An Ancient Escape from Our Therapeutic Society?

“These are exciting times,” declares Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, in the introduction to her new book, Ars Vitae. She means it in a good way. This kind of optimism is unusual in contemporary cultural criticism, but Lasch-Quinn, a history professor from Syracuse University, is extraordinary in more ways than one. She believes that modern people are starting to rediscover the ancient wisdom of their pagan forbears. She thinks that this trend is having a significant impact on our culture, and she is happy about this development. This is a fascinating book for anyone interested in ancient philosophy, the new paganism, and the potential of ancient philosophy to inspire cultural renewal.

A Great Escape?

To understand the structure of Ars Vitae, consider an analogy to the epic 1963 movie, The Great Escape. This classic war film dramatizes the mass escape of 76 men from a German POW camp during the Second World War. The story is arresting, not least because it blends post-War American triumphalism (perfectly captured in the iconic soundtrack) with a sobering dose of realism. Most of the film follows the Allied prisoners as they distract their Nazi guards and tunnel under the walls of their camp. It’s an extraordinary feat. The movie then takes a more surprising turn, though. Having left their bunkers behind, the newly-escaped soldiers must now scatter, each embarking on a desperate gambit to get out of Nazi Germany. This turns out to be the more formidable task. For most of our heroes, the only real escape is the grim archway of an honorable death.

Lasch-Quinn is not a prisoner of war, but she does feel trapped by a modern society that has mired her (and all of us) in what she calls “therapeutic culture.” This monstrous malady is a combination of alienation, empty consumerism, and post-modern moral relativism. Living in a world of material plenty, modern people have high expectations for themselves and for life generally, but we’ve lost sight of the transcendent horizons that anchored our forebears. We find ourselves lost in a world of petty entertainments and mass-manufactured junk. An endless array of opportunities and choices flash before our eyes, but none can fill the cavernous meaning gaps that seem to extend in every direction, as far as the eye can see. In an effort to cope, we throw ourselves into projects. We race to the gym. We visit the financial planner. We read Marie Kondo and throw away most of our possessions. Bit by bit, the self-help section colonizes the entire bookstore, but nothing actually helps. All of these programs, in their various ways, are just part of the architecture of our therapeutic prison. We are trapped on every side.

Perhaps there is a ray of hope, however. Even if we can’t walk, run, or climb our way to freedom, we may still be able to dig. Western Civilization may be floundering, but its roots run deep. Perhaps we can go back to the ars vitae, or ancient arts of living, finding new vitality in the insights of Epictetus, Diogenes, Epicurus, and Plotinus. This is the great escape that Lasch-Quinn hopes to see.

The introduction to Ars Vitae seems relatively upbeat. Lasch-Quinn tells us about surging interest in classical art, architecture, and philosophy. She writes hopefully about classicists like Mary Beard, who have managed to turn the study of all things ancient into a momentum-generating fad. Old is the latest new, which is great news if indeed the ancients have the key to escaping our narcissistic prison. We can almost hear the Great Escape soundtrack playing in our ears as we move into the meaty chapters of the book.

Surprisingly, it turns out that this initial optimism is mostly ill-founded. Across five chapters, Lasch-Quinn explores the connections she sees between ancient philosophy, contemporary culture, and man’s search for meaning. We visit the Gnostics, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Cynics, and finally, the Platonists. Lasch-Quinn’s breadth is impressive, as she moves comfortably between ancient texts, contemporary scholarship, and pop culture references. By the end though, it seems clear that the escape plan has largely failed.

Part of the problem is that neo-classicism can itself be co-opted into therapeutic culture. We can’t escape our solitary confinement just by replacing Marie Kondo with Mary Beard. Like the newly-escaped Allied soldiers, we must recognize that our real yearning is not just for elsewhere, but for home. That’s not Nazi Germany, but neither is it ancient Greece. Pagan wisdom will only help us if we can use it to reconnect ourselves to truth, beauty, and love.

To be sure, some ancient schools are more helpful than others in advancing that end. The New Gnosticism, in Lasch-Quinn’s view, is positively pernicious, feeding our narcissistic yearnings for privileged knowledge that simultaneously heals and elevates in an almost magical fashion. People gravitate to transhumanism, Scientology, or the novels of Dan Brown, hoping to be initiated into exclusive clubs that satisfy their therapeutic needs while obviating the need for rational labor and real moral growth. It’s alcohol to drunks. Gnosticism cannot deliver on its promises.

Stoicism, which Lasch-Quinn obviously loves very much, is far more helpful. From Seneca we can learn genuinely serviceable strategies for surviving our broken world. The Stoics understood the importance of imposing order on our interior, emotional lives, and this is one area where modern people desperately need help. What the Stoics offer, however, is really less of an escape, and more a graceful method for surviving our imprisonment.

Epicurus appears to offer a philosophy suited to an age like ours, obsessed with “experiences” and enjoying the good life. Unfortunately, Lasch-Quinn sees the New Epicureanism as basically shallow and fruitless, lacking any real connection-points to anything beyond itself. The foodies and tiny-house builders offer us distractions, not real meaning. The New Cynicism, for its part, has great appeal insofar as it seems to prioritize the truth that so many of us desperately crave. Unfortunately, cynicism also undermines beauty, joy, and human connection, and in our time, it doesn’t even yield the truths that we most need to find. On this topic, Lasch-Quinn becomes rather blunt. Cynicism destroys more than it builds. It’s not the answer.

Religion would seem to be the obvious, front-door escape from Lasch-Quinn’s therapeutic prison, but she simply never addresses it.

In the final chapter of the book, we reach the grand master himself: Plato. As everyone knows, Western philosophy itself is merely a footnote to his great work. In his own time, he engaged in pitched battles with sophists, the Athenian counterparts to our modern-day shills and demagogues. He was an anti-relativist par excellence, obsessed with truth and unstinting in his search for beauty and love. If anyone can free us from the prison of therapeutic culture, it must be Plato.

Once again, the results are disappointing. Lasch-Quinn has not entirely given up on the possibility of a New Platonism, but she doesn’t see one emerging from our contemporary culture. That failure, in her mind, speaks volumes about the state of modern discourse. Unless we can develop a more robust new Platonism to combat our modern sophistry, we will remain trapped within our therapeutic culture, the life of man will be solitary, poor, dreary, pampered, and much too long.

Another Way Out?

At the end of this long journey, we find ourselves perplexed and conflicted. Almost every reader will have learned something over the course of Lasch-Quinn’s five chapters. Was this really our great escape though, or just a dramatic illustration of the near-impossibility of that endeavor? Appropriately enough, Lasch-Quinn spends her epilogue reflecting on death, and the necessity of trying to live life “in the interstices”. She doesn’t exactly seem despairing, but her readers may be. Like the heroes of the 1963 film, it begins to seem that the grave may be our only real escape.

Here though, readers may find themselves pondering a perplexing question: What about Christianity? A savvy and well-read social critic like Lasch-Quinn must surely be aware that most like-minded people, sympathetic to her desire for a New Platonism, believe that they have found it already in religious faith. Plato was indeed amazing; that’s why the Church baptized him. Religious believers, and especially Catholics—of which I am one—certainly believe that we have some reliable points of contact with a transcendent reality beyond our broken world found in prayer, in spiritual reading, and above all in the Sacraments of the Church.

This is not to say, obviously, that religious people have clear and satisfactory answers to all modern questions. Still, religious faith supplies living traditions that combine practical life advice with a robust metaphysics, and a sincere quest to unite truth, beauty, and goodness in one transcendent whole. Religion is the obvious, front-door escape from Lasch-Quinn’s therapeutic prison, but she simply never addresses it. By the end of the book, her silence on this point has become almost deafening. This is especially amusing given that the book comes from the Notre Dame Press.

Is Lasch-Quinn the sort of person for whom organized religion simply cannot be the answer to any question? Is she a closet believer, attempting to throw bread crumbs to the earnest, wayfaring pagan? Does she see the altar as just another façade in the Matrix-like prison of modern life? Knowing nothing about her personal life, I cannot say.

I can say, though, that from the perspective of a person of faith, Lasch-Quinn’s diagnosis of “therapeutic culture” might strike the reader as interesting but overstated. Her battle against the “therapeutic” does expose certain deficiencies in modern sensibilities. It also leads her to frown with undue harshness on habits or initiatives that seek to order some specific area of life.  The gym-goers are castigated for their shallowness, while the couch potatoes are left in peace. This seems unbalanced, in a way that may shed light on the book’s dissatisfying conclusion.

It makes a certain sort of sense that a person desperate for deeper meaning might find cheerful self-help programs especially noxious. If one is dying of thirst in the desert, a mirage is far more soul-crushing than an ordinary sand dune. Realistically though, intemperance and sloth are at least as problematic in our age as empty self-seeking. Many people might, therefore, have sound prudential reasons for getting healthy, re-ordering their finances, or decluttering their houses. Offered as an answer to life’s deepest questions, a treadmill and keto cookbook are certainly inadequate, and may even look pernicious, but the self-help initiatives Lasch-Quinn deplores could in some cases be quite valuable when kept in their proper place. She may, in short, be looking in the wrong places for what she needs. It is very much to her credit that she is brutally honest about what she has (and hasn’t) found, but her dissatisfaction with “the therapeutic” may say less about gyms and tiny houses, and more about the frustration one necessarily encounters when attempting to learn pole vaulting using a fishing pole. Sometimes there are better tools for the job.

Ars Vitae is a remarkable book in one respect at least: the prose feels intensely personal, and even intimate, engaging the reader in the author’s search for meaning with an approach that feels consequential without being personally needy. Lasch-Quinn never tells anecdotes or even uses the first person, but she knows how to make metaphysical questions feel personally pressing. She has a particular knack for drawing the big questions out of a book, movie, or painting, and she obviously knows from long experience what questions most trouble the modern heart. But in searching for truth, beauty, and goodness, perhaps she should consider whether the New Platonism is more robust than she supposes? Undoubtedly we have much to learn from the ancients, but the ars vitae may still be very much alive, if we only know where to look.