Help over the hump

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

28 October 2017

9:00 AM

Losing our way in life’s trackless forest, whither should we turn for solace and advice? Wisdom used to be the special province of our elders, though for no better reason than that old people were less common than they are now. Aristotle had their measure: ‘As they have a lot of experience,’ he wrote, ‘they are sure about nothing, and under-do everything.’

Now the old are as common as grass, and we draw the truth about life experience as much as possible from the source. If you want to know how a child feels, ask a child. If you want a considered opinion about Muslim dress codes, stop opining into a bucket, drunk on your own echo, and ask a Muslim.

There’s much virtue in this attitude, but some obvious drawbacks. There is, first of all, such a thing as being too near to your subject matter. Kieran Setiya has been entertaining the possibility of a mild midlife crise since his mid-thirties. He is now 41 and, he tells us, gainfully employed, comfortably housed and happily married. What could possibly go wrong? This book of sound, rather bookish advice on how to avoid the bankruptcy of all hope has a Schadenfreude-steeped sequel practically hanging off the back flap.

I hope I’m wrong, because I like Setiya: he has provided us with a concise, entertaining and humane guide through life’s most difficult territory. (Yes, granted, there is still death to face, but it’s a well-documented fact that people ‘over the hump’ grow steadily happier as they age.) Setiya is no fool, and he’s learned a lot, but I suspect he has not yet had the time seriously to entertain the number of dangerous thoughts needed to bring a book like this to its fullest life. That there is an existential magnificence to wrapping your lime-green Kawasaki around the trunk of a hawthorn one frosty Wednesday above Penistone; that the shifting, knowing power dynamics of spring-and-winter relationships may more than compensate for the sight of one’s infant’s pram rolling brakeless out of the hall. Setiya squares his back against these uncomfortable possibilities.

He is out to save us from ourselves, and to do this he seeks to convince us of two truths. The first is that doing something with an eye to its result, however admirable, however selfless, is not nearly as life-affirming as doing something for the sheer love of it. (John Stuart Mill, the Manchester utilitarian who devoted his every thought and action to the public good, burned out in his mid-twenties — and no wonder. What is a wonder, to me at any rate, is that it was William Wordsworth poetry that got him back on his feet.)

Setiya’s second point is that something is better than nothing. The life one has led, however broken or disappointing, will always outweigh the life one might have led. Philosophers from Socrates to Schopenhauer are marshalled in evidence here, but Setiya is no lackey to power or precedent, and is happy (and usually justified) in pointing out where the greats go wrong.

Obviously there are other ways of approaching Setiya’s subject matter. Some of them are more immediate. Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths’s hokey-sounding Algorithms to Live By recently delivered an astonishing account of life as a glorified secretary problem (simply stated: how do you hire the best secretary if you can’t call back the ones you’ve already interviewed?). Life forces us to decide on possibilities we’ve not yet seen, and embrace high rates of failure even when we’re at the top of our game. This essentially tragic vision drove Simone de Beauvoir to declare herself ‘swindled’ by life. Setiya, starting with de Beauvoir, explores the same territory, but by a rather circuitous route.

Then there’s the vexed business of wishing you had done things differently. This is simply the ‘free will problem’ in midlife motley. A young Dan Dennett nailed this old faker’s corpse to the tree as long ago as 1984 with Elbow Room (takeaway: (1) Time is unidirectional; (2) Grow up.)

This is not to suggest that Setiya has ‘left something out’, so much as to suggest that, unlike most self-consciously ‘helpful’ books, Midlife left at least this reader more fascinated with the problem than with its solution, and hungry for more. Which, as we’ve already learned, is a recipe for happiness in itself.

Clever, that.

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