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Review: Midlife by Kieran Setiya
2019-07-10

I’m slightly too young and possess far too little rootless existential melancholy to be part of this short book’s target audience. But it discusses some fascinating topics:

Philosophy for Self-Help

Setiya begins by lamenting that contemporary philosophers rarely write self-help books. He may have a point. In popular culture, self-help is accepted as a thing for the masses, while philosophy is (perhaps) viewed as a more niche, academic pursuit.

But we all have opinions on some philosophical issues - opinions about what (if anything) really matters in life, about what is right and wrong and what those words even mean, about what is necessary for life to be worth living. These opinions are foundational parts of a person’s outlook on life, shaping our behaviors as well as our attitudes towards realities that we cannot change (such as death).

Sometimes we fail to question or even articulate our assumptions about such matters, being unaware that there are plausible alternative viewpoints which might change our perspectives on our circumstances. Philosophy, unfortunately, can’t provide proven or universally-agreed-upon answers to any of these big questions. But it can sometimes show you that the answers you took for granted are much less certain than you assumed. And when those assumptions - assumptions like “death is cause for despair” - are contributing to your pain, a dose of rational skepticism about them may be quite beneficial.

The (Non-)Existence of Midlife Crises

Setiya sketches the history of the idea of the “midlife crisis”, from literary works prefiguring the notion (like H. G. Wells’s The History of Mr. Polly), to the term’s coining in 1965, its rise in credibility among psychologists in the 1970s and subsequent fall in the 1990s and beyond.

Though studies by psychologists and sociologists may have found that midlife crises are experienced by only a relatively small portion of the population, economists studying well-being found a consistent pattern around the world that happiness follows a U-shaped curve, with a low point at age 46. The book, therefore, is not so much focused on severe crises, but on “phase[s] of relative unhappiness”1.

I would like to have seen some discussion of the apparent conflict between the different studies he cites (some suggesting happiness increases steadily throughout life, some that it follows a U-shaped curve). But this book is really about strategies for addressing specific sorts of discontent you may have, so establishing the prevalence of such discontent seems only tangentially relevant anyway.

Existential vs Ameliorative Value

One problem Setiya addresses is a feeling of dissatisfaction despite one’s goals being achieved. He thinks a possible cause of this is a life too focused on solving problems.

Setiya makes an interesting distinction between activities that have ameliorative value, meaning they’re good because they help fix some problem / remove suffering, and activities that have existential value, which are things that would be valuable even in an ideal world where we had no such problems to overcome. This is separate from the more common philosophical distinction between things with instrumental value (meaning they help you achieve some other goal that has value) and things with intrinsic value (meaning they’re good in and of themselves).

I like the concept of existential vs ameliorative value; it seems useful, and I agree that having activities which aren’t about solving problems is a crucial element in a good life. Of course, unless you are in truly dire circumstances, you’ve probably got some. But I could see how a failure to make time for enough of them - or to appreciate their worth - could make life feel hollow.

Death

In middle age, the limited span of human life is no longer an abstraction. You know from the inside what a decade means; those that remain to you can be counted on one hand.2

At the risk of sounding naive, I must say that from the vantage point of my early thirties, a decade still sounds like a long time to me. Sure, in one sense time seems to go faster and faster: I’m constantly being surprised that it’s such-and-such holiday again, or that so-and-so is already graduating college. But if I review all that’s happened in just the past few years - people who’ve come or gone from my life, moves, trips, projects started and completed, changes in my interests and habits, technological progress, dramatic world events and shifts in culture and political climate - it feels like I’ve packed a pretty good number of little lives into this decade. If the decades start to feel shorter in the future, I wonder if that’s really an indicator of the shortness of life, or merely a sign of stagnation.

Near or far, though, the end is inevitably coming. The prospect of death inspires more fear in some than others, and Setiya seems to be on the anxious end of the spectrum. After considering a few attempts at philosophical consolation, he admits to finding them largely unconvincing:

When I lie sleepless, thinking of the final moments of my life, the final look, the final touch, the final taste, stunned by panic, I am not making a logical error.3

I disagree, for more than one reason. The most important is the first argument that Setiya considers, which he traces to Epicurus.

The Argument of Epicurus

It is fear of being dead that Epicurus finds both prevalent and irrational. Paradoxically, it is the fact of nonexistence that gives solace, abolishing mortal fear. “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us,” he wrote, “since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”4

The key point is, if you cease to exist when you die, then you won’t be able to experience suffering after you die. And if it won’t involve suffering, why should you fear being dead? Setiya discards this argument because:

[Death] can still involve the harm of deprivation: the permanent cessation of everything good in life. No more art, no more knowledge, no more time with friends, nothing. What could make more sense than to treat this prospect with dread, as you would a drab, insipid future, joyless but free from pain? A grim occupation.5

But I think that’s a highly misleading analogy. If you try to imagine a “drab, insipid future,” you’re going to imagine yourself sitting around consciously experiencing boredom. Boredom is unpleasant, a form of mild suffering that can become serious suffering if it lasts for an extended period of time. It’s difficult to imagine a life that is “joyless but free from pain” because part of human nature is to want things, and to suffer when we do not get what we want. But death, assuming it’s truly the end of our existence, is different. You won’t be aware of your lack of joy; you won’t be wishing for more.

A better analogy for death might be dreamless sleep. Does it make sense to fear falling asleep, simply because you won’t get to experience anything good while you’re asleep? Surely not! If we had some technology that would get rid of our need for sleep, so that you could be awake all the time without getting tired or experiencing ill consequences, then it would make sense to prefer such perpetual wakefulness. You’d have a lot more time in your life that you could fill with good things. If you were on the verge of developing such technology, it would even make sense to fear anything that would prevent your success, since there’s a lot of good at stake and the fear could be a useful motivator. But since doing away with sleep is not currently on the table, and sleep isn’t inherently painful, fear of it is neither useful nor justified.

Similarly, eternal life would be great. If it were realistically achievable for you, then it would be useful to fear anything that would keep you from attaining it. But otherwise, fear of not living forever is kind of absurd: not only does the fear serve no practical purpose, it causes actual suffering to you, while the object of the fear - ceasing to exist - will never cause you any suffering at all when it comes to pass.

Obviously, some fear of death is helpful in ensuring we don’t die any sooner than necessary, depriving ourselves of years of (let’s be super optimistic for a moment) happiness we could otherwise have had. But that only justifies fear of an untimely death. The intensity of that fear should be proportional to what’s actually at stake, which is finite: extra caution will at best buy us a few more decades.

Other Arguments

There are other reasons to doubt that death is worth abject dread. Setiya explains some arguments by Derek Parfit (one of my favorite philosophers) that (a) we are biased to care more about events in the future than events in the past and (b) this bias doesn’t make any sense. If that’s true, then it’s irrational to be any more bothered by the idea that we won’t exist after we die, than we are by the knowledge that we didn’t exist before we were born.

It’s difficult to really buy into an argument like that at a gut level, even if it has some logical force to it. I can’t blame Setiya for not seeing this as a resolution to his anxiety about death. I do think, however, that such considerations should at least introduce some doubt about how firm the rational foundations of one’s anxiety are.

Another good source of doubt is the possibility that our sense of self is largely an illusion. Intuitively, each of us sees ourselves as having a unique, special connection to our own past and future selves. However much I care about you, I cannot experience your joys or sorrows directly as I will my own, so I have a special concern for what happens to me in the future. What actually constitutes this enduring self that we believe in, though? If you don’t think it’s an immaterial soul, it’s not easy to come up with a good candidate. It may be easy to give a plausible evolutionary account of why we’d believe in a self that endures over time, but that doesn’t mean the belief has a rational basis. What if it doesn’t?

If the connection between my present self and my future self is not radically different than the connection between me and you, then my own death becomes less frightening. Knowing that you (or humanity in general) will go on experiencing life after I’m gone then provides a substantial consolation. It may not be as comforting as ensuring my own survival, but the difference is merely one of degrees, not the crucial binary distinction that it initially seems.

Setiya only briefly discusses this line of thinking, and not very sympathetically. But Parfit makes compelling arguments in this direction in his book Reasons and Persons, which have significantly influenced my worldview. As he said when profiled by the New Yorker:

When I believed that my existence was such a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.

Fully internalizing a “no-self” view is probably unrealistic, since the arguments for it fall short of being deductive proofs and it runs counter to one of our most deeply-held intuitions. But realizing it has some probability of being true can at least, I think, help relax one’s dread of death a little.


Have thoughts on this post? Email me at jacobaw@gmail.com


  1. p. 20 [return]
  2. p. 110 [return]
  3. p. 130 [return]
  4. p. 112 [return]
  5. p. 113 [return]


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