Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s Ars Vitae is just the kind of reasonable, non-polemical book that our society needs today. Equally adept at diagnosing the problem and offering cogent solutions, Lasch-Quinn balances well the theoretical and the practical, the external and the internal, the philosophical and the theological, the pagan and the Christian, the academic and the popular, the wisdom of the past and the insights of the present. She makes clear that ancient philosophy was as much a system of beliefs as it was a way of life, and she incarnates that message in her book. She surveys and analyzes and synthesizes the ideas of the past, but she never plays with them. Her book deals in serious, life-changing philosophies, and so she is never condescending or frivolous.

ars vitae

Notre Dame Press, 2020

While discussing fairly and objectively the five philosophical schools of Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Neo-Platonism, and their ancient and modern adherents, she yet succeeds in laying forth a program that deals frankly with the strengths and weaknesses of each. Her overall argument makes clear that what our atomized, subjectivist-emotivist society needs is a resurgence of the Neo-Platonic search for the ideal that is strengthened by the admirable self-discipline of the Stoics, but tempered by the Epicurean embrace of emotion and pleasure. As for Gnosticism and Cynicism, we would do best to avoid the dualistic rejection of matter and the body of the former and the hermeneutics of suspicion and self-focused rebelliousness of the latter. Cynicism can, at times, speak truth to power; however,like Gnosticism, it tends to reinforce rather than free us from our navel-gazing, confession-without-repentance therapeutic culture that recognizes no authority beyond the self.

At the core of Lasch-Quinn’s argument lie three insights that merit and demand a wide hearing. First, the various types of therapy promoted by our culture fail to bring any long lasting health or contentment. If anything, they exacerbate problems, turning us back on ourselves in an endless loop. Second, any final answer must address our embodied nature as enfleshed souls rather than souls trapped in bodies. Third, all the discipline and searching and studying in the world will not do us any final good if we lack a transcendent reference point that directs us away from ourselves and a universal, eternal standard by which we can measure our growth.

Lasch-Quinn’s bracing work is just what the doctor (or therapist) ordered, offering up a prognosis that our culture would do well to follow. I celebrate the depth and breadth of her argument and the wide-ranging conversation in which she engages with thinkers from a variety of cultures and periods. There are, however, two thinkers she does not engage with fully who would have allowed her to strengthen and clarify her argument: the first, Spinoza, demonstrates what happens when the ancient philosophical schools are wrestled with apart from an active, transcendent God; the second, Augustine, demonstrates how a Christian thinker can transform the wisdom of the schools by wrestling with them on both a philosophical and a personal level.

Spinoza, Therapy Guru of Modernity

Although Lasch-Quinn interacts with such diverse interlocutors as Nietzsche, Einstein, Hegel, Freud, and Descartes, there is one major thinker who does not appear in her book: Spinoza (1632–1677). Like Ars Vitae, Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics seeks to revive many of the teachings and disciplines of the ancient schools in order to extract from them methods for achieving mental and emotional harmony in a modern, fragmented age. Though he rarely references the ancient schools by name, Spinoza’s magnum opus boldly but subtly combines elements from four of the five.

As a modern-day Cynic, the Jewish Spinoza shakes off all his ethnic and religious ties to the historical strictures of the Mosaic Law and the chosenness of Abraham and his descendants. As a Gnostic, he promises “salvation” through the acquisition of knowledge rather than through the mediation of a divine savior. As an Epicurean,Spinoza is the first therapy guru of the modern world who thought he could have his cake and eat it too. he invokes God while presenting a worldview that is thoroughly materialistic. As a Stoic, he advocates a severe examination of the emotions, tracing the precise patterns of cause and effect that led to them and pruning those that rest on faulty or irrational chains of causation. As for Plato and his heirs, they are consciously left out of the mix.

The reason Lasch-Quinn needs to wrestle with Spinoza is that Spinoza is the first therapy guru of the modern world who thought he could have his cake and eat it too. He thinks he can shake off the divine, transcendent aspects of Judaism, Christianity, and Platonism while preserving their ethical and spiritual goals. Again and again, Spinoza asserts his belief in God, while simultaneously arguing that God is nature. Spinoza’s God is as inert as he is impersonal: he does not choose or intervene, like or dislike, bless or curse.

Spinoza’s therapeutic program foreshadows that of Freud by two centuries, providing a process for helping sufferers uncover the true (materialistic) roots of their psychological problems and so free themselves from bad associations triggered by trauma. Much of his advice is excellent and eminently practical, but it is divorced from any reference point beyond the material world and any kind of universal, super-natural, meta-physical standard. Even more troubling, while Spinoza sets himself the honorable goal of healing the Cartesian mind/body split, he achieves that goal, not by positing an incarnational link between mind and body, but by allowing the mind to be swallowed up by the body in the same way that his impotent “God” is swallowed up by nature.

Like many of Lasch-Quinn’s modern Stoics, Epicureans, and Cynics, Spinoza formulated emotional regimens that can offer authentic psychological relief to people suffering from PTSD and OCD. Unfortunately, his lack of a Platonic ideal to strive for, or even an Aristotelian telos (purposeful end) to orient oneself around, robs his method of any real transcendence or ascent up the rising path toward Love or Goodness or Beauty. Interestingly, this lack of a referent beyond the (material) self is reflected in the cold, impersonal, almost anti-humanistic tone that Spinoza adopts in his Ethics.

Augustine, Plotinus, Incarnation

How different is the warm, personal, autobiographical approach that Augustine takes in his Confessions. Although Lasch-Quinn alludes frequently to Confessions, she fails to treats it as an autobiography, as Augustine’s testimony to how God led him step by step up the ladder of divine ascent.The steps that Augustine chronicles in his spiritual autobiography take him beyond himself to the incarnate Christ. Whereas the various versions of twelve-step programs on the market today often lead the initiate back into himself—often replacing a highly destructive addiction with a less destructive, socially acceptable one—the steps that Augustine chronicles in his spiritual autobiography take him beyond himself to the incarnate Christ.

Lasch-Quinn does well to highlight Augustine’s connections to Neo-Platonism, but I wish she had mentioned more specifically a key moment in Confessions VII. Although, Augustine explains, his reading of Plotinus taught him the truth of John 1:1 (that in the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God), only from the New Testament did he learn the truth of John 1:14: that the Logos was made flesh and dwelt among us (see VII.9). Neo-Platonism pointed him in the right direction, preparing his mind and heart to accept not only that Christ was the incarnate Son of God, but that we ourselves are incarnate creatures: fully physical and fully spiritual.

And something more. What was missing in Plato was not proper intellectual guidance, but true spiritual humility. Augustine asks:

How could I expect that the Platonist books would ever teach me charity? I believe that it was by your will [God] that I came across those books before I studied the Scriptures, because you wished me always to remember the impression they had made on me, so that later on, when I had been chastened by your Holy Writ and my wounds had been touched by your healing hand, I should be able to see and understand the difference between presumption and confession, between those who see the goal that they must reach, but cannot see the road by which they are to reach it, and those who see the road to that blessed country which is meant to be no mere vision but our home (VII.20).Saint Augustine, Confessions, translated by R. S. Pine-Coffin (London: Penguin, 1961), 154.

Augustine, like Lasch-Quinn, is open to learning vital truths about the nature of God and man and of the struggle for knowledge and transformation from the Neo-Platonists, but he is also, like Lasch-Quinn, prepared to add the missing ingredients of love and humility to the Neo-Platonic program. And he knows that incarnation and charity are the two things needful to make that program “work” because he has made the journey himself.

Spiritual Autobiographies

A more vigorous wrestling with Augustine’s Confessions as a spiritual autobiography would have helped Lasch-Quinn flesh out more fully the strengths and weaknesses of the five schools as well as personalize the struggles of modern people to make the most fruitful use of the ancient philosophies. She would also have done well to spar with three literary testimonies inspired by Confessions that she does not reference in Ars Vitae: William Wordsworth’s The Prelude (1805, 1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (1817), and C. S. Lewis’s Surprised by Joy (1955).

Wordsworth subtitled his epic autobiographical poem “Growth of a Poet’s Mind,” and, in it, he chronicles how his interactions with nature, and the transcendent in nature, formed his psyche and helped him survive a number of emotional, spiritual, and perceptual crises in his life. The greatest of those crises rose up out of his initial celebration, and later rejection, of the French Revolution and its false promise to set man free. A temporary disciple of the progressive political theories of William Godwin, Wordsworth allowed himself to be dragged into a world of cold abstractions, cut off from nature and the individual human heart and soul.

As a result, he became, at once, a Cynic, tearing down the traditions and the rootedness he once loved, a Stoic, eliminating feeling for an abstract greater good, and a Gnostic, feeling superior to his fellow man on account of his new, revolutionary opinions.

In such strange passions, if I may once more

Review the past, I warred against myself—

A bigot to a new idolatry—

Like a cowled monk who hath forsworn the world,

Zealously laboured to cut off my heart

From all the sources of her former strength;

And as, by simple waving of a wand,

The wizard instantaneously dissolves

Palace or grove, even so could I unsoul

As readily by syllogistic words

Those mysteries of being which have made,

And shall continue evermore to make,

Of the whole human race one brotherhood (XII.75–87). William Wordsworth, The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850, edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill (New York: Norton, 1979), 421. 1850 version.

Wordsworth ultimately shakes off this dis-embodied, anti-humanistic form of thinking, not by Stoic will-power or Epicurean pleasure, but by learning to see the world again from the perspective of a vast continuum that links past and present, internal and external, subject and object, even as it links the poet to humanity, to nature, and to himself.

Coleridge, too, in his sui generis autographical work of literary criticism and philosophy finds an answer to his long search for goodness, truth, and beauty in a marriage between subject and object, the mind of man and the natural world that recognizes the need for transcendence and immanence: in a word, incarnation.Coleridge had to move through the philosophical schools of his own day before he could mature into one of the finest Christian thinkers of the Romantic Age. Just as Augustine had to move step by step from a kind of hedonistic paganism to Gnostic Manichaeism to Neo-Platonism before embracing the incarnate Christ, so Coleridge had to move through the philosophical schools of his own day (associationism, idealism, pantheism, Unitarianism) before he could mature into one of the finest Christian thinkers of the Romantic Age.

Associationism, in particular, proved a stumbling block for Coleridge, for it left him stranded in a materialistic, deterministic world of cause and effect that bears a close resemblance to the philosophies of Epicurus and Spinoza. The associationist theories of David Hartley, Coleridge came to see, were based on a “subordination of final to efficient causes in the human being, which flows of necessity from the assumption, that the will and, with the will, all acts of thought and attention are parts and products of this blind mechanism, instead of being distinct powers, the function of which it is to controul, determine, and modify the phantasmal chaos of association” (I.VII).Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, edited by James Engell and W. Jackson Bate (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 116. Hartley’s theories, like those of Spinoza, have great practical, therapeutic power, but they ultimately cut us off from transcendence, from free will, and from our own nature as enfleshed souls.

Like Augustine, Wordsworth, and Coleridge before him, C. S. Lewis went on a long journey through the philosophical “isms” of his day, a journey that he chronicled in his spiritual autobiography Surprised By Joy. Significantly for the thesis and perspective of Ars Vitae, one of the incidents in Lewis’s life that set him on the road to faith involved an incident that taught him the proper way to interact with the ancient schools of philosophy.

While still an atheist at Oxford, Lewis overheard one of his students (who would become Dom Bede Griffiths) discussing Plato with one of his Christian friends (Owen Barfield). As he listened, he suddenly realized that Griffiths and Barfield were discussing Plato as if what he wrote actually mattered, as if the study of Plato might change one’s beliefs and behaviors. Philosophy, Barfield explained, “wasn’t a subject to Plato . . . it was a way.”C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, in The Inspirational Writings of C. S. Lewis (New York: Inspiration Press, 1991), 123.

An engagement with Lewis—who would go on in his fictional, apologetical, and academic books to unite (in the manner of Plato) reason and imagination, mind and heart, logic and myth, and who would fashion an ethical framework that combined the insights of scripture with those of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Marcus Aurelius (see, for example, Mere Christianity, Book III)—would greatly strengthen the arguments made in Ars Vitae and provide its readers with a modern role model who, like Augustine, was guided by the ancient schools but did not fall prey to their materialism, skepticism, and narcissism.

Indeed, a fuller engagement with the four Christian autobiographies of Augustine, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lewis would have improved Lasch-Quinn’s thesis by grounding it in the lived experience of four very different believers whose Platonism strengthened and focused their pilgrimages and made them more effective champions of the incarnation, the logos made flesh.