Anyone with an email account knows the flutter of daily inbox arrivals ranging from the most trivial to the most vital. For someone just publishing the results of something like fifteen years (really a life’s worth) of reading and thinking in a book called Ars Vitae (The Art of Living), discovering an email one day addressed from “Sapientia” in my inbox really made me sit up and take notice. As I worked on my book, charting what struck me as an exciting and noteworthy resurgence of interest in our times in the ancient Greco-Roman schools of philosophy surfacing in individual cultural artifacts, expressions, and conversations in very different fields, I yearned for a larger conversation among them (meaning both among the different schools and among those engaged in different conversations but about similar questions). I never imagined one such conversation might actually take place on the occasion of my own book itself, so it was a joyful surprise to hear from Sapientia that it was planning a symposium on Ars Vitae.

ars vitae

Notre Dame Press, 2020

As readers of Sapientia already know, the periodical of the Henry Center embodies the spirit and practice of sapientia (“lat. n. wisdom, philosophy, perfection of intellect & character”) in its pages. As its title page reads, “In an age dominated by specialized knowledge, Sapientia promotes lived truth and applied knowledge.” Sapientia (both concept and journal) could hardly dovetail more perfectly with my aims in Ars Vitae, which Joshua Jipp has captured so beautifully in his stirring introduction. I am deeply grateful to him for organizing and editing the symposium, to Geoffrey Fulkerson (editor-in-chief) and Matthew Wiley (managing editor), and to the four authors for reading my book so carefully and preparing such intricate commentaries.

The word dovetail captures in an especially apt fashion the tangible, nearly tactile, nature of the relation between my book and the essays of the book symposium. In the unfolding of each essay, as each writer in turn presents a different unfolding of the book, there is a feeling of mutual concerns, complementary ideas, and gentle queries coming together like feathers sitting side by side, nudging together, and at times overlapping to offer an even more variegated pattern. For someone intricately constructing a book over time that already had a lot of different colors, textures, and shapes it was fitting together, it is astonishing and gratifying to be the recipient of such an artistry of response. I hope in turn readers of this symposium, no doubt bringing their own artistry of response, might find themselves drawn further into Ars Vitae itself.

When invited to offer a response to the essays as part of the symposium, I was kindly given the choice between the editor’s suggested four-week deadline and a longer timeline. Given present personal and professional demands, only the longer timeline made sense,There is a feeling of mutual concerns, complementary ideas, and gentle queries coming together like feathers sitting side by side. but I had to choose the breath-catching one. Knowing the other essays were already complete caused an irresistible momentum toward publication—but that was not the only reason.

After reading each of the four essays and savoring the depth and breadth of their engagement with such a vast and profound set of the themes and questions I had raised in the book (not always in full knowledge that I was doing so, until I read these essays), I realized there were only two choices. I could go ahead and give my immediate, if only initial and thus partial, reflections on these meditations on Ars Vitae based on extant reading and current thoughts or, I could lay out a plan and schedule for reading, contemplating, and writing about the new works, questions, and authors emerging from my reading of the essays (including works by each of the symposiasts) that was shaping up in my mind to be a project of a year or so. I realized that would take a much larger swath of time than was feasible and draw me farther into my next project.

So in large part, my reply to these trenchant responses must be that I will be taking them into account more fully as I go along, for the approach I took in Ars Vitae opened onto new paths I am keen to explore and I am continuing to read and write on these themes. Many of the questions raised in the symposium are the logical next steps for planning and assembling and preparing and mapping the next stages toward crystallizing a vision for what comes next. I hope this will not disappoint anyone wishing for more particulars as part of a shorter-term discussion, but my modus operandi places a great weight on the order of things, demanding a painstaking working through of a work before formulating a response to it. (And of course one must stop and smell the pages of the old books so many times.) Alas, any informed consideration of Spinoza’s Ethics and some of the other works mentioned will have to wait for now, even if they have now leapt to the top of the piles of books surrounding my reading chair (or if I am now excitedly set off on a quest to rustle up a copy). That said, wherever possible I will try to venture a supposition and even when I do not, astute readers will no doubt be able to glean hints I might not even know I am giving. Writing and reading is a mysterious process and is not always easily kept in hand.

Real Transcendence

I appreciate Philip Woodward’s succinct run-through of the different strands of philosophical thought from antiquity that I locate in our contemporary culture. He gets right to the heart of my critique of the way the therapeutic cast of contemporary culture threatens to distort each approach, where the New Stoicism risks jettisoning the ancient Stoics’ emphasis on moral virtue in the more modern quest for a self-oriented quest of “feeling better,” the New Epicureanism risks veering away from the pursuit of pleasure through tranquility and prudence toward the pursuit of “diverting experiential episodes,” and the New Cynicism eschews the earlier point of truth-telling as moral corrective for “transgression for its own sake.”Woodward points to a promising way to think about the different aspects and kinds of transcendence, which will only deepen matters. While all of the ancient schools of thought are worth careful study and have much to offer, ancient Epicureanism and Cynicism do strike me as more at risk of therapeutic hijacking, partly for intrinsic reasons and partly from the modern context itself, than Stoicism. In reply to Woodward’s wondering, I would, yes, find much of value in the return of a “morally serious Stoicism.”

Woodward concentrates the rest of his essay on the New Platonism, the school of thought I do find most promising, and offers a helpful and clarifying conceptualization of the vision of the good I presented as an alternative to the dominant ways of thinking I critique in Ars Vitae. Do these categories sum up all of the ways I think about it? That will be intriguing to figure out over time. Woodward’s focus here on the relation between transcendence and the immanent mirrors mine throughout the book. He sees a “prima facie tension between transcendence and domesticity” where, he is right, I see more compatibility. While he points to the New Aristotelianism’s provision of “self-transcending, immanent goods,” he points to Platonism’s tendency to join transcendence and immanence through the “prior” nature of the abstract category of the Form of the good (so that goods in the world are thus recognized as good). My own interpretation of Plato and Plotinus seeks to rejoin the transcendent and immanent in time and place, as the good inheres in both the abstract and the particular and connects them. Woodward’s notion of “ontic transcendence” might have been assumed—and end up being subsumed—by any categorization, were I to attempt one; here I was invoking it in a purposely undifferentiated thus holistic way. As an ideal way to illustrate how we navigate both realms, his close reading of the exquisite Kierkegaard quote caused me to reread that portion of Fear and Trembling too many times to count now. My reading of it would stress the need to transpose the heroic excellence of “the dance” into the daily heroism needed for our daily “walk”—“absolutely to express the sublime in the pedestrian” [emphasis mine]. By raising such fine points as matters with existential and practical implications, Woodward points to a promising way to think about the different aspects and kinds of transcendence, which will only deepen matters.

Likewise the Plato versus Aristotle question, another main preoccupation going forward. Woodward presents it in a way that is entertaining (whether he intended it as such or not), at least to me. I would actually agree with the New Aristotelians (and my point in the book is not to form camps but to draw on good ideas wherever we find them), when he writes that “these modern-day Aristotelians would have expected the last chapter to be about a New Aristotelianism, or at any rate about the recovery of objective goods.” Since Ars Vitae reached a different conclusion—how different is the question—I need more time to reconsider where Aristotle fits into this portrait.

Philosophical Autobiography

The response offered by Louis Markos was immensely gratifying and his essay is replete with food for thought. I take all of his reading suggestions to heart as invitations for further study.

To point to just one of his themes given space considerations here, he calls special attention to the intriguing question of genre in Augustine’s Confessions, this classic for the ages. If we emphasize the genre of the Confessions as autobiography, we highlight Augustine’s struggle with his own early life of confusion and difficulty through the various ways of thinking that led him further astray or paved a better way,This is no doubt one of the most enchanting personal accounts ever—a powerful, life-changing, and also “warm” tale, as Markos calls it. eventually up the “ladder of divine ascent” to God, as Markos puts it so beautifully. This is no doubt one of the most enchanting personal accounts ever—a powerful, life-changing, and also “warm” tale, as Markos calls it (versus the “cold” tone taken by Spinoza).

As Markos and other symposiasts intimate, just as important in thinking about the form of the Confessions is the way it fits the genre of confession itself in both senses of admission and glorification—as extended prayer. While it is true and striking that Augustine takes a “warm, personal, autobiographical approach,” which makes his voice reach the reader with immediacy across great distances of time and place, it stands out starkly from many modern self-oriented autobiographies and memoirs and their different kind of confessional style and tone without the points that Augustine makes in spiritual confession. We can add to this that Augustine’s work also stands out as a poem. When read in Latin, this is particularly apparent.

As I reviewed Book VII, 20, I was struck not only by the points Markos rightly directed us to but, in the translation I read this time (The Everyman’s edition translated by E. B. Pusey, London: J.M. Dent & Co., 1907, my copy from Philip Rieff), also by footnotes calling attention to some of the original Latin wording. The meaning of the words validates Markos’s observation, which other commentators emphasized too and with which I would certainly agree, that the Platonist works Augustine read were not his end point but an influence on him on his path to Scripture. I would emphasize, though, that Platonism was not merely an intellectual but also a spiritual influence on him. Augustine attests that his reading in Platonism did no less than reveal to him the existence of transcendence itself: “But having then read those books of the Platonists, and thence been taught to search for incorporeal truth, I saw Thy invisible things, understood by those things which are made…” (VII, xx, p. 143). As Markos says, Augustine’s encounter with Platonism showed him the meaning of John 1:1, preparing the way for Augustine’s understanding of God. The precise word choice in Latin—even someone unfamiliar with the language can hear this in the sounds of the words, especially if you say them aloud—shows the importance of different translators’ abilities to capture the poetry of the Confessions.

Augustine describes himself as filled with knowledge from Platonism to the point of cockiness: “I prated as one well skilled; but had I not sought Thy way in Christ our Saviour, I had proved to be, not skilled, but killed.” As the footnote indicates, the Latin here is “Non peritus, sed periturus”—making this an actual pun. Augustine proceeds: “For now I had begun to wish to seem wise, being filled with mine own punishment, yet I did not mourn, but rather scorn, puffed up with knowledge” (VII, xx, fn 1, p. 143). Pusey captured in “mourn, but rather scorn” the musical repetitions of the original “Non flebam sed inflabar” (VII, xx, fn 2, p. 143).

For modern readers, the Confessions also stands out as a refreshing respite from the twentieth-century “confessional mode” for the way each personal story is analyzed for what principle it yields. One particularly memorable place we see this is in Augustine’s self-criticism of his behavior as a baby (Book I, chs. 7–8)! In his preface, Pusey suggests that the text is notably spare of personal detail, and other commentators have actually gone so far as to insist that it is not an autobiography. But although only having dipped into these waters, that would seem to me to be going too far.

I agree with Markos’s call to pay attention to Augustine’s story as spiritual autobiography. I would only add that its approach also makes it clearly a work of philosophy—an expression of philosophia and sapientia in the fullest sense.There is something to be said for discussing ideas on the plane of ideas and not always in relation to the individual particularities of our own autobiographies alone. It is fair and apt to look at Augustine’s work for its philosophical import as well as its genre of spiritual autobiography, prayer, and poem. That it combines all of these genres into a new one of its own is part of the aesthetic power of its testimony. I emphasize the poetry and philosophy of Confessions, not in contrast to Markos’s point about genre but to supplement it, since in Ars Vitae, one of my aims was to join the perennial effort—ongoing in our times—of reclaiming philosophy for all of us. Markos suggests that this can be enhanced by showing intellectual and spiritual developments in the contexts of particular lives, as in the case of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and C. S. Lewis as well. I agree, with the caution that the interweaving of the intellectual and spiritual with the personal is an art form. At the hand of many modern historians and biographers, the ideas often get obscured or lost altogether. There is a whole intricate backstory to why this is so, but the therapeutic culture’s imperative of self-revelation does play a role. There is something to be said for discussing ideas on the plane of ideas and not always in relation to the individual particularities of our own autobiographies alone. Though I would trust those sincerely interested in the ideas themselves to such a task—Markos himself, for instance—I would fear for what might be lost by others less sensitive to the moral, philosophical, poetic, and spiritual currents if given the green light to pursue theology and philosophy in a way that, in our times, could become purely personal in the diminished sense of lacking inwardness.

The Virtue of Art

I profoundly appreciate Christina Bieber Lake’s emphasis on art in her comments on Ars Vitae. I take her comment on Impressionism as high praise, though it makes me a bit speechless, as does the rousing ending of her essay. It uncannily could be part of a precis, like almost everything else she has touched on here, of the next work I am conceptualizing. This is clearly a sign of a sympathy of sensibilities. It is also proof of the care Lake took in unraveling the many strands I sought to weave together in Ars Vitae. I did not dream I would have such a reader when this work was in (quite solitary) progress over many years.

Lake has called attention to a helpful distinction in how I proposed the terms of the conversation between form and content. As we live out our lives, particularities will arise that dictate different content for consideration of what constitutes the good. I do think the vast and elaborate corpus of Plato’s works offers food for thought in terms of the content—and not just the form—of the good, yet it is a fair comment that in Ars Vitae I was mainly focusing on the form of the good in Plato. Perhaps it is a testament that I think we are up against—as Alasdair MacIntyre contends,I did not dream I would have such a reader when this work was in (quite solitary) progress over many years. along with, I suspect, many participants and readers of this symposium—a crisis that goes beyond the question of particular goods to the dissolution of the sources and foundations underlying the notion of good itself. To reestablish the groundwork for a discussion of particular goods relies on there being a meaningful category of good in our conceptual repertoire.

In Lake’s essay, as in all of the essays, there is a yearning for me to say more about Augustine and make his conversion to Christianity more central. I take this as a friendly suggestion, since I did end my story of the ancient figures with Augustine and he plays a central role in Chapter Five, the climactic final chapter of Ars Vitae. As with Aristotle’s role in modern public and intellectual life, I assumed Augustine’s Christianity as central not only to his own life and spiritual development but to the entire Western intellectual tradition to follow. In terms of Aristotle, Lake’s point is well taken, as I mentioned in response to Woodward above. With everything I had going on in the book, I touched on Aristotle as much as possible, but in-depth treatment felt premature and unwieldy, given the many books’ worth of material I imagined could be added. For readers already well versed in these themes before coming to Ars Vitae, I knew they would be better acquainted with recent applications of Aristotle in the reign of virtue ethics and communitarianism in ethical philosophy and the late twentieth-century public square (such as it was). I look forward to fuller engagement with the Aristotelian corpus, revisionist scholarship, and the range of commentaries, ancient and modern, before venturing more.

My point as I reached the conclusion of Ars Vitae is that we need to bring Platonism back into the picture—and this includes the Platonism in Christianity, since there are differing interpretations of and approaches to Christian doctrine and practice (some are decidedly therapeutic and even Gnostic, others Stoic and Epicurean and even Cynical). My even more overarching point is that this is the conversation we should be having. One of the best parts of reading Augustine is that he invites us to interpret, assess, and evaluate the truth and worth of ideas along with him. He sees ideas as the living things that they are. If we do not, we risk losing our groundwork for the notion of what is true and beautiful altogether.

Just as I think my attention to form, as reconceived through a reinterpreted Platonism, is not at odds with Lake’s argument for particular bases for the good, I think abstract ideas and the concreta another symposiast mentions stand in less of a dichotomous opposition than ordinarily thought. We can see this in Pusey’s preface to the Confessions when he attributes some of the abiding interest in the masterpiece to Augustine’s continual movement from a vivid scene in his life to philosophical insights he gleaned: “With extreme naturalness, (as one to whom absence of self had become nature,) he passes at once from the immediate subject or fact to the principles with which it is connected” (Preface, pp. xxi). When it comes to praise of God, and the role of the Incarnation, it is not just a question to Augustine of whether God consoles but how. Augustine’s investigations were abstract but he suggested how they applied to everyday life, which, Pusey wrote, “may teach how things abstract may be studied devotionally” and speak even to nonbelievers (after all, even Mother Theresa, who must be counted as a knight of faith, admitted to periods of doubt):

So also, amid the interpretations of Holy Scripture, even those, to whom the analogy between the spiritual and moral creation is less apparent than it was to the Fathers of the Church, may still find what will be instructive to them . . . as may the interpretations themselves be, if, without attempting to force themselves to receive what at first goes against them, they do not yet, on its account, reject what even to them may seem probable or natural, but are content to remain in suspense and undecided, until they become more acquainted with them, and have seen them presented from different points of view, and associated and harmonizing with others (Preface, pp. xxiv–xxv).

Pusey already—writing in 1838—saw things going in the direction of doubt inspired by empirical science (xxiii), as did Kierkegaard, who made it a starting point in Fear and Trembling. I see what they are referring to as the vanity of knowingness akin to that of the Gnostic sensibility, which can take root in those who picture themselves believers and unbelievers alike. (Picking up a thread from an earlier commentator, while Augustine thought himself prideful when first encountering Platonist ideas, and while Christian teachings are undeniably a fundamental source for the notion of humility, I argue for sources of humility in Platonism too.)

Further, Augustine shows that religion is philosophy—or can be. It is often misused to end questions, but as the history of theological thought attests, many have taken it as a starting point for lifelong inquiry and conversation. This is just what Augustine does. His stories lead to examination of not just principles but the foundation of principle itself. His story is not so much primarily autobiographical as philosophical by intent, a self-examination oriented in the end away from the self—a philosophical as well as spiritual confession. Markos shows us that Augustine sees his own life story in the terms of one way of thinking giving way to another in succession. Lake shares this sense of the importance of particular ideas and expresses it in some moving lines: “We all habitually expose ourselves to certain ideas. The question has always been which ones.”

Land Craft

All of the points Julien Smith makes in his essay are well taken. His emphasis on the importance of the land itself, “our beautiful garden home” as he endearingly puts it, is certainly in keeping with my critique of the Gnostics on the precise point of their despising of the physical world. One of the points in linking them to particular movements and approaches today (the connection Woodward queried) is to foreground the physical world, not just the human body. The work of Wendell Berry, and his notion of “stewardship,” has influenced me greatly, as did meeting him, which added the dimension of an unexpected, irrepressible sense of humor to the moral seriousness of his writings. It is a joy to hear his voice in this context. At my own home on a third of an acre in a close-in suburb, farming is very present in the daily and seasonal rhythms of our lives, so this essay had a special resonance. Besides trees, shrubs, mounds of tall grasses, and thousands of flowers of all kinds from roses to zinnias, we grow our own garlic, potatoes, kale, collard greens, tomatoes, lettuce, cabbage, rhubarb, Swiss chard, bell peppers, chili peppers, squash, pumpkins, peas, beans, radishes, onions, carrots, scallions, cilantro, chives, basil, dill, mint, oregano, and, yes, parsely, sage, rosemary, and thyme—and other things I am forgetting on this March day. In the summer we drink tea made from our lemon balm and in winter eat jelly from our quince bushes. Our gardening traditions, with long roots on both sides of the family, predate new movements for urban homesteading, green cities, buying locally, and other practices arising from dire concern for environmental sustainability.Any and all attempts to do better with regard to the land that sustains us are vital in the truest sense. Any and all attempts to do better with regard to the land that sustains us are vital in the truest sense. We must do everything in our power to preserve, conserve—save—the earth. Smith’s call to retrieve philosophical and theological underpinnings of those traditions falls on receptive ears.

I also appreciate Smith’s emphasis on work and marvel at the close tie between his dominant themes of concern and my own as I find the next pathway naturally leading me forward from Ars Vitae. In emphasizing the importance of work, I would go further to stress the craft aspect of farming, as Berry does, and not just farming itself, as the part of work that has to do with everyone, not just those able to own a piece of land. I balk at the notion of the “land community” from fears of further balkanization in a time of balkanization aplenty. Farming can produce virtuous citizens, but it does not always accomplish that, and loving attachments to urbandwellers and the long and worthy traditions of the connection between the city and the good life urge catholicity regarding vocations that contribute to our very sustenance, spiritually and physically, and the full range of craft practices that contribute to our lives. After all, Jesus was a carpenter (Matt 13:55; Mark 6:3). According to Bauer’s Greek-English Lexicon, the Greek word for “carpenter” (tekton) could also mean artisan, handyman, builder, laborer—“a worker in wood.”

Smith’s interpretation of the movie Interstellar is a valid and important way to state a worry I share. I think the movie does tread a very fine line between a Gnostic disdain for the world and what I see as a Platonist love for it. My reason for seeing it ultimately as at least hinting at a New Platonism rests on what may have been largely unintentional message and is based in part on my own reading of the tesseract scene. Yes, the notion of the recourse to space expedition to live elsewhere as a viable approach to exhausting our planet would be horrifying if that is all the movie posited. In Chapter One, this is why I drew on Voegelin and others in my critique of the New Gnosticism on precisely such religio-philosophical grounds, and illustrated its marked contrast with Platonism in Chapter Five. While that is how the movie seemed to begin, I thought it ended up somewhere much different, as Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) came to regret the hubris and careerism of the comment Smith quotes about humans being “explorers, pioneers, not caretakers” after his heartbreak at being permanently consigned to separation from his daughter. It seemed telling that the tesseract scene conveyed the transcendence of love by evoking a concrete time and place as symbolized by a connection across time and space through a space-and-time-bound bookcase in his daughter’s room. That the movie is ambiguous is undeniable and my portrait relied on nuances of interpretation. More recently, it was fascinating to see McConaughey on a television advertisement (I think it was during the Superbowl) stressing the need to care for our own planet. Certainly this was a recognition of the fine line involved here, in the movie and outside of it.

*  *  *

Whether farmers or not, whether Christians or not, the question still remains the same—how to live. So I believe the schools of philosophical thought still apply, no matter what the context. As presented and explored in Ars Vitae, they are not meant as the end point but an array of approaches, a classical typology, for us to recognize and consider seriously as part of an ongoing conversation about the art of living.

All I can really think to say in closing is thank you. So please forgive me for not addressing each and every one of your fine points and for not addressing at greater length those I did remark upon. All of your ideas certainly deserve it, and will receive much continued thought in the coming days and years. For this treasured conversation with you I am beyond grateful.