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Book Summary: Life Is Hard – How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way

Life Is Hard (2022) takes a close look at common struggles – like infirmity, loneliness, grief, and failure – through the lens of philosophy, as well as fiction, sports, history, and personal anecdotes. By examining the familiar hardships of the human condition, we can learn how to live well.

Book Summary: Life Is Hard - How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way

Content Summary

Genres
Introduction: Learn how to live well through the hardships of the human condition.
Lessons from a bathroom floor.
Curing loneliness at the soup kitchen.
After love comes grief.
Don’t focus on the failures.
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award
Video and Podcast
Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Genres

Mindfulness, Happiness, Philosophy, Self-Improvement, Psychology, Self Help, Personal Development, Politics, Social Sciences, Consciousness and Thought Philosophy, Philosophy of Ethics and Morality

Introduction: Learn how to live well through the hardships of the human condition.

Sadness, loss, regret – there are no quick fixes for life’s universal problems. But if you examine them thoroughly and honestly, you can find ways to navigate through them.

That’s what this summary to Kieran Setiya’s Life Is Hard is all about. It looks at human hardships – specifically infirmity, loneliness, grief, and failure – through the lens of philosophers, as well as literature, sports, memoirs, and Setiya’s own personal experiences.

By staring these problems in the face and accepting them as they are, we can learn about living well, even when life is hard.

Lessons from a bathroom floor.

He doesn’t remember the movie, but he remembers the pain.

Kieran Setiya suffers from chronic pain – a condition that first hit him at age 27 when he was at The Oaks, a movie theater in Pittsburgh. The pain stabbed him in the side and sent him running for the restroom. Urinating brought some relief, but the pain returned when Setiya got home. It kept him awake and hallucinating on his bathroom floor all night long.

After multiple tests and trips to various doctors, the only professional remedy Setiya received was this advice: “Try to ignore it.”

For 13 years, that’s exactly what Setiya did. He was uncomfortable at times, and sleeping was a struggle, but the pain did not make his life worthless or unlivable. He advanced his career and landed a job at one of the world’s most prestigious universities, MIT. He supported his wife and mother when they needed him, bought a new home, and engaged in social activism. When the pain got worse 13 years later, it led Setiya to a new doctor with better insights – and the motivation to write his book.

Setiya’s chronic pain may have prevented restful sleep, but it didn’t prevent him from enjoying most of life’s activities. The same can be true for just about anyone with just about any disease or disability. Sure, being a wheelchair user means you can’t run – but it doesn’t mean you can’t play basketball, listen to music, enjoy a sunset, or fall in love. The reality is, we all have some restrictions on life because we simply don’t have enough time or energy to master every skill, play every game, and enjoy everything in the world that’s worth enjoying.

There are, of course, some disabilities or levels of pain that prevent so many activities or cause so much discomfort that they prevent us from living well. This is where circumstances make a major impact: diabetes can be managed by someone with access to affordable insulin and reliable health care, but it can be debilitating and deadly to someone who’s not as privileged.

At times, pain can become overwhelming. But it can also teach compassion. In Setiya’s case, once he’d experienced the trauma of hallucinations on the bathroom floor, he had a lot more empathy for others experiencing their own nightmares. There is solidarity in suffering, which leads us into the hardship of the next section – loneliness.

Curing loneliness at the soup kitchen.

There’s no doubt that loneliness hurts. Functional MRIs show that the area of the brain triggered by social rejection is the same area that’s triggered by physical pain. To understand why loneliness hurts, let’s take a closer look at friendship through the eyes of two heavyweight philosophers.

In one corner we have Aristotle, who wrote that without friends, there’s no reason to live. Two of the ten books in his Nicomachean Ethics are devoted to friendship. The Greek great believed that friendships are based on the virtues of the friend. Those with the most virtues – like being good at your job, or being honest or funny – have the most friends.

That may sound fine at first. But the problem with Aristotle’s theory is that if you lose some virtues, you should also expect to lose some friends. And that’s not how friendships work – at least not the good ones. They last through thick and thin. We value our true friends no matter what.

So as a sharp counterpunch to Aristotle, let’s turn to the renowned Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said that all people have value regardless of their virtues. Kant calls this value “dignity.” Its opposite is “price,” or the value we attach to objects that can be replaced.

Since we view our true friends – or romantic partners or family members – with this kind of unconditional love and respect, we can assume they view us the same way. This tells us why loneliness hurts. Being away from our friends deprives us of these life-affirming interactions. Worse, having no friends means our value, or dignity, isn’t being appreciated. We feel like we’re vanishing from the world – like we’re the tree falling in the forest that doesn’t make sound because no one is there to hear it.

The cure for loneliness can be found in other people. This may seem obvious, but there’s a catch. Your connection has to be oriented toward the other person – not in what they can do for you and your loneliness. So say hi to a neighbor, hold the door for someone, or volunteer at the soup kitchen. These acts may not make you a lifelong friend, but they’ll help you feel more connected to the world. And the more of these small steps you take toward connection, the farther away from loneliness you’ll get.

After love comes grief.

Maybe you’ve heard about the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. If you have, forget them. Grief doesn’t appear in predictable steps. Instead, it comes in scattered waves that can change from day to day and person to person.

The chaotic nature of grief is illustrated by The Unfortunates, written by the experimental British novelist B. S. Johnson. It was published in 1969, four years before Johnson died by suicide at the age of 40. The book is narrated by a journalist covering a soccer match in a city that triggers memories of a dead friend. Here’s the experimental part – the novel consists of 27 booklets in a box that can be read in any order, except for “First” and “Last.” Johnson is warning readers that grief doesn’t have a straight story line. It can twist and turn in unexpected directions every time it’s opened.

The rituals of mourning can help us give structure to the chaos of grief, and the need for that can be seen across cultures. There’s the Jewish tradition of sitting shiva for seven days while mourning with friends and family. The West African Dahomey people sing, dance, drink, and tell dirty jokes to celebrate the dead. The Saramaka people in Suriname tell extravagant folk tales. And mourning rituals in Western civilization date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

We need these rituals to help us cope with grief because even though we understand death is inevitable, it still hurts – especially when we’re talking about a loved one. French writer and Nobel laureate Annie Ernaux chronicled her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease and eventual death in the book I Remain in Darkness. Those were the last words Ernaux’s mother ever wrote. Ernaux watched her mother lose her ability to eat, to control her bowels, to remember loved ones – and she hoped for her death. But when that merciful moment arrived, Ernaux was still “overcome with grief.”

There’s no doubt that grief causes pain, but it’s a suffering that comes from loving and living well. The more friends you have and the more love you share, the more you risk the suffering that will come when you inevitably lose those friends and that love. But it’s a suffering we should hope to endure – not avoid.

Don’t focus on the failures.

Failure creeps into our lives every day – making wrong turns, losing clients, forgetting anniversaries. But failure is most glaring, and memorable, in the world of sports. Baseball errors that cost their teams championships have earned lasting nicknames like “Merkle’s Boner” and the “Snodgrass Muff.” A near century of Red Sox failure begat the “Curse of the Bambino” in Boston. And Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Ralph Branca was branded a failure when he gave up the “Shot Heard ’Round the World” – a home run to Bobby Thomson that sent the New York Giants to the 1951 World Series.

That famous home run and the men associated with it are the subject of Joshua Prager’s The Echoing Green. Prager reminds us there is more to Branca’s life than that one failing moment – just like there’s more to Thomson’s life. He writes about Branca’s large and loving family, and Thomson’s ambivalent father. Prager structures the book so the personal details interrupt the baseball details in odd places and jarring moments. It’s another way of reminding us that lives and people are defined by a jumbled multitude of events, not just one.

When we try to fit the story of our lives into a linear narrative, we set ourselves up for failure. Our lives are not steady tension rising to a perfect climax that will subside into a neat conclusion. They have fits and starts and thousands upon thousands of successes and failures. This infinite, granular view of existence is captured in Nicholas Baker’s novella, The Mezzanine. The entire book takes place on an escalator during lunch hour. Its substance? Digressions on topics like shoelaces, urinals, straws, and childhood memories. Those are examples of all the little things that make life worth living, as opposed to some perfectly arced narrative. There are enough little things in just one lunch hour on one escalator to fill an entire book.

This is not to say that we should forget ambitious goals, or that results don’t matter. We should strive for success. But while we do it, we should focus on the journey and not the destination. That maxim can be traced all the way back to the Bhagavad Gita, which tells us, “Motive should never be in the fruits of actions.” By focusing on the process instead of the result, we can protect ourselves from the hardship of failure.

Summary

Even though suffering is inevitable, it doesn’t have to keep you from living well.

Illness or disability may stop you from enjoying some activities – but they can’t stop you from enjoying all of them. Loneliness might leave you feeling hollow – but you can fill that void by caring for others. Grief hurts, but it’s a pain that only comes after you’ve felt true love – and you know the famous line of poetry from Alfred Lord Tennyson, “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all.” Finally, while we all fail multiple times a day, we also succeed multiple times – which one you focus on is up to you.

About the author

Kieran Setiya | Website
Kieran Setiya | Email
Kieran Setiya | Twitter @KieranSetiya
Kieran Setiya | mastodon @[email protected]
Kieran Setiya | Substack
Kieran Setiya | Spotify
Kieran Setiya | CV
Kieran Setiya | Bookshelf

Table of Contents

Preface
Introduction
Lonelness
Grief
Failure
Injustice
Absurdity
Hope
Acknowledgements
Notes
Index

Overview

NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORKER AND THE ECONOMIST

There is no cure for the human condition: life is hard. But Kieran Setiya believes philosophy can help. He offers us a map for navigating rough terrain, from personal trauma to the injustice and absurdity of the world.

In this profound and personal book, Setiya shows how the tools of philosophy can help us find our way. Drawing on ancient and modern philosophy as well as fiction, history, memoir, film, comedy, social science, and stories from Setiya’s own experience, Life Is Hard is a book for this moment—a work of solace and compassion.

Warm, accessible, and good-humored, this book is about making the best of a bad lot. It offers guidance for coping with pain and making new friends, for grieving the lost and failing with grace, for confronting injustice and searching for meaning in life. Countering pop psychologists and online influencers who admonish us to “find our bliss” and “live our best lives,” Setiya acknowledges that the best is often out of reach. Instead, he asks how we can weather life’s adversities, finding hope and living well when life is hard.

Review/Endorsements/Praise/Award

“In Life is Hard, Kieran Setiya shows us the gift that philosophy becomes when it removes its mask of impersonality to reveal its human face. His insights are stunning, his compassion sustaining. Anyone susceptible to life’s hardships must read this book – which means that everyone must read it.” – ​Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex

“Kieran Setiya has produced the ultimate handbook of hardship. With nimble prose and crisp arguments, he shows why adversity is inevitable – and why facing up to that reality, rather than insisting on simple-minded notions of happiness, offers the only path to living well.” – Daniel H. Pink, author of The Power of Regret, When, and Drive

“Smart, richly sourced, and lucidly reasoned, Life is Hard is a work of resplendent wisdom and humanity – one that has changed the way I think about the periodic upsurges of failure, grief, and loss in my own life.” – Jim Holt, author of Why Does the World Exist?

​​”An eloquent, moving, witty and above all useful demonstration of philosophy’s power to help us weather the storms of being human – not with rarefied theories about the best way to live, but by making the best of life as it really is.​”​ – ​Oliver Burkeman, author of ​Four Thousand Weeks

“This is the most important type of book, the kind that sits on a bedside table through the long, dark nights of the soul. Life is Hard served as a very clear, very important reminder: being a philosopher entails a simple obligation, the responsibility to help.” – John Kaag, author of Sick Souls, Health Minds

“Kieran Setiya is that rare bird, a philosopher of exceptional ability with the courage to face the deepest questions. His profound and far-reaching reflection on chronic pain and the other darknesses of life is a must-read.” – Zena Hitz, author of Lost in Thought

“Life may be hard, but Kieran Setiya shows us better ways to think about it and how, despite everything, that can give us hope.” – Katherine May, author of Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times
“Life Is Hard is a humane consolation for challenging times. Reading it is like speaking with a thoughtful friend who never tells you to cheer up, but, by offering gentle companionship and a change of perspective, makes you feel better anyway.” – New York Times Book Review

“At last a philosopher tackles the meaning of life and comes up with useful answers.” — Sunday Times

“Through carefully crafted examples, [Kieran Setiya] makes the case that philosophy can help us navigate the adversities of human life … No life worth living is free of suffering and pain. Better to face it with the clarity to which philosophy, at its best, aspires.” – Guardian

​”a consoling guide to this vale of tears” – Economist

“Kieran Setiya argues that certain bracing challenges – loneliness, failure, ill health, grief, and so on – are essentially unavoidable … But it’s good, the book shows, to acknowledge hard experiences and ask how they’ve helped us grow tougher, kinder, and wiser.” – New Yorker
​​
“exceptionally rich and subtle” – Financial Times

“When things go wrong, and they will, history’s great thinkers prove surprisingly helpful.” – People

“Setiya is a tonic in an increasingly individualistic world.” – Prospect

​”reflects what philosophy at its most helpful and humane can do … insightful and empathetic” – LA Review of Books

“honest, bleak and wryly humorous” – Literary Review

“Setiya excels at discerning which ideas speak to modern maladies and which don’t hold up. This thought-provoking treatise enlightens.” – Publishers Weekly

“A lighted path for dark times … Pragmatic, compassionate advice.” – Kirkus Reviews

Video and Podcast

Read an Excerpt/PDF Preview

Chapter One: Infirmity

You never forget the first time a doctor gives up: when they tell you that they don’t know what to do-they have no further tests to run, no treatments to offer-and that you’re on your own. It happened to me at the age of twenty-seven, with chronic pain, but it will happen to many of us at some point, with conditions that may be disabling or eventually fatal. The vulnerability of bodies belongs to the human condition.

I don’t remember what movie we had gone to see, but I know we were at The Oaks, an old arts cinema on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, when pain stabbed me in the side, followed by an urgent need to urinate. After bolting for the bathroom, I felt better, but with a band of tension running through my groin. As the hours went by, the pain resolved into a need to pee, again, which woke me up at one or two a.m. I went to the bathroom-but as if in some bad dream, urinating made no difference. The band of sensation remained, insusceptible to feedback from my body. I spent a night of hallucinatory sleeplessness sprawled on the bathroom floor, peeing from time to time in a vain attempt to snooze the somatic alarm.

The next day started sensibly, with a trip to my primary care doctor, who guessed that I had a urinary tract infection and prescribed a course of antibiotics. But the test came back negative, as did tests for more abstruse conditions. The pain did not abate. From that point on, the time line is hazy. My memory is poor and medical bureaucracy defeated any attempt to have my records transferred from Pittsburgh to MIT when I moved eleven years later.

But I won’t forget the principal episodes. First, a urodynamic study in which I was catheterized, asked to drink a vat of fluids, and made to piss into a machine that measured rate and flow and function. Normal. Second, a cystoscopy in which an apparently teenage urologist projected an old-fashioned cystoscope through my urethra in agonizing increments, like a telescopic radio antenna. It certainly felt like something was wrong, but the report again was negative: nothing of clinical interest; no visible lesion or infection in the bladder or along the way. It must have been a busy morning in the clinic, because the doctor and nurse forgot about me after the null result. I gingerly restored my clothes and let myself out, hobbling awkwardly down Forbes Avenue back to the ludicrous Gothic skyscraper in which I worked, the turgid penis of Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning looming over me as blood dripped into my underwear from mine.

The final consultation in Pittsburgh was with another urologist. At that point, I was getting used to what I called “my symptoms”—able to sleep through the discomfort. I was living my life, more or less, with the hum of pain as background noise. The urologist advised me to keep it up. “I don’t know what explains the sensation,” he said. “There doesn’t seem to be a definite cause. Unfortunately, that’s not uncommon. Try to ignore it if you can.” He prescribed low-dose Neurontin, an anticonvulsant and nerve pain medication, intended as a sleep aid, and sent me on my way. I’m still not sure if the drug was a placebo. It seemed to help, but I stopped taking it, without discernible effects, a few years later.

And that was that, for roughly thirteen years. No diagnosis; no treatment. I ignored the pain when I could and threw myself into work, nervously enduring flare-ups that would decimate sleep, along with daily life, from time to time. Meanwhile, the rest of my family had their own travails. In 2008, my wife’s mother was diagnosed with Stage III ovarian cancer. My mother-in-law is the writer and critic Susan Gubar, who with Sandra Gilbert wrote The Madwoman in the Attic, a feminist classic that asked “Is the pen a metaphorical penis?” A force of nature, she metabolized her illness through writing, describing with brutal precision the tortuous “debulking” surgery to remove the most visible tumors, followed by chemotherapy, the painful insertion of drains that failed to relieve a postoperative infection, and her subsequent ileostomy. Her Memoir of a Debulked Woman cites writers and artists who have grappled with illness, including a nod to Virginia Woolf, who censured literature’s silence on the subject in her essay “On Being Ill.” Woolf herself was characteristically decorous: “She may as well not have had bowels, for all the evidence of them in her book,” the novelist Hilary Mantel complained, recounting her own brutal surgery in “Meeting the Devil.” Susan’s book rectifies Woolf’s omission, with frank descriptions of struggling to shit after the debulking that removed more than a foot of intestine, her fear of soiling herself in public, the “bed of pain” to which she was attached for seventeen days as the drains failed to do their job, the excrement that dribbles from the stoma of her “ostomy,” and the persisting disabilities of cancer and its treatment. “More than half a year after the last chemotherapy,” she wrote, “my feet were still dead and I could not stand up for more than a few minutes without aches and fatigue setting in.” Despite all this, she has survived so far, against all odds, thanks to a drug trial that worked when a third round of chemo did not.

Meanwhile, her daughter, my wife Marah, was found to have a dermoid cyst on her left ovary—”dermoid” meaning the kind of cyst that can grow teeth and hair—which had to be surgically removed. She is high risk for breast and ovarian cancer, having inherited the BRCA2 gene from her mother, and is regularly screened. My father-in-law survived open-heart surgery, and back in England, my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

I document these trials not because we are unusually stricken—a family of Jobs—but because I’m sure we’re not. We all face transient illness and incapacity. And everyone knows someone with cancer, heart disease, chronic pain. In the time of Covid-19, we have friends and relatives who have suffered or died, often in isolation. The fragility of health and everything that depends on it is impossible to ignore. Even the most robust are bound to age, capacities fading as they leave the demographic once dubbed by disability activists “the temporarily able-bodied”; disability should matter to anyone who is hoping to get old. A non-ideal approach to life does not wish these facts away, leaving the body behind. Instead, it asks how we should live with the malfunctioning bodies we have.

One of the most basic lessons of recent work in the philosophy of medicine is the need to take care with words. Beginning with the idea of health as the proper functioning of the body and its parts, an emerging consensus contrasts disease—a category of malfunction—with illness, which is the negative impact of disease on lived experience. Disease is biological; illness is, at least in part, “phenomenological,” a matter of how life feels. It is, as philosophers say, “contingent” whether or not disease makes life go worse. In general, how well you are able to live when your body malfunctions depends on the effects, which are mediated everywhere by luck and social circumstance. If you have free access to medication, a serious disease like type 1 diabetes may not involve much illness; if you have no health care, a minor infection or dysentery may kill you. The result is that illness is distributed even more inequitably than disease, following lines of wealth, race, and nationality.

Matters are more subtle still with disability, both long-term and the incremental disabilities of aging. In the last few decades, disability theorists have argued for a social understanding of what it means to be physically disabled. Thus, in Extraordinary Bodies, the critic Rosemarie Garland-Thomson aimed “to move disability away from the realm of medicine into that of political minorities.” It was the work of these minorities that led to the passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S. and the Disability Discrimination Act in the U.K. Disability is the focus of a struggle for civil rights.

It has taken time for these ideas to migrate into my corner of philosophy, but a recent book by the philosopher Elizabeth Barnes agrees: “To be physically disabled is not to have a defective body, but simply to have a minority body.” Garland-Thomson and Barnes do not line up on everything: they differ on the nature or “metaphysics” of disability. But it is common ground between them-as among many disability theorists and activists-that when you abstract from prejudice and poor accommodations, physical disability does not generally make life worse. Like being gay in a homophobic culture, being disabled may be to one’s detriment, but that’s a social failing, not a natural inevitability. Physical disability is not, in itself, an obstacle to living well.

It’s a claim that provokes both puzzlement and resistance. Philosophers often treat the imposition of disability as a paradigm of injury or harm. And able-bodied people may view the prospect of being deaf or blind or unable to walk with dread. But while it’s easy to misinterpret, there is truth in the activists’ claim: given adequate accommodations, physical disability need not prevent us from living lives that are, in general, no worse than the lives most people lead.

If physical disability is a category of overt bodily malfunction, it’s not akin to illness but disease. Bodily malfunction is biological; its effects on lived experience are contingent, subject to circumstance. That means there is a sense in which physical disability cannot be bad for you in itself. If it makes life worse, that’s because it affects how you actually live. A wider moral is drawn in the Daoist parable of the farmer’s luck, which I learned from Jon J Muth’s radiant picture book Zen Shorts. When the farmer’s horse runs away, his neighbors sympathize: “Such bad luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. His horse returns with two more: “Such good luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. The farmer’s son tries to ride one of the untamed horses and breaks his leg: “Such bad luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies. With his broken leg, the son cannot be drafted to fight in a war: “Such good luck!” “Maybe,” the farmer replies . . .

So, it all depends. Specifically: whether a physical disability makes your life go better or worse, all told, depends on what effects it has. What is more, a wealth of data attests to the fact that, even in the world as it is, the effects are not so bad: people with physical disabilities do not rate their own well-being significantly lower than other people rate theirs. “A massive body of research has demonstrated that people who acquire a range of disabilities typically do not experience much or any permanent reduction in the enjoyment of life,” a recent survey of the literature concludes.

For all that, puzzlement persists. There’s no denying that needing a wheelchair, or being blind or being deaf, estranges you from things of value: the pleasure of a solitary mountain hike; the look of the scenery; the strains of birdsong in the air. It is in that sense harmful. As the farmer’s luck reminds us, there may be collateral benefits. But other things being equal, how can disabilities like these fail to make your life go worse? Isn’t that what happens when you take away something good?

The puzzle turns on mistakes about the nature of the good life that go back to Aristotle. It isn’t just that Aristotle is preoccupied with the ideal life, the one you ought to choose if everything were up to you, nor that he would regard disability of any kind as incompatible with living well. It is that he thinks the best life is “lacking in nothing.” It is the “most desirable of things,” to which nothing can be added. If anything good was missing from eudaimonia, he argues, adding it would count as an improvement; but it’s already the best. This goes along with Aristotle’s vision of a single, ideal life, organized around a single activity—contemplation, as it turns out, though the first nine books of the Nicomachean Ethics lead us to expect, instead, the life of the accomplished statesman.

Aristotle’s monomania is repressed by contemporary authors who recruit him to the project of self-help. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt is typical: “In saying that well being or happiness (eudaimonia) is ‘an activity of soul in accordance with excellence or virtue,'” he writes, “Aristotle wasn’t saying that happiness comes from giving to the poor and suppressing your sexuality. He was saying that a good life is one where you develop your strengths, realize your potential, and become what it is in your nature to become.” But apart from being more sex-positive, Aristotle was saying exactly what Haidt says he wasn’t. Eudaimonia, for Aristotle, is a life of intellectual excellence, meditating on the cosmos and its laws, or it’s a life of practical virtue-of courage, temperance, generosity, justice, friendship, pride-supplied with every gift of fortune. There is no room in Aristotle’s thinking for a plurality of good-enough lives, in which individual human beings develop their particular talents, interests, and tastes.

The mirage of a life so perfect it is lacking in nothing; the conviction that there is just one path to flourishing: these are ideas we should resist. When I think of my heroes, people who lived good lives if anyone does—none of them perfect—what stands out is how different they are: Martin Luther King, Jr.; Iris Murdoch; Bill Veeck; a political visionary and activist; a novelist and philosopher; a baseball executive. The list goes on, increasingly scattered: my teacher D. H. Mellor; Talmudic icon Rabbi Hillel; the scientist Marie Curie . . . Feel free to supply a list of your own. I’ll bet its members won’t have much in common.

What this diversity reflects is a liberalization of what goes into living well in the long aftermath of Aristotle’s ethics. There is not just one activity to love—contemplation or statesmanship—but a vast array of things worth doing, ranging from music, literature, TV, film, to sports and games, conversation with friends and family, the essential labor of doctors, nurses, teachers, farmers, sanitary workers, to commercial innovation, science pure and applied . . . even philosophy.

It’s not that anything goes. Aristotle may have been wrong to focus on a single ideal life, but he was right to affirm that some things are worth wanting, while others are not. Take Bartleby in Herman Melville’s incomparable short story, “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” Narrated by a complacent but well-meaning lawyer who hires the mysterious Bartleby as a copyist, the story pivots on Bartleby’s sudden refusal to proofread. Requested to do so, “Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, ‘I would prefer not to.'” Things spiral from there. Never giving any reason, Bartleby repeats his mantra. He prefers not to eat anything but ginger nuts; not to talk to colleagues or to check for mail at the post office; not to help the lawyer hold down a piece of tape; not to leave work at all—Bartleby begins to live there; not to answer questions about his life, preferring to be left alone; not to quit the office even when he’s fired; not to copy anymore, but also not to move in with the lawyer or to take another job; and when forcibly removed to prison, not to eat—until he dies. We may sympathize with Bartleby, but his desires do not make sense.