Platonism Wins


Published February 14, 2022

First Things

Review: Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living
by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
University of Notre Dame Press, 480 pages, $39

The appeal of classics is alive and well. The classical education movement, which seeks to inculcate virtue via the teaching of Latin, is thriving; Stoic philosophy has becoming a major publishing trend; exotic new subcultures such as Latino Body Builders for Hellenism are springing up on the internet. Now here is Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s engaging and learned Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, an intellectual tour de force that expounds various branches of ancient philosophy, assesses the scholarly debate around them, and critiques much of the modern appropriation of the classical heritage.

Lasch-Quinn devotes chapters to the usual classical philosophical suspects— Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism—and reflects on how their themes are picked up in numerous artifacts of pop culture. Interstellar, for instance, hints at the transcendence that is part of Platonism: the astronauts in this movie find their salvation in traveling through a wormhole to a universe that exists beyond this one. Eat, Pray, Love, meanwhile, offers an example of the distorted appropriation of Epicureanism in the modern West: It has come to mean little more than finding happiness in activities such as eating and travel, the sloughing off of any relationships that hinder self-fulfillment, and prayer, if it exists at all, is not a function of creaturely dependence upon God but a form of self-help. Yet even in handling the cheesier end of our culture, Lasch-Quinn does not fall into the trap of a comical earnestness or of cheesiness herself. Instead, with an enviably light touch she reads the pathologies of our world from these otherwise forgettable moments in our recent cultural history.

One of the fascinating things which Lasch-Quinn does (without ever explicitly stating it in this form) is demonstrate how these ancient philosophies are appropriated in our modern age in a typically consumerist fashion. I remember some years ago being asked whether a gathering of Christians at a conference in Chicago represented (as it claimed) a recovery of early Christian piety. I commented that the location—a conference suite at a luxury hotel rather than, say, the top of a pole planted in the middle of the Mojave Desert—would seem to indicate that it was not such. So it is, again and again, with these ancient philosophies as received by the modern consumer: They are revised and edited in a manner that suits what Lasch-Quinn calls the modern therapeutic self.

And that is where the book is so compelling. Lasch-Quinn demonstrates that the various classical philosophies being appropriated by various moderns are being shoe-horned into an anthropology that fundamentally perverts their meaning. On page 249, she makes the acute observation that Michel Foucault’s first volume of the history of sexuality has the title The Care of the Self (Le Souci de soi); but the ancient philosophers and thinkers whom he is studying in that work were actually interested in the care of the soul. That is a critical distinction.

Drawing explicitly upon the work of Philip Rieff, she sees the problem with moderns as being at least twofold: They are preoccupied with the management of their own inner psychological state, always trying to achieve happiness; and they lack any sense of a transcendent or sacred frame that might give any larger significance or purpose to their lives. As she comments, the old schools—at least the non-Platonic ones—offer no real way out. They become useful to a modern audience only to the extent that they serve as therapy for the individual—a task for which they were never designed, since modern psychological happiness was not central to their vision of human flourishing. Consumerism wins even when considering how to appropriate classical philosophy.

This points to one of the great paradoxes of modern life: We constantly aim to achieve individual happiness, but all around us are increased levels of anxiety and unhappiness. To which our response is more of the same: a doubling-down on the pursuit of that elusive personal contentment. Yet this is predicated upon an anthropological mistake, that of seeing human beings as (to use the terminology of Michael Sandel) unencumbered selves. To imagine that is what human beings are is to make happiness an individual pursuit and all other things—people, places—into instruments that can be used for achieving that end. But if we conceive of ourselves as those who exist for something beyond ourselves, the result is that personal happiness ceases to be our goal; rather, our purpose becomes serving other people and God. Ironically, that will make us happy because it involves the kind of behavior that reflects who we really are. 

Ultimately, Platonism is the winner in Lasch-Quinn’s account, because it points beyond itself, offers at the very least strong hints of transcendence. And thus Plotinus is the hero of her story, with Augustine perhaps a close second. Plotinus is the great formulator of what today is called neo-Platonism. For Lasch-Quinn, his importance lies in the fact that he offers an exemplary account of the inner life, where true happiness is found through connection with transcendent and appropriate detachment from the material world. Augustine, a Christian Platonist, parlays this Plotinian inner life into the theology of Christianity, where it is love for the transcendent God, revealed in Christ, who facilitates the true inward life and true human happiness. 

Like Rieff, Lasch-Quinn therefore sees that human life needs a sacred, transcendent order beyond the merely material world in order even to fulfill its immanent ends. The true inward life, the true inward happiness, is ultimately only to be found if the soul (not merely the self) looks out from itself to the wider world and the transcendent realm beyond that. And Platonism provides that.

There is much in this book that resonates with Christianity, and Christians will glean much of value from its pages. In the Christian spiritual tradition, one has to lose oneself to find oneself, and the self only makes sense in creaturely relation to the other. Self-knowledge is inextricably linked to knowledge of God. In Augustine’s Confessions, the move inward ultimately only makes sense because it simultaneously involves a move outward. After all, the whole introspective work is cast as an extended prayer of adoration to the creator and redeemer God who by definition transcends this world. While Lasch-Quinn avoids being that explicit in pressing for Christianity, it seems clear that it is the real answer to the problems of modern culture that she so ably critiques. And therein lies my one criticism of her analysis: The hero of the narrative should have been Augustine.

Carl Trueman is a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College and a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.


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