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By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn


The Montréal Review, October 2021


by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn
The University of Notre Dame Press (2020)



Love is the most durable power in the world.
—Martin Luther King Jr.


Our philosophies of life pervade all we do. The problem is not this or that approach but the day-to-day structure in which each approach is presented and considered. The current structure allows for a sphere free of concern about the meaning of life, a bifurcation of our selves into economic versus emotional, exploitative versus empathetic, body versus soul. We allow the humanities—the traditional repository of deeper wisdom about our condition and the art of living—to wither away. In their place remain only slogans and lists. A generalized discontentment, resentment, and sense of victimization pit us against one another, while satisfaction of our needs and wants eludes us even in the flood of self-help offerings, New Age therapies, and consumer choices that nearly drown out all alternatives and our inner lives in the process.

What we need is a new structure. We need a framework of understanding that allows us to contain and make sense of the conflicting advice dispensed. Calls for meditation abound. Meditation may clear our minds, but contemplation redirects us to what fills them. There needs to be some order to our thoughts, a common framework sufficiently durable and expansive as to allow for the flourishing of a conversation in which particular schools of thought are considered, spiritual seeking is not cut off from the rest of life, and such a fragile and evanescent-seeming phenomenon as our general disposition is appreciated as formative and constitutive of all of our experience, what we create, and what we are able to contribute. Everyone is his or her own philosopher; like a writer or artist in residence, our philosopher interprets life as it is being lived. This can be anything from paralyzing to fortifying. It all depends on the content of the philosophy being dispensed by ourselves or others.

Self-appointed experts claim to have the solution. But the word solution, when applied to human beings, should always have shades and shadows of danger. The word final accompanies it for anyone living after World War II, and even in its more benign forms it should raise suspicions. If there was a “solution” for human living, there would not be a need for life itself: the only final solution for life is death. A humble way to live acknowledges that we are all seekers in need of a way to contain and steer our seeking into safe and renewable, sustainable and meaningful pursuits. We need a world that is safe for our self- and soul-making. While we talk a lot about sustainability today, we think mainly of the inanimate resources around us. Yet these are related to the personal and interpersonal resources needed for sustainable human bonds. We should be careful what we wish for. We do not need a solution but a mode of living. The art of living involves physical needs and desires but takes seriously our intellectual and spiritual ones equally.


The therapeutic culture aims at the physical and the mental but lacks a sense of the existence of a transcendent good beyond the individual, or of the existence of good as something transcendent. To live without manipulating others or being manipulated oneself is only part of it. In addition, we want and need trust, respect, integrity, and dignity for our human connections and democratic community.

The paradigmatic relation, perhaps the only true opposite of manipulatable social relations, is one of love. Feelings or reasons that emerge in the context of nonmanipulable social relations possess a different nature, character, or quality from those in the context of social relations based on manipulation. Art, music, religion, and poetry are just some of the ways we know such a way of being in the world exists. When we suspect an idea, feeling, or person is being used for ulterior purposes, hope for a better world evaporates. In Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals, Mark Edmundson calls for a pedagogy that brings ideals into the equation. Rita Felski is another pioneer who argues for a form of literary criticism that goes beyond deconstruction. Her Limits of Critique is a manifesto for a move beyond the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”

With no vision of the good, we are lost and bereft. All our projects become self-serving. Yet serving our own ends for the sake of serving our own ends can never serve our ends. We are creatures capable of goodness. Only living a life turned toward goodness will fulfill our cravings and humanity. Aiming at the good takes us out of ourselves. If we are too internally focused, with ourselves as the boundary of our loyalty and commitment, we never really enter into the world of others. We cannot know other people or the divine.

Cultivating emotions like empathy and compassion seems like a desirable way to address self-interest, whether of the overly emotional or overly rationalist variety. Narcissism manifests itself as a disorder, while rationalism appears sane, a calculated and functional choice. To persuade people temporarily not to act in their self-interest, we turn to arguments based on reason such as precedent or numbers or harm; or else we try to appeal to their emotions, especially through such mechanisms as compassion or empathy. Reason and emotion have a much too complicated relation to use one against the other, and both can be enlisted on behalf of pure self-interest. It is a certain relation between them that is the dysfunction of our epoch. Many accept that both reason and emotion should serve the self’s motives, desires, and aims, not only to the exclusion of others’, but to the exclusion of what is good. The problem is always a question of the nature, character, and quality of what is being served and why.

The instrumentalization of people to serve someone else’s interest changes everything. The tenor of human relations changes, resulting in an expansion of self-interest to such a degree that it ends up in no human being’s interest at all. It creates the conditions for an inhumane social world, a world inhospitable to human flourishing or even self-maintenance. The spiritual discipline of living in community with others, versus merely functioning within a society, is a discipline not against emotion, or against reason, but against the instrumentalization of both in the service of either the individual or the collective. Ferdinand Tönnies captured this distinction in the difference he drew between Gemeinschaft, or relationships formed out of family ties and friendships, and Gesellschaft, relationships formed in the practice of functioning within a (modern, capitalist) society.


The real therapeutic paradox is that what is truly therapeutic is not inherently designed to be therapeutic: what is most useful is what is not inherently meant to be used. Those who lose themselves in a practice or activity for the sake of the highest standards of excellence, teaching and learning for joy and enrichment, and the satisfaction of being useful without being used, know firsthand what it means to inhabit a sphere free of manipulation. This is captured in the notion of grace. When we give up on the existence of such a sphere, everything from individual freedom to democratic self-governance can evaporate. In the absence of countervailing forces, power devours everything in its path.

Practical philosophy is also at its very core paradoxical. It could even be dismissed as an oxymoron. Isn’t the very definition of philosophy that it is not practical? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that “philosophy is distinguished from science by its selectivity and its discrimination of the unusual, the astonishing, the difficult and the divine, just as it is distinguished from intellectual cleverness by its emphasis on the useless.” This comes in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, in which he gives brief profiles of prominent pre-Socratic philosophers and places archaic Greek philosophy on a pedestal. He praises Thales, known for his proposition that water is the source of everything, for neither seeing this as an allegory (resorting to “fantastic fable”) nor ultimately explaining it away through science and logic. Thales embodies (demonstrates) the meaning of sage, a word Nietzsche traces to the verb sapire, to taste. “The peculiar art of the philosopher” presupposes tasting, “savoring,” “selecting,” and making distinctions: “Science rushes headlong, without selectivity, without ‘taste,’ at whatever is knowable, in the blind desire to know all at any cost. Philosophical thinking, on the other hand, is ever on the scent of those things that are most worth knowing, the great and the important insights”.

Alongside this praise for philosophy’s uselessness, Nietzsche amplifies on the theme of the importance of philosophy in a certain kind of everyday living. Nietzsche starts the work by holding up the culture of the ancient Greeks as a model of a “truly healthy culture,” introducing the health metaphor in his very first paragraph. Nietzsche depicts modern German culture at the time he was writing in the 1870s as one in which philosophy has no place: “There are people who are opposed to all philosophy. . . . The physicians of our culture repudiate philosophy”. To those critics, defending philosophy would require showing “to what ends a healthy culture uses and has used philosophy”. If a culture is already healthy, that is one thing, but if it is not, philosophy cannot be used to heal it: “If philosophy ever manifested itself as helpful, redeeming, or prophylactic, it was in a healthy culture. The sick, it made ever sicker”. A healthy culture, for him, possesses some basis of coherence. Devoid of this “unity of style,” Nietzsche writes, “philosophy could never re-integrate the individual into the group” but would, rather, “isolate him still further” and go on “to destroy him through that isolation”.

Nietzsche proceeds to the proper attitude toward philosophy taken by his ideal culture: “The Greeks, with their truly healthy culture, have once and for all justified philosophy simply by having engaged in it, and engaged in it more fully than any other people”. They did not reserve philosophy for times of difficulty but engaged in it early on and continued into old age, while others reserve philosophy for times of duress, in an individual’s or a culture’s development, and hold no central place of honor for philosophers. Greeks had sages as others had saints. (We have mainly celebrities.) When a “genuine” culture does not exist, Nietzsche goes on, a philosopher is “a chance random wanderer,” consigned to exile—“a comet, incalculable and therefore terror- inspiring.” When such a culture does exist, the philosopher “shines like a stellar object of the first magnitude in the solar system of culture”. To Nietzsche, these conditions prevailed for philosophers up to Socrates, but “beginning with Plato” the philosopher became a lone soul in exile. In those later times, philosophy no longer had such a central place in daily life. Nietzsche observed that, by the nineteenth century, “No one may venture to fulfill philosophy’s law with his own person, no one may live philosophically”.

On the contrary we live philosophically in spite of ourselves. His other views aside for our present purpose, what if Nietzsche is right that the truly therapeutic is that which is not explicitly aimed at therapy? If philosophy is called in belatedly as a remedy for personal ailing in a sick society, it loses its capacity to induce health. As soon as it is valued for its uses, as a means to this end, it loses its ability to achieve this end. The health-inducing properties do not come from employing it as a tool toward some other definition of flourishing—wealth, entertainment, consumption, fame— but from a definition of flourishing in which philosophy is already an intrinsic component. We are social creatures, yet we are also creatures of philosophia, the love of wisdom, and literature, religion, music, art, architecture, and other deep and sustained pursuits. These pursuits structure the enhanced version of living.

Using philosophy to live versus living philosophy is thus a distinction necessary for redefining the notion of a practical philosophy. The most practical philosophy might paradoxically be the most impractical, the most useful might be the most useless, the most applied philosophy might be that which cannot—merely, belatedly, superficially, deceptively, instrumentally—be applied. A commitment to this practical impracticality would keep a school of thought from the jaws of the market, the therapeutic, or any other ideology. The case against instrumentalism is that it makes us lose our concept of noninstrumentalism and the capacity to tell the difference between means and ends, falsehood and truth. When these lines become blurred, there is no basis to keep from becoming an instrument—of others and even of ourselves. A practical philosophy must allow for the flourishing of the individual and the shared world. Philosophy is practical if it is not purely personal but ties our personal strivings in a meaningful way to the world of others.

A workable public philosophy does not end questions but questions ends. It admits that we are beings in progress with decisions to make every day. The problem with today’s answers, whether popular or academic, is not that they are simple and direct but that they give a set of precepts for living that already assume the answers. This is a framework of expertise or knowingness, the main trait of the culture of Gnosticism, a violation of a revelatory approach to learning and non-manipulative communication. That is the very opposite of practical.

Determining what is practical depends on one’s idea of what it means to be human, what our lives can and should be about, and what we think about the world around us, our relations with other people, and the best way to live. That is not something any human knows. To pretend we do brings untold dangers. As we have seen, the Greeks had a word for the perils of excess knowingness: hubris. It is the impulse behind movements such as the Cultural Revolution in China, or cultural adjudication in Stalinist Russia, for two extreme examples. Though it comes in a softer form in American academic expertise and self-help nostrums, it deprives the individual of the deepest joy of living—learning. Knowingness destroys revelation, and revelation is the necessary ingredient to transform the constitution of a self to a soul.


Today’s cultural ethic of market growth, careerism, personal gain, and consumerism has outright defenders in philosophies based on everything from classical liberalism to Ayn Rand objectivism. A very different modern movement has challenged that orientation toward individual rights, privileges, and even entitlements. In the late twentieth century, Amitai Etzioni, Michael Sandel, and others provided alternative bases for a revivified public philosophy that emphasized the responsibilities, not just the benefits, of citizenship. Mary Ann Glendon’s book Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse, published in 1991, epitomized this shift.

Earlier, in the mid-twentieth century, British philosophers Philippa Foot and Elizabeth Anscombe made similar appeals beyond the self-interested individual, in a philosophical movement that became known as virtue ethics. The dominant philosophical influence on recent and contemporary virtue ethics, particularly now through the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, has been Aristotle. In turning to Aristotle for a foundation for a critique of the modern order, including the chaos of social and moral life, philosophers pointed to the need for a basis of shared commitments, a rationale for taking the path of what was morally good, the good to be found in community and practices, a foundation for the “moral ought.” The answer to the question of why a person should act morally was found in Aristotle’s notion of eudaemonia. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues that a final end of human life—a goal or telos—is happiness or well-being.

Coming with a similar set of concerns, because of his “identification with the Platonic and Augustinian ethical traditions,” scholar Matthew D. Mendham presents an alternative guide for ethical philosophy to MacIntyre’s Aristotle: Plato. MacIntyre assumes a dichotomy between a foundation for morals based on eudaemonia and the chaos of “stifling duties, neglected virtues, or arbitrary wills” that constitutes contemporary culture. Eudaemonism provides a way of reconciling the pursuit of self-interest with concern for others by connecting what is good for the self with virtuous action, by definition that action which is good for others. The classical liberal defense of the virtuous nature of self-interest on the grounds that it is good for everyone rests on the assumption that it is in the individual’s own interest to allow others to pursue their self-interest. This is an instrumentalist notion that behaving in a virtuous manner toward others is in one’s own interest: treating others well is for the purpose of serving one’s self, so the good action is an instrument aimed at promoting the good of the self, and other people can even be treated in an instrumental fashion. In today’s more informal terms, people are being used, but it is all right because they are using others. In this magical thinking of enlightened self-interest, the good of the whole is somehow served and everyone feels good in the end.

Crucial in MacIntyre’s view, pace Aristotle, is the harmonizing of individual interests with good treatment of others, but without any instrumentalism. As Mendham puts it, MacIntyre has shown how eudaemonism “can support the profound human conviction that virtuous behavior and affectionate dedication to others should be performed for their own sake.” Mendham explains that this version of eudaemonism rests on the notion that it is a basic structure of the human being “to pursue her own good, the attainment of which is only possible through non-instrumental dedication to the virtues and to a generous communal life.” Aristotle’s underlying assumption is that one’s own well-being relies on knowing one is acting virtuously. The place of this knowledge of virtue in the very definition of human happiness is the crucial element that keeps one from using others to pursue one’s self-interest.

Yet that knowledge is no match for all of the urges of the human body and soul. It is not that we treat others well so we will be treated well, a bargain of temporarily suspended self-interest in service of a self-interested outcome, but that well-being entails overcoming self-interest itself. As Socrates put it simply, virtue is knowledge. That virtuous knowledge is happiness. We are happy when we are living a life of virtue. This is Aristotle’s view of the telos of a human life. Whether our character is morally good or bad remains a mystery until our lives are complete. It is only on our deathbed that we know.

Mendham agrees that “harmonizing self-interested desires with virtue and common goods is central to the morally and experientially good life.” However, he helps us identify a vital, if elusive, point. Mendham questions the eudaemonism of the Neo-Aristotelian position. Drawing on the later ideas of ethical obligation and action of Saint Anselm of Canterbury, John Duns Scotus, and Immanuel Kant, Mendham proposes that their view of virtuous behavior is “more rationally and phenomenologically plausible.” These thinkers add the element of difficulty into the equation, which puts virtue, and the link between virtue and happiness, to the test.

To these philosophers, virtuous behavior happens when something is “done for its own sake under difficult circumstances.” MacIntyre poses an ethics founded on eudaemonistic assumptions as the alternative to today’s complete moral chaos. Calling on us to go back further than Aristotle and his focus on individual well-being, Mendham sees in “Platonic alternatives” a better option. These Platonic alternatives are based on “phenomenological insights such as behaving rightly for its own sake.” Even for the most adverse conditions, such as the last hours of Socrates’s life, this choice could apply. With his execution imminent, Socrates is still happy. Before Aristotle, Plato accepted the root of eudaemonism, the idea that “the rigorous moral life” is also “ultimately the most rewarding.” Yet for Plato, morality extends beyond any form of “self-interested calculation.” Logic and reason are neither logical nor reasonable if employed in service to nefarious ends, not because they are not virtuous but because they are not good. Plato’s lifework continually redirects every discussion to a consideration of the good involved: “Across his career Plato showed this dedication to a distinctive and radically prioritized moral good, which was perhaps seen as sufficient for happiness.”


Mendham’s best example is Plato’s description of unselfish love. Mendham identifies “secondary noneudaemonistic appeals” in Plato’s thought, “such as condemning self-excepting self-interest as the source of all evil, and insisting that the self was made first for the sake of the universe, not vice versa.” Mendham goes on to draw a distinction between Platonic and Aristotelian visions: “The Platonic focus upon the love for various ends instantiated in different ways of life, as well as the various sources of moral norms, suggests different avenues for reflection than the Aristotelian focus on proper habits and virtues serving as means to the single end of happiness.”

Mendham sees a clear contrast in the views of Aristotle and Plato on the topic of both means and ends in morals: Plato allowed for a plurality of moral goods and the ways we attain them, while Aristotle focused single-mindedly on virtue as the one path to happiness, the ultimate human good. Mendham highlights the ideas of John Rist as providing a Platonic revision of the Aristotelian position, a “‘metaphysical background eudaemonism’: That doing what we ought to corresponds with our advantage, even though we are not to do it merely or foundationally because it is to our advantage; that we are obligated to pursue virtue for its own preeminent sake even while we recognize its ultimate utility; and that knowledge of the Good, itself the highest enjoyment, reveals irreducible obligations.” We must note that it is knowledge of the good (an end), not of virtue (a means).

In Mendham’s phrasing, Rist argues that Plato “is not urging us to be good because it pays to be good, whether in this world or in another—though as a matter of fact it does—but because we are made to conform ourselves to the goodness of the gods.” In sum, Mendham writes, Rist “maintains that Platonic obligation is moral in a manner not reducible to enlightened self-interest.” Rist is one of a few recent Platonists returning to Plato not for political but for other reasons.


The question of how to live and why (whether to live in a certain way and even to live at all) is the overarching preoccupation of political philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Martha Nussbaum, and Charles Taylor. How does a movie like Interstellar possibly relate to questions of political philosophy? Some of the most compelling recent and current philosophical positions can be roughly gathered together under the umbrella of moral philosophy. In a critique of modern individualism, some writers focused on the need for a greater emphasis on community and civil society, even before the ugliness of the most recent divisions manifested themselves in the 2016 presidential election. They argued that individual rights, liberties, and privileges needed to be countered by a sense of duty and obligation. Many in the movement of virtue ethics drew on Aristotle to argue for community and responsibility. Yet all forms of community are not of equal value. How do we promote those forms of community worthy of our best strivings? For that we must rely on Plato.

So what does Platonism have to offer that has not already informed moral philosophy, communitarian thought, and virtue ethics? Practical philosophy has also had a resurgence, and schools of thought such as Stoicism seemed to be another pendulum swing away from selfishness and self-indulgence. Gnosticism and Cynicism are all-pervasive and offer no way out. Epicureanism is all-pervasive, yet in a form that has lost sight of its ancient focus on virtue. Of all of the major schools having a resurgence today, Platonism is the one most missing. Yet it is the one perhaps most needed. This is because Platonism helps us see questions of value as paramount. Virtue ethics mainly concerns the means of living a virtuous life. Plato always brings us back to ends.

A disciplined life of virtue requires a heightened sense of right and wrong. As we saw in Philip Rieff’s view, culture itself rests on the notion that some things are allowed and some forbidden. Virtuous behavior, in this view, usually means not giving in to certain emotions and desires, as we saw in Stoicism. What is often lost sight of is the good—the point of the virtuous behavior in the first place. Truth rings true as in beautiful.

In answering the critique of the therapeutic culture and the hyperindividualism of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century—from the Me Decade and the Culture of Narcissism to the “I, me, mine” mind-set of ecstatic capitalism and the money and celebrity and consumer culture, the critics’ challenge put forth a creed that placed community over the individual. Its warning of the risks to the polity of what Sandel called “the unencumbered self” is validated by evidence even further of the reign of the rapacious self exposed by the Me Too movement. The return of white nationalism and other deeply antisocial assaults on individuals and groups adds more evidence. Total relativism supports total shamelessness—everything goes—which dons the mantle of complete self-acceptance and toleration of others but incidentally paves the way for raw power, in the form of a culture of bullying, incivility, and violence. Shame and guilt presuppose a notion of the good, grasped through conscience. The shamelessness of the Cynics presupposed virtue and the good, but today’s shamelessness does not.

In place of the grasping and rapacious self, following its own interests wherever they lead, whether in career accomplishment and the amassing of wealth or in the liberated libido and unrestricted desire or in outright violence, some philosophers put moral obligation and virtue ethics. In place of what I want to do, writers like Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, Cornel West, Mary Ann Glendon, and Jean Bethke Elshtain speak of the importance of what I should do. Virtue should overcome not only unlimited self-expression and reckless personal hedonism but also corporate greed and political corruption.

Adding Platonism into the picture takes this cultural conversation a step further. In moral thinking, we hear about serious matters in tones both sobering and wise: obligation, duty, consideration of the community more than the self. Albeit somber, much of this writing inspires those who already find virtue and community uplifting and devotion to the good life a worthy ethical goal. That term, the good life, captures both meanings—good as in “Life is good” and good as in “We are good.” The good life as elaborated on by Aristotle included finding the mean between different urges to attain balance and to serve the good life in both of these senses. Though they provided very different answers, all of the ancient schools of Greek thought took up this question.

Today, problems in the nation and world clearly threaten well-being: depression, anxiety, fraying families and communities, addiction, and suicide rates are all evidence of this. Much can be seen as an embodiment crisis—difficulty managing being in a body and all that it brings with it—desire, instinct, urges, emotions, pain, suffering, hunger, thirst, love, loss. Platonism and Aristotelianism have historically served as influences at times within Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—a profound point of commonality we ignore at our loss. Platonism, often the assumed but unspoken background of Aristotelianism and the other schools of thought, and such a major influence on Augustine and Christianity more broadly, as well as other world religions, points us to an element often missing in discussions of our public philosophy. Rather than stop at the good life, it sets our sights higher, on the beautiful life. But the Platonist notion of beauty is unlike that which prevails today—external, image oriented, fleeting, superficial, and illusory. Instead, beauty is a moral phenomenon, category, or reality, like the good life, only better. It is more than a call for obligation, responsibility, limits, and sacrifice, which are all well and good for those already converted to those goods—for preaching to the choir of the communally minded. A focus on the good life teaches us how to live, while a notion of the beautiful life inspires us with a vision of why.

We do not need to agree on the precise contours of the beautiful life, only that the beautiful life is what we should strive for. An ongoing public conversation must take place as the way of working out what that means as new events occur. If we cannot agree that it is better to be good, living among others will not be possible except by force, manipulation, or coercion. Everyone need not agree on the details, but we must agree on the need for good ends: justice, human dignity, and the inviolability of the human person. Ideals animate moral principles with a vision of the beautiful. The conversation about these philosophies serves as a bulwark against manipulation because it creates an expectation of inwardness, determining one’s inner life by tilting it toward the good.


What the imagination seizes as Beauty must be truth.

—John Keats

Platonism is the philosophy of value par excellence. It is not just a vision of the good life that we need, but a vision of what it means to lead a beautiful life, not just the aesthetic lifestyle of Foucault. Today we find such images, themes, and concepts in movies from Interstellar to Hidden Figures. It is often in the case of math or science, including computer technology, where such visions are articulated. Only in the rarified air of the outer recesses of the universe or an artificial world do we still seem to find any order, purity, beauty, or even divinity. By contrast, these values might seem impossible to find in everyday life. Even words seem to have played themselves out, bygone relics of a confining vocabulary that is now exhausted. Only the numerical universe seems to possess the capacity to gesture toward perfection, to inspire awe, as we saw in Hidden Figures. Yet this is not the case. We can find sources of renewal, not just in numbers and stars, but also in the staggering mystery and beauty closer to home, including in ideas and words and the human beings capable of embodying them.


How can Plotinus help with a practical philosophy for our own time? It is precisely in his commitment to philosophy not as practical but as an end in itself. So even to ask the question this way is both modernist and anachronistic: How can we use the philosophy of Plotinus to apply it to our lives, to pluck it from the tree of philosophical traditions, and put it to use in our current context? This would be meaningless to Plotinus, for whom philosophy is life. In the Western intellectual tradition, Plato is the major source for noninstrumentalist thinking. The good is, in content and form, anti-instrumentalist. It is a delicate task to wed an idea and an application: the need or imperative to use the idea can distort any truth it might hold. What happens when what is needed is something other than the true, or the right, or the beautiful? Socrates would think this impossible, since for him the truth is virtue. So trying to articulate a practical philosophy risks many things— getting ideas wrong or inaccurate for reasons ranging from being selective for one’s needs to taking ideas out of context, applying ideas in a way they were never meant to be applied or in a way they were intended but that is dangerous or wrong. Using an idea as a tool or weapon is also instrumentalism; it violates the idea itself and those in the situation who are being wronged by the manipulation of truth.

The overarching mistake is to reduce a set of complex musings to simple directives that preclude a fuller conversation. Complexity is not the answer so much as intricacy—the qualifications and considerations of multiple perspectives and dimensions—in which moral reflection occurs and virtuous action arises. These intricacies are the content of inwardness. The overly hasty search for a quick fix makes us act on impulse, whether affective or cerebral, forecloses alternatives prematurely, and reduces thought to rule. Rules then often preclude further thought. Rules, standards, and precepts are vital but either just the beginning or else a premature ending. We must live life in the interstices between these births and deaths, beginnings and endings. The consideration of the rule in light of a given situation is the inner conversation that needs to be part of decisions to act. Inwardness is the space—the gap between people—where we process this intricacy, not just to accept or get over our fears and anxieties, but to figure out how they can best inform and fill our lives.

Maybe this is the litmus test for self-help approaches: which ones foster lifelong practices of self-making toward nonmanipulable relations and self-transcendent ends of the good and beautiful as expressed in love. As Joseph E. Davis puts it so eloquently: “The cultural challenge of minding our minds, then, of leading more reflective lives, is both a matter of reducing the overload and filling an absence—the cultivation of those loves that can order our attention and intensify our connection to the good beyond ourselves.”


The bare-all, share-all culture of advertising, entertainment, political discourse, and social media has a rationale that goes something like this: open-ended self-expression brings the catharsis necessary for health, happiness, and self-confidence. Confession of one’s innermost feelings is not only accepted but expected. Yet however pleasant or freeing its short-term effects, the confessional mode does not work. Radical transparency has not proven to draw people together. Even when everything is said, total self-disclosure does not ensure closeness, or even the sense that we know one another at all. The poet, novelist, and essayist May Sarton drew a distinction, in Journal of a Solitude, between the painful solitude of loneliness and a generative form of solitude that gives rise to love and gratitude.

In the first half of his book Love and Human Separateness, philosopher Ilham Dilman presents a sustained critique of the Cartesian self, drawing on the critique of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that we respond to other people in the context of our embodied existence. This runs against René Descartes’s notion that at best all we can know of another person derives from our observation of a physical body, from which we can infer the existence of a mind. Instead, Dilman writes, we see a “live human being” and so “our responses, our whole orientation, are those that have a human being as their object.” This orientation to others constitutes “an attitude toward a soul.” We do not respond to another person because we have a notion that he or she exists, based on our knowledge of the existence of our own mind—“I think, therefore I am”; rather, we respond to a person’s embodied being.

Even though we need not doubt the existence of other people, that does not mean we can easily know them. Dilman’s exploration of the question of whether we can ever know another person allows us to see a very different kind of inwardness and the inter-personal relations it allows. Dilman’s discussion recalls Rieff’s vision of the necessary sacred space we must maintain between us. The notion of the intermundia, which appeared in the Epicurean texts, can give us a poetic metaphor for this.

Dilman asks, “What is it to know a person?” (emphasis in the original). This question, and the implied sister query of whether we ever can, gets us back full circle to the problem of the nature of the separateness of human beings. Are we separated from one another by a “distance or a gulf”? Is this gap inherently unbridgeable or can we overcome it under certain conditions?. Dilman explores novels for notions of separateness as well as works of philosophy. He takes seriously Sartre’s portrait of lovers who are doomed to conflict because of their separate existence, and Proust’s illustration of the way in which separateness keeps people apart even when they are in love. Ways of thinking about our separateness range from the “classical solipsism” of Proust’s narrator Marcel, who holds it as a philosophical position, to the “affective solipsism” of Rosamond in Middlemarch, who believes people “exist for her convenience.” Both deny the reality of other people. In Dostoyevsky, in contrast, Dilman sees a glimpse of a possibility for human contact.

In Dilman’s view, precisely what separates us ends up bringing us together. The way we know another person is contingent upon our preserving the space between us. Rather than collapsing that distance, we need to acknowledge the reality of our basic separateness while grasping it as the basis for our uniqueness and our love for someone not ourselves. This is the condition for a separate self that can love and be loved. Dilman describes the way that love transforms the potential for separation into a benign separateness through a form of inwardness directed toward finding and sustaining our connections with others.

To Dilman, we begin as separate, unique beings, and this separateness is “part of the framework” in which we interact. Even if we interact with others, this does not mean we naturally or easily “make contact” with them. That would require coming to know them. If we make no contact, “each remains alone in the relationship”. To make contact we must see a person “for what he is and this involves appreciating his character and understanding his motives.” Without knowing the other person in this way, “one’s interaction with him will not amount to contact”.

Knowing another person is the way that human separation turns into separateness. Dilman argues that separateness is necessary for intimacy and knowledge between people. In this way, the inwardness of separation in which we all find ourselves can become the very mechanism by which we come to know other people: “The separateness I have been commenting on, far from being a gulf between us, unless of course we make it so, is in fact a necessary condition of friendship, love and human give and take. . . . I cannot really love someone with whom I have identified myself to the extent that I do not feel her to have an identity apart from mine. The wonder of friendship and the magic of love depend on the separateness of friends and lovers; it is this which make their response to one another a gift” . What leads people to know one another in the way that leads to genuine contact has nothing to do with the quantity of self-revelation but the quality, not only the sharing but the receiving. What determines whether interaction amounts to contact is how we approach our separateness. Thus the gap between us becomes not only bridgeable but the very source and subject of our connection. The bridge is our disposition: “The attitude of those involved to that separateness, therefore, affects the character of the interaction, and so determines whether or not it amounts to contact”. We can choose estrangement. Or we can choose love.

A BOOK LIKE THIS ONE CAN DO NO MORE THAN HINT, gesture, and whisper of the subject it has taken up, ars vitae. It is intended as a small contribution to a vast, ongoing conversation. Yet it is the human conversation, to which all others are in some way connected. It is a conversation that everyone is a part of by definition, whether through words and actions or inaction and silence. Everything we do or do not do, 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 sometimes barely audible and at other times roaring like an ocean. This book is merely an attempt to chart some of the sounds—notes, themes, motifs, riffs, symphonies—that have reached one person’s ears, in hopes it may help even one fellow human being hear still others. We sorely need to tune our ears, eyes, or any other sense available to us to the important things. The most important things include the beauty and love all around us. These are the things that make it possible to endure all of the rest.


* "Philosophia" Reprinted with permission from Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. Published by University of Notre Dame Press. © 2020 by Elisabeth Lasch-Quin. All rights reserved.


Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn is professor of history at Syracuse University. She is the author of a number of essays and books, including Black Neighbors (winner of the Berkshire prize) and Race Experts.


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