Midlife: A Philosophical Guide
Princeton University Press
It was a punchline waiting to happen: the professor of moral philosophy studies the good life, but comes to realise he does not know how to live. MIT professor Kieran Setiya’s midlife predicament reads like either a cosmic joke or the plot of a sitcom. By his forties, Setiya had secured the kind of life that most grad students facing today’s grim academic job market can only dream of. He had achieved the trifecta of middle-class existence in the form of a tenured position, a family, and a house. He was respectable and respected. Finding himself thereby impaled upon the peak of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, Setiya performed the natural next step for someone in his position and had a midlife crisis. Midlife: A Philosophical Guide is Setiya’s effort to use the tools of analytic philosophy to address his ennui. The result is an entertaining and thought-provoking, if ultimately conservative, guide to appreciating a middle-class life.
Although the first chapter opens with the bold historicist declaration that midlife crises began in 1965, when the psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques introduced the term in his essay, “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis”, Setiya’s take on the midlife crisis is decidedly universalist. Setiya goes on to clarify his meaning: that the concept of the midlife crisis was first identified in the mid-sixties. Although Setiya issues the requisite warning against “project[ing] our image of the crisis back into lives that are radically different from our own”, he cites one study arguing that Rossini and Goethe and Michelangelo all had midlife crises and another suggesting that apes are most dissatisfied at the midpoint of their lives. Claims of historical particularity fit awkwardly in a project addressed to what Setiya calls “the basic conditions of human life” (or primate life, as the case may be). His brief foray into the recent history of the midlife crisis is just a preliminary to the introduction of his real thesis, which is that “the midlife crisis turns on temporal features of human life that are utterly pervasive: the progressive reduction of possibilities, completion or failure of projects, accumulation of biography.”
Midlife is first and foremost a practical book. Setiya launches into his investigation of the “temporal structure of human life and the activities that occupy it” with the goal of undertaking a kind of “cognitive therapy” that brings about the reduction of dissatisfaction by revealing and correcting “pathologies of value.” Such pathologies can take two forms: either we strive under the spell of the wrong kind of value, in which case we should alter our course, or we long for what is impossible, in which case we should reconcile ourselves to reality.
Although this therapeutic project makes theoretical space for change, it slants in favor of accommodation. According to Setiya, what haunts at midlife are “the lost opportunities, the regrets and failures, the finitude of life, and the rush of activities that drive us through it”. All of these factors, save the “rush of activities”, are ones we can’t do much about. This point is fundamental to Setiya’s approach, which seeks to take the sting out of midlife dissatisfaction by getting readers to see how things couldn’t have been very different. As the Stoics argued, there is no point in getting upset over what we cannot change. If we can become convinced that a significant part of midlife agony comes from a confused struggle against the fundamental patterns of human life, then we are already well on the way to reconciliation. Philosophical universalism has a strategic purpose in the context of a campaign to ameliorate suffering.
Sometimes Setiya is convincing. Sometimes he reads like someone trying to convince himself. The universalist approach works well in the second chapter, which makes a strong case for the inadequacy of a life lived purely in pursuit of “ameliorative” activities which aim to reduce suffering. Setiya cites W. H. Auden’s quotation of a line from the comedian John Foster Hall: “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” Using an analysis of the twenty-year-old John Stuart Mill’s famed nervous breakdown, which was triggered in part by an obsessive focus on social reform and resolved with the help of Wordsworth’s poetry, Setiya argues that activities which are only valuable because they reduce human misery must be supplemented by activities with “existential value” which would still be worthwhile in an ideal world. Setiya delineates the self-negating structure of a wholly altruistic life with satisfying precision, and offers a viable alternative which is based on the plausible notion that there are fundamentally different types of value that any one life should embody.
The next two chapters, which focus on the theme of regret, are more philosophically intricate and, perhaps not coincidentally, more dubious. The target of these chapters is our sadness over opportunities foregone and mistakes made. Setiya notes that mid-lifers have a tendency to mourn the closing down of options, and he develops two main points in response: first, missing out is the necessary cost of making the very choices that add value to life, and second, while the fact of having options may be valuable in itself, the mere condition of having options is rarely more valuable than any of the particular options we would pick, so it is a sign of confusion to think that the “limitations of midlife” by themselves are ones that “justify radical change.” The right response to nostalgia for “the indeterminacy of childhood, when almost anything is possible” is to recognise that satisfying that nostalgia would require the “dissolution of the structure that gives meaning to your life.” The final verdict on the freedom of youth: “Its appeal is delusory.”
Here Setiya doth protest too much. His deflationary reading of the longing for indeterminacy sounds a lot like the rationalisation of someone trying to talk himself back into his accustomed fetters. The world has a sneaky way of coaxing people into giving up their ideals, and one of the greatest tricks we play on ourselves is to convince ourselves that these sacrifices are the necessary preconditions for living a mature adult life. The aspiring actor who gives up Hollywood to attend law school and the academic who abandons the romantic quest for truth in favour of publishing whatever will impress her peers both tell themselves a version of this story, as do those who go through their lives making safe choices without really understanding why. Setiya’s interpretation of the losses of midlife as “fair payment for the surpluses of being alive” prescinds an interpretation of the midlife crisis as the psyche’s protest against a social order which breaks people in too readily and at too high a cost. Here the universalist strategy risks doing more harm than good by talking people into accepting premature compromises. The explicit goal of Setiya’s “cognitive therapy” is to soothe the disturbed mind, but perhaps mid-lifers ought to be disturbed.
A fundamental problem with Midlife, then, is that it can read as a justification for resignation to an essentially bourgeois existence. Setiya has little patience for the wild and radical desire for something more or something different; to live well is to moderate one’s expectations. The hard-won serenity of Setiya’s post-crisis perspective will be either impressive or irritating depending on whether you think he’s coming to terms with basic human truths or adjusting himself to the status quo. Correspondingly, the cultivation of mindfulness that Setiya recommends in the sixth and final chapter can be read as either a wise recommendation for increasing happiness in present circumstances or a reactionary use of wisdom traditions to support the present social order (perhaps it’s a bit of both). The craze for mindfulness in corporate circles has inspired critics who wonder whether Buddhist tranquility is really a valorisation of passivity in the face of capitalist exploitation, or indeed whether such passivity is passably Buddhist at all. While the historical significance of Buddhism as a source of opposition to the Indian caste system challenges a simplistic opposition between inner tranquility and resistance to systemic oppression, such criticisms remind us of the danger of pursuing the former at the expense of the latter. The monk Bikkhhu Bodhi worries that Westerners end up valuing Buddhism for “its cache of techniques for inducing inner calm, equanimity, and acceptance rather than its potential for developing a radical critique of contemporary society.”
There is a parallel danger that using philosophy as a therapeutic tool encourages one to blur the line between reasoning and rationalising. Some of the strongest moments in Midlife are those in which Setiya recognises the limits of the philosophical dialectic. In the fifth chapter, after trotting through some slick arguments that aim to dispel the fear of death, Setiya notes that anyone who finds them convincing is probably “not as prone to sleepless panic” as he is. The endorsement of meditation in the final chapter reflects the recognition that reason alone can’t muscle someone out of their malaise. Setiya’s ability to work through the intricacies of philosophical arguments while remaining sensitive to their occasional inadequacy is one of the key strengths of this book.
Midlife is an engaging example of how analytic philosophy can be integrated with practical advice and personal experience. Setiya writes with the intimacy and authority of someone who has lived through what he writes about. Nonetheless, it’s hard to provide a final endorsement of the crisis management techniques on offer in Midlife. This is a guide to pulling off a peaceable return to the presumed comfort of one’s present life, but its strategies of accommodation and reconciliation can seem like a perpetuation of the same underlying mindset that leads to midlife dissatisfaction in the first place.
Perhaps there is a generational divide at work beneath this verdict. From the standpoint of young adulthood, the compromises of middle age are tantamount to selling out; from the standpoint of middle age, the demands of young adulthood are naïve. To be twenty is to see a coming revolution as the fundamental solution to all of society’s problems; to be forty is to find oneself on the other side of the barricades. Whether this shift is a matter of growing up or giving up depends upon where you stand. Although it seems to me that Setiya’s vision involves too much compromise and justification, perhaps I’ll come around in the end. But I hope not. The notion of “consolation” appears at various points throughout Midlife, but thirty-five and fifty-five alike seem too young to be reaching for that particular concept. Midlife is as much an opportunity to think more expansively as to adjust one’s expectations. One might think that those who are fortunate enough to lead a comfortable life are more obligated, not less, to try to change things up. Perhaps someone in Setiya’s position has more freedom than they are allowing themselves to believe.
Maya Krishnan  is reading for a BPhil in Philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford.