- 14 Nov 15:31
The famous English economist/philosopher/politician John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) had a midlife crisis at age 20, when he suffered a nervous breakdown. MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya (born 1976) experienced a similar crisis (hopefully less severe) at age 41, and chose to write a book on the subject. It is titled Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (Princeton University Press, 2017). The volume was published a month ago and is already on the best-seller list of Amazon.com. Though intended as self-help for those in middle-age, I think readers who, like myself, are three or four decades older than Professor Setiya, will also find it useful as they confron the inevitability of their own mortality.
I have not yet seen the book, which is only 200 pages long, but I did come across a review of it in the current issue of The Economist. The review is very positive, but its author is anonymous. This is what most upsets me about The Economist: all articles are anonymous, and subject to final review by the editor.
Here are excerpts from the review. You can read the full article at the link below, which was not gated when I accessed it.
[Kieran Setiya] is himself afflicted by “a disconcerting mixture of nostalgia, regret, claustrophobia, emptiness and fear”, beneath which lie “questions of loss and regret, success and failure ... mortality and finitude”. The bedrock problem is “the irreversibility of time”. As Mr Setiya says, “fast cars and wild affairs” cannot salve that, but his book—a delightful amalgam of self-help and intellectual inquiry—aims to show that philosophy can. ....
.... “Embrace your losses,” he recommends, “as fair payment for the surplus of being alive.” Lamenting missteps is natural, but remember “everything in your subsequent life that flowed from them,” such as (if you have them) your children. A different life might have turned out worse; in any case, no hypothetical alternative can outdo the one you have, with all its nuances and richness, “like the fastidious excess of a peasant scene by Bruegel”.
Mr Setiya anticipates the charge that these are high-class problems. They arise, he insists, from the basic realities of life, such as death—which, philosophically speaking, “turns out to be a killer”. ....
If all this sounds gloomy, it isn’t. “Midlife” combines acuity, frankness and drollery in a style that melds Aristotle with Kurt Vonnegut. Mr Setiya enlists not only philosophers but poets and novelists, such as Philip Larkin, Virginia Woolf and Richard Ford. .... There are entertaining pen-portraits of thinkers such as Schopenhauer and Montaigne.
Mr Setiya’s ultimate prescriptions echo those of Mill: “find meaning in the process,” whether of work or hobbies; learn to live “in the halo of the present”. Even if it does not cure every midlife crisis, his book may change preconceptions about the dryness of philosophy. It will make readers think and smile, which is not a bad therapy in itself.
Anonymous, "Out of the wood”, The Economist, Books and Arts, 11 November 2017.