocket, would then muse in his sonorous drawl, "If a biologist asks, 'What is biology?' he is no longer doing biology. There is no mathematical formula that answers the question, 'What is mathematics?' But when we philosophers wonder what we're doing, we're doing our job." But let's begin with the more burning question for most of my students: What is class participation?
Fearing the silences of the dazed classroom, I used to follow the custom of giving a certain number of "participation points," which could be earned exclusively by asking and answering questions in class. In my first year teaching philosophy at Kirkwood, I had in class a woman about my age who spent each period scrutinizing me in silence from her cheap desk in the rear of the room. As I'd bumble through lectures and discussions, her stony gaze never left me. But no matter how hard I'd try to stare her down after my most riveting question, she never participated.
Maybe because her brow spoke unmistakably of having earned her bread by its sweat, I began to second-guess myself, imagining that she was stewing to herself, "Who does he think he is, lecturing me on life?" or, "Unbelievable they pay him to do this." Sometimes I consoled myself that she wasn't thinking much of anything, that she was simply punching the clock and struggling to understand enough basics to pass and move a rung up the economic ladder.
I teach a lot of students, upward of 125 a semester; so it's hard for me at first to affix names to faces without the advantage of the notes I scribble on my attendance sheet. It wasn't until I passed back the first assignment that it dawned on me that this was Deanne Folkmann, the author of the best paper by a long shot. Though a little rough around the edges, hers was the only essay that demonstrated a nuanced sense of the text, that quoted and reflected on passages we never talked about, that beamed with the unfakeable glow of real thinking. It was not a prelude to a career in philosophy. It was philosophy.
Other than the greatest thing of all, putting a good book in someone's hands, I'm not sure how much I did for her as a teacher that semester. What I had first taken for punching the clock was in fact a monk-like silence. She was taking in whatever bits of knowledge I dispensed and then revisiting Plato, Epictetus, and Kant in order to illuminate her life. She believed, naively and correctly, that Plato, Epictetus, and Kant could be of service. She reminded me of the sunlit world of philosophy, the world that dawned on me when I first held all the wisdom of Thomas Aquinas in my ignorant hands.
I wish I'd kept her papers. Nowadays, as a more experienced teacher, I'd pull her aside and ask her to tell me about herself. Maybe it's just as well our dialogue went on indirectly, though something in me longs to have heard her voice. At least I had the presence of mind to jot down in my journal what she wrote at the end of her final, the sole personal note she ever struck with me, so personal I almost can hear something of her voice's timbre in it:
I've realized my quest for knowledge will take me away from my job as a factory worker. For many of my coworkers the paycheck is enough. It's been enough for me at times. Not anymore. Knowledge can take me on a journey to places I can't yet imagine. Strange, but philosophy has made my job more bearable, and it's also made it somehow unbearable. Powerful words to live by: "An unexamined life is not worth living."
That's class participation.
* * *
We often define human beings as the "rational animal," the sole thing on this earth with the capacity to reason. Michel de Montaigne, one of the wiser human beings who ever lived, tells the story of a fox that inched close to a frozen river and then put his ear to the ice—presumably because if a current was audible, the ice would be too thin and treacherous to walk on. Wasn't the fox, Montaigne wonders, performing a kind of deduction? Doesn't the fox's syllogism—if I can hear water, the ice is too thin; I can hear water; therefore, the ice is too thin—prove that foxes are also "rational animals"?
Once I was watching a feisty young cat by the name of Georgiana who had just discovered that she could climb a certain tree to the tiptop. One time, to her delight, the squirrel she was chasing ran up that very tree. The squirrel got to the topmost branch and realized that he could go no farther. Looking down, he saw the cat darting confidently nearer; then he turned and looked down at the ground, perhaps thirty or forty feet below; then he cast one more glance back at Georgiana. Wasn't that squirrel doing some split-second reasoning? After looking back and forth a few more quick times, the squirrel jumped—with an almost hopeless abandon—and plummeted gracelessly toward the ground. Didn't the squirrel calculate his best chance of survival? Isn't the squirrel also, then, a rational animal?
Now, maybe our fox and squirrel were simply acting on instinct. But even if we believe, as Montaigne and I do, that they were performing a mental calculation, we can still distinguish human rationality from animal reckoning. Rationality, at least as it was intended by Aristotle when he defined us as the zoon logikon (the rational animal), is more than calculation. Our rationality involves a strange looping in our nature. We're capable of revising our very being, of reordering our values, of turning our calculating abilities back on ourselves. This looping is perhaps most dramatic at the level of politics, where we occasionally engage in revolutions. As yet, there's not been a Marxist honeybee who tried to organize his fellow worker bees to overthrow that queen who's always exploiting their labor. Wolves may fight for who should be the alpha of the pack, but it has never occurred to them to organize their packs into a larger unit that would be governed by a majority show of paws. But we do just such things, and not just in times of revolution. We all ask, "Who am I? What am I supposed to be doing with my life?" And the very act of asking transforms us. We sometimes even wonder if life is worth living at all. Hamlet's famous soliloquy is not, after all, the speech of a madman. The squirrel's internal monologue began,
To die by claw for sure or else to live
After the fall perhaps: that is my question,
not, "To be or not to be." By the way, the squirrel lived and limped off as Georgiana looked on from the windy heights with indignant disbelief.
The overarching goals of our fellow animals are pretty clear to them: eat, sleep, protect the pack, stretch, et cetera. If and when they "reason," it is to calculate how to attain those goals. We, too, inherit a complex of similar goals; we, too, spend a lot of time figuring out what to eat for dinner. But we also have the ability to question our goals, to change our minds, and to measure how meaningful our lives are against our conceptions. Through tools, images, and words, we extend who we are into a relatively open space that then curves back on itself. We are, so to speak, the philosophical animal.
Admittedly, philosophy is not the only way we participate in our rationality. Another important—fundamental—way in which we turn our unique power onto ourselves occurs in poetry, art, and music. Inspiration aids us in defining a style of human existence. This musical expression of rationality comes to full bloom in religion, which is God's revelation of a way of life, at least according to the religious believer. But it also includes the overlapping practices we now call culture: our way of life—"ours" not because any of us individually thought it out or even, most of the time, consciously assented to it, but simply because we were born into it and it feels natural.
In the fifth century BC, the common funerary custom of the Greeks was to cremate their dead. Not too far away in India, the Callations' practice was to eat theirs. Once, Darius, the great Persian king, gathered representatives of both groups and asked how much money he could give the Greeks to eat their forebears and how much he could give the Callations to set their dearly departed on fire. No amount of money was sufficient for either group. (Is there a price for which you would take even one nibble of your dead uncle's flesh?) Each, as you might imagine, was deeply offended that the king would even suggest something so contrary to "nature." Herodotus, who reports all this, draws the conclusion that "if one were to offer men to choose out of all the customs in the world such as seemed to them the best, they would examine the whole number, and end by preferring their own."
Yet everyone does discover, like the Greeks and Callations, that there are different kinds of music, different ways of expressing our humanity. When it dawns on us that there are religions other than our own, that peoples of other cultures have formulated startlingly different images, stories, and rituals in which to encapsulate their humanity, we stand on the brink of philosophy. As the philosopher al-Ghazali observed a thousand years ago, "the children of Christians always grew up embracing Christianity, and the children of Jews always grew up adhering to Judaism, and the children of Muslims always grew up following the religion of Islam." As soon as we wonder, "So who's right—if anybody?"—we enter a new stage of our rationality: philosophy.
* * *
In a recent article for the New York Times, the literary critic Stanley Fish claimed that philosophy is "a special, insular form of thought," and that "its propositions have weight and value only in the precincts of its game." He went on to say that philosophical theses like moral absolutism are at best "rhetorical flourishes" that don't make any difference in how we actually live. As a description of most academic philosophy, his characterization is probably right. Whether in graduate seminars or introductory courses, teachers and students of philosophy often play the game of trying to construct a perfect theory. We criticize weaknesses and inconsistencies in inherited views of goodness, beauty, and truth. We try to construct general explanations. We fidget with questions and answers in the smooth spaces of the mind.
But as a description of real philosophy, Fish's definition is wrong. He makes the common mistake of taking one part of philosophy—the intellectual scrutiny of various positions—for the whole of it, which involves the fullest exercise of our rationality: the seeking out of a meaningful life. Philosophy begins and ends in the realm of plumbers and love and aching backs and hangovers and beauty and painted toenails—in short, the world we regularly confront. Yes, philosophy takes a detour through an often disorienting world of reflection. But all ideas under philosophical discussion, in the end, must be judged on their ability to help us live well.
The great historian of ideas Pierre Hadot has demonstrated that the body of ancient philosophy isn't primarily a bunch of theories but rather a set of spiritual exercises intended to get people back to their true selves. For the ancient Greeks and then Romans, philosophy was anything but "a special, insular form of thought." To engage in philosophy was to commit oneself to the improvement it offered. People turned to philosophies like Stoicism and Epicureanism because their lives were plunged into worries, beliefs, and desires that had alienated them from living good lives. They were after the good life, and philosophy was the discipline of hunting it down.
To some degree, the ancient practice of philosophy in modernity was transformed into a theoretical discipline intended to clarify the concepts of science and morality. But that's not the whole story. I believe that philosophy has never lost its character of being a way of life. When the great modern philosophers wrestled with science and morality, as I will try to show in my later chapters, they had very pressing reasons for doing so. In the seventeenth century, Descartes sought out a certain foundation for knowledge in large part because the world was crumbling around him. In the twentieth century, Hans Jonas reconceptualized God and evil in large part because his mother had been killed at Auschwitz. When a student of mine, a mother who'd authorized a surgery for her son that led to his death, asked me in tears if Kant was right that the consequences of an action play no role in determining its moral worth, I realized quite clearly that evaluating Kantian ethics was much more than a game to be played in the insularity of the mind or the classroom.
When everyday life is deeply satisfying, philosophy is indeed the leisurely activity that Stanley Fish describes, simply a pleasurable exercise of our native desire to know. But when everyday life is less than fully satisfying, there will always be people who set out on a quest for meaning. All of a sudden that leisurely desire to know becomes a pressing desire to find the good life. And when the normal course of everyday life offers very little satisfying to our natures, when we regularly feel the dull aches of bad work, empty leisure, and disoriented politics, then philosophy becomes not just the practice of the few but the need of the many. Such was the situation when regional warlords tore apart ancient China. The warring states period, as it was called, gave birth to the Hundred Schools of Thought, the heyday of Chinese philosophy, in which thinkers like Laozi and Confucius tried to envision a better form of human culture. Such was also the situation in ancient Athens after their defeat by the Spartans in the Peloponnesian War, when their society was plagued by zealous believers and moral relativists. The decline of the Athenian hegemony gave birth to Socrates, Diogenes, Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and the Stoics, for whom philosophy was the spiritual practice of living well. Such was also the situation in what we call the early modern period, when Europe was torn apart by warring factions of Protestants and Catholics, the very period that gave us the great modern philosophers who envisioned politics, morality, and science not immediately grounded in factious religion. My hunch is that we're now in a similar boat: if not an empire in decline, we're at least a diffuse civilization of conflicting, often less-than-satisfying social roles. If so, we need philosophy.
* * *
There's a very short story that I believe embodies the mystery of philosophy—and the mystery of being human—in the beloved Chinese book the Zhuangzi, which narrates the rambling life and teachings of the eponymous Daoist master.
Master Zhuang and Master Hui were strolling across the bridge over the Hao River. "The minnows have come out and are swimming so leisurely," said Master Zhuang. "This is the joy of fishes."
"You're not a fish," said Master Hui. "How do you know what the joy of fishes is?"
"You're not me," said Master Zhuang, "so how do you know that I don't know what the joy of fishes is."
"I'm not you," said Master Hui, "so I certainly do not know what you do. But you're certainly not a fish, so it is irrefutable that you do not know what the joy of fishes is."
"Let's go back to where we started," said Master Zhuang. "When you said, 'How do you know what the joy of fishes is?' you asked me because you already knew that I knew. I know it by strolling over the Hao."
Master Zhuang (Zhuangzi) and Master Hui (Huizi) symbolize, among other things, two different sides of philosophy, each important in its way. Zhuangzi is wise, funny, religious, poetic, calm. Huizi is logical, serious, prosaic, scientific. However, just like in the famous yin-yang diagram, each contains the seed of the other in him.
The parable begins with an observation that expresses a connection between Zhuangzi and the fish darting up to the surface of the water. It has a simple, musical quality to it. It's the kind of remark we're all apt to say in the presence of other animals, for instance at the zoo, where it's hard to resist seeing our inner lives reflected in the playful, sad, lazing animals. His remark represents the spontaneous way we have of relating to life. Huizi disrupts this spontaneity and questions the validity of its implicit reasoning: enter philosophy. Zhuangzi happily follows this new line of thought and doubles down on Huizi's principle: if one animal can't understand another, how can one human understand another? It's a potentially paralyzing conclusion. All of a sudden we are at the absolute opposite point of where we began. Our spontaneous connection to the world seems far away; now we seem to have no connection to anything at all: maybe nothing makes sense. This, too, is a moment of philosophy.
Excerpted from The Deepest Human Life by Scott Samuelson. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents
Prelude on Light Pollution and the Stars
Part 1 What Is Philosophy?
1 Portrait of You as Odysseus
2 Portrait of Philosophy as Socrates
Interlude on Laughter and Tears
Part 2 What Is Happiness?
3 The Exquisite Materialism of Epicurus
4 The Mysterious Freedom of the Stoic
Interlude on Wine and Bicycles
Part 3 Is Knowledge of God Possible?
5 The Ecstasy without a Name
6 In Nightmares Begins Rationality
7 The Terrifying Distance of the Stars
Interlude on Campfires and the Sun
Part 4 What Is the Nature of Good and Evil?
8 The Moral Worth of a Teardrop
9 The Beast That Is and Is Not
Interlude on Superheroes and Zombies
Conclusion: The Most Beautiful Thing in the World
Recommended Further Reading
What People are Saying About This
“The Deepest Human Life is a splendid book for students, writers, philosophers, and anyone interested in exploring the human condition. Samuelson wears his considerable learning lightly, addressing the enduring questionsWhat is philosophy? What is happiness? What is the nature of good and evil?in an engaging and accessible manner, reminding readers that the quest for meaning is indeed a matter of life and death. What a marvelous professor he must be. And what good luck to have his wisdom here on the page.”
“The Deepest Human Life is charming and upbeat, but it’s also very poignant in places. Samuelson weaves his personal story of teaching at a community college into the philosophical adventure and shows how philosophy is an approach to lifea practice of self-knowing and self-forgettingrather than a professional career. The result is a unique introduction to philosophy, composed with a rare voice of humane literary sophistication.”