Skip to main content

The Deepest Human Life

An Introduction to Philosophy for Everyone

Winner of the 2015 Hiett Prize in the Humanities. 

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. 


240 pages | 6 x 9 | © 2014

Philosophy: Ethics, General Philosophy


“As a freshman in college, Samuelson fought with classmates over whether philosophy was essential for a meaningful life. Fortunately, he’s still fighting. Defying the widespread perception of philosophy as an academic specialty, Samuelson urges readers to join him in a humanizing intellectual adventure, one that begins with Socrates’ frank profession of ignorance. . . . But perhaps no one teaches more than Samuelson’s own diverse college students—a wine-loving bicyclist, a sleep-deprived housewife, a monk-faced factory worker. These seemingly ordinary people underscore the most important lesson of all: philosophy matters for everyone.”

Bryce Christensen | Booklist

“The Deepest Human Life offers us the kinds of tools we have always needed to face Pascal’s implicit challenge to face ourselves, difficult though the task may be.”

Rain Taxi Review of Books

“Many professors claim to learn from their students while inwardly denying the claim. But the enchanting Samuelson takes us along to class with him in these lively pages. Unlike other members of the philosophers’ guild, he seldom serves up an abstraction without an accompanying concrete example culled from in-class comments and student papers. . . . This compelling story of philosophy nudges the reader toward the conviction that a sense of awe, which Samuelson lionizes and invites, will transform more than our ways of thinking.”

Christian Century

“Samuelson has given us a personal perspective on doing philosophy. While a close reading of The Deepest Human Life will let you come away with a broad contextual understanding of the development of western thought, the book is really about inspiring the reader to think—and act, and live—more philosophically.”

Epicurus in Exile

“For a survey of philosophical thought, Samuelson’s quirky, abundantly informed new book, The Deepest Human Life, is a surprisingly snappy read. A cynical elevator pitch might call it “philosophy for dummies,” but it’s not for dummies any more than it’s for overly serious chin-massagers. The book would be useful as either an introduction or a brush-up, and enjoyably personable in either instance.”

Chapter 16

“A basic but thoughtful introduction to philosophy. Samuelson treats philosophy not merely as a topic or academic subject, but as an approach to life. As a teacher and as a person, Samuelson encourages his students—who, as community college students in a small, Midwestern city, come from all walks of life—and his readers to do the same. . . . Samuelson works through a wide spectrum of key issues and thinkers—both classical and contemporary—in a fair, efficient, sympathetic, and enjoyable manner. His writing style is both engaging and approachable. The “interludes” between the book’s four parts encourage readers to reflect on what appear to be commonplaces in human experience (laughter and tears, wine and bicycles, campfires and the sun); yet, these experiences can and should give rise to wonder, the beginning of philosophy. A notable feature of the book is the wide range of sources from which Samuelson draws, from philosophers and mystics to poetry and modern mythologies.”

Review of Metaphysics

“Scott Samuelson is a philosopher with a knack for storytelling.  As a result, The Deepest Human Life is a book that humanizes philosophy and that relates grand philosophical themes to the lives of ordinary people. Not only that, but Samuelson writes in a manner that ordinary people—meaning those without a philosophical background—will find inviting. Readers will come away with a better understanding of some of philosophy’s fundamental concepts and in many cases will also have taken important first steps toward conducting an examination of their own lives.”

William B. Irvine, author of A Guide to the Good Life

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 questions—What 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.”

Christopher Merrill, author of The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War

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 life—a practice of self-knowing and self-forgetting—rather than a professional career. The result is a unique introduction to philosophy, composed with a rare voice of humane literary sophistication.”

Stephen T. Asma, author of Against Fairness

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

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press