Kieren Setiya is a professor of philosophy at MIT. I just finished his Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. Here is a brief review.
As we approach midlife, even the most successful among us wonder what we have missed and if our achievements are enough. Setiya begins with some general advice. He reminds us that missing out on things is part of life and that lost opportunities probably look better in retrospect. We can reconcile ourselves with the past by remembering that previous mistakes played a role in our subsequent achievements. Moreover, if we could change the past we might find the present would be worse. What we have now is likely better than what we conjure up in our imagination.
Setiya’s reflections on death are particularly thoughtful. He takes no comfort from Epicurus’ argument against fearing death. Instead, he accepts the deprivationist claim that death is bad because being dead deprives us of the good things of life.
Now some people gainsay such worries, arguing that we should care no more about not existing after death than we now do about not existing before death. But, as he points out, those situations aren’t symmetrical. While most of us want to live indefinitely into the future, almost no one wants their lives extended indefinitely into the past. We prefer a day of suffering in the past to an hour of suffering in the future; we prefer an hour of pleasure in the future to a day of pleasure in the past. Death is no mirror of prenatal nonexistence.
Others claim that death is really good for us because immortality would be boring, hopeless, or meaningless. But for Setiya, people who say such things either really want to die or deceive themselves. He thinks it’s the latter—they adapt their preferences to what seems inescapable.
Setiya notes that the desire for immortality isn’t always selfish—we want others not to die too. We see that they have a value that we don’t want to be lost. Think about how you don’t want your children to die even long after you’re gone. We can also apply this same logic to ourselves. We are valuable and hope that our lives aren’t extinguished either.
Philosophy can’t completely comfort us regarding death, but it helps us to see immortality as an unattainable superpower. (He doesn’t address or isn’t aware of various scientific ways we might defeat death.) Armed with this insight, we can still want the best for ourselves and others but reconcile ourselves to letting go. In short, we can accept mortality without denying life’s value.
(I don’t find Setiya’s conclusion satisfying. The fact is that happy, healthy people almost never want to die and are despondent upon receiving a death sentence. People cry at the funerals of their loved ones, accepting death only because they think it’s inevitable. I doubt they would be so accepting if they thought it avoidable. Consider that, after all the books and knowledge, memories and dreams, cares and concerns, faces and voices, then suddenly … nothing. Is that really desirable? No. Death should be optional.)
I do find Setiya’s response to Schopenhauer’s mistrust of desires convincing. Schopenhauer argued that if you don’t have desires you’re bored but if you have them you’re miserable because you can’t ultimately satisfy them. For Setiya this implies that when we complete a project or reach a goal we have lost that which gave meaning to our lives. Yes, we can find more projects, but if we approach goals this way we are always trying to rid ourselves of what is good about the process of completing them. This insight leads to Setiya’s salient theme.
The real challenge is coping, not with the past or future, but with the present. Rather than chasing happiness that lies in the future, we should be content now. Here Setiya offers a strategy based on the distinction between telic and atelic activities. Telic actions aim at terminal states like finishing a book or building a statue, while atelic ones have no end but are valuable in themselves. When we complete the former we check them off our list and are done whereas the latter we do for their own sake. (Put another way, telic activities correspond to instrumental goods while atelic ones correspond to intrinsic goods.)
Setiya advises us to spend more time in atelic activities such as going for walks, conversing with friends, parenting, enjoying nature, or meditating. Even if you enjoy telic activities, try “to love their atelic counterparts, to find meaning in the process, not the project.” Otherwise, we are driven by projects that we don’t enjoy. In that case, completing our projects eliminates any meaning they had. However, if we enjoy the process of what we’re doing right now, then engaging in that process is itself rewarding.
Even if we want to eradicate suffering or otherwise improve the world such telic activities are given power by the atelic pleasure we derive from living in the present. We want the future to be better, but we should want the present to be better too. Thus we would be wise to adopt a more atelic orientation.
This is a simple but powerful insight. We shouldn’t always be chasing some happiness or contentment in the future, which will likely be followed by another chase. If we don’t find that inner peace now we aren’t likely to find it later.
I thank Professor Setiya for writing his thoughtful book.