An Excerpt from “Ars Vitae” by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

In Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living (October 2020), Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn engages both general readers and scholars on the topic of well-being. She examines the reappearance of ancient philosophical thought in contemporary American culture, probing whether new stirrings of Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism present a true alternative to our current therapeutic culture of self-help and consumerism, which elevates the self’s needs and desires yet fails to deliver on its promises of happiness and healing. Tracing the contours of this cultural resurgence and exploring a range of sources, from scholarship to self-help manuals, films, and other artifacts of popular culture, this book sees the different schools as organically interrelated and asks whether, taken together, they can point us in important new directions. Ultimately, Ars Vitae sounds a clarion call to take back philosophy as part of our everyday lives.

From “Introduction: Therapeia

Philosophy is the art of living. So wrote the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero during one of the most momentous periods in human history. Centuries after Socrates, in a time of civil wars and Caesar’s rise and fall, Cicero thought the ancient Greek schools of philosophy essential knowledge for Romans. Centuries after Cicero, in our own tumultuous times, we might also benefit from heeding his call to engage more fully in the task of ars vitae.

Many today seek help and insight for how to live in hard times and have trouble finding the deep answers that really help. Everywhere we see signs of great distress. Yet all around us we can also find signs, some hidden and some staring us in the face, of a return to ancient approaches to the art of living. Ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, an influence on learning worldwide in fields from poetry to physics, is nothing if not deep. It presupposes inwardness—the cultivation of an inner life—and the centrality of the search for meaning as the paramount human endeavor. Inward- ness is the way the self develops the resources necessary for everything from enduring hardship to soaring to the heights of a fulfilled human life. To provide the conditions for anything less not only betrays the goal of human flourishing but risks our very survival. It is no luxury, no matter how much it might masquerade as a mere matter of grace and style. The art of living is how we get along, how we get by, and why.

This book begins to take the soundings of this new revival of interest. It explores modern versions of ancient Gnosticism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Cynicism, and Platonism in hopes we can begin to recognize where these ideas appear in our current culture and where they might present alternatives. While observers have noted the surfacing of a particular approach, such as Stoicism, the return of a whole group of approaches from antiquity has largely escaped notice and characterization as a recent historical response, at once popular and intellectual, to our current and enduring predicaments. Tracing the contours of this cultural resurgence, this study sees the different schools as organically interrelated and asks whether, taken together, they could point us in important new directions.

The rediscovery and reinterpretation of earlier thought are often, if not always, the source of movements of individual and cultural renewal. In this movement or in any of its individual schools, can we spot a countertradition to today’s culture, a sign of latent cultural vibrancy? Or are they merely solidifying a modern way of life that has little use for a form of inwardness stemming from those older traditions? We expect everything to move at the speed of the flickering image. In a time of technology, marketing, and change, a philosophical approach to living might seem inefficient and impractical. But it could turn out to be the very opposite.

A leading statesman and philosopher of the fateful first century BC, Cicero witnessed the fall of his glorious Roman Republic, the dictatorship and assassination of Julius Caesar, and the civil wars that gave rise to the Roman Empire. Cicero served as Roman consul and defender of the republic. Despite its inaccuracy as a stand-in for modern democratic aspirations, its acronym SPQR still comes down to us as a mythical badge of honor and dignity, rep resenting the senate and people of Rome and resonating with hopes for a government and way of life capable of fostering human flourishing. Beyond the politics and wars, violence and corruption, lay foundational ways of approaching being human, whether prescribed by poets or philosophers, slaves or emperors, women or men. Though some less than others, these different approaches still influence not only our actions but our possibilities as human beings.

Ancient philosophers and those influenced by them certainly thought a lot was riding on their ideas about how to live. In one of the most vibrant public conversations in history, with reverberations to this day, Greek and Roman philosophers disagreed vehemently over their approaches to every aspect of living. Added to other such discussions in other cultural traditions, this is a conversation transcending time and place, perhaps the richest human conversation in which a person can take part. It is a conversation about how we should be living our lives, what the options are, and what is implied by the path we take. The conversation is open to us too, should we choose to partake. We have a standing invitation, just by virtue of having been born. Only by knowing the alternatives can we come to an understanding of how we live now—of what has led to this moment—and the choices we have for the future. According to Socrates, who said the unexamined life is not worth living, not to accept the invitation is not to be fully alive. It was an idea he was willing to die to defend.

The societies of Greece and Rome were not neutral on the question of philosophy. Their leaders, often tutored by philosophers, at times took these thinkers into their closest confidence. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, himself a Stoic, set up chairs in AD 176 in philosophy representing the major schools. At other times, the powers that be banished philosophers from the city or the realm. Of course not only Socrates but many others over the centuries between him and us died in wars of ideas and beliefs. While condemning all such violations of freedom of speech and conscience—the right to dissent without risking life and limb—one must concede that in the past and on into the present, ideas have mattered, both for better and for worse.

Just as Roman ideas and ideals about life harkened back to the intellectual ferment of the Golden Age of Athens, so did those of later periods and peoples, adding layers of interpretations from other traditions throughout the world before reaching us. The Italian Renaissance, the later Early Modern period, the Enlightenment, the Age of Democratic Revolutions, and many other eras were infused by the ancient Greek philosophies and their Roman variants, as informed and interpreted by others across the globe from Asia and the Middle East to Europe, Africa, and the Americas. In the late eighteenth century, the new American republic would have been unheard of without them. Neither in times of trouble nor in times of rest and peace do the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers promise to have all of the answers we are looking for, but they are essential guides in pointing us in the direction of the questions we should be asking ourselves if we are to live the fullest lives possible.

Standing on the brink of the future is terrifying. What comes next? What should we do? We often forget our good fortune to be able to consider the thoughts of those who came before us and also stood on the crest between their present and the unwritten future. As if designed for us today, given our own concerns, the ancient Greco-Roman schools of thought are “eudaimonistic” philosophies. There is no perfect translation into English of eudaimonia. Some translate it as happiness, but the meaning of our word happiness is also famously hard to pin down, like the state of mind that is its namesake. The closest we might come to capturing the meaning of eudaimonia today is probably something more like our well-being. The point is that these philosophies offer searching analyses of what it takes—and what it means—to live a good life.


This blog post is part of the Enriching Scholarly Communication and Connections through Notre Dame Press project and has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional information about the National Endowment for the Humanities and its grant programs is available at www.neh.gov.

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