The Philosophy of Shittiness: On Kieran Setiya’s “Life Is Hard”

HAVE YOU NOTICED lately that everything is shit? Things were very shitty the year before last, they became even shittier last year, and now everything is just indescribably shit. As a species, we’ve been stuck with this aspect of the human condition for around 300,000 years. But the question of how to respond to it intellectually and emotionally arises with fresh urgency in each new generation. And in the face of each fresh piece of shit.

Traditionally, one role of philosophy has been to aid us in this task. Friar Lawrence advises Romeo, banished from his city and the arms of his girl, to sip “Adversity’s sweet milke, Philosophie.” However, over the past couple of centuries, with the transformation of philosophy into an academic discipline, its connection with self-help has largely been severed. The aim of Kieran Setiya’s new book Life Is Hard is to recapture philosophy’s ancient mission of “helping us find our way” in the face of life’s afflictions.

One storied philosophical response to our situation is to claim that, when you really think about it, Nothing Is Shit. The 17th-century poster child for this view was Gottfried Leibniz, who argued that everything that’s apparently terrible and senseless is in fact a necessary, even beautiful part of God’s benevolent scheme. Today we’re more likely to find the suggestion on Instagram, in a sunset-saturated image exhorting us to exude “GOOD VIBES ONLY” or “MANIFEST JOY.” I don’t know about you, but the bare reading of these phrases makes me bust out bad vibes like octopus ink, and Setiya is a kindred spirit here. It’s pretty clear that the universe contains significant pointless suffering, and we do ourselves no favors in denying the fact. “What we need in our affliction,” Setiya writes, isn’t self-deception or distraction but “acknowledgment.” Engage that core and lean in.

A second famed philosophical approach goes hard on that alternative, claiming that Everything Is Shit. Arthur Schopenhauer is Leibniz’s dark twin in this department. Objectively considered, he claims, our life is a constant avalanche of suffering, in which every wrenching desire, after at best fleeting gratification, culminates in crushing disappointment, a cycle that ends only with an often agonizing death. “In early youth,” he intoned in 1818, “as we contemplate our coming life, we are like children in a theater before the curtain is raised, sitting there in high spirits and eagerly waiting for the play to begin. It is a blessing that we do not know what is really going to happen.”

In a choice between either Leibnizian toxic positivity or Schopenhauerian toxic despair, Setiya would go for the latter. He reports that, on the school playground, his seven-year-old self composed a poem that began “out in this so desolate place,” and his grown-up temperament leans dark. But he also has the measured approach to life that many associate with philosophers, so his preference is option three: Things Are Partly Shit and Partly Not. This is the most plausible (if not the most tweetable) take, and the most likely to provide sustainable consolation. You don’t have to explain away all of the shit for life to be bearable, all things considered. Still, if you’re not trying to explain away all of it, what are you trying to do? What would make our substantially shitty situation tolerable?

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Setiya’s strategy in Life Is Hard is to devote a chapter to each of seven core sources of human suffering — Infirmity, Loneliness, Grief, Failure, Injustice, Absurdity, and (treacherous) Hope — and to show how, while they’re definitely shitty, they’re not as shitty as you might think. He makes two general moves throughout the book. One is to claim that, though the Shitty Thing in question may make us unhappy, happiness isn’t the only thing to care about in life, and the Shitty Thing is positively connected to other goods. Chronic pain, for instance, can lead to compassion. Loneliness and injustice can help us vividly appreciate the worth and concerns of other humans. If living well is a matter of fulfilling our nature as social animals — as Setiya argues, following Aristotle — experiences that connect us to each other are valuable, whatever unhappiness they may involve.

A second move is to identify a common assumption about one of the Shitty Things that increases the suffering produced by it, and then argue that the assumption is mistaken. Grieving people, for instance, often feel trapped in a distressing dilemma. On the one hand, as time passes, there’s social pressure for them to “get over it.” On the other, they’re tortured by the thought that any decrease in their anguish would represent betrayal of their departed loved one. Setiya argues that grief, as the flip side of love, is based on good reasons: those who feel it intensely, for however long, aren’t being irrational. But, though the reasons for grief never fade, our diminished emotional response to those reasons needn’t represent disloyalty. We should stop haranguing ourselves to feel better or worse than we do, and instead allow the natural process of grief to take its course, relying on the rituals of mourning “to fill the rift that reasons leave.” Similarly, those anguished by personal failure should abandon the harmful idea that a good human life is a matter of linear progress toward a narrow set of goals. Life doesn’t have a simple narrative arc you can or can’t mess up. Recognizing that fact is consoling: no one failure is final.

A common theme of many chapters is the harm caused by single-minded, goal-oriented thinking. Our mistaken convictions that happiness is all that matters, that self-interest governs all human behavior, that only able-bodied lives can be good, and that there’s just one kind of successful life story making the genuinely Shitty things of life even shittier. I find it surprising, then, that Setiya’s answer to the problem of absurdity — the Shitty Thought that all human life is meaningless — takes a monistic, goal-oriented form. Life as a whole might turn out to have meaning, Setiya says, but only if, as a species, we manage to achieve justice, understood as a fair distribution of the goods of life across all people. It’s not only morally required, then, but also in our own self-interest as meaning-seeking beings, that we “limp slowly, painfully, contingently toward a justice that repairs, so far as it can, the atrocities of the past.”

While I’m all for limping as fast as we can in that direction, I don’t see the argument for privileging justice in this way, as the one good that could make humanity’s existence meaningful. I prefer the more pluralistic, modest vision I detect in the other chapters: a vision that advises us to appreciate the many small good things of life wherever we find them. Just as justice warriors can lead meaningful lives, so too can craftspeople, artists, teachers, scientists, athletes, parents, or any humans passionately pursuing something that matters. Setiya, I take it, would view such lives as valuable, but, in the absence of eventual justice for all of humanity, ultimately meaningless. I guess I locate my antidotes to absurdity in smaller doses, and on a shorter timeframe, than that.

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The surface question of Life Is Hard is this: “Is life irredeemably shit?” To which Setiya answers: “Not necessarily, though it might end up being absurd.” But another question lurks in the undergrowth: “Can philosophy alleviate life’s shittiness?” Setiya aims not just to deliver the insights of philosophy to his readers, but also concerns to advocate for his vocation, by showing it has resources to respond to the most urgent of human. I share Setiya’s conviction that philosophy has those resources and should use them, and this book is a good example of how careful, reasoned argument can both clarify our situation and take the edge off it, rescuing us from extremist thinking and pointing us toward possibilities we tend to overlook.

I didn’t find that Life is Hard helped quite as much as I’d hoped, though, with my own existential angst. The issue, for me, is mainly one of style. Setiya claims in his introduction that he wants to “draw on everything [he’s got],” in a way that makes philosophy “continuous with literature, history, memoir, film.” He does use examples from each of these genres and art forms throughout, but the writing itself is squarely in the mode of mainstream public philosophy. The tone is companionable and sincere, the prose simple and direct. Setiya is clearly concerned with not overtaxing or boring his readers relative, meaning that he moves quickly through his material and doesn’t dwell on objections to his points. Autobiographical narrative or cultural anecdote often introduces a subject, but cedes swiftly to theory. Setiya is such a brilliant philosopher, skillful writer, and sensitive person that in several places I feel he is holding back his full self, in service to what he imagines a popular audience wants.

While there’s a role for philosophy written in this way, Setiya’s specific subject seems to me to demand something else. When someone’s trying to make me feel better about the dead-serious subject of life’s shittiness, I want them fully engaged in the task, and I want the delivery to recall to me what isn’t shitty about life: what’s beautiful, vivid, and free. The most beloved philosophical pessimists — Schopenhauer, Aurelius, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Sartre, Camus — paradoxically pull this off. They’re each distinctively themselves on the page, and their conviction that the world is shot through with ugliness and futility is conveyed in such artful, unfettered language that the medium serves, at least partly, to destroy the message. Reading them is like watching someone teater on the edge of a crater, then dart back at the last minute, with a skip and a chuckle. The abyss is still there, they’re already sliding back toward it, we know it’ll get them, get us all, at the end — but what a line, what a moment, what a flex! It makes you glad to be alive, just to have to witness it. This is style not as superficial adornment but as deep style, the kind born of pain, a fuck-it-all attitude, a poetic inclination and a sense of humor. You don’t have to endorse the Everything Is Shit view to love this move, and to think that a work of philosophy aimed at alleviating the shitness of life would benefit from it.

I wanted more of that here, but there’s much of value in its place. The parts of the book I found most moving and memorable were those where Setiya risks some extended personal vulnerability, in describing his own experience of chronic illness and his slow loss of his mother to Alzheimer’s. Some hope is merely wishful thinking, he writes, but “I can hope to see my mother again, to hold her hand and walk with her along the foreshore where the estuary gathers the tides and the great bridge sweeps across the river mouth, curving with the earth.” This is the most beautiful line in the book. And it resonates with me in part because it reflects what philosophy at its most helpful and humane can do. We could all do much worse than spend time with this insightful and empathetic companion as those relentless waves roll in.

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Helena de Bres is an associate professor of philosophy at Wellesley College. Her personal essays, public philosophy, and humor writing have appeared in The Point, The New York Times, The Rumpus, Aeon Magazineand McSweeney’s Internet Tendencyand she’s currently writing a memoir about the nature and value of philosophy.

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