Quaker Universalist Conversations

Pointless Human Suffering

A Book Review of Scott Samuelson, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering (2018)

Suffering is a universal human experience. Some suffering is common to all humans (all ages, genders, and cultures).  Some suffering is unique to humans in particular cultures (honor killings, slavery, and female genital mutilation).  Suffering is a universal problem for understanding.

This book, Scott Samuelson, Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering (2018) is helpful for the sufferer and the caregiver of the sufferer. It does not address the large universal philosophical questions. There is nothing philosophically new contributed in this book, but it provides a breezy, readable, easy introduction to some major thought leaders about pointless suffering.  The author is a responsive popularizer of some difficult philosophical issues regarding suffering.  The reading of this book can be a way to discipline individual reflection on the experience of suffering.  Expect much food for thought, but do not anticipate easy answers.

The book has a broad scope and reaches beyond physical pain to include injustice, death, and chronic misery.  He does not recognize the suffering of animals and plants in the scope of human concern in this book. The author does not address end-of-life decision issues, when suffering is often most acute and chronic, and there is more human interest in autonomy in decisions about the timing, means, and circumstances of death as a termination or mitigation of pointless suffering.

The ways (7) of viewing pointless suffering are arbitrarily chosen and there is no effort to consider the broader human context in which the chosen seven are discussed. The seven are not significantly linked into a larger fabric, which is the task left to the reader, except that the author testifies to seeing a shared core understanding among the assembled views of pointless suffering. This book reflects a benign, passive, and vague universalism.

There is a prison theme to the book.  The author punctuates the discussion with the comments and reflections of men at a state prison where the author taught a philosophical study group.

The author’s substantive view in this book can be summarized as Epictetus through Montaigne to John Hicks.  The result is confirmation of the usefulness of pointless suffering as a testing process in building of virtue in the individual soul, which perspective the author attributes as a common aspect of many human traditions.  We need suffering in order for us to grow.  The remainder mystery in pointless suffering is beyond human knowing and is left in lamentation, mitigated by resignation and endurance.

The book includes a full index and endnotes some of which are explanatory and add to the reader’s understanding.  The chapter titles are clear, but overly fancy, for the popular reader.

Quakers: Quakers are opposed to suffering of all kinds. Pointless suffereng is a shared problem with other traditions.

Questions:

  • Do the Quakers of the early Quaker tradition bring anything new or unique to human understanding of pointless suffering?  
  • Do the Quaker testimonies speak to pointless suffering or are they silent on suffering?
  • Does more recent Quaker experience and reflection contribute to the broader human understanding of pointless suffering?

Resources:

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