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Note: The following are excerpts from Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way by Kieran Setiya.
I. To see one’s life as a narrative arc, heading for a climax that it may or may not reach, is to see it as a potential failure; but one need not live that way.
What’s more, there is a downside to unified, linear narrative: it is by squeezing your life into a single tube that you set yourself up for definitive failure. Projects fail and people fail in them. But we have come to speak as if a person can be a failure—as though failure were an identity, not an event. When you define your life by way of a single enterprise, a narrative arc, its outcome will come to define you. It’s a tendency we should fight. Whatever story you tell about yourself, however simple and straightforward, there is endlessly more to your actual life. As Joe Moran insists: “To call any life a failure, or a success, is to miss the infinite granularity, the inexhaustible miscellany of all lives. . . . A life can’t really succeed or fail at all; it can only be lived.” The narrator of The Mezzanine is carrying a copy of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic philosopher who was emperor of Rome. At one point, he recalls a sentence he has read: “Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice and ashes. . . . Wrong, wrong, wrong! I thought. Destructive and unhelpful and misguided and completely untrue!” What makes the narrator’s life worth living is not some grand narrative, running from conception or birth to inevitable death; it is the countless little thoughts and deeds and gentle, joking interactions that occupy day after day after day. If you pay attention, Baker intimates, there’s enough in a single lunch hour to fill a book.”
My conception of living in the present turns on distinguishing two kinds of activity. On the one hand, there are projects to complete, activities that point toward a final state of failure or success. But there are also activities we don’t complete, ones not defined by a terminal state—activities in which we don’t succeed or fail. By focusing on the latter, we can make our lives less vulnerable to fate. Similar ideas find expression not just in Aristotle but in Eastern philosophy, most explicitly the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture that dates from the second century BCE:
"Motive should never be in the fruits of action, nor should you cling to inaction. Abiding in yoga, engage in actions! Let go of clinging, and let fulfillment and frustration be the same.”
I. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle contrasts two kinds of action. Some are “incomplete,” such as learning or building something, since “if you are learning, you have not at the same time learned” and if you are still in the process of building, the structure is not yet built. Completion comes later, if at all. Then there is “that sort of action to which . . . completion belongs”—meaning that it’s never incomplete. An example of this is thinking: the moment you’re thinking of Aristotle, you have already thought of him.
Aristotle calls activity of the first kind kinêsis and the second energeia. Stealing jargon from linguistics, we can say that building a house and learning the alphabet are “telic” activities: they aim at terminal states, in which they are finished and thus exhausted. (“Telic” comes from the Greek word telos or end, the root of “teleology.”) Walking home is telic: it’s done when you get home. So are projects like getting married or having a child. These are things you can complete. Other activities are “atelic”: they do not aim at termination, a final state in which they have been achieved. While you are walking home, you are also walking, as you can walk with no particular destination. That is an atelic activity. So are parenting, spending time with friends, and listening to music. You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will. But you cannot exhaust them. They have no limit, no outcome whose achievement brings them to an end.
We are always engaged in activities both telic and atelic. I am writing a book about the human condition—which I hope to finish—and I am thinking about the ways in which life is hard, an activity that has no end. You may be teaching your kid to tie their shoelaces—hoping they’ll figure it out—but you are also parenting. The question is not which of the two you are doing but what you value. Dostoevsky’s argument is that the value lies in atelic activities: in the process, not the project. That is what the Bhagavad Gita seems to say: “motive should never be in the fruits of action” means “do not invest in the completion of telic activities”; if one values only the process, one will still act but “fulfillment / and frustration [will] be the same.” I think that goes too far: outcomes matter. Does your kid learn to tie their own laces? Does the doctor save a life? It makes a difference whether or not they do. Still, we are prone to care too much about telic activities—about the completion of projects—and to miss the value of the process. When we do that, we negate the present moment and set ourselves up to fail.
With telic activities, satisfaction is always in the future or the past. Your ambition is unfulfilled, and then it’s over. Worse, your engagement with what you value is self-destructive. When you pursue a cherished goal, you aim to succeed, and so to end your engagement with something good. It’s as though you’re trying to destroy a source of meaning in your life. Meanwhile, it’s projects like this that expose you to the risk of failure. You blow the interview for your dream job, mismanage your team, betray your ambition. When you value the process, your relation to the present, and to failure, is quite different. Because they do not aim at terminal states, atelic activities are not exhaustible. Your engagement with them does not annihilate them. You can stop walking, or thinking, or talking to someone you love, but you can’t exhaust those activities, leaving no more to be done. The other side of inexhaustibility is expressed by Aristotle when he insists, perhaps confusingly, on the “completeness” of atelic activities: “At the same time, one is seeing and has seen, is understanding and has understood, is thinking and has thought.” Atelic activities are realized in the present as much as they can ever be realized. If you value thinking and you are doing just that, you have what you value right now. Nothing you have done, or will do, can imperil this.
Aristotle’s insight was that living well is atelic:
“But if you are learning, you have not at the same time learned, and if you are being cured you have not at the same time been cured. Someone, however, who is living well, has at the same time lived well.”
I. The more one’s life is understood in terms of a single enterprise in which one succeeds or fails on one’s own merits, the more tempting it will be to identify as a loser or a winner, a failure or a success. Through the nineteenth century, Americans’ self-worth was increasingly measured by prosperity. The financial panics that crashed the U.S. economy engendered not just poverty and material hardship but spiritual collapse in those who failed. “The land stinks with suicide,” Emerson wrote during the crash of 1837, as men who were unable to support themselves or their families took their own lives in shame.
II. “Properly speaking, there are in the world no such men as self-made men. That term implies an individual independence of the past and present which can never exist. Our best and most valued acquisitions have been obtained either from our contemporaries or from those who have preceded us in the field of thought and discovery. We have all either begged, borrowed or stolen. Yet he goes on to say what he says. Knowing that success turns on inequities of fortune that go beyond “fair play” is not enough to shift its cultural meaning. As social animals, we care how we are perceived by those around us—as winners or as losers, say—and we can’t just step outside society. Instead, we have to change it.” - Frederick Douglass
Learn more about Life Is Hard on Amazon.
Buy Life Is Hard: Print | Kindle | Audiobook
If you enjoyed this summary, please consider buying me a coffee to caffeinate my reading sessions.