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April 2019

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Midlife by Kieran Setiya

Written by , Posted in Reviews

Three Stars

Best for:
Those who enjoy a philosophical approach to things, and those who are approaching middle age.

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Kieran Setiya, as he approached mid-life, decided to explore ways philosophy might help him power through — or even stave off — a crisis.

Worth quoting:
“I recognize the luxury of the midlife crisis, with a degree of guilt and shame. Why can’t I be more grateful for what I have? But this is my life.”
“There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life.”
“There is no more to going for a walk than what you are doing right now. You are not on the way to achieving a goal. You are already there.”

Why I chose it:
I’m turning 40 next year and I enjoy studying philosophy.

Review:
This fairly short exploration of mid-life is lightly humorous and well-written. Author Setiya is approaching 40 and has started to feel what many do when they approach mid-life: a sense of malaise. As he is a philosophy professor, he is, one could argue, fairly well-suited to explore the larger questions around life and what it means as we continue into the second half of our lives.

And I think he is. This is a largely successful book if one is looking not so much for all the answers, but for some ideas of how to change one’s thinking about this time in life. Setiya looks at the big issues that crop up around middle age: regret / paths not taken; fear of death; and wondering what to do next when you’ve completed most of the standard life projects.

The section on regret is interesting, as it forces a rational approach to the issue. Namely, that even if you could start over and do things completely differently, that would mean wiping out who you are now. Do you really want that? Do any of us? Sure, it’s understandable to spend some time wondering about different choices, but you can’t do anything about it. I found this section … not that helpful for me. I don’t have large life regrets or anything like that (though I’ve gone back-and-forth on career choices basically since leaving university) but I don’t think I followed Setiya’s process here.

The fear of mortality section was also a bit of a challenge for me, as his main point seemed to be (if I’m understanding it) that we shouldn’t focus on not being around after death because we weren’t around before birth, and they’re ultimately the same thing. There’s also something here about putting more emphasis on the future than the past, but I had some trouble following it.

The section I found most helpful was the one dealing with the challenges of what happens when you’ve met most of the life goals society sets out for us. For me, that included going to university, meeting a life partner, and buying a home, all of which I’ve done. What happens after that? What about all the other projects we work on, that are also bound to finish (like, hopefully, my book)? What do we do then? Setiya’s suggestion is we focus on all the things that are not bound by a start an end, instead looking at the process. His example is enjoying a walk for the walk’s sake. Not because we are using it as a means to an end. That is a way of thinking that I could definitely incorporate into my daily life.

Overall, would I recommend it to my peers? Eh, probably not, but mostly because I think it’s a little heavier on the philosophy than they’d like.

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