Midlife, by Kieran Setiya

Picked this one up during my last trip through Boston. I’m inching closer and closer to forty, so it seems like a good time to take stock of what I’ve accomplished so far in my life (not much, really) and where I might want to go from here.

I’d hoped this book would help with that, or at least with countering any fears or anxieties I experience as I enter middle age.

Unfortunately, it’s a mostly disappointing book.

An Audience of One

Part of that is due to a flaw he admits right up front: it’s a book he wrote for himself. Someone who’s entered middle age as one of the professional classes, with a stable job, a stable home life, and good health. And not just any job, but the job he set out to get in his twenties. So he comes at middle age from the perspective of someone who’s already achieved the things they wanted out of life.

The book suffers for it. For how many of us set out to do one thing in our youth, only to end up somewhere entirely different? Or enter middle age with our bodies broken, or our minds? Do we have nothing to learn from philosophy?

Abandoning Reason

The second flaw follows directly from the first: he discusses arguments for dealing with certain aspects of middle age, such as the fear of death, but dismisses anything that doesn’t feel right for him. Abandoning reason, he moves from philosophy to pop psychology, deciding that what gives him the most comfort must be the best.

Never mind that what might comfort him would be appalling to someone else. Or that comfort might have little to do with the truth.

Paths Not Taken

And so he glosses over the insights embedded in the not-self dogma of Buddhism. Skips right over the most reasonable argument for not fearing death. And misses a gaping hole in the middle of his whole argument.

For embedded in the heart of his book is an assumption: that philosophy is meant to help us be happy.

But what if that isn’t the case? If we take philosophy as being the study of how to live a good life, does it necessarily follow that the good life is a happy one?

I don’t think so. At the very least, I don’t think it’s something we can assume. For while it is a modern trend to conflate happiness with virtue (or perhaps merely a particularly American one), there are plenty of examples from ancient philosophy where that isn’t the case. Consider Stoicism, where virtue can only be shown in the face of adversity.

Final Words

So while Midlife claims to be a mix of philosophy and self-help, it is neither. Not philosophy, because it leaves reason behind in the pursuit of comfortable aphorisms. And not self-help, because it was written to help only one person, the author.

Frustrating at its worst, disappointing at its best, I wouldn’t recommend this book.