Simon Ings

Help over the hump

Forget about selflessness, says Kieran Setiya. Do something for the love of it. And don’t wish you’d lived life differently

Losing our way in life’s trackless forest, whither should we turn for solace and advice? Wisdom used to be the special province of our elders, though for no better reason than that old people were less common than they are now. Aristotle had their measure: ‘As they have a lot of experience,’ he wrote, ‘they are sure about nothing, and under-do everything.’

Now the old are as common as grass, and we draw the truth about life experience as much as possible from the source. If you want to know how a child feels, ask a child. If you want a considered opinion about Muslim dress codes, stop opining into a bucket, drunk on your own echo, and ask a Muslim.

There’s much virtue in this attitude, but some obvious drawbacks. There is, first of all, such a thing as being too near to your subject matter. Kieran Setiya has been entertaining the possibility of a mild midlife crise since his mid-thirties. He is now 41 and, he tells us, gainfully employed, comfortably housed and happily married. What could possibly go wrong? This book of sound, rather bookish advice on how to avoid the bankruptcy of all hope has a Schadenfreude-steeped sequel practically hanging off the back flap.

I hope I’m wrong, because I like Setiya: he has provided us with a concise, entertaining and humane guide through life’s most difficult territory. (Yes, granted, there is still death to face, but it’s a well-documented fact that people ‘over the hump’ grow steadily happier as they age.) Setiya is no fool, and he’s learned a lot, but I suspect he has not yet had the time seriously to entertain the number of dangerous thoughts needed to bring a book like this to its fullest life.

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