Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is a professor of history and senior research associate at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Syracuse University. Her work focuses on ideas and their intricacy, inner-workings, and importance in the lives of individuals and society, past and present. In addition to modern and contemporary American social, cultural, and intellectual history, she has broader temporal, geographical, and interdisciplinary interests extending back to antiquity, especially philosophy, comparative literature, cultural and media criticism, languages, and classical reception. Her teaching and research integrate specialist and generalist sensibilities and she is in close conversation with scholars in many fields. Lasch-Quinn’s new book, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living (October 2020), explores ideas in ancient Greco-Roman philosophy and modern American culture about how to live. She agreed to answer some of our questions about Ars Vitae and to discuss how the work contributes to contemporary conversations.
Despite the flood of self-help guides and our current therapeutic culture, feelings of alienation and spiritual longing continue to grip modern society. In this book, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn offers a fresh solution: a return to classic philosophy and the cultivation of an inner life. When did you first get the idea to write Ars Vitae?
I believe I have been thinking about this book all my life. After writing and teaching for nearly two decades on modern American thought and culture, in 2008 I found myself returning to my earlier interests in languages, comparative literature, art history, and political philosophy, and, while a full professor, even began taking Latin classes again, as well as classes in Italian and German and ancient Greece and Rome, and advanced doctoral seminars in philosophy and religion. In 2012, around the time I spent in Rome, Italy, on a Fulbright fellowship, my interests in modernity and antiquity converged. In the ensuing years, the ancient and modern connections I was seeing gave me the idea for Ars Vitae, and I became completely immersed in the project.
One of your earlier books was Race Experts: How Racial Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution. How did you switch gears and change your research and writing to cover the material in this new book?
I was alarmed by the therapeutic hijacking of the Civil Rights movement. I was curious about what an alternative would be to the therapeutic culture, which seemed to be overtaking everything and eclipsing all hope for democracy and the “beloved community.”
Ars Vitae examines how Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism have reappeared in American culture and argues that the conversation they are part of offers a better path toward well-being and happiness than current obsessions with the self. How does this book contribute to contemporary conversations or events?
My book speaks to contemporary conversations about the widespread loss of idealism in the cynical moment in which we live. It also joins conversations about the drawbacks of the modern therapeutic culture with observations about the emergence of new forms of ancient schools of philosophy, such as the New Stoicism, to see if they provide alternatives. It contributes to discussions about self-interested individualism, widespread personal crisis, and the perils of social divisiveness.
In what way is the book you wrote different from the book you set out to write?
After the current structure of the book crystallized several years ago, I found myself at a crossroads. Should I write a shorter, more manageable book about the new Stoicism as a possible alternative to the therapeutic culture or the larger book that would put all five of these schools in conversation? I received encouragement at a key moment and decided to follow my heart’s desire and hew to the more capacious blueprints for what became Ars Vitae.
Who is the biggest influence on you and your work?
There are really too many influences to single out just one. Plato was one of the biggest influences on this work, as was Plotinus.
What advice would you give to a junior history scholar looking to publish a book in this field?
It’s a little hard to know what field, because this book draws on many fields. It is an attempt to put different fields in conversation because I saw some similar questions arising in very different fields and wished that they were speaking to each other in a larger conversation. In terms of advice to junior scholars in any of these fields, I would encourage them not to be limited by somewhat artificial or arbitrary boundaries of specialization but rather to pursue important questions wherever they might find answers.
Who is the ideal reader for Ars Vitae?
Anyone who is losing heart and feels as though there could be more to life than what consumerism or the therapeutic culture offers; anyone who harbors an interest in modern culture or ancient philosophy; anyone who loves the ancient texts or modern films or any other works I examine and wants to compare their own perceptions; anyone contemplating the inner life and its role in our shared public life; anyone entranced by or feeling the urgency of the enduring questions facing humankind about how to live, love, and coexist—and why.
Now that you have completed this book, what are you working on next?
All I can really think about quite yet is this book. After all of these years of total immersion, I can’t wait to see it, hold it in my hands, and hear what might resonate for a reader. Ars Vitae left me with many ideas still going off in my mind like fireworks. I am excited about choosing what will come next. I have always hesitated to say prematurely what I am working on next because if I do not say it, then I have to write it down!
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