Setiya’s treatise belongs to a particular genre: brainy books for the general public that present lessons for modern living from Aristotle, Montaigne or the Stoics. Unlike with most of his predecessors, however, Setiya’s main goal is not to describe how things should be; in his view, given that there is much in life that makes us miserable, and that we can neither change nor ignore, we might as well find ways of dealing with the reality. Trying to live a perfect life in difficult circumstances, he states, 'only brings dismay' ... pushes back against many platitudes of contemporary American self-improvement culture ... Setiya’s liveliest writing is on the subject of infirmity, no doubt because of the chronic pain he has suffered for years ... Although Life Is Hard claims to be a work of accessible philosophy, many of its insights are borrowed from other areas — literature, journalism, disability studies...Setiya’s approach blends empathy with common sense ... Setiya offers neither simple takeaways nor explicit instructions. Instead, he invites the reader to join him as he looks at life’s challenges — loneliness, injustice, grief — and in turning them over to examine every angle. Sometimes these twists make it difficult to grasp his ultimate point ... Written in the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, Life Is Hard is a humane consolation for challenging times. Reading it is like speaking with a thoughtful friend who never tells you to cheer up, but, by offering gentle companionship and a change of perspective, makes you feel better anyway.
Through carefully crafted examples, [Setiya] makes the case that philosophy can help us navigate the adversities of human life: pain, loneliness, grief and so on. He, too, is trained in the splitting of hairs. But this is not primarily a book of argument. It is a reflection designed to offer us new ways of thinking about ordinary hardships ... Philosophy’s role here is not primarily analytical. We cannot be argued into coping with suffering. Instead, Setiya’s book is guided by an insight from Iris Murdoch: that philosophical progress often consists of finding new and better ways to describe some stretch of our experience ... And if the prescriptions sometimes seem a little pat, that is a danger inherent to the project. Setiya’s targets are the infirmities of human life in general, but many of the problems that bedevil us are as individual as we are. A philosophy that spoke to our idiosyncratic fears would amount to personalised healthcare. Setiya has his sights on something more fundamental: the problems that afflict us simply by virtue of being human. Any advice offered at such vertiginous levels of generality will always risk sounding platitudinous.
If life is hard, as Setiya posits in the title and introduction to this book, the following chapter headings do not seem to offer much reassurance: Infirmity, Loneliness, Grief, Failure, Injustice, and Absurdity. Readers who persist, though, will find the MIT philosophy professor’s engaging musings on the definitions and properties of these emotional, intellectual, and physiological conditions as defined by both ancient and contemporary philosophers and social commentators. Setiya pulls examples from literature, poetry, movies, comedy, religious tracts, and personal anecdotes to illustrate his points, managing to make abstract theories and arguments accessible ... Readers will find much to ponder.