Life is Hard

Kieran Setiya
Riverhead Books, 2022

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Door Derek van Zoonen

About a year ago I received a touching email from one of my students. Tragically enough, they had lost two family members during the pandemic and hoped that, as a philosopher, I might be able to help them come to grips with their deep feelings of loss. Unfortunately, I felt there was not much I could do – at least not as a philosopher. A sudden confrontation with the fragile human predicament seemingly teaches us that it is impossible to think our way into reconciliation with life. One of the many problematic aspects of philosophy, I realized, is that it is rooted in a deep mismatch: borrowing a phrase from Fernando Pessoa, we might say that philosophy seeks rational solutions for emotional problems.

Other philosophers, ranging from the ancient Greeks to contemporary effective altruists, believe that you should be able to ‘inhabit’ a philosophy – as Iris Murdoch’s lovely phrase has it. Philosophy, they argue, is in a position to shape our actions and change our experience of the world. It can, for instance, lift the weight of grief and help us smoothen other rough edges of human existence.

Kieran Setiya, Professor of Philosophy at MIT and author of Life Is Hard. How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way, also belongs to this camp. His courageous, rich, and carefully argued book seeks to recover a lost tradition and develop a philosophy that is able ‘to speak intimately to life’. Unlike those who believe that philosophy is a purely theoretical endeavour which fails to radiate its influence beyond the intellectual sphere and leaves everything as it is, Setiya treats philosophy as ‘a tool with which to work through life’s adversities’. In brief, he believes that ‘philosophical reflection […] should make our own lives better’. More precisely, ‘reflecting on the flaws of the human condition can mitigate its harms, helping us to live more meaningful lives.’ Indeed, it can ‘lift the weight of human suffering’ such as infirmity (the absence of ability and the presence of pain), loneliness, grief, failure, injustice, and absurdity.

In conscious opposition to many other thinkers who believe that philosophy should help us craft better lives, Setiya resists the idealizing, perfectionist, and often elitist tendencies he finds in philosophers like Plato and Aristotle. ‘We have to live in the world as it is’, Setiya tells us, ‘not the world as we wish it would be’. More concretely, our thinking should not be oriented towards some kind of best or ideal life – there is a large variety of ways to live well, after all – nor should we repress or deny the hardships that are an unavoidable part of the human condition. Our task, in stark contrast, is to acknowledge adversity and attend to it instead of ‘arguing around it’.

Since Plato and Aristotle serve as a foil for Setiya’s own approach, it is worth pointing out that his depiction of their ethical projects is rather unfair. Most obviously, Plato’s Republic is more than a highly abstract, highly utopian investigation of ideal justice. For instance, Republic book 9 contains a fascinating discussion of the psychology and the ethics of pleasure and pain which is so close to Setiya’s own discussion of these topics that the latter seems directly lifted from the former. And on a more charitable reading of Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle is not suggesting – wildly implausibly – that a good life contains everything that is valuable, basically urging us to become ‘janitor-nurse-professor-poet-priests’, he is merely suggesting that any good life should ultimately be organized around something intrinsically valuable – pretty much like Setiya himself tells us in his discussion of failure.

Still, there is much to like about how refreshingly humane and humble Setiya’s approach is. Take the earlier case of grief, for instance. Many philosophers – starting with Plato – have suggested that grief is rooted in some kind of pathology or thinking disorder which can, and should, be removed by a surgically precise philosophical operation. The moment we straighten our reasoning and get the facts right, the thought goes, the grief will disappear. According to the hard-nosed Stoic Epictetus, for instance, those who grieve fail to see that people are like clay pots – fragile, brittle, mortal. ‘If you kiss your child or your wife’, Epictetus instructs us, ‘say to yourself that it is a human being that you’re kissing and then, if one of them should die, you won’t be upset.’ Worse yet, they make the additional philosophical mistake of caring about things that lie beyond their control – a recipe for unhappiness.

In a slightly different vein, the famous Oxford ethicist Derek Parfit thought we could console those who grieve by pointing out that the dead are not completely gone, they are just away – albeit in a temporal rather than a spatial sense. As Parfit puts it in a note addressed to Joyce Carol Oates whose husband had just died: ‘I am very sorry to learn that Ray died a couple of weeks ago. When someone I loved died, I found it helpful to remind myself that this person was not less real because she wasn’t real now, just as people in New Zealand aren’t less real because they aren’t real here.’

If these responses feel blunt or otherwise off, Setiya can help us see why: they disown grief and try to argue around it. The only way out, though, is through – and philosophy can help us find the way out. For one, it can make us see that grief – an experience of deep unhappiness – is, despite its horrible feel, a crucial part of living well. The important thought here, and the thought that animates much of Setiya’s thinking in the book, is that there is more to a good life than how pleasant such a life feels from the inside. What is more, philosophical scrutiny can teach us that there are three forms of grief – grief for one’s relationship, grief at the harm of dying, and grief at the sheer loss of life – and that all three of these forms of grief are expressions of love. ‘If we did not grieve’, Setiya is right to point out, ‘we would not love.’

Ultimately, though, Setiya has to concede that what the bereaved first and foremost need is time – time to reinvent or reshape their relationship with the dead, which is an emotional rather than a rational process – and practices and rituals, which can help them navigate what reason cannot navigate.

Here, as elsewhere in the book, Setiya seems to be running against the limits of philosophy. Instead of drastically changing our lives and our experience of the world, philosophy and its promise of ‘working through life’s adversities’, ‘mitigating harm’, and ‘lifting the weight of suffering’ mainly turns out to consist in humbly attending to our suffering and elucidating its origin and nature. Philosophy offers consolation, in other words, by offering understanding.

It explains, for instance, how physical pain works – pain is a perceptual state which tracks (or fails to track) bodily damage – and then uses this representational theory of pain to make sense of the deceptiveness or illusoriness of chronic pain. It tells us what is bad about loneliness – those who are lonely miss out on friendship whose value ‘turns on the reciprocal recognition of human dignity’ – and it clarifies how our experience of failure is rooted in the temptation to make sense of our lives as coherent narrative wholes combined with a confusion about the temporality of action.

It shows that self-interest and morality or justice do not have to bite each other: close philosophical scrutiny in fact reveals that a life well lived and concern for other people cannot be extricated from one another. And it can help us see that justice can serve as an antidote to feelings of absurdity and meaninglessness. In a surprisingly idealizing move, Setiya identifies the meaning of life – ‘the truth that tells us how to feel about the whole residual cosmos’ – in our ‘halting, perhaps perpetual, progress toward justice in the world.’

Note, though, that, on this picture, philosophy turns out to be rather inert. To be sure, it can offer us understanding and understanding can offer us the truth (if we are lucky), intellectual pleasure, and – perhaps most importantly – some brief and temporary distance between us and our suffering: the moment we reflect on our afflictions, seeking to explain them, we temporarily do not fall together with these painful experiences – in the same way in which we are not really listening to music anymore the moment we start entertaining the belief that we are listening to music.

What we are dealing with here, then, is a typically existentialist picture of the human condition. Like the proto-existentialist Blaise Pascal, Setiya sees us not just as weak reeds but as ‘thinking reeds’. Even if the universe crushes us, we are still ‘nobler than our slayer’ for the simple reason that we understand that, and how, we are being crushed. In a similar spin on our existential predicament, Simone de Beauvoir calls us ‘ambiguous’ creatures: at the same time immanent and transcendent, human beings ‘escape from their natural condition’ through awareness and understanding ‘without, however, liberating themselves from it.’

But as the psychotherapist Fried Fromm-Reichmann once noted, people who suffer do not need an explanation, they need an experience – a hand on their shoulder, a loving gaze, someone sitting at their bed, the felt sense that their tragic fate is in what Rilke described as God’s ‘infinitely soft hands’, some compassion, the unconditional presence of another human being, a listening ear. Tellingly, a turning point in Setiya’s own struggle with chronic pain comes when he meets a compassionate doctor who is the first to take his experience utterly seriously – even though he is also the one to tell him that his condition is hard to treat. I guess that is why I decided to meet my grieving student, listen to their story, and simply hold space – as the therapeutic lingo has it – for their feelings of confusion and deep loss without cutting them off from their present-moment experience by offering fancy philosophical explanations of how their difficult emotions hang together and whether grief is, ultimately, valuable or not. Often it might simply be too soon to make philosophical sense of things.

Despite these qualms, Life is Hard comes highly recommended – perhaps especially for people who are temperamentally prone to finding consolation in wrapping their head around things. The book is filled to the brim with interesting ideas and arguments, well-chosen illustrations from literature and cinema, and courageous confessions taken from Setiya’s own life. Let us hope that Setiya’s example paves the way for more books that bring the clarity, precision, and rigor of (analytic) philosophy to bear on the crucial existential questions that lie at the heart of the human predicament.