How Schopenhauer’s Thought Can Illuminate a Midlife Crisis, by Kieran Setiya

Arthur Schopenhauer, portrait by Ludwig Sigismund Ruhl 1815, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.

I am not alone. Perhaps you have felt, too, an emptiness in the pursuit of worthy goals. This is one form of midlife crisis, at once familiar and philosophically puzzling. The paradox is that success can seem like failure. Like any paradox, it calls for philosophical treatment. What is the emptiness of the midlife crisis if not the unqualified emptiness in which one sees no value in anything? What was wrong with my life?

In search of an answer, I turned to the 19th-century pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer. Schopenhauer is notorious for preaching the futility of desire. That getting what you want could fail to make you happy would not have surprised him at all. On the other hand, not having it is just as bad. For Schopenhauer, you are damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you get what you want, your pursuit is over. You are aimless, flooded with a ‘fearful emptiness and boredom’, as he put it in The World as Will and Representation (1818). Life needs direction: desires, projects, goals that are so far unachieved. And yet this, too, is fatal. Because wanting what you do not have is suffering. In staving off the void by finding things to do, you have condemned yourself to misery. Life ‘swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom, and these two are in fact its ultimate constituents’.

Schopenhauer’s picture of human life might seem unduly bleak. Often enough, midlife brings with it failure or success in cherished projects: you have the job you worked for many years to get, the partner you hoped to meet, the family you meant to start – or else you don’t. Either way, you look for new directions. But the answer to achieving your goals, or giving them up, feels obvious: you simply make new ones. Nor is the pursuit of what you want pure agony. Revamping your ambitions can be fun.

Still, I think there is something right in Schopenhauer’s dismal conception of our relationship with our ends, and that it can illuminate the darkness of midlife. Taking up new projects, after all, simply obscures the problem. When you aim at a future goal, satisfaction is deferred: success has yet to come. But the moment you succeed, your achievement is in the past. Meanwhile, your engagement with projects subverts itself. In pursuing a goal, you either fail or, in succeeding, end its power to guide your life. No doubt you can formulate other plans. The problem is not that you will run out of projects (the aimless state of Schopenhauer’s boredom), it’s that your way of engaging with the ones that matter most to you is by trying to complete them and thus expel them from your life. When you pursue a goal, you exhaust your interaction with something good, as if you were to make friends for the sake of saying goodbye.

Hence one common figure of the midlife crisis: the striving high-achiever, obsessed with getting things done, who is haunted by the hollowness of everyday life. When you are obsessed with projects, ceaselessly replacing old with new, satisfaction is always in the future. Or the past. It is mortgaged, then archived, but never possessed. In pursuing goals, you aim at outcomes that preclude the possibility of that pursuit, extinguishing the sparks of meaning in your life.

The question is what to do about this. For Schopenhauer, there is no way out: what I am calling a midlife crisis is simply the human condition. But Schopenhauer was wrong. In order to see his mistake, we need to draw distinctions among the activities we value: between ones that aim at completion, and ones that don’t.

Adapting terminology from linguistics, we can say that ‘telic’ activities – from ‘telos’, the Greek work for purpose – are ones that aim at terminal states of completion and exhaustion. You teach a class, get married, start a family, earn a raise. Not all activities are like this, however. Others are ‘atelic’: there is no point of termination at which they aim, or final state in which they have been achieved and there is no more to do. Think of listening to music, parenting, or spending time with friends. They are things you can stop doing, but you cannot finish or complete them. Their temporality is not that of a project with an ultimate goal, but of a limitless process.

If the crisis diagnosed by Schopenhauer turns on excessive investment in projects, then the solution is to invest more fully in the process, giving meaning to your life through activities that have no terminal point: since they cannot be completed, your engagement with them is not exhaustive. It will not subvert itself. Nor does it invite the sense of frustration that Schopenhauer scorns in unsatisfied desire – the sense of being at a distance from one’s goal, so that fulfilment is always in the future or the past.

We should not give up on our worthwhile goals. Their achievement matters. But we should meditate, too, on the value of the process. It is no accident that the young and the old are generally more satisfied with life than those in middle age. Young adults have not embarked on life-defining projects; the aged have such accomplishments behind them. That makes it more natural for them to live in the present: to find value in atelic activities that are not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realised here and now. It is hard to resist the tyranny of projects in midlife, to find a balance between the telic and atelic. But if we hope to overcome the midlife crisis, to escape the gloom of emptiness and self-defeat, that is what we have to do.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Kieran Setiya is a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His latest book is Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017). He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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Does Death Rob Our Lives of Meaning? by Richard Pettigrew

Headstones in Gettysburg National Cemetery 2 (cropped), photo 2016 Amy CoolsIn the previous post, we met the argument with which Epicurus hoped to cure our fear of death and, with that, our fear of everything else. But we found it wanting. Epicurus assumed that only that which can harm you may be feared; and only that which causes pain can harm you. But we saw that both of these assumptions are false. Along the way, we met one specific reason to fear our death, namely, its effect on those we love. But I suggested that, while this might justify certain responses to the fact of our own mortality, it does not seem to support the sort of response that people often report – the halting existential terror felt in the pit of the stomach. This sort of response, it seems, comes from somewhere else. In this post, we consider a conjecture as to its source: I fear death, you might think, because the fact that I will die robs the things I do in my life of their meaning or their value or their worth. This, if it were true, would justify the feeling of vertigo and emptiness that comes when we reflect that we will die. To remind ourselves that all we have done is meaningless is to have the basis for all we do pulled out from under us.

As so often, Bill Watterson’s six-year old philosopher, Calvin, has been here before us. In the first pane of one comic strip, Calvin is at his school-desk: “Miss Wormwood, I have a question about this math class”; “Yes?”; “Given that sooner or later, we’re all just going to die, what’s the point of learning about integers?” Calvin’s thought seems to be based on an assumption that many of us make about what makes it worthwhile to do the things that we do in our lives. We assume that an activity can only get meaning or value by contributing to some larger goal that we pursue. Death, then, robs our lives of meaning or value by interrupting our ultimate over-arching goals before they can be fully achieved.

But this is based on a mistaken view of how things get their meaning or their value or their worth. Of course, some things get their meaning from how they contribute to some larger project (the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls these ‘telic activities’). I sharpen my pencil in order to draft this blog; and if I don’t finish the blog, the pencil sharpening becomes devoid of worth – doing it will have added no value to my life. I make a birthday card for a friend in order to make her laugh; if I drop it down a drain on my way to her party, there was no value in the making of it. But other things I undertake not because they contribute to a larger project – or not only for that reason – but because I value them as they are; they are, for me, sources of value in themselves (Setiya calls these ‘atelic activities’). For example, this blog might be part of a larger project I have to think through the effect on our lives of knowing of our own mortality. But I don’t value writing it only for its contribution to that goal. The process of thinking through these questions is itself something of value for me; something that gives my life meaning in and of itself. I might listen to my friend’s woes as part of a larger project of supporting her and living my life as connected to some extent to hers; but I value each particular part of that project, each evening talking to her, and not just because of their contribution to the whole; they are ends in themselves. What’s more, as philosopher Frances Kamm points out, much of what gives value to our lives is not any activity, such as thinking through a philosophical issue or connecting my life to that of my friend, but a way of being, such as being wise or being virtuous; and these ways of being are complete in themselves whenever you have them. The value that being wise or being virtuous add to your life does not increase the longer you live, though of course the longer you live, the more chance you have of achieving them.

In another comic strip, Calvin is sitting with his friend Hobbes, the tiger, under a tree. He turns to Hobbes: “I don’t understand this business about death. If we’re all going to die, what’s the point of living?” After a moment, Hobbes replies: “Well, there’s seafood.” And he’s right. Much of what we do in life – spending time with friends or family, taking in the beauty of the natural world, writing, reading, campaigning, or eating seafood – we value for its own sake. We don’t value it because of its contribution to some larger project that is curtailed by our death, thereby robbing our actions and lives that contain them of meaning. So, this aspect of death – that it truncates some of our projects, and frustrates some of our goals – gives us cause for sadness, perhaps, or disappointment or regret; but not fear, and not halting existential terror in the pit of our stomach. After all, there’s seafood.

~ Richard Pettigrew is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He completed his PhD in mathematical logic in 2008. Since then, he has worked in logic, philosophy of mathematics, the epistemology of uncertainty, and the theory of rational choice. (Bio credit: OUPblog)

~ This piece was originally published at OUPblog

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