NOVEMBER 12, 2020
WHEN I WAS in grad school, I worked at a gym. I needed the money and was paid slightly more than minimum wage to sit behind the front desk, read books, and nod at the members as they walked past (a dream job, I know, except I occasionally had to clean the bathrooms). The gym is a fascinating place. Anyone who takes the time to stop and observe it will be confronted by the sheer stupidity of human existence. Watch otherwise respectable people — grown adults — give up hours of their precious time in order to run in place or walk up perpetual flights of mechanical stairs; watch as they pick up heavy objects and put them down again, jump into the air, wave their arms about, flail their legs, and gyrate their hips; watch them hand large sums of money to jumping instructors whose jobs consist of observing other people’s jumping and offering advice on how to jump more effectively; notice how often they glance at their reflections and the reflections of others in an endless maze of mirrored glass; see them mix chalk into their waters, and listen as they argue over which chalk-water mixture is best; watch them do all of this dutifully, earnestly, day in and day out, month after month, year after year, without even a hint of irony, with not a shred of self-reflection, with no apparent awareness that what they are doing is ridiculous, laughable, bordering on insane — pay attention for even a few moments and suddenly you will find yourself meditating on just how strange and startling human life can be.
“Everything we do or do not do,” writes Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, “everything we think or do not think, everything we imagine or fail to imagine, everything we create or destroy, speaks of a philosophy of living.” In her new book, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, Lasch-Quinn reminds us that our “philosophies of life pervade all we do” — like it or not, our choices and actions communicate ideas, even when we have neither identified them nor thought them through to their consequences.
Take something as banal as my starting most mornings with a workout at the gym. (Yes, as you have probably guessed, I am an avid jumper and can gyrate with the best of them.) What does such behavior convey? What worldview does it express? It is to Lasch-Quinn’s immense credit that she can take so commonplace an activity and see in it not what it purports to be but what it actually is. Our “therapeutic culture,” today’s health paradigm, she rightly observes, has as its unacknowledged precursor the Gnostic philosophies of bygone ages: philosophies which, it turns out, disdain the human body and seek to free us from our finite — that is, human — condition.
Contrary to what might be supposed, ours is an age defined by a “radical dualism, which pits mind against body” and tells us that we can transcend any limitation, overcome any imperfection, so long as we listen to the experts, those who “possess special knowledge” and can thus instruct us on how we ought to orient our lives. Yet does the advice of these knowing ones actually provide the freedom they claim to offer? Or isn’t it rather that “markets, now the dominant purveyors of norms, capitalize on the conflict [between mind and body], selling products on the grounds that the body is out of control and needs products catering to the mind or that the mind is out of control and needs products catering to the body”? Said differently, aren’t the experts we trust the very people perpetuating our contemporary crisis because they stand to benefit most from it?
Recognizing that ours is a culture built upon Gnostic ideas does not mean that we have to abandon our commitment to health as an essential aspect of well-being. Rather, it helps us to reevaluate what we mean by “health” and “well-being” and how we go about pursuing the two. The Gnostic contempt for the body, which our culture has adopted unawares, is the root cause of “the embodiment crisis of our times.” It can be seen in our fascination and disgust with sexuality, our objectification of the body (particularly, but not exclusively, the female body), and our fear of sickness and death. This flight from the carnal, this unwillingness to accept the weakness and vulnerability of the human condition, Lasch-Quinn argues, brings not freedom but bondage. We are self-obsessed and self-seeking, which really means self-enclosed, ethically anemic, cut off from the care of others. We live under a cultural regime that “exacerbates conflicts” and yet fails to “provide adequate resources for the living of everyday life.” Instead of finding ways “to live within our bodies and inhabit our world” — the fundamental human project — we are encouraged to believe that, with the help of technology, we can transcend our bodies and remake the world.
In order to counter these trends, Lasch-Quinn calls for the cultivation of an inner life. “Inwardness,” she writes, “is the way the self develops the resources necessary for everything from enduring hardship to soaring to the heights of a fulfilled human life.” But how do we cultivate our interiorities? Who can we trust to show us the way? When I worked at the gym, members would see me reading and ask what I studied in school. “Philosophy?” they would say with a start. “And what are you going to do with that?” Reluctant to allow my job to interfere with my reading, and at the same time not wanting to offend anyone by offering the kind of diatribe with which I began this review, I would give a one-word answer: “Teach.” The student of philosophy will recognize immediately the joke hidden in that response (a joke which, my wife assures me, is not very funny). Philosophers, according to Plato, do not teach anyone anything. Instead, they act as mere occasions, providing the means by which others can begin to examine themselves. Philosophers show us — or at least they ought to — how to delve down into our interiorities, how to question ourselves vigorously, and how to critically evaluate whether or not we are valuing the right things, living good lives.
Here is where Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn offers her greatest contribution. Taking its title from Cicero’s famous assertion that philosophy is the art of living, Ars Vitae is a sort of apologia for approaching the world philosophically. As such, it follows a well-trodden path and explores the best ideas of the greatest thinkers that the Western tradition has to offer. What makes this book unique, however, is that Lasch-Quinn seeks neither to preach nor to instruct, but to call forth companions, fellow pilgrims on the way to self-understanding. The philosophical scholarship being produced today is almost never heuristic. Philosophy always is. And Lasch-Quinn has set out in Ars Vitae to embody the best of what true philosophical writing has to offer. She writes in a way that makes her readers better thinkers, more reflective and self-aware, and she does so by showing the development of her own thinking — who her influences are, the sources from which she draws her wisdom, and how philosophy informs her understanding of herself, the culture, and the world in which she lives.
Ars Vitae is written with boldness and dexterity, but also empathy, humility, and care. Readers will find here a thoughtful, clearly articulated worldview, one that has been cultivated over a lifetime of study and makes plain why engagement with ancient philosophy is not only relevant but also essential for all thinking people today. It is Lasch-Quinn’s contention that the best way to avoid slouching unknowingly into behaviors and modes of living that are detrimental to our lives is to understand what ideas and values ground our choices. But rather than telling us how to do so, she shows us. Bringing together everything from the dialogues of Plato to Dan Brown novels, from popular films like The Truman Show and 300 to transhumanist philosophies, psychotherapy, Stoicism, and the Christian gospel, her work exemplifies what it means to live that old philosophical ideal of the examined life. Everything can be considered, everything questioned, all aspects of existence held up to the light. Through her writing and by her example, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn makes a compelling case for why everything ought to be.
Matthew Clemente is a lecturer in the Woods College of Advancing Studies at Boston College specializing in existentialism, philosophy of religion, and contemporary Continental thought. He is the associate editor of the Journal for Continental Philosophy of Religion and author of Eros Crucified: Death, Desire, and the Divine in Psychoanalysis and Philosophy of Religion.