There is a fundamental paradox ensconced at the heart of being human: To be human, it contends, is to simultaneously accept suffering and reject it. Or at least that’s what Scott Samuelson believes. Samuelson teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College, and is the author of two books: The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone, and Seven Ways of Looking at Pointless Suffering. But let’s come back to the paradox. Samuelson compares it to being a martial artist: On one hand, one must bow before suffering in a show of respect, acquiescing to its inextricability from life and recognizing that win or lose, we’re all going to die in the end. But then one must pick up one’s lance and spar with it for all one’s worth. Simply accepting suffering without any effort to overcome it is stagnating, and before long, gives way to a personal and political complacency. On the other hand, blindly fighting against suffering without any effort at understanding it is shallow. We lose our ability to enrich ourselves through the “difficulties, tragedies, and vulnerabilities” at the heart of all meaningful things. Any attempt at a deeper, more fulfilling experience of life must necessarily involve some amount of both acceptance and rejection of suffering.
According to Samuelson, cynicism—or at least its modern-day avatar—hinges on an inherent rejection of suffering. Modern day cynics are forever suspicious of reality as it stands. This suspicion manifests as a lack of engagement with what they reject, including society and its institutions, people and their egregious motives; and by extension an outright rejection of, and refusal to engage with, suffering. This kind of cynicism seems “a bit cheap” to Samuelson. For his part, he’s more intrigued by the ancient Cynics, a school of thought in Greek philosophy that believed the purpose of life was to live in agreement with nature. As a corollary, the ancient cynics rejected societal caprices of wealth, power, and fame; in fact, they eschewed all social conventions to the extent that they even took their pisses in public. But the fundamental difference between this cynicism and its modern-day version is that, while ancient cynicism involved embracing a more natural state of being—where one lives in virtue, harmony, and asceticism—modern cynicism is fundamentally centered around a rejection: of reality, people, action, suffering, and to an extent, of life itself. To put it simply, modern cynicism is a negative philosophy, which rejects everything and accepts nothing. Ancient cynicism involves a simultaneous rejection and acceptance: a rejection of broader social conventions and a simultaneous acceptance of nature at large. Inasmuch as this, it is a more positive philosophy as it doesn’t preclude action, but presents an alternative way of being. Ultimately, it is ancient cynicism that resonates with Samuelson, and is closest to his own philosophy of suffering and how to deal with it. Samuelson delves deeper into some of these themes—of life, suffering, and cynicism—in our conversation below.
Neha Mehrotra: What is cynicism according to you?
Scott Samuelson: So, it’s quite interesting. In ancient Greece, and then this spills into ancient Rome as well, philosophy really was conceived as a way of life. I’m very fond of this tradition in philosophy where, to be a philosopher, it was very essential to practice philosophy. And most of these philosophies were directed at the idea of human well-being or eudaimonia, commonly translated as happiness, but meaning something like leading a flourishing, satisfying human existence. There were different schools of philosophy that practiced philosophical life in different ways. And almost all these schools still stick with us today: the Stoics are one, thus we have Stoicism and still describe someone as “Stoic.” Epicureanism was another eudaimonistic philosophy, and we’ll still describe lovers of good food and wine as Epicureans. The Skeptics were another ancient school, and we still describe people as skeptics.
And then there was Cynicism. The cynics were more a loose movement. Probably the paradigmatic cynic of the ancient world—maybe not the founder—was Diogenes. Probably the most famous story about Diogenes is that he once lit a lantern in broad daylight and wandered around Athens looking for an honest man and not finding one. Actually, the ancient story is just that he was looking for a human being, and not finding one. He was going up to person after person and saying, nope not a human. I guess he was looking for an honest to goodness human, someone worthy of the name of human. Plato described Diogenes as a kind of Socrates gone mad. He famously performed his bodily functions in public. He looked to nature rather than society for guidance on how to live. And because he would do things like urinate in public, he would be called dog-like, which in Greek is “cynic,” essentially. Thus he was called Diogenes the Dog, which is where the word cynic comes from.
He had a very wicked and crazy sense of humor. There’s this story that at one point in Plato’s academy, they were trying to define the nature of being human. They were using this method of genus and difference; and at one point, they had defined humans as “featherless bipeds.” So Diogenes plucked a chicken and threw it into the classroom, and said, “There’s Plato’s man.” Or another story that I like is that he once saw an archer practicing archery, but he was really bad at hitting the target. Diogenes went and stood directly in front of the bullseye, and the archer was like, what are you doing? And he responded, trying not to get hit. Another famous story is that he was admired by Alexander the Great, who at some point found Diogenes basking in the sun. Alexander said, I am Alexander the Great and you’re Diogenes the Dog. But if I couldn’t be Alexander the Great, I’d want to be Diogenes the Dog. I’ll do anything you want—ask me for anything and I’ll give it to you. Diogenes said, well, there’s one thing I do want: Get out of my sun. So yeah, he was an interesting guy. Cynicism was not so much a doctrine. It was more a style of being in the world. Of skewering social norms and pretensions. It was also kind of funny, brutally honest, audacious, and committed to looking to nature rather than social conventions on how to live.
I think our contemporary sense of cynicism is not quite like that; but it’s not totally unrelated to it either. There was a German philosopher named Peter Sloterdijk who wrote a book back in the 1980s. He contrasted modern cynicism and ancient cynicism, and what he said was modern cynicism is the belief that everything is kind of phony, but you still participate in the same system as everyone else. He saw ancient cynicism as liberating and rebellious. Modern cynicism was kind of crippling and leaving the system untouched; but nonetheless recognizing that a lot is crap. I don’t know if I 100 percent agree with that analysis, but I think there’s something to what he’s saying. Cynicism is sometimes a disappointment with things, and a sense of seeing things in the lowest possible interpretation in an attempt to skewer what they’re about. I’ve been wondering if there isn’t a more contemporary form of cynicism, which has to do with the media revolution we’re swept up in. Whenever there have been really big media revolutions—even in ancient Athens when there was this rise in mass literacy—there was a destabilization of old forms of authority and a weaponization of new media. In ancient Athens they had Sophists, who basically said that everything was just persuasion, and the whole goal was to persuade people, to manipulate them to your ends. Or in early modern Europe, there was the rise of the printing press, and all of a sudden, old forms of authority start falling away, which almost leads to civil war. Or even in the early twentieth century, the rise of mass media becomes weaponized. The fascists, communists, everyone uses it to exploit people. And here we are in another media revolution, and I feel like we’re seeing something similar. It seems to me that we’ve become really gullible to those who would make us cynical for their own purposes, often financial purposes, and there’s also such a cacophony of information that it’s easy to just throw our hands up and say, it’s all just power and bullshit. So, there’s that kind of cynicism now, a kind of disappointed checking out of things. A sense of grievance, that everyone is just in it for themselves.
I don’t know. What do you think cynicism is?
I’ve been really fascinated with the idea that cynicism could be the twin side of idealism. Maybe someone who’s cynical is just holding reality to a higher standard. They expect more, want more, look for more, and they’re disappointed. But that’s idealism.
Well yeah, cynicism is the falling down of ideals. You could say that a cynic is an idealist who’s been mugged by reality. But again, that sort of both cynicism and idealism seem a bit cheap to me. I honestly understand the appeal, but they seem a bit cheap.
Why is that?
I just think that neither one is quite right. Idealism is kind of this starry-eyed belief that you want things to be a certain way and maybe it’s a necessary stage for us to go through. But what’s more important is how you put those ideals into practice, and when you do it is when you learn the more important lessons in life. You learn about the real nature of politics, you learn about compassion and humility, that you don’t have all the answers. And those are all important things. You can still try to make the world a better place in a way that’s not like, “It’s either all my ideals, or else it’s just crap and what’s the point.” It seems to me that people who are actually going out and doing and learning important things and willing to see their ideals in a new light are who’ve got it right.
Do you think it’s important to be a little cynical in life?
Friedrich Nietzsche, the great German philosopher, was quite fond of cynicism. I seem to remember a passage, though I’m going to mellow it a bit (Nietzsche probably had it a bit harsher). He said you kind of want to have both, Alexander the Great and Diogenes the Dog, in your personality. You want to have the person with the ideals, and you want to have the person with the desire to go out into the world and make something great. But you also need a little voice in your head, to constantly puncture the pretensions of that. You need that harmony. There may be some truth to that. A little cynical voice is good, but I don’t know if I’d want the cynical voice to be the dominant voice, in me at least.
What is suffering and what role does it play in human life?
First of all, I don’t think it’s super important for us to define suffering; when suffering presents itself to us, we know what it is. It takes many forms. We can take the physical suffering of pain. We can talk about mental forms of suffering like grief, depression, anxiety. All those can be related at times. We can also talk about general causes of suffering, like injustice, death—facing our own, let alone losing others—and just the infirmities of being alive, like sickness, getting old. I’ve always been really interested in the kind of suffering that just blows our mind—so there’s times when we experience pain or even mental distress, but we kind of recognize that it’s all for the good. No pain, no gain kind of mentality. And certainly, there are some forms of suffering that fall under this category.
But then there are other forms of suffering which, no matter what you do, just don’t add up. You just can’t say at the end, ohh, I see how it was all worth it. I sometimes refer to that as pointless suffering—the kind of suffering that seems to overspill our categories of what seems right or fair or just. Even with death, we can sometimes think that ohh, it’s good that we have to die, it’s good that we’re mortal. But very few of us can wrap our heads around very early death, like the death of a child, or even a middle-aged death. We feel as if they haven’t really had their fair shot at life. So it’s one thing to say that I accept the fact that I have to die. But I still don’t want to die early. Or with pain: I get that if I fall and hit my arm, it’s good that I feel pain because it lets me know that I have an injury and that I need to take care of it. But then there are instances of absolutely gratuitous pain, like a migraine headache, where it’s not really telling you anything. It’s just torturing you. I think of these as the range of suffering.
Now coming to how you deal with suffering: Most of human life is centered around dealing with suffering. I playfully reduce it to three main approaches: Face it, fix it, or forget about it. Facing it is when we come up with ways to try and think about it, maybe through the arts—music is very powerful; literature, religion, where we have rituals or symbols or myths which help us confront suffering. Sometimes we can do it through philosophy, where we try to be honest about our suffering. And then of course, the fix-it side of it is, think of all the things we’ve done as human beings to try and remedy suffering. Through technology, medicine, even through politics. And finally, forget about it is probably the most common, where we just go get drunk. Just check out completely. Each has its place, and we want to have a balance; because if we only worry about fixing it and forgetting about it—which is what happens in contemporary culture—we’re missing out on something in our humanity.
You’ve said that one should simultaneously accept suffering and oppose it. How does one do that?
I think it’s difficult, and it’s here that art, philosophy, and religion can give us some tools. But if all we do is oppose suffering, we’ve missed out on something important. If we think of ourselves as at war with suffering, we want to beat it and make it give up. When we do that, we lose something of our humanity. I don’t think we’ll succeed anyway. Suffering is never going to wave the white flag. But at the same time, it seems to me wrong to just accept suffering and shrug our shoulders, and not to do anything about suffering. That also seems to be a problem. So you need to find a balance between accepting it and opposing it. The metaphor I like to use is of a martial artist. The martial artist will bow to his or her opponent before sparring, but then fight and give it one’s all; and in the end, bow again to the opponent. I like that idea that if, for instance, god forbid, I’m diagnosed with cancer, I think it’s the right thing to do to be like, bring it on cancer; I’m going to try and best you and try to win. But maybe you may win against me. But let’s make this a good fight. And also bow to the fact that I might beat cancer in this round, but I am going to die, and I do have to bow to that fact. And when I do bow to that fact, it might remind me to live a better life. To live more powerfully. And even in response to cancer and the suffering it might generate, it could bring out virtues in me. It might enhance my relationships, make me more compassionate.
One of my friends just died last year, and he had been diagnosed with cancer and given about a year to live. And this was through the pandemic. And of all the people I ran into during the pandemic, he was always the happiest. He was always just so grateful to see me, he was always curious, wanted to spend quality time together. And it was in part because of the fact that he was going to die. He wanted to live, sure. He had fought the cancer as much as he could. But he also knew that there were limits to what he could do. Accepting his mortality brought out the best in him.
What is the role of philosophy in life?
I see philosophy as a natural part of human life. People are all philosophers. Not everyone’s devoting their lives to it. But I think that even from very young ages, we start to wonder about things. Like why do good people suffer? Why do we have to die, or what happens to us after we die? Why do animals have to die? Or just other wonderments about where we come from, and what’s the point. We start asking these questions young, and they continue throughout our lives. We can sometimes find ways of shutting down these questions, or jumping onto easy answers, but those wonderments are just built into the structure of being a rational animal. It’s natural for us to ask these questions, and philosophy at its best tries to integrate the pursuit of wisdom into day-to-day life itself, so that some people can live philosophically. Live, not by believing that they have all the answers to these questions, but by living in relationship to those questions and trying to see how the search for answers to them can enhance our lives. So there are a lot of people who can think and live philosophically, without actually considering themselves philosophers.
Do you live philosophically?
I try to. Philosophy is still one of those words that has a bit of a magic charge to it. One always feels a little nervous saying, I’m a philosopher. It feels as if it has some magic to it. But I try my best to live philosophically, and as much as I do, I feel like I’m enhanced as a human being.
In one of your articles, you mention how the Stoics argue that with the proper spiritual discipline, one can be truly free and happy even while being tortured. Do you think that’s realistic? Would you actually say that to someone who has gone through torture themselves?
I don’t know if I’d say it to them in a flippant way. But actually, people who have been tortured do actually turn to something like Stoicism. There’s a story of a man by the name of James Stockdale—he’s known to some Americans as the vice-presidential candidate for Ross Perot back in the 1990s. He was a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War and was tortured over the course of many years. He had studied the Stoics in his introduction to philosophy class, and that was what saved his life: While going through torture, it was precisely the lessons that he learnt from the Stoics that helped him. About bringing your mind in accord with reality by understanding what you can control and what you can’t, and focusing your well-being on those things that you can control, which when you’re being tortured is not very much, and maintaining your dignity during this entire process. They were very hard lessons, and it wasn’t like he was smiling and whistling through it all. But he was able to use lessons from the Stoics to salvage some part of his humanity under those very desperate conditions. To such an extent that he was able to say, thank you prison for being part of my life. Even to have gratitude for such a terrible experience. You know, I taught philosophy in prison too, and they aren’t necessarily being tortured, but it is a scene of real deprivation. And again, many of them felt a really strong attraction to Stoicism, because it was a way of trying to find something of a good life even under very difficult conditions. Which isn’t to say that I think Stoicism is 100 percent right. I do think that there are times when we just cry out in pain and just grieve together. But I do think that there are very important lessons that the Stoics can offer, particularly to people in desperate situations.
What is happiness and how can one practice it?
Okay, I’m going to dodge the question a bit, because we’d have to talk about it for a while, and even if we did, we’d come to the conclusion that it’s still a bit of an open question. First of all, I think it’s important to conceive of happiness not as having bright and shiny emotions all the time. Not just a kind of positivity versus negativity thing. A really good human life, a truly happy human life, has incorporated suffering into it, and has figured out ways of dealing with it and confronting it.
So I’m just going to go out on a limb and give you an example of a real life instance. Suppose there is a boy, and he’s had one relationship after another with it never working out. And now he’s absolutely cynical about love and the notion of ever finding “the one.” What would you say to him?
[Laughs] I don’t know. First of all, when it comes to things like love, this is where it is turbulent, and it is really hard to be talked out of your emotions, or talked into your emotions. Because the emotion is so strong. Part of the advice would be, listen to the blues. Listen to some music to deal with that honestly and truthfully. But I would guess that for most people when they’re in that, it is just a stage. This is a good instance of your idealism becoming cynicism. From the starry-eyed “I love you forever” to “I-hate-all-women.” And of course, you don’t want to stay in that stage forever, but sometimes, it’s part of the process of its unfolding.
Again, another hypothetical. Supposing someone comes to you and asks, after everything that our world has gone through—war, genocide, nuclear destruction—how to have faith in humanity? How would you respond to someone who says they’ve lost faith in humanity?
One of the cities I really love is Rome. One of the reasons I love Rome so much is Rome has been living in ruin for thousands of years. It is a city which has seen everything rise and fall, and rise and fall again. And yet, the city goes on, and goes on quite beautifully. If you’ve really gone through these cycles long enough, you get beyond the idealism and cynicism; and reach what, to me, are more humane ways of living. So it’s not about having faith in humanity, in the sense that it’s all going to work out in the end, or it’s all going to be happy and good, and justice will prevail, and there will never be evil. No. Evil will return, bad stuff will happen again. Things will rise and things will fall. That’s just the reality of life. But now all of a sudden, you can say what really is important, what really is worth doing. And all of a sudden, you can contribute meaning to humanity and justice and love and beauty; but maybe those things become a little more down to earth. It’s not about these grand movements all the time, but more about having a nice meal with someone, or making a small difference in the lives of the people around you. So I think there are virtues that emerge from us once we’ve gone through our cycles of hope and dissolution; and we can then get to sometimes more humane virtues; which we can see in the best of the Romans.
In your book, you talk about mysticism, rationalism, and skepticism as three distinct philosophical approaches to life. Can you explain what each of them mean?
I think of mysticism as the idea that we can have direct experiences with some kind of cosmic reality, with God, love, the Dao, or whatever you want to call it. To me, that can be a very profound way of connecting to the universe, and then remaining true to the things that have been revealed through those mystical experiences. We were talking about love earlier. Love is like this. When we fall in love, all of sudden it’s a mystical experience that goes beyond the mind, beyond reason, but seems to reveal something very important. The rationalist view is more to try and understand things as much as possible. And the skeptical view is that the human mind is incapable of ever fully understanding things, so we will never fully have some kind of “real truth” which is good enough to live by. And at least for myself, I choose all of the above. We do have some mysticism in us that we have to serve and honor. I think we should try to understand things as best as possible. But it’s good to have that skeptic’s voice that’s always reminding us that we probably don’t have it all figured out. I would advocate for some balance of those things. But some part of it is also temperament. Some people are just temperamentally more mystics. Some are more rationalists. Some people are temperamentally skeptics. And all that’s well and good. But trying to find some balance of all those things given one’s temperament is probably wise.
Are philosophy and a belief in God antithetical?
Not at all! I know that sometimes that’s the impression that contemporary philosophy can give. But I don’t see that at all. To me, the relationship between philosophy and some kind of faith tradition can be complicated. Certainly, philosophy can be hostile to a faith tradition, but it can also serve a faith tradition. And sometimes, philosophy is almost in search of a faith tradition. To me, that’s not how I draw the line: People who believe in God and philosophers. I draw the line across those things. I feel much more at home with a philosophically minded believer, or a philosophically minded atheist; than I do with a highly dogmatic philosopher, or a highly dogmatic religious believer. So to me, it’s not philosophy versus religion. It’s more, philosophy is part of life, and religion is part of life, and so we can work it out.
I think of Socrates, in one of his dialogues. He asks the question: What is holiness? And I like that approach. It does seem to me that holiness is a real experience people have. We sometimes experience people as being holy, we experience nature as holy, or maybe sometimes we have a feeling of gigantic holiness of everything. And I think that’s real, and human beings have always tried to respond to holiness; and religion is one way to respond to holiness and make it a part of your life; though religion can get very far away from that as well. To me, it is relevant to ask what is holiness. Does that necessarily lead to a belief in God? Maybe, maybe not. But it does seem to me that it’s a real experience worth thinking about, and also thinking about how to incorporate it into your life. If it’s through a religious tradition, or in some other form. It’s interesting because Socrates gets accused by the Athenians of unholiness. Philosophy is accused of unholiness. And in the trial defending himself, he turns the tables on the Athenians and says, no, philosophy is holiness. This is what holiness is, this search for the good and for understanding. This is the divine activated within us. I like that. I think of my friend who died of cancer, who I mentioned earlier, he was a great musician. And at some point, we were listening to some music of Sidney Bechet, a New Orleans jazz master, and at some point, he would go over to the piano and play some of it for me. He was trying to explain the musical components of it. And he said to me, well, I can explain the music to you, but there’s something that I can’t explain about it. Sometimes the music—it is holiness. And I could understand that.
Neha Mehrotra is a 2020 graduate of Columbia Journalism School and is currently working as a freelance writer and reporter in New Delhi, India.
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