In Book Ten of his Confessions, Augustine makes the seemingly incontrovertible claim that everyone wishes to be happy. “We hear the word ‘happiness,’ and all of us admit that we strive for the thing itself” (10.29).
I am using the translation by Sarah Ruden (New York: The Modern Library, 2017).
There’s not a person in this world, Augustine says, who doesn’t have some intuitive sense of the meaning of happiness or flourishing and also wants to live a happy life. The truly interesting question is not whether we want to be happy but where true happiness can be found; for Augustine, this happiness can only be found in fulfilling the telos of humanity’s existence, which is rejoicing in God’s presence (10.32). Whether one agrees with Augustine’s specific account of the goal of human existence, his positing of a relationship between human nature and a transcendent telos for humanity as indispensable for the ars vitae (“the art of living”) would not have been a controversial claim for most ancients.
Contrast this with the situation today where most people are either confused or lack the ability to make coherent sense of their lives or to provide robust responses to the most important questions they face in our contemporary world. In my courses on theology and Scripture, I will often ask my students: when people have questions about how to live well and how to make sense of their lives, to whom do they turn for help? Who provides the necessary resources for how to face adversity, develop good character, cultivate wisdom, pursue meaningful friendships and community, and so on? For the few students who can think of a response to my question, these resources rarely provide anything like a robust and coherent vision of the good life.
The desperate existential need we all have for help to know how to live well is on display in the remarkably successful (in terms of popularity and sales) self-help industry. And yet most of the bumper-sticker or coffee-mug slogan advice fails to grapple with the most important questions we face as humans, let alone to do so in a way that is coherent or oriented toward a truly good human life. In fact, as Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn has argued, much of this self-help derives from, what she refers to as (drawing upon Philip Rieff), a therapeutic worldview. She gives a lengthy definition of the therapeutic worldview, but here I will simply note that the primary problems are that it results in “a loss of inwardness” (p. 18) due to its “assumption of self-interested ends” (p. 19) that cannot provide substantive well-being and happiness.
In this regard, we are at a disadvantage from the ancient Greeks, Romans, and early Christians who often turned to philosophy to provide them with the arts of living. Ancient philosophy was preoccupied with the fundamental questions of human existence and flourishing: What do I need, and what must I do to live a good life? And how is my human nature constituted to live in accordance with a flourishing life? How can I overcome the crippling passions of fear, grief, anger, and illicit desire? Lasch-Quinn has written a powerful and wide-ranging book which argues that a “revival of interest” in “modern versions of ancient Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism” are providing important guidance for people seeking to cultivate inwardness, self-knowledge,When people have questions about how to live well and how to make sense of their lives, to whom do they turn for help? and meaning in a culture dominated by a self-absorbed and narcissistic culture (p. 2). Might the resurgence of interest in ancient philosophy provide us with guides and refreshed insights for how to cultivate an inner life oriented toward the goal of human flourishing?
Ancient philosophical writings such as the Stoics are no longer a field only for classicists and historians of ancient philosophy; rather, the writings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius are held up as providing wise resources for how to handle adversity, manage our emotions, and show us our broader place in the world. One can now easily find any number of Stoic devotionals or lessons to help the beginner start practicing Stoic ideals.E.g., John Sellars, Lessons in Stoicism (London: Allen Lane, 2019); Massimo Pigliucci, How to be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life (New York: Basic Books, 2018). There has also been a revived interest in living an Epicurean life. Catherine Wilson’s How to Be an Epicurean argues that “real Epicureanism is neither frivolous nor dangerous to health, nor a threat to other people.”Catherine Wilson, How to be an Epicurean: The Ancient Art of Living Well (New York: Basic Books, 2019), 10. See here also Daniel Klein, Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2012). Her philosophical self-help book offers guidance for how to wisely choose good pleasures and avoid that which causes pain, fear, and anxiety. The avowed contemporary Cynic Peter Sloterdijk has recently argued that a revival of Cynicism, focused on techniques and practices of self-making, provides the necessary resources for the challenges of twenty-first century society. The resurgence of interest in these ancient philosophical schools is welcome given that within “each of us, as in our culture at large, lie the remains of earlier ideas and sensibilities from long-forgotten epochs. They affect us, often unconsciously, the decisions we make, and the way we approach the world today” (p. 46).
But with five different philosophical schools, which one is most conductive to human flourishing? Lasch-Quinn rejects “The New Gnosticism” (ch. 1) for its contempt of the material world which results in a crisis of embodiment and leads to isolation and self-alienation. At its core, it cannot be easily distinguished from our therapeutic culture. “The New Stoicism” (ch. 2) is also wed too closely to our therapeutic culture in its emphasis on the individual and the goal of personal self-mastery over the emotions. In her words: “Our emotions are, in many ways, our very ticket to the experience of transcendence and immanence alike” (p. 143). “The New Epicureanism” (ch. 3) also loses something of the depth of humanity’s good with its emphasis on the individual, the instrumentalization of wisdom and virtue, and its disinterest in the inner life.Lasch-Quinn provides a stunningly wide-ranging analysis of how our contemporary quests for meaning bear the marks of ancient philosophy’s quest for the good life. Lasch-Quinn refers to “The New Cynicism” (ch. 4) as a tradition of “oppositional or antifoundational thought” (p. 205). A Cynic tradition that is always loudly anti-conventional and which emphasizes cultivating the self for its own sake cannot provide the resources for how to live well or how to cultivate true inwardness.
If the resources on offer in these four philosophical traditions are found wanting, matters are better, according to Lasch-Quinn, with “The New Platonism” (ch. 5). The New Platonism provides superior resources for true inwardness, beauty, love, and community. “Platonism is the philosophy of value par excellence. It is not just a vision of the good life that we need, but a vision of what it means to lead a beautiful life” (p. 343). Platonism alone can provide a transcendent account of the good that can order our lives toward something greater than individual self-interest. “We are creatures 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). We have invited four scholars to engage with Lasch-Quinn’s reflections upon what constitutes the good life and how we might recover a true sense of inwardness. Many of the responses that follow both appreciate Lasch-Quinn’s claim that an account of the supreme good is necessary for living well even as they question whether her account of the good is specific enough to deliver on its promises to overcome our crisis of embodiment, reclaim a true sense of inwardness, and provide an alternative to our therapeutic culture.
Lasch-Quinn provides a stunningly wide-ranging analysis of how our contemporary quests for meaning and the pursuit of human flourishing bear the marks of ancient philosophy’s quest for the good life. Ars Vitae is an invitation to take, read, and ask oneself: “Are you a Stoic or an Epicurean, a Cynic or a Platonist? The answer is fascinating and important” (p. 46). And if you, like Lasch-Quinn, find yourself moved and inspired by Platonism’s commitment to a transcendent good, then perhaps you will find yourself reflecting upon what specifically constitutes the good.