In Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn canvasses five ancient schools of practical-philosophical thought. Contemporary intellectual and cultural trends, she contends, bear various relationships of ancestry and family resemblance, and in some cases of shared nomenclature, to these ancient schools and can be usefully categorized according to the same taxonomy. I’ll say a bit about the first four “new schools,” but my focus will be on the New Platonism, to which alone she gives her unqualified endorsement.
The New Gnosticism is for Lasch-Quinn a wholly unsavory phenomenon. Our culture suffers from an “embodiment crisis”: we do not find ourselves at home in embodied, daily life, but instead seek various forms of escape, facilitated and encouraged by the contemporary “therapeutic culture” (à la Philip Reiff). Now, it wasn’t ultimately clear to me how the various cultural trends she mentions—New Age spirituality, insight-based therapy, conspiracy theories, social engineering, progressive activism, transhumanism, the existence of a class of technocratic elites—hang together as manifestations of a single, and specifically gnostic ethos. It was quite clear that whatever the New Gnosticism is, Lasch-Quinn is not a fan.
Matters are more nuanced with respect to the New Stoicism, the New Epicureanism, and the New Cynicism. As I read her, Lasch-Quinn identifies the New Stoicism with renewed contemporary interest in self-mastery, especially mastery of one’s emotions. Although it provides an ennobling counterbalance to today’s prevalent victim-culture, the New Stoicism denigrates the depth and strength of our emotional attachments to one another, and it has been coopted by the therapeutic culture. It aims not at virtue, as ancient Stoicism did, but at feeling better. This point made me wonder whether Lasch-Quinn would be in favor of a contemporary revival of a morally serious Stoicism—either as an option alongside the Platonism she favors, or as a version of it. On the one hand, making virtue one’s highest aim still places the excellence of one’s own person above all other aims. On the other hand, pursuing moral excellence does require setting self-indulgence aside.
Lasch-Quinn identifies the New Epicureanism with the quest for diverting experiential episodes—a kind of episodic hedonism, decoupled from the exercise of prudence (in contrast with ancient Epicureanism). She has nothing good to say about this form of Epicureanism. Again, I wonder what she would make of a more faithful Epicureanism that emphasizes self-restraint and stability. Epicurus has sometimes been described as a “tranquilist” rather than a “hedonist”: he emphasizes the elimination of bad feelings,Lasch-Quinn criticizes all three of these schools on the same score: they try to guide our practical activity without invoking an objective good. rather than the pursuit of good feelings. Contemporary enthusiasm for meditation and mindfulness perhaps better maps on to traditional Epicureanism.
Lasch-Quinn is even more critical of the New Cynicism, which she identifies with self-expression for its own sake, at best, and transgression for its own sake, at worst. She allows that transgressive actions can have a certain prophetic power. Nevertheless, the New Cynicism offers nothing constructive. It doesn’t even try to teach us how to live.
Ultimately, Lasch-Quinn criticizes all three of these schools on the same score: they try to guide our practical activity without invoking an objective good. “With no vision of the good, we are lost and bereft. All our projects become self-serving. Yet serving our own ends for the sake of serving our own ends can never serve our ends” (p. 331). Bereft of a vision of the good, all we can do is find better or worse ways of coping with our bereavement. The New Stoicism, the New Epicureanism, and the New Cynicism are coping strategies masquerading as accounts of the good life, each more deformed and malignant than the last.
This criticism serves as her pivot-point toward her proposed alternative. “We are creatures capable of goodness. Only living a life turned toward goodness will fulfill our cravings and humanity. Aiming at the good takes us out of ourselves” (p. 331). To recover a vision of the good, she urges, we need a reinvigorated Platonism. I discern three theses that make up the heart of the New Platonism she advocates:
Thesis 1: The Allure of the Good. There is an objective good: what makes for goodness is not dependent on our attitudes. At the same time, goodness calls forth certain attitudes. It moves us. There is thus an intrinsic fit between our subjective longings, on the one hand, and objective goodness, on the other.
Thesis 2: The Transcendence of the Good. The ultimate source of goodness lies beyond the transient world of sense. Mundane manifestations of goodness reflect this transcendent Goodness, and they beckon those who long for goodness onward and upward.
The first two theses are central to the Platonic tradition, at least as it is found in Lasch-Quinn’s two preferred sources, Plato’s Symposium and Plotinus’s Enneads. But then she adds a third, which is less clearly apparent from those texts:
Thesis 3: The Domesticity of the Good. If our “embodiment crisis” manifests itself in various forms of escapism, encountering the Good facilitates the “art of return”: it allows to find meaning and joy in the everyday, the recurring, the familiar. We are enabled to notice “the sacredness or inherent integrity of the ordinary” (p. 262).
Together, these three theses cast a compelling vision. Transcendence means that the Good can take us outside of ourselves, giving us something other than our ego as the pole-star of our will. Allure means that our will is not thus moved for instrumental or calculated reasons, but for the sake of the Good itself. Now, having one’s will inexorably moved toward an object of love is not always a stabilizing phenomenon—it can stoke restlessness, discontent, even obsession. But the Good isn’t like this: Domesticity means that the Good fosters contentment. Thus, paradoxically, peace and harmony are the rewards due to those who seek above all something besides their own peace and harmony.
So far so good. But it is not obvious whether any goods satisfy the trio of allure, transcendence, and domesticity. In particular, there is a prima facie tension between transcendence and domesticity. On the face of it, the quest for the transcendent Good is a quest for something exotic, not something domestic. Now, Platonism is not Gnosticism, as Lasch-Quinn is careful to stress. To love the Absolute One, I need not turn my back on the particular many.On the face of it, the quest for the transcendent Good is a quest for something exotic, not something domestic. But to say that there is no essential tension between transcendence and domesticity is not yet to show why there should be any essential connection, either. To learn the “art of return,” ought we not to turn our gaze toward immanent goods, rather than transcendent ones?
I should here point out an ambiguity in the phrase “transcendent good,” an ambiguity I exploited above in my summary of Lasch-Quinn’s version of Platonism. In one sense, transcendent good contrasts with immanent good. Call this sense ‘Platonic transcendence’—the idea that the Good is that one Form of which all particular goods partake. But there is another sense, which we might call ‘motivational transcendence.’ In this sense, transcendent good contrasts with self-interested good. Lasch-Quinn’s criticism of the non-Platonic schools of thought is that they fail to provide a transcendent good in the motivational sense. So, one wonders whether there is another option: provide an account of self-transcending, immanent goods. There is no shortage of such accounts on offer, under the headings of ‘objective list theories’ of well-being or of ‘natural law theories’ of ethics, and they include such items as health, pleasure, friendship, play, aesthetic appreciation, understanding, etc. Advocates of these theories typically take their cue from the Aristotelian rather than the Platonic philosophical tradition. (These modern-day Aristotelians would have expected the last chapter of Ars Vitae to be about a New Aristotelianism, or at any rate about the recovery of objective goods—in the plural—in some form or another, especially the good of loving relationships, which Lasch-Quinn clearly holds in high regard.) On the neo-Aristotelian account of objective goods, there is an essential connection between transcendence and domesticity: the domestic goods that one loves just are self-transcending goods, even though they’re not transcendent in the Platonic sense.
Now, a Platonist will contend that motivational transcendence entails Platonic transcendence. What attracts one to immanent goods in the first place—what gives them their allure—is their participation in the transcendent Good. This point is not just about metaphysics (i.e., that universals are prior to particulars and explain them), but about motivation: if we didn’t already love the Form of the Good and see it reflected in the immanent world, then nothing would present itself to us as objectively good. Moreover, even once one has intellectually ascended to the Form of the Good, one has good reason to return, lovingly, to the domestic world, as Plotinus stresses in a lovely passage that Lasch-Quinn quotes (pp. 302–03):
If someone who sees beauty excellently represented in a face is carried to that higher world, will anyone be so sluggish in mind and so immovable that, when he sees all the beauties in the world of sense, all its good proportion and the nightly excellence of its order, and the splendor of form which is manifested in the stars, for all their remoteness, he will not thereupon think, seized with reverence, ‘What wonders, and from what source?’
So, in a very different way from the Aristotelian, the Platonist also identifies the transcendent good with the goodness found in domestic life. The transcendent Good is present wherever goodness is manifested.
Aristotelians will reply that the Form of the Good is metaphysically and motivationally otiose, because all our commerce is with concreta. The dispute here is subtle and hard to adjudicate. But regardless, both suggestions, Aristotelian and Platonic, about the connection between transcendence and domesticity have an important limitation. To be “at home in the universe, in peace” (p. 327)—which is what the domesticity of the good promises to provide us—requires more than that one finds, in one’s daily life, objective goods that move one’s will. For the universe contains terrible evils alongside goods. And the reality of death and corruption haunt even the most charmed corners of the cosmos. Love is consistent with despair—a magnifier of it, even. “In the midst of life, we are in death.”
There is a third sense of ‘transcendence’: the sense in which God transcends the world. Where the world is finite and dependent, God is the infinite source of all being. Call this sense ‘ontic transcendence.’ God, like the Form of the Good, is ‘above and beyond’ (or rather: below and before) this world,Once the theistic God is in the picture, the connection between transcendence and domesticity is enriched. but God is not at all abstract. Note that God can underwrite the ‘transcendent good’ in either of the other two senses: God is motivationally transcendent—the ultimate (though not exclusive) objective good, the worthiest Object of self-transcending love; and God is the Good (or so the theistic Platonist will say), the source of all finite goodness, such that love for God and love for creatures are mutually entailing.
But once the theistic God is in the picture, the connection between transcendence and domesticity is enriched in a way that can overcome the problem of despair. It is not just that by loving God I transcend my own self-interest and that I am moved to love everything that reflects God’s goodness. If the gospel is true, I also receive God’s consoling presence and God’s assurance that “all shall be well.” In the embrace of the Ultimate Person, despair gives way to hope.
In Fear and Trembling, Soren Kierkegaard (or rather his pseudonymous author, Johannes de Silentio) imagines various possible postures vis-a-vis domestic life on analogy with the postures of ballet dancers:
Most people live dejectedly in worldly sorrow and joy; they are the ones who sit along the wall and do not join in the dance. The knights of infinity are dancers and possess elevation. They make the movements upward, and fall down again; and this too is no mean pastime, nor ungrateful to behold . . . But to be able to fall down in such a way that the same second it looks as if one were standing and walking, to transform the leap of life into a walk, absolutely to express the sublime and the pedestrian—that only the knight of faith can do, and this is the one and only prodigy.
One way to put Kierkegaard’s point here is that there is no reliable “art of living,” humanly speaking. The greatest of human leaps into sublimity ends in a thud. A life rich with objective goods is still lived out in the Veil of Tears. Even Platonism is a coping strategy.
Only by faith in the God who intervenes into human affairs, who holds us and loves us and gives himself to us, can we return to the realm of the domestic with full and enduring joy.