review of Kieran Setiya’s book Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way

I don’t like this book as much as I want to. I find Setiya’s writing elegant and endearing. The literary and historical references he uses to make his points have added many entries to my to-read list. And I love the project he’s undertaking here: in response to the long philosophical tradition of discussing what constitutes “the good life”, he wants to focus on the uglier parts of life—we can, after all, have much more confidence that we will need to endure awful suffering than that we will achieve our most beloved goals.

What we need in our affliction is acknowledgment.

But Setiya and I have pretty different views on some fundamental issues, so many of his perspectives doesn’t resonate with me. An early indicator is in the introduction, in his take on the Experience Machine thought experiment:

Consider Maya, unknowingly submerged in sustaining fluid, electrodes plugged into her brain, being fed each day a stream of consciousness that simulates an ideal life. Maya is happy, but her life does not go well. She doesn’t do most of what she thinks she is doing, doesn’t know most of what she thinks she knows, and doesn’t interact with anyone or anything but the machine. You wouldn’t wish it on someone you love: to be imprisoned in a vat, alone forever, duped.

Maya’s life may be far from ideal—the lack of genuine interaction with other people does seem tragic. But I suspect her life nevertheless goes much better than the lives of most actual people. I would personally be very glad to trade places with her.

But there are some things I like in the book, like its discussion of disability. Setiya points out that one of the ancient strands of thinking about what constitutes a “good life” that still influences us today—that it is “lacking in nothing”—is very misguided:

…we can flourish in many ways, doing countless different things. Once we absorb this pluralism, the idea that a good life is “lacking in nothing” begins to seem absurd. … It’s not as though one should strive to partake in everything good, loving every kind of music, literature, art; every sport; every hobby; working as a janitor-nurse-professor-poet-priest. … In practice, a good life is selective, limited, fractional.

Failure to appreciate this may be part of why some people struggle to understand many disability activists’ insistence, as Setiya puts it, “that when you abstract from prejudice and poor accommodations, physical disability does not generally make life worse.”

At the risk of sounding frivolous: this is why physical disabilities don’t, as a rule, prevent us from living well. Disabilities prevent us from engaging with valuable things. They are harmful in a way. But no one has access to, or space for, everything of value, anyway…

The book has a chapter on loneliness—which, responsibly, first acknowledges that research doesn’t really support the idea of a loneliness epidemic, at least prior to COVID. There’s a really interesting aside here where Setiya suggests that the popular notion of capitalism leading to loneliness may be totally backwards:

In The Ends of Life, Oxford historian Keith Thomas analyzes friendship in early modern England, dividing friends into kinsfolk, strategic allies, and sources of mutual aid. “In all these cases,” he writes, “friends were valued because they were useful. One did not necessarily have to like them.” It was the disentanglement of economic and personal life facilitated by the market that made space for private friendships, less subordinate to social need.

(By the way, Keith Thomas also wrote the fascinating book Religion and the Decline of Magic - review.)

The chapter on grief mentions some important research I was unaware of:

…the Freudian notion of “grief work” as an arduous but necessary grappling with loss is not supported by evidence. The once-conventional wisdom that “you have to talk about it” risks being wildly counterproductive. In general, studies show, being forced to “debrief” traumatic events in their immediate aftermath has negative effects on mental and physical health that can last for years…

The chapter on failure reprises a theme from Setiya’s previous book, Midlife (review): telic (oriented toward completing some objective) vs atelic (potentially neverending, oriented toward the present) activity. We can to some extent “insur[e] ourselves against failure through the value of the atelic.” The chapter also asks us to question our tendency to interpret instances of failing as proof that we ourselves are failures. The whole notion of being a failure may arise from a misguided attempt to interpret our lives through particular narrative lenses:

To see one’s life as a narrative arc, heading for a climax that it may or may not reach, is to see it as a potential failure; but one need not live that way.

…there are countless ways to make sense of yourself, even through stories, without picturing your decades as a quest. Why not bricolage, the character study, the riff?