Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way
Riverhead Books (October 2022)
“Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.” Voltaire
Nowhere in this volume does Kieran Setiya claim or imply that he has found the best philosophy to help almost anyone to “find their way” in today’s world. That said, perhaps — just perhaps — he would reluctantly agree with me that the information, insights, and counsel he provides can help almost anyone to formulate at least a few core values and convictions that can guide and inform their efforts to avoid or overcome all manner of unique and debilitating hardships. That is, to find their way.
For example, consider these observations in Setiya’s Introduction: “Two insights light the way. The first is that being happy is not the same as living well. If you want to be happy, dwelling on adversity may or may not be of use. But mere happiness should not be your goal. Happiness is a mood or feeling, a subjective state; you could be happy while living a lie…Our task is to face adversity as we should — and here truth is the only means. We have to live in the world as it is, not the world as we wish it would be.
“The second guiding light is that, in living well, we cannot extricate justice from self-interest or divide [separate ourselves] from others. It will emerge as the book goes on that even the most insular concerns — with one’s own suffering, one’s loneliness, one’s frustrations- are implicitly moral. They are entangled with compassion, with the value of human life, with ideologies of failure and success that obfuscate injustice. Reflecting honestly on affliction in our own lives leads toward concern for others, not into narcissistic self-regard.”
Setiya immediately establishes and then nourishes a personal rapport with his reader. (I at least felt, as I began to read the Introduction, that this book was written especially for me.) He is a deeply caring person who has experienced all manner of hardships throughout his life thus far and apparently handled some better than others. He agrees that it is a good idea to be wary of what others insist is “the truth” but also of what we may insist it is.
Here are some of Setiya’s thoughts about hope: “I’m always wary of hope myself. It’s meant to be empowering, noble, even audacious. But as an episode of Ted Lasso reminds us, ‘It’s the hope that kills you.’ To hope is to risk the agony of despair. And what’s the use of hoping as things fall apart? ‘I don’t want to be hopeful,’ the activist Gerta Thunberg told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos. ‘I want you to panic.’ Hope can be utterly complacent.
“Still, my advice is not to give up hope. The question to ask is not whether hope is good — by itself, hope isn’t worth much — but what we should hope for. To hope well is to be realistic about what’s possible, not to succumb to wishful thinking or be cowed by fear. It’s to hope for the right things, at the right times, in the right way, not just to hope for the sake of hoping. The key is to have the courage to face the facts, to acknowledge the good that is possible, and never to forget that hope is not enough, we have to do something about it.”
“When we do not know what we should hope for, we can hope to learn.”
What Kieran Setiya shares in this book will probably not make my life less difficult but I am certain it will enrich it with greater meaning, a clearer purpose, and a less restricted curiosity.