Kieran Setiya on midlife: reviving philosophy as a way of life

I read Kieran Setiya’s Midlife (Princeton, 2017) not only because I have that condition and am sometimes troubled by its complaints, but also because I appreciate the style of thought that Pierre Hadot named “philosophy as a way of life.” Practitioners of this style acknowledge that it is important to develop and test arguments. The philosophical life is one of critical reason. However, arguments should have a purpose: to improve a life. And we must remember that people are habitual and affective creatures. Therefore, arguments—no matter how valid and rigorous—will not change us. We also need practices or mental disciplines to accompany our arguments. But a mental habit or practice can lead us away from the findings of our critical reason. We may train ourselves to be foolish or selfish. So we need habits that are at least consistent with the best arguments, and, ideally, habits that actually include argumentation.

That is exactly the combination offered by the Hellenistic Schools (Stoicism, Epicureanism, Skepticism) and by the classical Indian traditions. It has been relatively weak in the modern West. Setiya shows that it can be practiced today.

He is a professional philosopher in the Anglophone, analytic tradition. A clue that he is trying something different in Midlife is the book’s grammar. Setiya often writes in the second-person singular: “You should …” (as in “You should not prefer to rewind time, erase your son, and try again.”) He also sometimes uses the first-person singular or plural: “I wish …”; “We think …” Midlife reads like a conversation that reports Setiya’s real efforts to combat his ennui in order to improve your life, too.

Midlife is almost free of jargon. But one person’s jargon is another’s helpful terminology, and Setiya makes occasional use of specialized words. His distinctive stylistic move is not his informal vocabulary but his shift to the second-person, which implies a stringent test that can be applied to each sentence and chapter: would an actual “you” find this text useful?

Another clue that Setiya is working in the tradition of philosophy as a way of life is that he recommends repeated practices, habits, or meditative exercises at the conclusion of each chapter. These are meant to turn the arguments of the chapter into therapies that might change our mental habits.

Many of Setiya’s recommendations are drawn from the history of ethics, not original to Midlife. Of course, that is fine; it is useful to review and revive others’ points. But some of his arguments are novel, and I will mention two.

Living in the Moment

First, Setiya offers a helpful way to think about “living in the moment.” His argument rests on a distinction between telic activities, which we conduct in order to accomplish them, and atelic activities, which we do for their own sake. “Cook[ing] dinner for your kids, help[ing] them finish their homework, and put[ting] them to bed” are “telic activities through and through”: aimed at their accomplishment. On the other hand, “parenting is complete at every instant; it is a process not a project.” You can be doing both at once.

Some people recommend spending more time on purely atelic activities. Retire as soon as you can and play golf. Until then, take time for meditation or a weekly walk in the woods. Such advice is not necessarily practical—or valuable, if it encourages you to lead a life that’s less valuable to the world.

Other texts recommend viewing every activity as purely atelic. Notably, that is what Krishna teaches in the Baghavad Gita: “Motive should never be in the fruits of action, / nor should you cling to inaction. … / Let go of clinging, and let fulfillment / and frustration be the same.” The problem with that advice is that we should aim for good outcomes. It matters what we do, not only our stance toward it.

Setiya’s advice is to combine the telic with the atelic. Strive to get the kids to bed (and do that as well as you can), but also think of yourself as parenting. Attend meetings, write emails, and perform calculations all day, but also see yourself as leading a worthy life. This is an example of a meditative practice that incorporates argument, because it requires redescribing what we are doing in new terms. It may, to quote Wordsworth, have “the power to make / Our noisy years seem moments in the being / Of the eternal Silence.”

Midlife as a Universal Human Circumstance

Second, Setiya disagrees that “midlife” is a stage that we encounter between the ages of (say) 40 and 60—probably most frequently in affluent societies, where some people have the luxury of dreaming of sports cars. Rather, “midlife” is any moment on the journey of our lives when we have already made consequential and irreversible choices, but when we also face a substantial stretch ahead. In that condition, we encounter specific temptations and troubles, such as regretting paths not taken or fearing that the future will basically be more of the same for a long time to come. These could be the thoughts of people who are 12 or 90, living anywhere in the world, at any level of wealth and freedom. They just tend to be more prominent for people in the middle decades of life who have ascended some way up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Midlife is a universal circumstance, but its special discontents may not be the most salient for some people at some times.

Setiya argues that midlife’s challenges have been underplayed in the history of philosophy, because the main questions have been “What should I do?” (as in Kant) or “What constitutes a good whole human life?” (as in Aristotle). “Neither the prospective question of what to do nor the external, retrospective question of the good human life captures the predicament of midlife” when you must confront a “meaningful past and a meaningful future,” when “the question is not simply what to do, but what you have done and what you have not done, what to feel and how to think of yourself.”

The Problem of Midlife in Joyce’s “The Dead”

It would take a longer argument and more evidence to make this point, but I believe that James Joyce’s story “The Dead” is a reflection on midlife in just the form that Setiya describes. It is about a character in midlife and also about an art form—the written fictional narrative—that faces a midlife crisis of its own. It’s safe to say “The Dead” is a greater work than Setiya’s Midlife. But there are ways in which I prefer the latter.

Starting with Joyce’s own brother, Stanislaus, many readers have remarked that “The Dead” reads like a ghost story, conveying an uncanny sense that the characters are literally dead already. When the protagonist, Gabriel, first speaks, it’s to note that his wife “takes three mortal hours to dress herself,” and his aunts reply that “she must be perished alive.” He’s already lightly coated with the snow that will bury everything. Language of death or living death echoes throughout.

An exception might be the vivacious nationalist teacher Molly Ivors, who leaves the Christmas party without any explanation and seems to have an unpredictable life still ahead of her. She could be fleeing a party of the undead.

Instead of reading “The Dead” as a ghost story, I’d suggest that its characters have come to see their lives as complete. That is a frame of mind that any adult can adopt while entirely alive, but it is a deathly one. Right at the beginning of Midlife, Setiya quotes the article that coined that word, Elliott Jaques’ “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” (1965): “Now suddenly I have reached the crest of the hill, and there stretching ahead is the downward slope with the end of the road in sight—far enough away it’s true—but there is death observably present at the end.”

In “The Dead,” the monks of Mount Melleray sleep in their coffins, Aunt Mary Jane explains, “to remind them of their last end.” All the other characters, too, have lives that can be summarized and declared complete. Aunt Julia had a great voice three decades before but no great career, in part because of gender discrimination in the church. Gabriel reflects, “Poor Aunt Julia! She, too, would soon be a shade. … He had caught that haggard look upon her face for a moment when she was singing Arrayed for the Bridal. [She never took the path of marriage herself—surely a regret.] Soon, perhaps, he would be sitting in that same drawing-room, dressed in black, his silk hat on his knees. The blinds would be drawn down and Aunt Kate would be sitting beside him, crying and blowing her nose and telling him how Julia had died.”

Gabriel is called a “young man,” but midlife can happen at any age. In fact, Joyce was also young when he wrote “The Dead.” James Ellman writes, “That Joyce at the age of twenty-five and -six should have written this story should not seem odd. Young writers reach their greatest eloquence in dwelling upon the horrors of middle age and what follows it” (James Joyce, p. 253).

Certainly, Gabriel is dissatisfied with who he is, regretful of certain paths not taken (particularly paths involving Molly), yet skeptical that he can become anything different. These are pitfalls of midlife.

Gabriel does look a little way forward: specifically, to a night in a hotel room with his wife after the party, free from their children. He explicitly and lustfully imagines that immediate future. But his foresight is flawed. Gretta is simultaneously lamenting the story that her life might have taken, had not her youthful suitor Michael Furey tragically died before she met and settled for Gabriel. In this combination of a man who thinks his life is all but done and a woman who mourns for a different existence—neither one understanding the other—we have a dark picture of midlife in just the form that Setiya analyzes it.

Joyce and the Midlife Crisis of Literature

“The Dead” is a fitting coda to the collection of Dubliners, whose stories are arranged in a rough sequence from childhood to the end of life. The story is also an apt conclusion to a whole tradition of English literature, which Joyce sees as complete and without a future–except that it is possible to reflect beautifully on what literature has been, which is a task of Ulysses. In short, “The Dead” is a story about lives seen from the perspective of their ends, and it’s also a story about the end of stories.

One might certainly disagree that literature ended around 1900—haven’t some good books been written since then?—but Modernists thought it was dying, and several Modernists (in addition to Joyce) tried to make art about its conclusion.

For instance, Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Storyteller” (1936, translated by Harry Zohn], “The art of storytelling is reaching its end.” Developments of the modern era, Benjamin thought, have “quite gradually removed narrative from the realm of living speech and at the same time [made] it possible to see new beauty in what is vanishing” [iv]. “The Dead” finds a new kind of beauty in the passing world that it describes and in the literary tradition that it culminates.

Benjamin distinguishes between a traditional “story” (oral, concise, meant to inform and motivate a live audience) and a “novel,” which is a fictional world created in polished writing by an individual author for a solitary reader. One difference is that a story invites the listeners to continue it, to invent a sequel or to reply with another episode, as we might by imagining what happens to Ms. Ivors. In that sense, she is a character in what Benjamin would call a “story” (and she must leave the novelistic space of “The Dead.”) A novel, in contrast, is closed because it depends entirely on the author’s imagination. The novelist is the master of the whole text.

Benjamin writes, “there is no story for which the question how it continued would not be legitimate. The novelist, on the other hand, cannot hope to take the smallest step beyond that limit at which he invites the reader to a divinatory realization of the meaning of life by writing ‘Finis'” (xiv). Joyce doesn’t literally write “The End” on the last page of Dubliners, but the last sentence couldn’t be much more conclusive: “His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”

Gabriel has left instructions to be awakened at eight, so his story will continue. Once the porter knocks, he will have to face a new day with Gretta and then many more days as a teacher, writer, and parent, probably extending well into the twentieth century. But Joyce’s story ends where it should; to resume after this crisis would be an aesthetic mistake. As a fictional character, Gabriel is done.

Gabriel envies Michael Furey, whose life ended neatly, if sadly, with his early death. “Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.” Gabriel will have to wither, but we have no interest in following that process. In contrast, it might be interesting to learn how Ms. Ivors fares as Ireland becomes free and women gain opportunity.

Although Benjamin never mentions Joyce or ”The Dead” in this essay, he offers a way of reading the story. “Not only a man’s knowledge or wisdom, but above all his real life—and this is the stuff that stories are made of–first assumes transmissible form at the moment of death. Just as a sequence of images is set in motion inside a man as his life comes to an end—unfolding the views of himself under which he has encountered himself without being aware of it—suddenly in his expressions and looks the unforgettable emerges and imparts to everything that concerned him that authority which even the poorest wretch in dying possesses for the living around him. This authority is at the very source of the story.” (x).

Gabriel doesn’t die—he doesn’t receive that mercy—but he does experience a “sequence of images” that fully summarize the whole story of his life and so concludes it as a meaningful narrative.

Benjamin sees consolation in such a story. “The novel is significant, therefore, not because it presents someone else’s fate to us, perhaps didactically, but because this stranger’s fate by some virtue of the flame which consumes it yields us the warmth which we will never draw from our own fate. What draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about” [xv].

That is a way of describing the cold consolation of “The Dead,” which gains its power from the author’s awareness of the impasse that confronts his characters, his genre, and himself. Kieran Setiya is a much more cheerful writer and he aims to give assistance. By his own admission, he doesn’t solve anything for us, but he is a helpful companion. Above all, his voice is conversational, while Joyce’s is magisterial. Setiya is trying to make the future go a bit better for you and me; Joyce offers pure elegy.

Philosophy with Other People

As Benjamin noted, novels are written by solitary authors for solitary readers. We do better when we also have peers to share our experience with. Epicurus’ “Letter to Menoeceus” includes a formal argument that we should not fear death. Death is a lack of sensation, so we will feel nothing bad once we’re dead. To have a distressing feeling of fear now, when we are not yet dead, is irrational. The famous conclusion (although Setiya finds it weak) seems to me to follow logically enough: “Death is nothing to us.”

But Epicurus knows that even the best arguments will not alone counteract the ingrained mental habit of fearing death. So he ends his letter by advising Menoeceus “to practice the thought of this and similar things day and night, both alone and with someone who is like you.” The main verb here could be translated as “exercise,” “practice,” or “meditate on.” It is a mental practice that anyone can employ, regardless of her other beliefs and assumptions. Importantly, it should be pursued both singly and as part of a community. Unlike most professional philosophers of the modern era, Setiya writes like a fellow member of “your” community. He is someone who is “like you,” reaching out with some suggestions based on his own experience and reflections, and inviting your response.

In Walden, Thoreau observes, “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers.” He explains, “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates. … It is to solve some of the problems of live, not only theoretically, but practically.” Setiya has taken a courageous step in that direction.

[See also: twenty-five years of itthe aspiration curve from youth to old ageto whom it may concern (a midlife poem), on philosophy as a way of life; and my notes on Philip Larkin’s AubadeDonald Justice’s Men at Forty; and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Spring and Fall.]

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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