I've finished Kieran Setiya's book, Life is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way.
As might be expected, Setiya doesn't conclude that's there some magical bit of philosophy that can be sprinkled over his first six chapter titles -- Infirmity, Loneliness, Grief, Failure, Injustice, Absurdiy -- and renders those manifestations of life's hardness harmless, or at least bearable.
The best Setiya can come up with is Hope, the title of his concluding chapter. He warms up to that topic in the Absurdity chapter.
Thus the existentialists were wrong: reason may dictate a total reaction to the world, and that reaction may be, if not exactly affirmation, then acceptance of the universe and the place of human life within it.
This need not rest on anything transcendent or divine, the nonexistence of the self or the immortality of the soul. The afterlife it calls for is collective. The meaning of life -- the truth that tells us how to feel about the whole residual cosmos -- would lie in our halting, perhaps perpetual, progress toward justice in this world.
This vision is less distant from religion than it seems. It is often said that religious belief originates in fear of death, that it's meant to console us in our mortality. But that view is simplistic.
As the pioneering theologian John Bowker argued, the ubiquitous injustice of our world -- where the innocent suffer and the guilty go free -- cries out for metaphysical solution. That is why religions look for justice in a world beyond, or dismiss the world we know as an illusion. The truth would otherwise be intolerable.
The point of being immortal is not simply to cheat death but to make room for the justice our mortality frustrates. The virtuous must be rewarded and the vicious damned; and if that does not happen in this world, it must happen in another. Justice comes first -- as it does in my account of the meaning of life.
I don't believe in another world, not one that compensates for ours. If there is meaning to be found, we must find it in the shape of history, the arc of the moral universe that bends, or does not bend, toward justice.
...I am not by nature optimistic. When I look at whee we are heading, I am terrified, by climate change most of all... If climate change leads to widespread food and water insecurity, mass migration, conflict, and war, we can forget about equality and human rights.
That climate change threatens the meaning of life is not mere rhetoric; it is plain fact. Human life could have meaning. It's meaning could be to limp slowly, painfully, contingently, toward a justice that repairs, so far as it can, the atrocities of the past.
If human history had that shape, we should accept it and play our part. In our small corner of the vast, indifferent universe, we would have made a home. If climate change leads instead to social collapse, that meaning will be lost, not in absurdity but in shame.
...Our task now is to pull the emergency brake on climate change -- along with the injustice, domestic and global, gendered and racial, with which it is entwined. Our efforts will shape the facts that tell us how to feel. We'll rise to the challenge or we won't. Things may look bad, but remember how they looked before, when we faced the vacuum of absurdity. The question of life's meaning is intelligible and the answer is up to us.
Today, the future is uncertain. We can't be sure, can hardly guess, how history's arc will bend. And so we cannot say what human life means, if it means anything at all. The question that remains is what to feel when so much is unknown. What total reaction makes sense when the meaning of life is unsettled and at risk. Should we be lifted by hope or flattened by despair?
Great question. Me, I answer it either way depending on my mood. My mother, who raised me after my parents divorced, was highly political. So am I.
I love to follow the ins and outs of politics, even as American and world politics both elates and depresses me, depending on how the arc of justice Setiya speaks of appears to be bending. In three weeks the United States will hold midterm elections that will determine which party controls Congress and state legislatures.
Since I care so much about politics, and the related subjects of climate change, American support for Ukraine in its fight against the war crimes of Russia, and other pressing issues, I'm unable to simply live my everyday life, as appealing as that seems at times.
So how do I, or anybody, who cares about making the world a better place, find the energy and determination to pursue justice in all of its varied forms? I think Setiya has it right when he gives a qualified nod to Hope in his final chapter.
Until recently, I didn't think much about hope, and when I did, I was suspicious. My chronic pain is here to stay. To hope otherwise is to be dishonest. And when there's something to be done, what matters is to do it, not whether one does it with hope or resignation.
Hope isn't important to me. My therapist disagrees. She believes that its significance in my life shows up in my resistance to it. The problem is that I'm afraid to hope; and what I need is courage. It's not just me. For many, hope blurs into wishful thinking. And the more we hope, the more we risk despair.
Why put ourselves through it? At the same time, we cling to hope, a seeming source of light when times are dark. I have come to think that none of us are wrong. Hope is and ought to be an object of ambivalence. Imprisoned in Pandora's jar, hope is both useless and essential.
What is hope, anyway? Philosophers have spilled some ink on this in recent years and, amid dissent, a broad consensus has emerged.
Hope has elements of both desire and belief. To hope for something is, in part, to wish for it, in part to see it as possible, though not inevitable. You don't hope for what you don't want. Nor do you hope for what is out of the question or what you're sure is bound to happen.
What's more, to hope for something is to think it isn't wholly up to you. It doesn't make sense to hope for what you can simply bring about. Hope is a concession to what you cannot control.
...It is much easier to say why despair is bad than why hope is good. We despair when things are hopeless, but we remain attached to them. "The relationship is over; she is gone forever," cries the jilted lover. The terminal patient weeps: "There is no cure." What they feel is grief or something like it. The pain of passion for a possibility that has died.
But that doesn't mean there's merit in hope. Sometimes impossibility is a fact. My mother's Alzheimer's is not going to get better, only worse, and it would be foolish to hope otherwise, however much I wish it weren't.
Even where hope is rational, what is the good of it? I think of the U.S. elections in 2016 and 2020, when I watched the returns with agonized hope. There was nothing to do but manage my anxiety and vehemently plead for the better result.
Where is the value in that? Hope coexists with quiescence. If there's courage in hoping, it's the courage to face the disappointment that hope creates. When things turn out badly, hope is more harrowing than despair.
...This is where the myth of hope's value starts. Hope is a precondition of what matters: the pursuit of meaningful change. But that doesn't make hope worthy in itself.
...Hope is like the forging point of iron: the temperature at which it can be wrought. Hope is the point at which we can be moved to act. But it is not the source of heat that brings us to that point or the force that moves us forward, the hammer blow with which we bend the world. Like hot iron, hope is dangerous: it can hurt us.
And by itself, hope does nothing at all.
Hope doesn't inspire us to act: it makes room for grief and rage to do that. Fear, too, can be a motivating force, as it is for those who work on climate change. "I don't want you to be hopeful," the activist Greta Thunberg told an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "I want you to panic."
Hope is consistent with inaction. It's a precondition of something good -- of striving, uncertainly, for what matters -- but it's not good in itself.
If you are trying to find a therapy for your illness, to adapt to disability, to cope with loneliness or escape from it, to succeed against the odds or to learn from failure, you are living in hope. Depending on your temperament, you may feel good about this or, like me, beset with fear.
If hoping makes you anxious, you'll need courage. My therapist was right: I have to fight the fear of hope that inhibits me from taking risks. But hope itself is idle -- a prerequisite, not a goal.
I said hope is and ought to be an object of ambivalence, but I've been mostly negative so far. Hope doesn't do much for us: at best it correlates with something good; and the correlation is imperfect. When we give up hope, we give up trying; but we can hope while doing nothing.
And it's action, not hope, that matters.
...The virtue of hoping well is a matter of belief, of standing with or searching for the truth, attending to what's possible. And it's a matter of will, the courage to conceive alternatives, even when it's not clear what to do.
This is how we should approach life's hardships, finding possibility where we can: the possibility of flourishing with disability or disease, of finding one's way through loneliness, failure, grief. The question, then, is not whether to hope but what we should hope for.
In the spirit of this book, the answer's not an ideal life. What we need is acknowledgement and close reading of the lives we have. I can hope to ignore my pain or to make something of it, even if I don't hope for a cure.
I can hope to see my mother again, to hold her hand and walk with her along the foreshore where the estuary gathers the tides and the great bridge sweeps across the river mouth, curving with the Earth. But I know she won't recover.
...Other concepts we should leave behind: the concept of the best life as a guideline or a goal, of being happy as the human good, of self-interest divorced from the good of others. Disability need not make life worse and pain is not lost for words. Love need not be earned; grief is no mistake, and the tempering of grief is not betrayal.
Life is not a narrative "that swells and tautens until climax"; it's not all about getting things done. Responsibility for justice need not rest on blame; and while we cannot know we've done enough, that's not a reason to do nothing. Human life is not inevitably absurd; there is room for hope.