A reader alerted me to a new book, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. The author is Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a professor of history and senior research associate at the Campbell Public Affairs Institute, Syracuse University.
The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero wrote that philosophy is ars vitae, the art of living. Today, signs of stress and duress point to a full-fledged crisis for individuals and communities while current modes of making sense of our lives prove inadequate. Yet, in this time of alienation and spiritual longing, we can glimpse signs of a renewed interest in ancient approaches to the art of living.
In this ambitious and timely book, 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. Do the ancient philosophies represent a counter-tradition to today’s culture, auguring a new cultural vibrancy, or do they merely solidify a modern way of life that has little use for inwardness―the cultivation of an inner life―stemming from those older traditions? 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.
Having taught Greek philosophy for more than 30 years I found myself wishing I had the time to read the entire work. Let me say that of all the Western philosophy I’ve studied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy provided the best insights concerning how to live well.1 But of course, I do not have that time. Aging has led to the realization that I must pick and choose what I learn, read, and write about. I’m reminded of my graduate school mentor Richard Blackwell‘s advice. He told me that when contemplating the course of his future research after being awarded an endowed chair in his late 50s, he was strongly pulled to doing philosophy of biology. However, he thought that it would take too long to do all the background research to master that field. Instead, he choose to combine his vast knowledge of history, foreign languages, philosophy of science to research the Galileo affair (for which he became well-known.)
Anyway, I get many great suggestions from readers about good books but alas there just isn’t time to read everything. Now in my mid-60s I simply have to pick and choose. Oh to have more time or a better mind or to be part of a global brain, etc.
1. Here is a sampling of some of the posts I’ve published about ancient philosophy on living well.