Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way by Kieran Setiya

Review by Walter Cummins

For me, the essential advice Kieran Setiya offers in Life Is Hard is related to the distinction he makes between telic and atelic activities in the chapter on coping with failure. He finds these terms used in linguistics and uses them to explain two fundamentally different kinds of life activity. The telic, which is the root of teleology, leads to a definite completion, like walking home. Once you arrive, it’s done. The atelic is ongoing and does not lead to a final state because it does not have a singular goal, for example, taking a walk with no specific destination.

What does this difference have to do with coping with the pain and frustrations of the hard life all people confront? Consider failure. If a person judges a singular failure as an ultimate evaluation of his or her life, that may be emotionally paralyzing. But if the person sees that failure as just one event in a mix of successes and blunders, the consequences will not be so drastic.

In short, our lives are multiple, and we should avoid the psychological trap of allowing one event or circumstance to define what our existence is all about, even something as devastating as a physical disability or our grief at the loss of a loved one.

Most people, Setiya claims, consider their lives a single dominant story developed with a narrative arc, like a typical novel. If that is so, the life centers on one dominant impact. But if our lives are a collection of numerous stories, they cannot be narrowed to what is in effect a zero-sum game. We, then, are not the singular product of our failures or our pain or our grief or the injustices we have suffered:

we have come to speak as if a person can be a failure—as though failure were an identity, not an event. When you define your life by way of a single enterprise, a narrative arc, its outcome will come to define you. … It’s a tendency we should fight. Whatever story you tell about yourself, however simple and straightforward, there is endlessly more to your actual life.

Setiya takes issue with the premises of self-help books and even Aristotle—the notion that humans possess the capability of achieving an ideal fulfillment: “In the Nicomachean Ethics, Plato’s student Aristotle aims for the highest good, eudaimonia—a life that is not merely good enough but one you should choose if you could choose any life at all. Aristotle thought that we should imitate the gods … His answer to the question how to live is a vision of life without deficiency or human need: if you like, it’s his version of heaven.”

Instead, our human reality involves coping with many disappointments and even disasters on earth: “Ultimately, this book is about making the best of a bad lot: the human condition.” As a result, “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.”

Even the experience of grief changes because grief is “not an emotional state but an emotional process.” In emphasizing this process, Setiya uses grief as another indication that the experiences of our lives are atelic rather than a limited telic.

Setiya himself has endured chronic pain for much of his life but advises regarding pain as part of our life rather than as something dominant: “If you can treat persistent pain as a series of isolated episodes, you can take away some of its power.” He also finds a crucial meaning in the experience in that his personal pain has resulted in compassion for the suffering of others:

In my troubles, I forget that every person I encounter suffers troubles of their own, as urgent and as real as mine. That’s why the book you’re reading now, though it has been about afflictions in my life and yours, can serve a moral purpose, too. In thinking about the hardships of human life, I have been thinking about myself, but I can’t help thinking of others, the profusion of humanity whose adversities I don’t face.

As much as I admire Setiya’s reasoning and find much of his philosophical advice helpful, I can’t help thinking it is limited to First World adversities, sufferings that are only aspects of our lives. What of those whose cities are being bombed, who can barely scrape together a daily meal, whose famished and diseased children cry out with bloated bellies, whose habitat is destroyed by drought or floods, who are tortured in concentration camps? Their pain is ongoing and overwhelming. We do have, for example, Holocaust memoirs by people who endured the worst imaginable and, in some cases, even triumphed. But they are a tiny fraction. For most people in such circumstances, “hard” is grossly inadequate. And yet Setiya’s thinking does matter for those of us whose lives are not consumed by abject misery.

Setiya anticipates my concern. But for him, if human life has a point rather than being a cosmic mistake, there must be things that matter and have “existential value.” Beyond the sufferings of millions, he fears “cultural devastation,” the loss of art, science, philosophy, and the simple pleasures of human interaction, “the little human things.” The hope of a future for these activities provides the meaning of life. Bread alone is not enough.