Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn wants to identify the problem with various contemporary approaches to life. Philosophy is the art of living, after all. It is not so much a way of thought as a way of thought that is espoused because it offers best way of life. She begins with all kinds of examples and summaries of contemporary approaches in the introduction. Then the book proceeds with a chapter on Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and finally Platonism, before drawing a conclusion that handily dismisses Aristotelianism. (Aristotelianism is, as any true Platonist will tell you, a kind of truncated Platonism. I love how neatly she does it.) She is concerned that contemporary society is in the disarray it presently manifests because we have lost the art of living, and believes the solution is for it to be informed by the best philosophy.

What is unusual about a book explaining and evaluating ancient philosophies is how much of contemporary culture of all sorts it contains. If you come to the book for the philosophy, what you have to get through in the introduction and early part of each chapter can be a chore. She describes books and films, but in a measured, scholarly way that is as lively as that approach can be expected to be, but no more. And there is always the problem that classifying movies and books according to ancient philosophy shows how much the former have to be stretched so that they can usefully be explained by the latter. Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code is easily representative of the gnostic mindset, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000) is used for Stoicism, Ryan Murphy’s Eat Pray Love (2010) for Epicureanism (along with other cooking-oriented movies and shows), and Zach Snyders’s 300 (2006) along with an awful lot of Foucault for Cynicism. A contemporary Aristotelian (a Thomist, say) reading the book might be relieved to see there is really no movie pairing for the Peripatetic school (Babbete’s Feast springs to mind). Pairing Platonism with Nolan Ryan’s Interstellar (2014) leaves this Platonist with mixed feelings. Is the fifth dimension in the wormhole love? That is quite an allegorical reading of the film. But if you allow it, the rest flows. Why do it, why include these artifacts from the popular culture of this new millennium? Because she wants to point out how these ideas live on. This is not a book about how these ideas are distorted, though there is some of that, but about how the territory of philosophy was mapped out in ancient times. Those maps are still more reliable, and reliable enough to locate even such recent artefacts.

The strength of the book is the concise description of each approach. There are far too many takes, for example, on the gnostic phenomenon which approach it with an agenda. There is some modern phenomenon that people want to have labeled gnostic, and so the ancient phenomenon is described with that target in view so that the label can be affixed and the trigger immediately pulled. Lasch-Quinn approaches each option correctly, and her evaluation and critique of Gnosticism is informed and accurate (she has, after all, read Plotinus). So is her much briefer critique of Aristotelianism—but I may have mentioned that already. In fact, they all are, and as the chapters continue, the book makes an interesting argument for the last standing philosophy, that of Plotinus.

Unusually prominent in a book of this kind are Foucault and Plotinus. That Foucault should figure so prominently is off-putting but, in the end, necessary. Foucault as the found of endless cynicism is not that hard to accept. Lasch-Quinn is not an admirer. My only complaint here is why did she not just deal with him Aristotle-wise? As if proving that Foucault were a copious fount of cynicism were a difficult thing. But she fixes the balance by talking long and hard about the great and admirable Plotinus. This is as unusual as it is welcome. More Plotinus will do this world a world of good. If to read so much about Plotinus one has to wade through equal parts on Foucault first, I will always in the end accept this somewhat Stoical method. The result is that clear views of Platonism that distinguish it from Aristotle’s truncations, the Gnostic distortions (she approaches some of this through Albert Camus’ rejection of Harnack’s Hellenization thesis, which approach was entirely new to me), from Cynical substitutions, Stoic swerves and reductions, and from the Epicurean delusion.

If all you want to do is find out why each of the discarded approaches should be discarded as a way of life, this is your book. If beyond that you want some useful philosophical distinctions and worthwhile mental stimulation while being exposed to a nearly overwhelming variety of research in every sort of library from the most academic there is to Netflix, this is decidedly a book for you.
_________________________________________
Material complaint: I wish that Notre Dame had not bound this book quite the way they did. It is bound with undergraduate library consultation in view. Sturdy, heavy, unwieldy, at over 350 pages it is best read at a table. You can hold it, but when your chapters are clocking it at 50 pages, and you have philosophical content, you will find yourself wishing they had used lighter paper and bound it in covers somewhat less-than-bulletproof. Perhaps they believe most people will simply read an electronic copy.

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s