Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya - review by Jeremy Clarke

Jeremy Clarke

Forty & Naked

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide


Princeton University Press 186pp £18.95 order from our bookshop

Frank, my usual sparing partner at the karate club, was also a full-time carer. I was walking the dog along a country lane when a minibus full of special-needs adults pulled up. Frank was at the wheel. Beside him was his assistant carer. She was a slender bottle-blonde, and had unusually thick lenses in her glasses – the proverbial jam-jar bottoms. At first glance she appeared to be pathologically shy. Frank said they were going to the local field study centre for a weekend away. Why didn’t I meet them later for a drink at the local inn? The local inn is 13th century, low ceilings, beams, dim. We sat at a refectory table in facing rows. The special-needs chap next to me had the word ‘Torquay’ on the winkle. I think that for him the word Torquay equalled happiness. He was from Torquay, he said. Was I from Torquay? Alas, no, I wasn’t from Torquay, I said. ‘Torquay?’ he enquired, on average about twice a minute after that. Asked what he would like to drink, he said, ‘Torquay’. I went to the bar. Frank’s bottle-blonde helper came with me. ‘This pub is like a morgue. Let’s go,’ she said. She led me back to her single room at the field study centre and took off all her clothes. 

She was easily the most sexually uninhibited woman I had ever encountered. At dawn I went to the window and looked out. The garden was sodden with dew and a silent promise of the first lovely day of May. I sometimes trace the beginning of my midlife crisis to that exact moment standing at the window. I was forty-three years old. Kieran Setiya is a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is forty-one and has been contemplating his own self-confessedly mild midlife crisis for the last six years. Midlife: A Philosophical Guide is the result. In it, he considers how best to approach the midlife crisis of confidence in the light of what philosophers have to say about the nature of happiness and unhappiness. It is a concise guide, consisting, in his own words, of ‘eleven and a half ideas for managing middle age’.

Setiya is a clear-thinking, plain-speaking companion who doesn’t take himself too seriously. Early in the book, he includes a paragraph about managing one’s expectations being a key to happiness. ‘This seems like the right time to warn you that you are reading a very mediocre book,’ he adds. Happily he is also alive to the just accusation that the midlife crisis – first formally described by US psychologists in 1965 – is exclusively a ‘first world’ problem.

His first rule of crisis prevention is that one should avoid self-absorption. If nothing else matters apart from your own wellbeing, you can never be happy. This paradox of egotism, of course, encompasses the habit of feverishly buying self-help paperback books in the belief that you might come upon the secret of happiness for £9.99. ‘Those only are happy’, wrote the philosopher John Stuart Mill in his account of his breakdown, ‘who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.’

Another rule identified by Setiya is winnowed from the thinking of Aristotle, Mill and Schopenhauer: a life of one ameliorative task after another, of fighting fires, or, in Schopenhauer’s words, ‘work, worry, toil and trouble’, cannot be a happy one either. An achieved goal is too easily and quickly replaced with another. We need to stop and look at the wall sometimes, warns Setiya, and quietly contemplate what we already know. Why does the crisis come in middle age? Because in midlife we breast the brow of the hill and can see our destination in the far distance. The dawning realisation in middle age that perhaps we aren’t immortal after all can come as a bit of a shock. Setiya puts fear of death nicely into perspective. Before we were born, he says, we were extinct for ever, and we haven’t minded that particular thought so much, have we? So why should being extinguished for ever when we are brown bread be such a problem?

His ultimate suggestion for combating the midlife crisis is a sort of watered-down Buddhism. Best to forget the arduous search for ‘insight’ and settle instead for serenity achieved through meditation and ‘mindfulness’. We can also help ourselves by choosing ‘atelic’ activities, those that aren’t goal-driven but pleasurable for their own sakes. In other words, more or less what Eckhart Tolle was banging on about in his massive seller The Power of Now. Tolle is Oprah Winfrey’s spiritual guru, says Setiya, as if that seals it. Disappointing.

Six months after looking out of that window on that dewy May morning, I was an abject, broken mess. In photos taken at that time, I can hardly recognise myself. The crisis lasted a year. Would this book have helped me if I’d read it then? I doubt it. Looking back on it now, my midlife crisis was the best thing that could have happened to me at that stage. Before it, I was a fool. After it, very slightly less of one. There is an old Sufi proverb that says if two horses come galloping towards you, one named Happiness and the other Unhappiness, why not jump on the back of the latter? Happiness isn’t everything, in other words. Or is it saying that happiness is just a word? Either way, it helped.

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