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An MIT philosophy professor examines the good life in hard times

Kieran Setiya’s ‘Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way’ offers a road map for critical and cathartic thinking

David Wilson/David Wilson for The Boston Globe

Kieran Setiya began writing “Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way” (Riverhead) before the pandemic. One impetus was his desire to write about his experience with chronic pain, said Setiya, a professor of philosophy at MIT.

Then COVID-19 enveloped the world, and the question of how to endure difficulties like loneliness and grief and still live what philosophers call “the good life” was inescapable. Setiya’s work as an academic philosopher is in the field of ethics — “that encompasses not just morality but what kind of virtues we should aspire to have, what kind of ambitions,” he said — and the book provides a road map for thinking about life through trials both mundane and catastrophic.


Setiya explores how we frame our lives. He’s skeptical, he said, of “quite simple, linear narratives, where your life is defined by some sort of quest where you either succeed or you fail.” Too often, he added, this approach misses “the rich abundance of things in life that matter, all the little successes and failures and the connections and attachments that make life meaningful.”

Similarly, it’s a mistake to judge ourselves (and others) by societal notions of success, especially as “the standards are determined by political structures that may not be fair and may not be ones that allow people to flourish.”

We live in an era of uncertainty, Setiya added, when “even in very affluent countries young people have a sense that the future is not rosier for them than it was for their parents. And all of us are facing the actuality of climate change, and also threat to democracy and civil rights.”

It’s a good time to turn to philosophy for help, or at least hope (the title of the book’s final chapter). “You can’t really approach life without hope,” Setiya said. “The question isn’t really whether we should hope or whether hope is good, it’s always what should we hope for.”


Kieran Setiya will read in person at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 7, at Brookline Booksmith.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at