Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism, Knowing Right from Wrong, and Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.
Kieran Setiya is professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the author of Reasons without Rationalism, Knowing Right from Wrong, and Midlife: A Philosophical Guide.
This is quite an unusual topic for a philosopher to write about. I can’t think of another philosophical treatment of middle age. How did you hit on it?
The answer will not surprise you. My interest in the topic comes out of my own malaise around midlife. A tenured professor in a good department, I was at that point in my academic career where you stop climbing and reach a plateau, and I realised that I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my life. I didn’t really have a picture of what comes next. My idea was to use the judo move of thinking about midlife as a path through the uncertainty of midlife. I looked for philosophers who had written about this and you are right, there isn’t all that much.
And you ended up writing a book?
Yes. I ended up writing Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, a book about the midlife crisis, or the many midlife crises: the many challenges of adapting to middle age.
Before we get stuck into the five books that you’ve chosen on this topic, could you give a sense of when you think midlife begins because that, in itself, is quite a controversial topic.
When the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ originates, which is in a 1965 essay by Elliott Jacques called “Death and the mid-life crisis,” he is talking about people in their mid- to late thirties. It is probably true that the picture of midlife has shifted so that now, when we say ‘midlife’, we mean at least forties or maybe fifties.
But, actually, a lot of the issues that interest me about midlife are quite general and arise both earlier and later. They are about coming to terms with the fact that you have a substantial past you cannot change and that it constrains what you can do with your future. You could start worrying about this in your twenties and thirties. But I think forties and fifties seem now to be the paradigm of middle age.
And the cliché, particularly for men in this midlife period, is that you make some kind of radical change as some kind of compensation for the feeling of helplessness about the way life is going. So, you go and buy a Harley Davidson, or give up your job as a philosophy lecturer as I did, and start a new life. Is that the kind of topic that you’re concerned with?
To some extent, yes. The idea of the midlife crisis originates in the 1960s and it really catches on in the 1970s with Gail Sheehy’s book, Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life, which sold about three million copies. The cliché of the radical transformation is really cemented there. The question of how pervasive that phenomenon is has been contested in the subsequent social science. The current consensus comes out of work by economists. David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald have a series of essays over the last ten years in which they trace reported life satisfaction by age and what they find is that it takes the shape of a gently curving U. It starts high in youth, it bottoms out in your forties, and it ends higher in older age.
I think this work has both changed people’s perception of the reality of the midlife crisis and also their perception of what the phrase means. The phenomenon I’m interested in is not just the radical change that people sometimes go in for, but the idea of your forties as a period of relative difficulty in which your levels of happiness and satisfaction are lower. The curve is gentle but the gap between, say, youth and midlife, in terms of life satisfaction, is roughly the gap that’s associated with losing your job or getting a divorce. So it is significant. People are unhappier in midlife than earlier or later.
Both men and women?
Yes. In the studies over the last ten years, it shows up for men and women. And they’ve done regression analyses to factor out parenthood. So, whether or not you have kids, this is likely to happen to you. The studies come from more than seventy countries around the world. It shows up a little bit less in the developing world but it does show up there, so it’s not entirely a first world problem. It’s more pervasive than that.
The idea that there are some ages of humanity, as it were, where you hit a certain phase and certain things are likely to happen to you is fascinating. Obviously in childhood when you’re developing emotionally and physically, you’d expect adolescence – the transition from childhood to adulthood – to be quite a traumatic, significant moment. But adulthood could be perceived as just a long, slow process of decline rather than having discrete sections within it.
That’s true. And, in fact, the idea of middle age as a distinctive phase of life became popular quite recently, from the 19th century onwards. This is getting into one of the books that we’re going to talk about.
Then let’s turn to your first book choice. This is In Our Prime: The Invention of Middle Age (2012) by Patricia Cohen.
This is a cultural history of the idea of middle age as a distinctive phase of life: the idea of there being particular challenges associated with being at midlife. Cohen traces this idea to the late 19th century, at which point – as she tells the story – it wasn’t associated with trauma or crisis. In fact, it was often associated with having reached full competence and full mastery of your life. It’s through the early 20th century that the idea of midlife as distinctively challenging or problematic slowly begins to emerge.
Does that mean that prior to the 20th century there was no midlife crisis?
I don’t know. When I was writing my book, I found that people will reach back pretty far for examples of the midlife crisis. People will point to Dante in the dark wood. There’s even a book by a psychoanalyst that uses Odysseus as an example of a midlife crisis: infidelity, drinking, and waywardness that eventually get resolved when he comes home. So, it’s very unclear how far back the phenomenon of struggling with midlife goes. The conceptualisation of middle age as a distinctive phase and problem is relatively recent, but that doesn’t tell us how far back the actual phenomenon went.
Is Patricia Cohen a historian?
She’s a journalist who is drawing on work by historians and social scientists. Part of what’s fascinating about the way she tells this story is that there’s a connection between the idea of midlife as particularly problematic and the increasing mechanisation of the workforce, along with the influence of efficiency experts like G Stanley Hall who went into factories and businesses and emphasised how to maximise productivity.
“My attitude to the Socratic edict that the unexamined life is not worth living has always been sceptical. There are plenty of people I know who are not interested in philosophy or philosophical reflection who seem to be doing much better than many of my philosopher friends.”
That connects with a focus on youthful energy and vitality and stamina and therefore generates the beginnings of the idea that by the time you’re forty you might be over the hill. You’re going to be competing with younger people who have the driving energy to push you out. And then we hit the Depression and middle-aged unemployment becomes a social problem in the US. Those factors together work to generate the problematisation of middle age.
I can see how that works with manual or factory labour, but not with the managerial class. Perhaps a fifty-year-old isn’t as mentally alert as a twenty-year-old, but that’s more than compensated by the experience and power that they’ve gained through a life working through a particular industry or business. You see that in academia as well. There is a sense in which some twenty year olds are absolutely brilliant but somewhat naïve, less experienced, and haven’t had the range of exposure to different philosophical opinions that a fifty year old would have done.
You’re absolutely right that the initial anxiety about being outmoded comes out of blue collar labour. It’s not associated with the busy executive who has an affair at midlife, but with the unemployment of people doing factory work who are being replaced with younger and more efficient workers. The further extension of the anxiety of being over the hill to white collar workers comes later in the history, as Cohen tells it.
Does Patricia Cohen simply diagnose the ills of middle age as this new phenomenon of the 20th century? Or does she have some kind of prognosis or some kind of treatment for the condition that she describes?
She doesn’t exactly have a treatment. Her book is not self-help but cultural history. Still, one of its strategies is to take an idea that’s come to seem natural and inevitable and use the fact that it has a relatively recent history to destabilise it and dislodge the sense of inevitability. We have the idea that midlife is a period of malaise, but that’s not how it’s always been perceived.
Much as some writers have done for adolescence within history, which has been quite a startling thing, that the idea of adolescence didn’t exist pre-19th century, say.
Exactly. It is not so much debunking the idea of the midlife crisis as arguing that it is culturally specific and therefore not inevitable. It might be possible to recover earlier conceptualisations of middle age or midlife that are less debilitating. One of the things that Cohen does is to trace the work that’s been used to push against the stereotype of midlife as a time of great difficulty. The interesting fact about the timing of her book is that it came out in 2012, just when the research about the U-curve was being published but wasn’t really yet publicised. The social science that she’s picking up is an earlier cycle of studies by the MacArthur Network on Successful Midlife Development in the US. This was research that was happening in the 90s and was published around 2000 and it was very optimistic about midlife as a time of competence and life satisfaction.
Support Five Books
Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by donating a small amount, or by visiting our site before you make purchases from Amazon. Since we are enrolled in their affiliate program, we receive a small percentage of any product you buy, at no extra cost to you.
One of the things that Cohen is pushing for is not so much a therapeutic angle but evidence that maybe middle age is not as bad as the stereotype of the crisis suggests. As I said, this comes before the U-curve research, so the history of the idea of the midlife crisis has been an up and down thing. It first catches on, then the social scientists debunk it, and then the economists come back and say, ‘Well, actually, we have all this data which suggests that there is some kind of pervasive challenge here.’
So, are you suggesting that she’s slightly more optimistic about middle age than is appropriate given the evidence?
I think she is responding to the evidence she had. But it’s true that the research that has been done more recently, assuming the U-curve holds up, suggests that there is something to the idea of midlife as a period of particular difficulty for people. And so there is a challenge to confront. Even if it is culturally specific, it’s not just a cultural construction in the sense that it’s just a way of thinking that we could debunk and get rid of. It corresponds to something that is really happening to people.
Your second choice is The Summer Before the Dark (1973) by Doris Lessing.
Around the time when the idea of the midlife crisis was being popularised in the 70s, there was a spate of novelistic representations of midlife crises. The Summer Before the Dark is emblematic and symptomatic; it’s a canonical depiction of the stereotypical female midlife crisis of the 1970s. It’s about a forty-five year old woman who has grown-up children and whose husband is going away for work for six months. She is at a loss with what to do with herself, but she happens to be fluent in several languages and gets hired by a global foods company. She goes off to Istanbul and begins a series of adventures about which she’s very conflicted and ambivalent.
“When the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ originates, which is in a 1965 essay by Elliott Jacques called “Death and the mid-life crisis,” he is talking about people in their mid- to late thirties. ”
It’s a really great investigation of the cultural moment of nascent feminism of the 1970s through the lens of a middle-aged woman trying to change her life. Interestingly, the main character, Kate Brown, is the absolute focus of the novel and her family is incredibly peripheral and thinly sketched. So, there’s a sort of inversion: she has been defined as wife and mother, but in the novel it is others who appear as schematic figures of ‘husband’ and ‘grown children’. She is the centre of attention. One thing I love about the novel is the way in which, although it is quite socially specific, it very powerfully connects with broader issues about poverty, social justice, and the meaning of life. It has moments in which it telescopes very beautifully from the particularity of Kate’s situation to very profound and utterly general questions about what to do with life and what makes it meaningful.
If, as you’re characterising it, the midlife period typically involves people reflecting on what the purpose of their own life is and often seizing the reins and changing direction, that does seem at least consistent with a certain kind of existentialist thought about not accepting roles that other people are projecting onto you, taking control of your own life, not being in bad faith or deceiving yourself about the point of what you’re doing, and actually, through committing yourself to a course of action, defining who you are.
Absolutely. I think it’s really interesting that you should connect this with the idea of not accepting roles that have been given to you, because one of the pivotal scenes in the novel is one in which Kate, having come back from an affair with a young man in Spain, goes to the theatre, and there is an extended meditation on the absurdity of people playing roles on stage. (I think she goes to see Turgenev’s A Month in the Country.) As she watches, she looks around at the audience, at these affluent people dressed up for a night out, and reflects on the performance of social roles and what it would mean to throw them off. It’s slightly heavy-handed, but it works. And it picks up exactly on the thing you were pointing to: the existentialist sense of the importance of recognising one’s own autonomy and not simply accepting given social roles. So, the novel definitely has that as a theme.
Your third choice is another novel but by a very different kind of writer. This is The Information (1995) by Martin Amis.
Yes. If The Summer Before the Dark is a classic feminist novel about a midlife crisis, Martin Amis’s The Information is the great non-feminist novel about a midlife crisis. It is a novel that some people find misogynistic, but it is an incredibly funny depiction of the midlife woes of an unsuccessful novelist whose friend is, so he thinks, unjustifiably famous. The protagonist, Richard, derides his friend Gwyn’s bestseller as vapid and sentimental: “Amelior would only be remarkable if Gwyn had written it with his foot.” The novel is funny in part because its hero is so winningly loathsome. It veers from farce into terrifying violence, but has in its background another existential issue. The ‘information’ could be many things in the novel but one of its meanings is the information that we’re going to die. This is something we’re often absorbing around midlife.
So that’s the dark truth that we haven’t really discussed yet in relation to midlife. In one sense of being over the hill, we’re rushing down the other side towards the grave.
Right. The Information is a very effective evocation of that feeling. Part of the backstory of the novel was that Amis got this crazy advance after firing his agent, Pat Kavanagh, the wife of his friend Julian Barnes, and then spent a bundle of money on extensive dental reconstruction. This is one of those metonyms for denying one’s mortality, the idea that when the teeth decay, you can just replace them all and have them be brand new.
“The novel is funny in part because its hero is so winningly loathsome”
This reminds me that Julian Barnes also wrote a terrific book which is not exactly about midlife, but about death, called Nothing to be Frightened Of. In both cases, there’s something about the sustained meditation on death for three hundred pages which is a kind of Stoic mental exercise: think about death and do it while you’re reading The Information, chapter after chapter after chapter. It’s an intense experience.
As an aside here, since we’re talking about death, there are different ways you could characterise middle age. One is the period when we are conscious of our mortality and dealing with that in ways which are sometimes surprising and transformative. Another way of characterising middle age might be the time we’re most in denial about the fact that we’re no longer young. For many people, middle age is a time of cosmetic surgery, hair dye, dental work as you say, fitness classes, crazy regimes of eating, and anything that will stave off the apparent aging of the body.
There’s a wonderful passage about this in The Information where – riffing on Orwell – the narrator says ‘looking in the mirror on the morning of his fortieth birthday, Richard felt that no one deserved the face he had’. Going back to the Patricia Cohen book, one of the things she traces is the shift in ideals, for instance, of female beauty from a late 19th century model in which the forty year old woman was the ideal to an increasing valorisation of youth as the model of beauty. I’m sure this contributes to the sense people have in their forties and fifties that they should aspire to be in the prime that they were in at thirty. I think you’re right, there is a simultaneous awareness and denial of the inevitability of physical decay and death.
I would love to know what age people in California think middle age kicks in. Maybe seventy?
It’s funny. In talking to people about this topic over the last five or six years, I’ve learned that some embrace the label as soon as they can possibly can, while others steadfastly resist. When I hit thirty-five I was like, ‘yes, middle age; that seems about right.’ And then when the suggestion is made to friends that they might be in midlife at sixty, they will be like, ‘wow, I’m not so sure.’ So, there is a definite issue of self-labelling that people often feel strongly about.
Going back to the novel, you suggested that it points out certain key themes, most centrally with mortality, in our adaptation to middle age. Does the book add to our understanding or just make fun of it as a sort of self-obsession?
That’s a good question. The prose is astonishing and it brilliantly evokes a confrontation with mortality. Whether it contributes to our understanding of it is much harder to say. As well as being a meditation on death, a central theme of the novel is professional ambition. The core is Richard’s sense of aggrieved vanity that he’s not as successful as his friend. There is something cleansing about depicting the worst moments of people’s narcissism and vanity so frankly and so brutally, and pursuing them so single-mindedly and hilariously. There is a certain therapeutic value to simultaneously loathing and identifying with the central character of the novel. In the end, though, I feel like Amis isn’t so much interested in solving the problem as rubbing our faces in it. And he does that exceptionally well.
It’s interesting that in the books you’ve chosen you haven’t picked a medical book. There could be a pure physiology of middle age. And your interest seems to be more in lived experience.
I am interested in both. The choices are partly to do with which books are most fun to read and recommend. There’s a book called How Healthy Are We? which is edited by Orville Gilbert Brim and came out of the MacArthur Network research on midlife that I mentioned earlier. It contains a bunch of essays by medical sociologists and doctors and psychologists. If you wanted an introduction to what the state of the science was in about 2000 then that book is very good. But it’s academic; it’s not a popular exposition of social science results and while it’s accessible, it’s not a thrilling read. A more recent survey is Barbara Bradley Hagerty’s Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, which is well worth looking up.
Let’s move on to your fourth choice. This is Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010).
This is a slightly eccentric choice, but I think it’s an amazing book. It’s about many things but one of them is midlife. It traces the long aftermath of Montaigne’s midlife crisis, which involved the death of his closest friend Étienne de la Boétie, then his own brush with mortality two years later as he fell off his horse and almost died. Montaigne withdrew from public life when he was around thirty-eight to become a writer. His was a story of transformation, of saying in midlife, ‘I need to stop and reflect on everything.’ And boy does he reflect! Montaigne writes this legendarily creative, original, open-minded, curious, and exploratory series of essays that have become iconic for what self-reflection can be.
The book is about the many ways in which Montaigne attempted to answer in practical terms the question of how to live. It ends up addressing virtually any problem you might be having in midlife. Whatever it is, Montaigne had something to say about it, whether it’s bereavement or religious turmoil or kidney stones. Somewhere he addressed it in a way that was humane and entertaining. Bakewell’s book gives you an incredibly lucid and engaging overview of that.
Another of Montaigne’s themes is sex. There’s a lot of very honest, open discussions of sex in the book. And this is a theme that we haven’t touched on which must be relevant to midlife.
Yes, that’s true. There are wonderful discussions of his anxiety about penis size, or, rather, his determined lack of anxiety about penis size, and about impotence and so on. Montaigne has this incredible tolerance and acceptance of the foibles of human life and this willingness to accept and embrace mediocrity in the sense that, yeah, we should be jovial about the fact that life isn’t going to be the pinnacle of success that you might have imagined in youth. I think it’s quite consoling.
But, as with Martin Amis, it’s an easy thing to say when you know you’re a good writer. It’s easy to mock the pretensions of an ambitious, not-very-good writer when you are feted as one of the great British novelists, or it’s easy to be not that concerned about your social status when you are a duke, or whatever Montaigne was, when you’ve got your vineyards and you also happen to be a brilliant essayist with amazing psychological insights. And in Montaigne’s lifetime, he was a very successful author. So, there’s a slight sense in which writing about failure and the way in which life didn’t fulfil itself from those positions… it’s not as if they didn’t fulfil some promise.
That’s certainly true. There is an irony in Montaigne writing about mediocrity when even in his own lifetime he was celebrated as an author. And he was well-off in other ways too. But his writings are set against the backdrop that death might be imminent. His closest friend died in his thirties and he almost died, so there is the sense that life is fragile and might slip away at any time, and there’s no way to avoid that. There is an awareness of the vulnerability of the human condition.
“There’s even a book by a psychoanalyst that uses Odysseus as an example of a midlife crisis: infidelity, drinking, and waywardness that eventually get resolved when he comes home.”
No amount of wealth or success can make that go away, and that’s something that Montaigne is very attuned to. It’s also true that in his depictions of other people, he’s lovingly attentive. There’s an openness to and an embrace of human individuality that makes you feel like the celebration of mediocrity or of humanity in all of its forms – successful or not – isn’t just for show. It’s not a put-on. That’s also part of what’s beautiful about How to Live. It manages to be a celebration of Montaigne many times over by exploring the different threads in his work. There is something about the idea of the human individual as worthy of celebration that is exemplified very movingly both in Montaigne’s Essays and in Bakewell’s book.
And this is all framed around this midlife moment for Montaigne of retiring from public life to become a reflective writer. So, it is all coming out of middle age even if it’s not explicitly about middle age.
That’s right, yes. He gets pulled back into public life afterwards, unwillingly, but his idea was to step back and let the farm run itself. He wasn’t incredibly energetic as a landowner. He let things just sort of float along, which is a fact he is amusing about in the Essays. But, yes, the idea was to just go and read and think and meditate on life in the library on his estate. It was a reaction to his confrontation with death. It’s also a meditation on friendship. There’s deep sadness to the fact that he had this incredibly close friendship with la Boétie, and they were only really friends for four years and then la Boétie dies. In a way the Essays internalise la Boétie; Montaigne has this voice in his head that he’s talking back and forth with that allows him to continue a virtual relationship with his friend. It’s very poignant.
Your final choice is Middle Age (2009)by Christopher Hamilton.
This is one of the very few books by a philosopher about midlife. I think it’s a really interesting, audacious book. It appears in a series – called Art of Living – of popular philosophical introductions to topics like happiness or death or failure. But it really isn’t a work of philosophical argument. It’s the memoir of an examined life. Naturally, being a philosopher, the things that Hamilton draws on to examine his life are philosophical. The result is a sort of commonplace book, which cites Hannah Arendt and Joseph Conrad and T. S. Eliot and Woody Allen, Montaigne and Nietzsche. In this respect, Middle Age is like another great memoir that might have been on my list: Marina Benjamin’s The Middlepause, which ranges from Edith Wharton to Colette to Carl Jung. It’s hard to discus Hamilton’s book without a spoiler, but the spoiler comes very early, which is that he discovers in midlife – I think he was thirty-eight – that the man he thought was his biological father actually isn’t. Everyone else in his family knew this but kept it from him.
“I feel that there are too few examples of philosophers taking their lives and actually trying to come to terms with them, especially in the recent western tradition”
When he finds out, he has a crisis of identity. In many ways, it’s idiosyncratic. It’s a quite distinctive and unusual experience – it doesn’t happen to most of us – but Hamilton’s reflection on the importance of a sense of identity and the challenges of forming and maintaining one connects with larger themes. It’s a really unusual book for a philosopher to have written and I really value it. I feel that there are too few examples of philosophers taking their lives and actually trying to come to terms with them, especially in the recent western tradition. Mill’s Autobiography is one. That’s an incredible instance of a philosopher saying, ‘I had a nervous breakdown, let me try to figure out philosophically what was going on.’ The Christopher Hamilton book is like that. It’s an attempt by a philosopher who has at his disposal the literature and tools of philosophy to figure out how to cope with a very difficult midlife experience.
Do you think in reading the book there’s more than an individual’s autobiographical exploration of the particular things that formed him? Is there something that’s relevant to midlife for every middle aged reader?
I think so. One thing Hamilton does that is in the spirit of Montaigne and Nietzsche is to try out aphorisms. He draws general morals about middle age. Like all aphorisms, some seem exactly on target; some don’t. But there are many that I love. For instance, he writes: ‘By middle age most people grasp, I think, how little one can get of what really matters in life by doing anything other than waiting for it.’ I think that’s a great aphorism. I don’t know if it’s true, but it has the character of one of those Nietzschean aphorisms where you think, ‘that might be a deep insight into human life, or it may be completely one-sided.’
And it could be darkly pessimistic, like waiting for Godot.
Yes. So, it’s unclear whether it’s a counsel for a tolerant patience or the despairing sense that action is futile and that you shouldn’t try to do anything.
There is a middle age wisdom that young people in hot pursuit of the things that they think matter are possibly missing out on the things that really do matter, which they will come to realise later on and you can’t tell them now.
Yes. Another thing Hamilton is very good on is the constant struggle in many people’s lives between, on the one hand, the striving to achieve things and, on the other hand, a desire to stop striving; a desire for stasis and peace. Neither of them is really easy to relinquish and at different points in life, one is more emphatic than the other. Hamilton doesn’t write as someone who thinks that the problems of life are soluble. The book is very much about the way in which we still can’t rest and we have to be constantly striving but, at the same time, we want peace and relief from that. Tough. The human condition is one in which you just have to struggle with that duality.
That’s not what the Buddhists would say and not what Montaigne in certain moments would say. Montaigne wrote interestingly about that classic idea that to philosophise is to learn to die, to come to terms with your own death, and the possibility that you’re not going to exist anymore. That seems to me potentially a good position to arrive at in middle age because the chances are increasing that you’re going to die quite soon.
Yes. I think you get this more agonistic picture of the human condition in Hamilton’s book. I don’t ultimately embrace it and I at least hope for something more, some intellectual and emotional picture of life that enables us to rest in the moment more satisfactorily and not to feel this constant drive towards the future. And I think, in different ways, you do get that in the Stoics and in Montaigne’s idea of attention to the present. A theme that underlies all of his essays is simply attending to what is happening right now. That theme links up with ideas of mindfulness that come out of the Buddhist tradition. So, there is a kind of convergence between threads of western and non-western philosophy on the idea that there might be a consoling truth in some interpretation of the idea of living in the present. That is something I develop in my book. But it has to be said that Hamilton is not on board. He’s much more of a pessimist about the human condition.
It’s interesting because the midlife crisis, as it’s stereotypically described, is a moment where somebody gives everything up to lead a simpler life. It’s not about giving everything up to lead a more materialistic life. I don’t give up doing philosophy in my midlife crisis and become a lawyer or a hedge fund manager. I go and retire to a village in the country or I give up things, rather than increasing the complexity of my life. I don’t know whether that’s fair, but it’s my view that typically when people have a midlife crisis they tend to do something different which allows them to savour their sensory experiences, spend more time with their family, and do things that are more worthwhile. Maybe they do charity work, or travel, or try to help people in distant lands. There’s a sense in which the midlife crisis is a move away from the characteristic acquisitive and competitive rat race, rather than a jump into it.
That certainly seems right about one kind of midlife crisis. What you’re describing sounds quite well-adjusted. There’s also the stereotype in which you buy a Ferrari, leave your wife, and have an affair. There are ways of reaching for a kind of vivacity in the present that are less salubrious than retiring to your garden. But I think they have in common a desire to step back from the rat race and be engrossed in what you’re doing right now. That might be driving your Ferrari or it might be spending more time with your family.
With the Ferrari case, it might be that you want a status symbol or that you feel you haven’t been able to get the things that you want for yourself ever and this is your last chance. You always had a dream but your dream could never be fulfilled because you always had a responsibility to other people and now you’re going to go for it.
There are a lot of things going on. One is the sense of life as having been constrained – having to pay the mortgage and basically be subordinate to the demands of family responsibility and so on – and then wanting to do something that is just for you. The other thing about driving fast cars is that there is a way in which it’s paradigmatically non-goal-directed. You don’t buy the fast car in order to get to places more efficiently. The point is to be driving.
In your thinking about midlife and in your suggestions for books in this interview, you’ve spent a lot of time reflecting about the nature of middle age. Do you think that in itself is healthy? We’re talking about a stage of life that is in itself reflective, so there’s now a kind of meta-reflection going on. Is that a good way to live?
My attitude to the Socratic edict that the unexamined life is not worth living has always been sceptical. There are plenty of people I know who are not interested in philosophy or philosophical reflection who seem to be doing much better than many of my philosopher friends. More than that, I think that the question whether philosophical reflection is going to be consoling is initially open. When you reflect on midlife, maybe the results will be consoling and maybe they won’t be. As it happens – and this comes out in the book I wrote – I think philosophical ideas can provide consolation for some of the many midlife crises. But that’s just how it happened to be. I don’t think it was inevitable from the start that reflecting on my life was bound to be consoling. There are situations in which not thinking about it might be the best advice.
Interview by Nigel Warburton
Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org