A lighted path for dark times.
In his previous book, Midlife, Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT, called upon myriad thinkers for guidance in overcoming his anguish when his life seemed “like a mere accumulation of deeds” as he strived for professional success. Now, amid an ongoing pandemic, mass unemployment, the ravages of climate change, and the revival of fascism, he again looks to philosophy, history, film, and literature for solace and illumination. Life is hard, to be sure, but thinkers and artists from Aquinas to Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson to P.D. James, Descartes to Sartre, help him to craft a “map with which to navigate rough terrain.” Along with devastating global issues, one’s sense of tumult and struggle can be fomented by physical disability and pain, psychic pain, loss, grief, a sense of personal failure, and injustice. Setiya was 27 when his own experience with chronic pain began suddenly with “a band of tension running through my groin.” For more than a decade, the pain defied diagnosis, and it still besets him. Pain and disability, he reflects, shape our relationship to our bodies as well as “our relation to others and their relation to us.” For Setiya, the pain’s positive result was in generating his “presumptive compassion” for other people’s experiences. Although he considers himself an “inveterate loner,” the author underscores the importance of fostering connections. From Aristotle, the “great theorist of friendship,” and others, Setiya sees that the way out of loneliness is “through the needs of other people.” Confronting a feeling of powerlessness in the face of structural injustice or systemic problems, he counsels engagement with collective action in the service of a cause. For him, the cause is climate change; at MIT, he has become involved in the Fossil Free movement. Even in hard times, writes the author, we cannot lose hope: “standing with or searching for the truth, attending to what’s possible.”
Pragmatic, compassionate advice.