The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone

The Deepest Human Life: An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone


Scott Samuelson

The University of Chicago Press



Prelude on Light Pollution and the Stars

Part 1: What is Philosophy?

“…wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder. Samuel Taylor Coleridge adds a touch of poetry to the point, ‘In Wonder all philosophy began: in Wonder it ends: and Admiration fills up the interspace’” (1).


1: 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

“We’re capable of revising our very being, or reordering our values, of turning our calculating abilities back on ourselves” (7).

“…the whole of it, which involves the fullest exercise of our rationality: the seeking out of a meaningful life” (9).

Pierre Hadot: philosophy is “a set of spiritual exercises intended to get people back to their true selves.” Improvement. “They were after the good life, and philosophy was the discipline of hunting it down.”

“But when everyday life is less than fully satisfying, there will always be people who set out on a quest for meaning” (10).

“…if one animal can’t understand another, how can one human understand another” (12)?


2: Portrait of Philosophy as Socrates

“Born around 470 BC to Sophroniscus, a stonemason, and Phaenarete, a midwife, Socrates referred to his own philosophical practice as a kind of midwifery, whereby he helped other people give birth to their ideas, though he had no ‘children’–that is, theories–of his own.”

“…in 399 BC, he had three young children. His wife Xanthippe…” (16).

“Socrates left behind as many writings as Jesus–none. We know about him solely through the work of his contemporaries, mainly his student Plator, almost all of whose writings are dialogues starring Socrates” (17-18).

You Gotta Serve Somebody

In the last full paragraph on page 20 I’ve underlined the word “divine” and in the margin have written: Why must the choices be polytheism and the divine? All of the beauty and violence could equally be conceived as being born of chaos with no overruling forces.

Oracles and Demons

“Socrates really was the wisest of all. He did have a little bit of positive wisdom: the priceless knowledge that he know nothing” (24).

“(After Socrates discovers that the poets can’t explain their poems, he concludes, ‘I decided that it was not wisdom that enabled them to write their poetry, but a kind of instinct or inspiration’” (26).

“In the Phaedo, just an hour before his death, Socrates says, ‘Philosophy is nothing but the preparation for death and dying’” (27).

For the following quote on page 31 my margin notes say “We win either way”:

“Death is one of two things. Either it is an annihilation, and the dead have no consciousness of anything; or, as we are told, it really is a change: a migration of the soul from this place to another. Now if there is no consciousness but only a dreamless sleep, death must be a marvelous gain…because the whole of time, if you look at it in this way, can be regarded as no more than one single night. If on the other hand death is a removal from here to some other place, and if what we are told is true, that all the dead are there, what greater blessing could there be than this, gentlemen?…Put it in this way: how much would one of you gie to meet Orpheus and Museus, Hesiod and Homer?…Above all I should like to spend my time there, as here, in examining and searching people’s minds, to find out who is really wise among them, and who only thinks that he is” (31 Socrates’s response to being given the death penalty).

Philosophical Patriotism

“Socrates then imagines a more profound dialogue than the one he finds himself in, between him and what he calls the Laws. What emerges is that citizens have an implicit contract with the Laws. The Laws provide Socrates (and us, too, for the form of the contract that Socrates describes would be the same, if he’s right, for Americans as for Athenians) with all the benefits of living in a political system: the marriage codes that provide for our birth and upbringing, armed forces to protect us, education, health codes, roads, and so  on. It’s hard to think of a single aspect of our lives untouched by the Laws. In return, we must do no more than follow the law: ay our taxes and not break the rules. If we don’t like the deal, there are two important provisions to the contract: (1) we’re allowed to leave, or (2) we may try to change the system through legal means. Our very presence in the state, at least after legal age of adulthood, provides what the philosopher John Locke calles ‘tacit consent’ to such a contract. If Socrates didn’t like living in a democracy where one can be charged for unholiness, then he shouldn’t have stuck around for seventy years” (32).

Risking Eternity


Interlude on Laughter and Tears

Regarding a student, she writes “‘When you’re right in the middle of suffering, it doesn’t always feel comic,’ she admitted, ‘but comedy is necessary and usually available to us.’”

“I should have assigned Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way: ‘The more one suffers, the more, I believe, has one a sense of the comic. It is only by the deepest suffering that one acquires true authority in the use of the comic, an authority which by one word transforms as by magic the reasonable creature one calls man into a caricature’” (41).


Part 2: What Is Happiness?

“According to Socrates, most of us conceive of a happiness of the part but have never imagined a happiness of the whole. We need some answer to the question of how to spend our time that isn’t about satisfying a gut or a heart or a brain–or any other organ of the body for that matter. Real happiness pertains to the complete human being, the whole soul” (48).


3: The Exquisite Materialism of Epicurus

  1. T. Pettee wrote: “Pray for peace and grace and spiritual food,

For wisdom and guidance, for all these are good,

But don’t forget the potatoes.”

Epicurus’s idea is the “the pleasurable life involves the clear-headed calculation of what will actually produce a stable, authentic pleasure.”

“But we misunderstand Epicurus if we take him to be saying, ‘It would be wonderful if we could eat like Mirande without suffering any ill effects, but geven our physiology that’s impossible; so we have to practice moderation.’ His real point is that the deepest pleasure comes from the satisfaction of our desires with the most basic nourishment” (52).

“Epicurus’s preferred diet was barley bread, spring water, and fresh vegetables. A diet that leans on the staffs of life is easy to obtain and promotes our health” (52-3).

“…but luxuries should remain luxuries, the occasional adornment to a healthy diet. Epicurus’s occasional feast, it is said, was a slice of Cythnian cheese and a half pint of wine.

“The foundational principle of Epicureanism–perhaps the sanest in all philosophy–is: pleasure good; ain bad. In a sense, all his philosophy amounts to is the rigorous, reasonable application of this elementary truth, which even newborns seem to have deduced. Epicurus sees no other way to give meaning to the concept of goodness, ‘Nor yet for my part can I find anything that I can understand as good if I take away from it the pleasures afforded by taste, those that come from listening to music, those that come from the eyes by the sight of figures in motion, or other pleasures produced by any of the senses in the complet person’” ( 53).

“But the pleasure-good-pain-bad principle is immensely complicated by the structure of our desires. Epicurus identifies three types of desire: (1) natural and necessary desires, which sustain our health and provide for our mental tranquility (like our hunger for food or our desire for companionship); (2) natural and unnecessary desires, which are extensions of our natural desires (like our wish to have artichokes on a pedestal of foie gras, or a Coke); and (3) unnatural and unnecessary desires (like our cravings for money, fame, or power). The big problem is that our desires tend to slip from the first category into the other two. Our natural desire for mother’s milk becomes a mighty yen for ice cream. The discipline of Epicureanism is to contain and then weed out all our overgrown desires, to return to the basic, nourishing desires that do indeed provide for our happiness. As Thoreau once said, ‘Simplify, simplify,’ though based on that logic he should have just said, ‘Simplify’” (53).

“But there’s an irony to the Epicurean critique of our society. We are, in fact, bad consumerists. We aren’t materialist enough. Only idiotic consumers stuff themselves with things that make them sick, fat, and unhappy. Only idiotic materialists fill their lives with disposable crap. A wise consumer enjoys exactly what the brain and the gut can agree is most enjoyable throughout a lifetime. A true materialist values things and seeks out the best. The authentic materialist-consumerist finds a reasonable way of relating to the desires of the body and shuns the desire that extends far beyond what anything in the physical universe can provide” (54).

“We don’t even value money properly. We ought to regard it as no more than a medium of exchange, necessary only to the extent that it helps procure the things we need” (54-5).

“But the fact that life is limited is exactly what makes it good.”

“As a materialist, Epicurus argues that death is nothing to us–literally, nothing–and so shouldn’t be upsetting. Remember what it was like before you were born: was that at all a hard time for you” (55).

“As materialists, not just in the moral but also the metaphysical sense of the word, Epicureans are committed to the idea that the world is no more than atoms, the void, and the creative principles of movement, which they marvelously name ‘the swerve.’ Everything, in short, is the product of chance, which is a view often criticized in our society by certain religious believers who claim that the world–or at least certain irreducibly complex features of it, like the flagellum or the eyeball–are so wondrously formed that they must be designed by a capacious intelligence, namely, God. Such believers have the sense that if the world were just the product of chance, it would be drained of meaning and value, that an atheistic materialism dries up our wellsprings of gratitude for the intricate beauties of existence.

“I wonder, though, if atheistic materialism and traditional theology don’t converge on the same basic point. According to the Christian theologians, God creates ex nihilo; in other words, His act of creation is an act of grace. He creates rhinoceroses much like a child draws unicorns: the horned creatures of the world are the result of their overflowing creativity. We should feel thankful, the religious believers argue, because every moment is pur gravy, a gift of God. But the Epicurean also greets the world as the result of unthinkably marvelous luck. Imagine, a bunch of atoms randomly swerving around the universe somehow produced out my window–at the moment of my writing–a thrush singing notes that somehow strike against the contraption of my ear in such a way as somehow to remind me of the universe miraculously pumped out me and you, purposeful beings, not to mention all the rhinoceros-bizarre menagerie of being. ‘The secret of Epicurean joy and serenity,’ as Pierre Hadot says, ‘is to live each instant as if it were the last, but also as if it were the first.’

“Another common fear that religious believers harbor about materialism is that it undermines morality. Epicurus argues the exact opposite: the rigorous pursuit of pleasure leads straight to the life of a moralist. Why shouldn’t we tell a lie? Simple: lying makes us unhappy. Telling the truth, like exercise, may sometimes hurt at first, but one always feels better overall. Immorality is one more form of childish reasoning: we do wrong to extricate ourselves from some difficult situation, but wrongdoing simply our difficult situations. In fact, justice and pleasure reinforce each other: the more pleasant our life, the less likely we are to do others wrong; and when we do others right, the more pleasant our life. Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, a modern-day Epicurean movement, slowly discovered the same idea. ‘I came to understand that those who suffer for others do more damage to humanity than those who enjoy themselves. Pleasure is a way of being at one with yourself and others.’ The idea is nobly expressed by Wendell Berry, that champion of small farms and human pleasures. ‘Moral, practical, spiritual, esthetic, economic, and ecological values are all concerned ultimately with the same question of life and health. To the virtuous man, for example, practical and spiritual questions are identical; it is only corruption that can see a difference.’

“What we need in life, according to Epicurus, is relatively simple. We need human companionship…the steady joys of friendship…Epicurus declares, ‘by far the most important is the acquisition of friends.’ We need good work in order to find meaning and provide for our essentials” (56-7).

Epicurus “advised unplugging oneself from the bustle of ‘the political life’–what we’re more apt to call ‘the dominant culture’” (58).


4: The Mysterious Freedom of the Stoic

Thomas More wrote:

Grant me a soul to which dullness is naught,

Knowing no complaint, grumble or sigh,

And do not permit me to give too much thought

To that domineering creature called the “I.”

My Lord, endow me with a sense of humor,

Give me the grace of understanding jest,

That I might know the joy that life harbors

And were able to grant it to the rest.


The Stoics. “Epictetus sums up the essence of Stoicism in one command, ‘Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly’” (61).

Stoicism–Porchism. “It quickly became the most popular philosophy among the educated in the Hellenistic world, and by the time of the Roman Empire had spread to all walks of society.”

“But the Stoics hold that your emotions in that situation, and even much worse situations, are indeed completely in your control…’There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so,’ or, as Epictetus says, ‘It is not the things themselves that disturb people but the judgments about those things.’

“Our emotions, the Stoics claim, depend on our beliefs.

“Thus by eliminating the ideas that generate negative emotions, we’re capable of being permanently happy, if we so choose. To use an image from Plato, our emotions are strong horses, and our reason is the charioteer…it’s possible to channel their energies properly and get them to go exactly where we demand” (63).

“The great Stoic metaphor, going back to the Greek philosopher Chrysippus, is that we’re like dogs leashed to a powerful chariot. When the chariot begins to move, we have two choices: trot or be dragged. Either way, we go the same place. The exact same place.

“Isn’t it absurd to get angry when you’re tackled, it you signed up to play football” (64)?

“Getting tackled–and even injured–is very much part of his game.

“You might protest that unlike the football player you didn’t sign up for the game. True, but as Epictetus observes, ‘Remember that the door is open. Do not be more cowardly than children, but just as they say, when the game no longer pleases them, ‘I will play no more,’ you too, when things seem that way to you, should merely say, ‘I will play no more,’ and so depart; but if you stay, stop moaning.’ Nobody compels you to play football, drive on freeways, or collect breakable items. If you’re unwilling to play such a harsh gaem as life, where even children die of cancer, then you should be grateful that you have options. Your parents may have signed you up, but you are free to quit” (65).


“Make friends with real philosophers…conversing. Read philosophers…starting with Epictetus, who is the clearest and in some ways the firmest: ‘If you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, you are stupid.’


Meditate in the Morning

“In imagining what we fear, we’re training ourselves to see reality clearly.

“…the confrontation with our fears is most likely to make us grateful for all we’re given” (67).

“As the Stoics point out, that’s precisely the situation we’re in with everyone and everything we love: they’ve all been loaned to us for an uncertain period of time.”

Start Small

For this next marking I wrote: practice with the every day.

“When the mug breaks, say, ‘It’s just a mug. I knew it wouldn’t last forever.’ Tell yourself before your visit to the in-laws that you refuse to allow them to control your emotions: prepare yourself to transcend all pettiness. When you go to the pool, think, ‘I might be splashed inadvertently, my towel might be dropped in a puddle, and it it’s not a private pool, it’s a public restroom.”

Pay Attention

Here I wrote: mindfulness

“Turn off autopilot and pay attention to what you’re doing and why. We need always to remember that we’re signing up for the life we’re leading. Where you can, sign up for what is truly meaningful. But look to uncover the significance of any activity you participate in” (68).

Have a Sense of Humor

“…chuckle at the discrepancy between our human ideas and how reality plays out. For that matter, you should also chuckle when things do…go your way.

“…look out on life as a nonstop carnival, where colleagues and even complete strangers perform as freaks and clowns, free of charge. As Seneca says,

We should make light of all things and endure them with tolerance it is more civilized to make fun of life than to bewail it. Bear in mind too that he deserves better of the human race as well who laughs at it that he who grieves over it; since the one allows it a fair prospect of hope, while the other stupidly laments over things he cannot hope will be put right. And, all things considered, it is the mark of a grater mind not to restrain laughter than not to restrain tears, since laughter expresses the gentlest of our feelings, and reckons that nothing is great or serious or even wretched in all the trappings of our existence.

Review in the Evening

“If you’ve failed in some way, you’re hurting yourself” (70).

“As the emperor says, ‘The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.’”

This part made me laugh:

“Or as Epictetus phrases it, ‘It is difficulties that show what men are. Consequently, when a difficulty befalls, remember that God, like a physical trainer, has matched you with a rugged young man…’

“Anything truly worth doing is worth failing at.

“Would it be worth doing even if our utmost efforts will amount to worldly failure? If it is, then that’s what you’re meant to do in this life” (71).

“Rather than wrestle for a gold medal, the Stoics recommend we wrestle to be our best” (72).


Interlude on Wine and Bicycles

“One doesn’t need to go that far to wonder if any theory of happiness is complete. Some roman thinkers–most famously Cicero–adopt the position of eclecticism, taking a little of the best from all the philosophical schools. From skepticism they take the idea that no theory is final; from Epicureanism, the idea that under favorable conditions one should pursue a reasonable amount of pleasure; from Stoicism, the idea that favorable conditions doesn’t last forever, and we should prepare ourselves to maintain our dignity. Essentially, Epicureanism when you can, Stoicism when you must, and a little skepticism always” (76).


Part 3: Is Knowledge of God Possible?

“Simony…the sin of paying money for spiritual things…” (79).


5: The Ecstasy without a Name

“…epistemological crisis: a crisis in the order of knowledge…They occur whenever we realize that what we take to be natural is not what someone else takes to be natural.

“First, our beliefs aren’t really ours;…we’re bound by a ‘servile conformism,’ whereby our beliefs are dependent on which side of the street we’re born on. Second, somebody must be wrong, and it could us.

“…’daring in mounting from the lowland of servile conformism to the highland of independent investigation’” (82-3).

“He shall try to doubt the sources of his beliefs, and if even a little doubt sticks to them, then he shall set them aside until he’s able to discover their certain foundation. Guilty until proven innocent.” Examples: my book is on the desk, sense data, math, logic, self-evident truths” (84).

Samuelson then gives examples of our senses deceiving us.

“So how can we grasp anything if it changes as we perceive it? Everything is a moving shadow–of a tree we never fully observe! Second, our senses are calibrated to our human scale.

“…we likely lack some crucial organ of perception” (85).

“‘How can you believe in God if you never see Him?’ But, if al-Ghazali is right, our senses can’t be trusted to reveal the whole of the universe…It’s at least possible there’s more to the story than meets the eye or the mind.

“Religion is built on authority, which could be wrong. Science is built on the senses, which could be wrong. Mathematics and logic are built on reason, which could be wrong.

“…those who claim to possess wisdom are self-deceived” (86).

“But why accept one starting point rather than another?…’One should be most diligent in seeking the truth until he finally comes to seeking the unseekable.’ The problem is that people who seek the truth take the easy way out and invest in some unquestioned source of truth, whereas they ought to go to the very limits of their search.

“…the Sufis tell him that, while they do have a dogma they could expound, their guiding principle is that searchers must experience the truth for themselves…He must enter into a state of certainty.

“He must experience–for lack of a better word–God” (87).

“Sufism is an Islamic variety of what religious scholars call mysticism.”

Below that I wrote: mysticism cuts out the middleman.

“Mystical forms of religion…claim that it is possible for you and me to transcend this long-distance relationship and meet God face to face.”

“…in the mystical experience of God he finds a certainty to which no doubt clings, an existential rather than an intellectual certainty” (88).

To the above I wrote: but isn’t this just a belief? A sense? A feeling?

“‘There was what was of what I do not mention:/So think well of it, and ask for ano account’” (89).

Samuelson then runs through his interpretation of how al-Ghazali interprets God.

“…all profane authors seem of the seed of the serpent that creeps, thou art the Dove that flies.

“One of the most profoundly alienating passions is the need for a belief, the need to cling to some claim on the truth” (90).

Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmansthal:

The other night I found under a walnut tree a half-full watering can that a young gardener had forgotten there, and this watering can, with the water in it, hidden by the tree’s shadow, with a water bug paddling from one shore to the other of that dark water: this combination of trivialities exposes me to such a presence of the infinite, traversing me from the roots of my hair to the base of my heels, that I feel like bursting out in words which I know, I had found them, would have floored those cherubim in whom I do not believe” (97).

“What is philosophy or religion–or human life for that matter–but the attempt to relate to the meaningful hugeness revealed in such experiences without sounding or acting like a total fool, at our best with a touch of style” (98)?


6: In Nightmares Begins Rationality

Descartes: “I was completely free to converse with myself about my own thoughts.’ After one such day of reflection, he nodded off and had three successive dreams–the nightmares, really–that changed world history more significantly than any king’s coronation.

What follows is an example of original thought:

“The method Descartes formulates to find this firm foundation is practically identical to al-Ghazali’s. (The whole of the first meditation follows the Sufi’s logic so closely as to make scholars wonder about plagiarism. My own view is that not only do great minds think think alike, all minds think alike, though mysteriously they often come to different conclusions)” (103).

“Or, to use his formulation in the Discourse on Method: ‘Cognito; ergo sum’–I think; therefore I am. Even if an evil genius with infinite power is spending his entire time deceiving Descartes, it still must be the care that an object of deception exists. Philosophers refer to this famous metaphysical lightning bolt simply as the ‘cogito’” (106).

“In both the experience of God and the experience of our own ‘I am,’ thought and the source of thought are unified. In one sense, they are the same ecstatic experience. But whereas al-Ghazali focuses on the divine ‘I am,’ Descartes begins with the human ‘I am’–a difference perhaps metaphysically small but one that signals the world-historical shift from the medieval to the modern age” (107).

“How does the primordial human mind stumble on the idea of the divine?”

When the author writes “God–for instance, it’s possible that any or all ideas are simply implantations of the evil genius, stimulating our minds in his macabre laboratory” (109). To this quote I feel this is quite a leap. And why this particular leap? The human brain can conceptualize a god as the source which still does not make it true.

On the next page it is written “In more straightforward terms, only God could imagine God. Since we have the idea of God, it must be the case that God exists. Only God could have put the idea of God in our minds, signing His creation like an artist.”

My margin note just says “no.”

Page 111: “According to Descartes, the very implausibility of having an idea of something none of our intellectual faculties can frame is itself the proof of God.”

I respond: This dismisses the imaginative power of the human brain striving for reason.

Below the author writes “A supreme being by definition cannot have any limitations or imperfections. Since evil is an imperfections, God cannot be evil.

To the idea that evil is an imperfection, I wrote that idea is one interpretation. Further, what says you cannot be all powerful and include evil all at once? Doesn’t ALL include both yin and yang?

Later: “God just wouldn’t allow such ideas to form in the mind if they weren’t really so.”

I ask, why attribute this to god?

“…we can indeed have wrong beliefs floating around our minds” (111).

“If the perfect God created our minds, how can they be so imperfect” (112)?

Major Descartes beliefs:

Real knowledge should be expressed in  numbers

We should utilize a self-correcting method of knowledge about the physical world

This method should involve a uniform, repeatable procedure

The truth is accessible to anyone who is willing to think clearly

Values are subjective and private

We should use reason to determine the existence and nature of God

The body is a machine and hence can be understood and fixed like a machine

The universe is a machine too

We should utilize scientific understanding to build technologies so we can become masters of our fate

And the ‘preservation of health’ is the ‘chief of all goods’” (115-6)

Samuelson concludes this paragraph by saying something I wholeheartedly believe:

“The lesson I draw is: don’t get up too early because you will die” (118).


7: The Terrifying Distance of the Stars

The following is what has led us to invent God and all religions (according to me):

“Pascal sums up our condition in three words: ‘Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety’–a striking outline of the problem of being human. In short, our very being fills us with anxiety; we flee the anxiety by means of some kind of diversion (another of Pascal’s pet terms). As long as our diversionary tactic lasts, we have a measure of happiness, but eventually the charm wears off, the diversion becomes boring, and we seek out the newest thing to do–thus our inconstancy.”

Carl Honore: In Praise of Slowness  (find and read)

Pascal says it perfectly for me here:

“The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away…Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so” (122).

Pascal: “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that the does not know how to stay quietly in his own room.”

At the bottom of the page Samuelson asks: is it possible for humans to be truly happy in this life? My answer is: only for moments in time.

“Instead of facing our misery, we divert ourselves.” Ball games, hunting, gossip, drama, cards, affairs, pets, politics, war, etc. This is what I mean by life just being a space which we fill with things to do. There is birth and there is death. When you look at the picture (the world) as a whole, we simply create things to do in between. We have constructed everything in order to fill the time: work, school, kids. Sometimes when driving to a play or some such you think, “Well, I had nothing else to do. I have to fill my time with something.”

I had a friendship that ended. This section of the book described it:

“What’s eating you all of a sudden? Where are your inner resources? The odd thing is that when I’m in such a mood, I prefer my boredom to what strikes me as their foolishness. If Pascal is right, it’s because such moods bring us closer to reality, and ultimately we prefer a genuine misery to a phony happiness (though it sometimes takes a little while to realize that)” (125).

“Oh, well. Smile. Tell him how happy you are for him. As Pascal says, ‘Respect means: put yourself out’” (127).

“…the human mind seems to have a weird doubleness, to be haunted by conceptions it can never measure up to, to cast a shadow by its own light” (128).

What follows seems to indicate that Pascal was uncomfortable with the unknown:

“The next point Pascal makes is that we can’t be agnostic. We must call it. We’re not simply intellectual spectators at the coin toss of God’s existence. Our very lives hang on if it comes down heads or tails. We’re ‘embarked,’ to use Pascal’s term. Agnosticism, for Pascal, is simply a refusal to admit what you’ve staked your life on. As he sees it, either you live a life committed to God or you don’t. There’s no option of waiting until the coin spinning in eternity lands” (129).

I disagree with Pascal here. I think agnostics are saying I don’t know enough to know or There are some things I will never know. I think that point of view is a very smart and valid one. There are not many things in this world that are wholly one thing or another. There are cats that act like dogs. There are women who look like men. There are bisexuals. There is a time between day and night when it is neither. Everything works upon a scale and is rarely either/or. I think agnosticism occupies a valid space in the world of religious philosophy.

The following, I believe, is why so many choose religion:

“…the heart is vain and greedy; so we begin immediately to think about what we stand to gain or lose from our choice.”

“If God exists, and we devote our lives to God, then we stand to gain the happiness that nothing else in the world provides. In a word, we stand to gain heaven. Moreover, we lose nothing by devoting our lives to God, even if we’re wrong. If, instead, we’re atheists, and indeed God doesn’t exist, what have we gained? Nothing, according to Pascal. But if wrong, what do we stand to lose” (130)?

I respond by saying not only does this assume a God, following involves devotion on a bet against punishment. It’s going with the rich guy in hopes of being in the will. Humans have only conceptualized three choices: believe, choose to not choose, or not believe.

Again the either/or concept is displayed:

“As in roulette where gamblers must place a bet on either red or black, we must either believe or disbelieve in God; but also, just as roulette gamblers can place a bet on one of thirty-eight or so religions (in fact, quite a bit more, if we start factoring in denominations)” (132).


Interlude on Campfires and the Sun

“Perhaps someday, after an adult’s quest, that imaginative fire can be rekindled and fanned into something more useful than naivete or skepticism. To discover the truth is to have our souls disoriented and then reoriented into a higher way of being” (138).

Even if it doesn’t reveal God?

“Socrates…is executed for ‘corrupting’ Athenians by making them confront the fact that their foundational concepts are at best partial truths, flickering images of a more complex reality. What is Socratic method if not the attempt to lead people through the darkness in order to see the truth for themselves?

“…sunlight of knowledge…aporia, where they feel totally confused.”

“…al-Ghazali, Descartes, and Pascal. In each case, the philosopher begins by recognizing that the truths around him are projections of a particular culture” (140).

“It’s a phony education that doesn’t completely confuse you at some point…” (141).

“Moreover, as al-Ghazali realizes, we can’t live, at least in our present condition, full time in the sunlit world; we need our little fires in order to remember the great fire” (141). Me: And sometimes we just need to rest.


Part 4: What Is the Nature of Good and Evil?

8: The Moral Worth of a Teardrop

“In the tradition of Western philosophy, no appraiser has been more incisive than Immanuel Kant, who was born in 1724…Prussian…he never left and that furnished him with enough experience to construct one of the deathless philosophical systems.

“In his late fifties that his great philosophical work began to appear…the three critiques: The Critique of Pure Reason, The Critique of Practical Reason, and The Critique of Judgment.

“…Kant’s moral philosophy, particularly his idea that the consequences of an action play no role in evaluating it, that an action has moral worth based solely on its motive” (148).

“The idea that the worth of an action lies in the consequences it brings about–in short, that the ends justify the means–is called consequentialism.

“Kant vehemently rejects the logic of consequentialism…it’s absurd to locate our worth in something we have basically no control over. Not being gods, we can’t control or predict what the consequences of our actions are going to be.

“Evil is impermissible, regardless of what good we think will come of it” (150).

“…ethics of intention, which is basically Kantian ethics…

Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals “…’good will’ Kant means doing the right thing for the right reason…All that matters…is the inner quality of the agent, the good will.

“Kant’s doctrine of moral worth is that a common religious conception of ethics–using heaven and hell as motivators–actually destroys our moral worth…Kant regards Abraham’s decision to sacrifice his son to please God as the essence of immorality” (151).

“…if you’re willing to do right even under the threat of divine retribution, then your action clearly does have moral worth.

“If our shopkeeper is being fair because it’s right, his action has moral worth; if he’s being fair because it’s good business, his action is without moral worth” (152).

“Kant tries to give a theoretically clean version of the spirit of these injunctions in what he calls the categorical imperative. When rational being like ourselves have to decide how the world ought to be…Act on a principle that you could, without contradicting yourself, will everyone to act on. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, your mom, your best friend, your neighbor, and your enemy.

“‘Every rational being must so act as if he were through his maxim always a legislating member in the universal kingdom of ends’

William James: “…to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see.’

“Morality…it’s about respecting a common dignity” (153).

“…err on the side of the good…if you worry about your virtue and others’ happiness, you improve both; whereas if you worry about others’ virtue and your own happiness, you decrease both.

“We are good when we do good out of pure respect for goodness…for Kant there’s a common human duty to treat each other fairly and with dignity, a duty that flows right from our rational nature” (155).

I placed a star by this passage:

“Kant is the philosopher of limits. In most of his philosophical work, he labors to circumscribe just what we can and cannot know and do. It turns out that we can’t know or do very much. We can’t control the outcomes of our actions. We can’t know if God does or does not exist. We can’t know if our souls are immortal. We can’t know wat the world is really life. We can’t even be sure that we’re really free. Since freedom is necessary for morality to be meaningful, we’re compelled to practice to believe that we’re free, though needing something to be true isn’t much of a reason that it is. When it comes to knowledge and power, Kant’s bottom line is that we’re not gods. [end star]

“…act as if the rule you were living by could become a law of nature…In essence, morality is about playing God, playing a good rational God…divine power…

“Kant’s…commitment to the idea of moral progress…it’s possible for humankind to become better…” (155).

“Every time you act selfishly, according to Kant, you’re perpetuating a selfish civilization. Every time you act according to the moral law, you’re unleashing our native nobility.

“Kant has the marvelous notion of ‘the kingdom of ends,’ the world where everybody treats everybody with full moral dignity, where the Golden Rule is the only rule followed.

“Kant…view of human nature is so dark that he even wonders if there has ever been a pure moral action in human history” (156).

I’ve gotta read more Kant…I’m loving this guy.

“William Carlos Williams says, ‘men die miserably every day / for lack of what is found there.’

“Adulthood involves understanding our limits but not being oppressed by them” (158).


9: The Beast That Is and Is Not

Northrop Frye wrote: In contrast to many other mythological systems, in the Bible the dragon seems to be a consistently sinister image. This is not only because of its antisocial habits of breathing fire and eating virgins, but because, of all sinister animals, it has the unique advantage of not existing.

[Damn, you gotta love that.]

“To state the skeptic’s position in the form of two linked arguments:

If God is all-good, then He should not want any unfair suffering.

If God is all-powerful, then He has the power to eliminate any unfair suffering.

So, if an all-good, all-powerful God exists, then there should be no unfair suffering.

But there is plenty of unfair suffering in the world.

So, an all-good, all-powerful God does not exist” (163).

“Martin Heidegger, whom many consider the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century…” (171).


Interlude on Zombies and Superheroes

“What is a zombie? According to a common etymology, the word is traceable back to the Kikongo word nzambi, which means god. Zombies are, in the popular imagination, the living dead, corpses animated by an outside magic. They usually have an insatiable leveling desire: zombies are always looking to make more zombies. According to Martin, zombies are a projection of human life numbed by distractions, hollowed out and remote-controlled by the magic we call consumerism. As Simon Zealot charmingly writes, ‘Do you find that most of life’s problems can be solved with a little creative shopping? Is television your primary form of entertainment? Do you find that there’s just not enough time in the day, especially for things like exercise? Are you tired right now? Despite this constant lack of energy, do you believe that everything will work out in the end?…If you answered ‘yes’ to most or all of these questions then you might be suffering from an illness called phobosophitis, or, as it’s known by its more common name, the zombie disease’” (181-2).

“And, in fine Nietzschean satirical style,

‘The basic ability to speak remains unaffected, and they appear to experience minor degrees of limited cognitive activity in response to many different kinds of external stimuli, but, in general, thoughts come with less and less frequency, and those that do come are of increasingly smaller orders of magnitude. Dreams are forgotten, all but the most animalistic passions fade, and the creative impulse, if it was ever present, dies. Things of an abstract nature, such as art, beauty, freedom, dignity, justice, or any sort of philosophical or spiritual speculations, will all gradually become more and more meaningless as the disease progresses, and such things will therefore elicit no authentic cognitive response, except perhaps for dismissal or hostility, from the infected.

“The illness of phobosophitis, according to Martin, is related to a deadening materialism, nihilism really, the legacy of the non-Gnostic version of Christianity. Official religion numbed our spiritual longings with false visions of a comfortable heaven. Now that the plausibility of such visions has run its course, we’re apt to become soulless bodies vegetating in front of bleeping screens. Some still cling to their outdated religions. Others reject religion altogether and philosophically embrace our deadening materialism, arguing that we’re nothing more than animals with so many itches to be scratched. Either corse, Martin believes, amounts to the same thing: ‘Culture is replaced by consumerism, education by certification, creation by industry.’

“He considers phobosophitis an epidemic. His spiritual intellect’s great work is to develop a cure for the disease. Here is some of the doctor’s advice: ‘Inoculate yourselves and those around you with your own art and self-awareness. Create wonders. Dance. Make love. Move at more than a shambling pace. Kiss in public. Climb something. Play. Disrupt misery and the viciousness of the miserable. Be alive. Welcome to the Zombie Resistance’” (182-3).

“Martin embodies our Gnostic paradox with considerably more panache than your standard jogger, spending countless hours perfecting his body’s performance through gymnastics and martial arts in order to liberate his spiritual powers. His ongoing project is to construct an ideal educational system, one that disciplines the body and mind so that its dedicated practitioners emerge as knights or angelic chivalry, ‘fearless agents of compassionate and effective change,’ superheroes” (184).


Conclusion: The Most Beautiful Thing in the World

Xenophon said that Socrates said:

‘And if I have something good, I teach it to them and I introduce them to others who will be useful to them with respect to virtue. And together with my friends I go through the treasures of the wise men of old which they left behind written in books, and we peruse them. If we see something good, we pick it out and hold it to be a great profit, if we are able to prove useful to one another.’ When I heard this, I held Socrates to be really happy” (187).

“The thing missing isn’t what weakens the teacher; mysteriously, it’s the source of the teacher’s strength. The supreme example is Socrates, whose recognition of his ignorance empowers not just the dialogues but the entire history of Western thought as well” (189).

“As Kierkegaard puts it, ‘The disciple is the opportunity for the master to understand himself, as the master is the opportunity for the disciple to understand himself’” (190).


Scott Samuelson lives in Iowa City where he teaches philosophy at Kirkwood Community College. He also reviews movies, hosts on television and is a sous chef at a French restaurant on a gravel road.


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I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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