Helena de Bres in LARB:
HAVE YOU NOTICED lately that everything is shit? Things were very shitty the year before last, they became even shittier last year, and now everything is just indescribably shit. As a species, we’ve been stuck with this aspect of the human condition for around 300,000 years. But the question of how to respond to it intellectually and emotionally arises with fresh urgency in each new generation. And in the face of each fresh piece of shit. Traditionally, one role of philosophy has been to aid us in this task. Friar Lawrence advises Romeo, banished from his city and the arms of his girl, to sip “Adversity’s sweet milke, Philosophie.” However, over the past couple of centuries, with the transformation of philosophy into an academic discipline, its connection with self-help has largely been severed. The aim of Kieran Setiya’s new book Life Is Hard is to recapture philosophy’s ancient mission of “helping us find our way” in the face of life’s afflictions.
One storied philosophical response to our situation is to claim that, when you really think about it, Nothing Is Shit. The 17th-century poster child for this view was Gottfried Leibniz, who argued that everything that’s apparently terrible and senseless is in fact a necessary, even beautiful part of God’s benevolent scheme. Today we’re more likely to find the suggestion on Instagram, in a sunset-saturated image exhorting us to exude “GOOD VIBES ONLY” or “MANIFEST JOY.” I don’t know about you, but the bare reading of these phrases makes me bust out bad vibes like octopus ink, and Setiya is a kindred spirit here. It’s pretty clear that the universe contains significant pointless suffering, and we do ourselves no favors in denying the fact. “What we need in our affliction,” Setiya writes, isn’t self-deception or distraction but “acknowledgment.” Engage that core and lean in.