Forty years ago Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory unexpectedly became a touchstone text, one that scholars across disciplines read with unusual urgency. In the midst of the postmodern turn, MacIntyre served notice that modernity’s increasingly evident deficits—cultural, political, and intellectual—might be fruitfully addressed by arguments stemming from ontologies believed by many, perhaps most, to have been discredited. MacIntyre’s turn to Aristotle, and in the ensuing years to Aquinas, attained surprising traction—in the form of respect, if not conversion—across the humanities and social sciences.
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn’s 2020 volume Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living follows in this estimable scholarly flow; fittingly, it is published by the same house as After Virtue: The University of Notre Dame Press. Like After Virtue, Lasch-Quinn’s book calls out the conceits of the contemporary West—most notably, perhaps, its unconvincing boasts of freedom—and details with affecting pathos what she calls “the imploding of our spiritual imagination” (82). She writes not as a scold but as a seer, a sympathetic seer, one drawn to scholarship as a form of rescue. At one point in the book she mentions Foucault’s taxonomy of “truth-telling”: the prophet, concerned with “destiny,” the teacher-technician, focused on techné; the “parrhesiast,” centered on ethos; and the sage, preoccupied with “being.” Throughout the book Lasch-Quinn speaks convincingly in all four modes. But in the end it’s the sage whose voice registers most fully. Lasch-Quinn is impelled to take the reader to the foundational levels of being itself, imploring us, in view of our historical circumstance, to rethink all that we thought we understood.
Her sense of having herself discovered “the sacredness or inherent integrity of the ordinary” (262) pervades the book (though this is not confessional writing in any overt way). For Lasch-Quinn, sacredness is not a metaphor. It is metaphysical. She prods the reader to reject, without baldly saying so, anything like a final secularity, and she subtly urges the reader to push past agnostic indecision. What she presents instead, in bold but winsome fashion, is the possibility of a cosmos infused not just with “meaning” but with love itself, following closely in the traces of Plotinus, among other Platonists. “Any hope we might have for a better life,” she writes, “would need to rejoin beauty and truth, retrieving meaning through hope for transcendent, immanent fulfillment of longings that can otherwise destroy us.” And, in sage-like fashion, she adds, “Given our need for love, which is as painfully real as can be, anything less would be impractical” (320).
It’s crucial to note that this philosophic stance only emerges fully in the last chapter, conclusion, and epilogue, though Lasch-Quinn foreshadows it from the beginning. Indeed, as she proceeds chapter by chapter, moving appreciatively but critically through the ancient schools of philosophy and their current manifestations, one is left wondering from what precinct of the universe her insight and wisdom is being dispensed. The effect of her ongoing critique of the other schools—Gnosticism, stoicism, epicureanism, and cynicism—coupled with an enlarging elaboration of the Platonist tradition, makes her own identification with it more compelling in the end. She succeeds in clearing away standard dismissals of Platonism (i.e., its dualism), so that the embrace of this way of seeing she has herself experienced is one she can extend to the reader with natural ease. By the time she turns to Martin Luther King, Jr. for a clinching example of the ontic centrality and spiritual necessity of love, she forces a revisioning of King’s life that will make even King’s closest devotees rethink their understanding of his biography. We find ourselves nodding along as she writes that to reject love is “to abandon the very reservoir from which we need to drink if we are to make a better world” (323)—even as we’re acutely and perhaps uncomfortably aware that the “love” of which she is speaking is no expression of human sentiment alone but rather transcendent, cosmic, and immanent at once.
Lasch-Quinn is a historian, but this is hardly the kind of book the historical profession produces with such stunning (and numbing) regularity. I am hard-pressed to place this book within the usual scholarly categories. Although it is clearly historical, in that it brings understanding of the past to the reader with clarity, it eschews key scholarly conventions as it does so. As she discusses ancient texts, for instance, she tells us little about the broader historical world that helped form those texts—a departure from the contextualist approach to intellectual history that has been so influential over the past four decades. When she moves from the ancient world to the present, we do receive more context. But this context is framed with a species of normativity that pushes past the moral vision sanctioned by the left-liberal consensus of the historical profession. Lasch-Quinn follows, for instance, the thinking of the late Philip Rieff about culture, positing the reality of “anti-cultures” that fail to promote human flourishing due to the very moral libertarianism the historical profession tends to celebrate. And her own critique of contemporary scholarship, chapter by chapter, is informed by the metaphysical commitments outlined above: again, far from the secular norms of the profession.
This, in sum, is a scholarly book that defies scholarly convention. In showing that attempts to resist the emergent therapeutic culture have actually reinforced it, Ars Vitae follows the trajectory of another classic: Jackson Lears’ No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture (also published in 1981). But Lasch-Quinn adds an ontological dimension to this argument the absence of which, in retrospect, makes Lears’ book appear limited and dated. And it is this effect that I believe provides a solid indication of what Ars Vitae finally represents: a general movement away from the “postmodern” break with scientistic modernity and toward the possibility of a more encompassing, interdisciplinary—or perhaps transdisciplinary—approach to its subject. For a long time we have been wondering what follows “postmodernity”—surely we can’t add another “post” to a term that is in reality simply a placeholder. And what follows postmodernity is, I believe, represented by this book: scholarship that reaches deeply into the fullness of human knowing—including the possibility of inquiry that begins with metaphysics—and so blurs the disciplinary boundaries that are so redolent of the modern era.
This epistemic vantage makes possible a radical reframing of the social concerns that press upon us. As much as I believe this is a book that carries a particular vision about our age that we must consider, I just as strongly see it as a book that will provide a general model for scholars seeking to push past conventions that have become conventional in the worst sense. This book can be read with profit by scholars in an array of fields, including philosophy, religion, literature, history, theology, psychology, sociology, and more. And general readers across the professions—those attuned to deep historical currents and their decisive presence in our everyday life—will welcome this book in a way that other such books have been read, from The Nature and the Destiny of Man to The Lonely Crowd to Habits of the Heart to Bowling Alone.
Ars Vitae doesn’t just stir the imagination—it stirs the scholarly imagination. It makes one think not simply about its subject but also how one might approach any subject. It is thus an example of both innovation and intervention. The book’s underlying vision—that there exists the possibility of “ultimate love” (266)—is bound to open up the kind of argument that will enliven many a classroom, conference, and even friendship. Its foundational contention that “Once the therapeutic culture has no outside referent, it seems it cannot deliver on its own promise” (295) must be debated. Happily, the way Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn establishes this claim will ensure that such debate will in fact take place.
Thank you Eric. I must read this book- I appreciate the excellent overview that you provided.
The transcendent, immanent love which you mention will not arrive, sadly, in our current money-oriented, consumerist culture. I don’t believe the current world system is capable of any transition toward such love (such love here is only crucified). It will take the miracle of new heavens and new Earth to arrive for that.
Thanks again and God bless.