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On How to Live

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books and culture

On How to Live

Ancient philosophy is a guide to a meaningful existence. December 11, 2020
Arts and Culture
The Social Order

Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, by Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (University of Notre Dame Press, 482 pp., $39)

Public spaces are cluttered with sloganeering from political causes; ads for luxurious products attempt to seduce us; self-help and soft spiritualties like neo-astrology and therapeutic versions of Christianity supply superficial comfort. This cacophony pulsates across the Internet, a flood of content that can overwhelm the capacity for coherent thought. Meantime, higher education provides little guidance to escape what many see as a growing crisis of meaning.

At the same time, public conversation bursts with advice. We’re inundated with suggestions about how to enhance life with the latest tech products; how to curate an online image; how to pin down the perfect exercise routine and clean diet; how to be politically literate; and so on. Still, amid the competing guides on how to live, there’s little reflection on why we live.

In her new book, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, historian Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn offers a clear-eyed diagnosis of what she considers today’s culture of therapy. “We live in an era of the aphorism and the several-step program promising to fix everything imaginable,” she writes. But without a deeper vision of what life is about, we are subject to a tyranny of selfhood. Lasch-Quinn explains, “With no vision of the good, we are lost and bereft. All our projects become self-serving.”

Ars Vitae, translated to “the art of living,” repudiates a public philosophy of triviality. But Lasch-Quinn sympathizes with the genuine longings that drive our often-solipsistic behaviors. She quotes sociologist Philip Rieff, who wrote that each person is “different from every other in his identity, his incommunicability, his inwardness.” Each of us faces “terrible isolation,” Lasch-Quinn writes. The unruly turmoil of the mind can be debilitating. Culture, by “conveying a sense of the sacred,” can ease the “loneliness and anxiety to which the solitary psyche is prone.”

In elegant prose, Lasch-Quinn encourages us to look beyond self-optimization or political activism. At some point, we must ask ourselves: What if there actually is a coherent purpose of existence? What if living is an art? Ancient philosophy, she contends, can help us navigate these questions. She surveys five ancient schools of thought—Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism—for possible guidance, locating echoes of their themes in contemporary culture.

For instance, the pop sensation The Da Vinci Code and its attendant fanfare—including commentaries arguing that the tale’s true Holy Grail is the female protagonist’s self-actualization and healing—suggest a modern Gnosticism. The story’s implied message, she explains, is that all the world’s “givens” are shams—a central pillar in Gnostic thought, which argues that true wisdom, available only to the initiated few, unveils an immaterial realm of pure spirit. Unadulterated goodness and bliss reside only in this ethereal dimension.

Lasch-Quinn shows how Epicureanism has largely devolved from its ancient form—which was committed to contemplation, honest self-examination, and modest, sustainable pleasure—into an excuse for licentious hedonism. Stoicism and cynicism have met similar fates in the modern era. Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher-emperor from the second century, argued that human beings should live according to lasting things, which include “due deliberation,” “fealty to the Gods,” and “fellowship with mankind.” But stoicism today, Lasch-Quinn notes, centers upon “what can and cannot be controlled, or what is relevant to our psychological comfort or sense of power.” Cynicism also had admirable beginnings: its probable founder, Diogenes, made provocative, shameless public displays to unmask the hypocrisies of convention and point to life of authentic virtue, but the “new cynicism,” represented most profoundly in Michel Foucault’s thought, cannot see beyond the self or “the question of control.”

Among the ancient movements Lasch-Quinn surveys, Platonism, she believes, has remained the most relevant. Its core tenet is that goodness is a reality both immanent and transcendent. It sees the world as flawed but essentially good and locates the sacred both within and outside ordinary existence. For the Platonist, signs of divine presence can be found in “worldly” phenomena. For example, when encountering human genius, Lasch-Quinn writes, “we are paralyzed, suspended in the moment, as when we encounter one of the earth’s great wonders. It is the human person at his or her best, humankind operating an ethereal realm of staggering mystery.” Such striking phenomena, according to Lasch-Quinn, facilitate “entrance into a world of our experience and ability that seems to defy reality, the limits of everyday life.”

In endorsing Platonism, Lasch-Quinn suggests an idea about life at once hopeful and arresting. Art and life, in their ideal forms, are images of one another, she maintains. At its greatest, art “becomes a world, an existence, a presence, almost a living being.” Artistic masterpieces “are capacious enough to contain the full range of possible approaches to our quandaries, our archipelago of sensibilities, and put them into conversation with one another.” They “lead us into the world of others” yet also help us to “develop a life-saving inwardness.” And human life can itself be a kind of artistic endeavor. In cultivating a rich, contemplative inner life and forging relationships built on love, Lasch-Quinn believes, our lives can reflect a silent beauty characteristic of great art.

But an idea counter to Platonic thought has taken hold of our imaginations: that the quest for power and unquenchable self-seeking are the world’s primary operating forces. All that appears good and innocent, in this view, is a mere mask for domination. If this is true, Lasch-Quinn notes, then accumulating comforts might be the best that we can do. What’s missing is a sense of wholeness, an organizing idea like Platonism that accounts for the fullness, complexity, and broken beauty of reality. Instead, everything becomes a matter of restless self-seeking.

Lasch-Quinn turns to the ancients to persuade her readers that living, contra postmodernism, can bring us to “the heights of awe, love and wholeness,” even in the face of great pain and evil. “The real choice seems to be whether to turn pain into poetry or be beaten down by the pain of living,” she observes. Many of us go through days, weeks, and even years of being beaten down, but suffering, Lasch-Quinn’s book tells us, can be transfigured into beauty, even holiness. To see life as something more than flight from pain, as art, is to remind us that something lovely potentially can be found in every person, within the world—and beyond it, too.

Photo: Panagiotis Maravelis/iStock

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