Beyond the therapeutic
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn talks selfhood, identity politics, and the ancient art of living
Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a professor of history at Syracuse University in New York, smiles warmly. She is well aware of the apparent ‘paradox’ of her new book, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living. That is, it postulates the decline of ‘inwardness’, indeed the desiccation of selfhood, in a society that many believe has never been more self-obsessed.
Indeed, as she explains during a Zoom chat, we are in ‘the heart of the era of the self’. From the mirror-lined walls of social media to the aggressive navel-gazing of identity politics, we appear to be ‘looking at the self endlessly, turning inward endlessly’. Seemingly essential, albeit literally skin-deep differences between people are cultivated and celebrated, while public, shared life, beyond the silos and echo chambers, is left abandoned. ‘And we see some of the results’, she tells me. ‘The dissolution of communities. The dissolution of polities, even.’
So why write a book that appears to be calling for greater self-focus, for the cultivation of more ‘inwardness’, when we appear to have a surfeit of damaging self-centred introspection as it is?
Because, she tells me, today’s self-obsession entails ‘a false kind of inwardness. It’s a sham, It’s not the real thing.’
And this is what makes Ars Vitae such vital reading. It provides both a thorough-going critique of the therapeutic, self-obsessed ethos so dominant today, and a way beyond it, through the potential development of those inner, moral resources on which true selfhood and a moral community rest. Or as Ars Vitae has it in one of its many Platonic moments: ‘The art of living – as opposed to the science, technique, or therapy of living – requires that we cultivate not just the self but the soul.’
A detour: the triumph of the therapeutic
The thought of social theorist Philip Rieff looms large in Ars Vitae, indeed as it does throughout Lasch-Quinn’s work. She even refers to him – in her 2006 introduction to his masterpiece, The Triumph of the Therapeutic – as her ‘intellectual grandfather’ (1).
It is an intellectual lineage worth paying attention to. In The Triumph of the Therapeutic, published in 1966, Rieff develops a theory of culture, which plays a significant role in Ars Vitae. As Rieff has it, culture in traditional, religion-based societies restricted individual behaviour through the provision of certain moral prohibitions, while simultaneously, through ritual, rite and artistic expression, directing individuals’ motives and desires outward towards those ‘communal purposes in which alone the self can be realised and satisfied’ (2). Or, as Lasch-Quinn puts it in Ars Vitae, it is the ‘process by which individuals form moral selves’.
But with the advent of capitalist modernity, the waning of the protestant ethic, and the waxing of economic and political liberalism, traditional culture starts to feel alien and restrictive rather than fulfilling. By the turn of the 20th century, as Rieff put it, the individual was ‘twisting his neck inside the starched collar of culture’. Sigmund Freud sought to ‘soften’ the collar – to loosen it a bit and lessen the shame of transgression. But Freud’s successors ‘using bits and pieces of [Freud’s] genius… sought to take [the collar] off’ (3).
Rieff focused on the psycho-sexual liberationist visions of Wilhelm Reich and DH Lawrence. But the thought that modern Western society and culture was a fetter on the self was widespread among the cultural elites at the time. After the Second World War, such high-culture disenchantment became the counterculture’s cause.
This was the moment the therapeutic began to triumph. The moment, that is, when the self, liberated from the constraints of convention, was to become its own end. Man no longer sought salvation through commitment to something higher than himself. He sought merely to become himself. As Tom Wolfe put it in 1976, ‘Whatever [this moment] amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented post-Second World War American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self.’ Or as Lasch-Quinn once put it, ‘Desires, mistaken in our age for appetites, must be indulged; our very wellbeing relies on – no, demands – this indulgence.’ (4)
This is why for Lasch-Quinn, following Rieff, the therapeutic denotes far more than, as she puts it, ‘liberal softness, Alan Alda, complaints that “men are too nice” and the nanny state’. Rather, it marks a fundamental socio-historical transformation in the relationship between state, society and the individual – and with it, the transformation of selfhood.
Many others thought so, too. Tom Wolfe certainly did in ‘The “Me” decade and the third Great Awakening’; Lasch-Quinn’s own father, Christopher Lasch, did in his seminal The Culture of Narcissism (1979); and Alasdair MacIntyre did in After Virtue (1981) – ‘an incredibly perceptive and accurate book that I love’, says Lasch-Quinn.
And Lasch-Quinn herself also did, in Race Experts published in 2001. This explored the way in the which the civil-rights movement – ‘which was very much an enlargening movement’, she tells me, ‘trying to expand our notion of commonality within democratic societies’ – was warped by proponents of a ‘therapeutics of race’. So, what had begun as a radical reminder to ‘Americans of their commitment to true egalitarianism’ had, by the 1970s, started to morph into a divisive celebration and performance of individual racial identity. This, Lasch-Quinn wrote, ‘helped sap the best potential of the movement’ and ‘hijacked many real prospects for change’ (5). As such, Race Experts remains as bracing a critique of racial identitarianism as it was when it was first published 20 years ago.
Yet Ars Vitae, while drawing on this tradition of therapeutic critique, also marks a substantial advance on it. ‘I’m trying to broaden out what we think the therapeutic is’, Lasch-Quinn tells me. ‘I want to give us a new vocabulary to talk about it’. And she has done this by ‘going deeper into the intellectual structures underlying the therapeutic, discerning the patterns of thinking’. And there she has discovered a constellation of therapeutic philosophies – that is, increasingly dominant ways in which many individuals conceive of themselves and their relationship to others.
These are not completely new philosophies, either. Rather, they are versions of much older philosophies. ‘I realised’, says Lasch-Quinn, ‘that what we were seeing was a kind of incoherent pattern in which different schools of thought were coming back and were creeping into people’s analysis and even helping to explain certain people’s sensibility’.
Ars Vitae dedicates a chapter to each of these schools of thought, exploring the extent to which their modern iterations conform to and diverge from their often unacknowledged sources. So she sees in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator or the discipline of Alcoholics Anonymous the stirrings of a new Stoicism, or, in the indulgence of the Eat Pray Love phenomenon, a new Epicureanism. There are glimmers of the older, ancient arts of living, but they are often refracted through a therapeutic lens. The new Stoicism is often cruel rather than prudent, self-aggrandising rather than self-denying. And the new Epicureanism frequently slips into self-indulgence.
But there is one therapeutic mode of thought that has Lasch-Quinn particularly worried. ‘I believe there is a Gnostic tendency to the worst forms of the therapeutic’, she says. ‘It’s therapeutic for an elite group, an elite not necessarily in terms of wealth, but in insidership. It is a sense that “we are the good ones, that we are the saved, that we are divine”.’
And this Gnostic tendency is proving a ‘recipe for chaos, for breakdown, for the disintegration of society’.
The new Gnosticism
Reading Ars Vitae, it makes sense that the therapeutic, with its focus on the external validation of the feelings and desires of individuals, should encourage a mode of thinking so close to ancient Gnosticism, which bloomed in the first century AD. After all, like its ancient counterpart, the new Gnosticism turns on the belief that ‘I’ have special knowledge (gnosis means ‘to have knowledge’), that ‘I’ see the world for the evil illusion that it is. It results, as Lasch-Quinn explains, in a radical dualism, in which the Gnostic subject, like an aggressive version of Rieff’s liberated, therapeutic self, utterly rejects the world as it is, believing it to be sunk in secular sin and evil. No wonder, as Lasch-Quinn observes, it provides psychological, cognitive ground on which contemporary apocalypticism flourishes.
‘I think that [this new Gnosticism] might be the consequence of the therapeutic and its validation of pretty much each individual’s desires’, explains Lasch-Quinn. ‘It seems like the logical step from saying “we’re all valid”, to saying “all our perceptions of reality are valid”, that every group is valid in what it wants to be true.’
This has not led to some pluralistic paradise. It has led to conflict. To ‘moral chaos’, says Lasch-Quinn. It has fed the manichaeism – which itself was a Gnostic idea – we see all around us today, from the vitriolic denunciation of Trump voters to far-right talk of the ‘Great Replacement’. This therapeutic Gnosticism underwrites the conviction of all those with the insider knowledge, that they are radically good, and the others are either radically evil – or, worse still, just ‘automatons, walking around in a fog’, as Lasch-Quinn puts it. And it doesn’t just manifest itself at the extremes of public discourse. Rather, it is a mode of thinking, she writes in Ars Vitae, undergirding the ‘kind of know-it-all attitude infusing the excesses of Information Age boosterism and of technocracy’, running through and uniting everything from the blue-pill mythology of the Matrix films through to now widespread conspiracy theory and, most pertinent of all perhaps, identity politics.
‘The Gnostic side of the therapeutic is, I think, the dominant side right now’, she tells me. ‘It very much fits identity politics.’ Think, she says, of ‘the us-them mentality’ characteristic of it, ‘the feeling that if you’re not with us, you’re against us’.
Those advancing identity politics are not usually the same people on whose behalf identitarians speak, she cautions, echoing her arguments in Race Experts. Rather, if you look at racial identity politics today,
‘there’s a kind of white liberal who claims to have the insider knowledge… So they start diversity-training programmes. They write all kinds of academic books, have all kinds of programmes institutionalised in universities and elsewhere. This is the whole diversity apparatus, and it operates on different assumptions to education, even though it is often in educational institutions. Instead, it operates on the Gnostic-type lines that there is this esoteric knowledge that only some are privy to.’
And what of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ itself? What of the now ubiquitous talk among identitarians of ‘systemic racism’, and some almost metaphysical ‘power structure’? Are these not also related to the new Gnosticism?
‘I think so. It’s conspiracy thinking’, she says. ‘It is the idea that the world is an illusion.’
Lasch-Quinn warns it would be wrong to think this Gnostic identity politics is confined to the modern left. ‘It seems to be on the far left and far right. Those extremes are setting the terms of discourse. They’re similar in every way. They have specialised knowledge. They think in terms of conspiracies. They think of the world as an illusion. They share that gut-level inability to have any kind of belief in the existence of the real world.’
All this makes for a striking reframing of identitarianism, its Gnostic patterns of thinking and their relationship to therapeutic culture. Yet what makes Ars Vitae so compelling is that Lasch-Quinn does not stop there. That, she tells me, was one of her motivations for writing it.
‘The question I was left with after Race Experts was, well, if the therapeutic culture is so wrong, are we just going to end with critique? [Rieff and MacIntyre] are wonderful scholars, but they ended on that note – that everything is wrong. But where does that really leave us? What about posterity? What about our current lives? So I tried to ask myself, what is the alternative to the therapeutic culture at the deepest level?’
Her answer centres on ‘sifting through the ruins of contemporary culture with a fine-tooth comb’, and, where she finds it, cultivating the very inwardness therapeutic culture systematically derides. This is her alternative to the ‘sham’ of today’s selfie-culture: ‘the cultivation of an inner life.’ And it is this that will provide ‘the source of personal and collective regeneration’.
Inwardness is not an easy concept to nail down, as we discover in the course of our conversation. But Lasch-Quinn does a good job, calling it ‘a quality of introspection that doesn’t aim at self-aggrandisement, but aims at something higher’.
It is the mode in which we judge ourselves, interrogate our actions, reflect on our projects – the mode, ultimately, in which we reckon with ‘the question of how to live’. As Lasch-Quinn makes clear, invoking Saint Augustine, this is not a solipsistic exercise. Rather it ‘is a way of going into the self that is the only way of really going out of the self again’:
‘It’s the idea that when you’re going inside, you’re not going to nowhere. That’s not the endpoint. That’s in fact the way to go out to the world. Because who do you meet when you go inward? You meet your god. You meet the force that is like a god to you. Your conscience or whoever it is who helps you think about the difference between good and bad.’
In other words, ‘going inward’ is a way of bringing a certain moral weight to bear upon oneself. And that moral weight is not internally produced. It is externally inculcated. It is, if you like, a psycho-social sediment generated by an individual’s socialisation, experienced initially, as Freud had it, at the hands of one’s parents and teachers, by ‘their injunctions and prohibitions’, and then internally cultivated as an individual develops (6). This is why, when going inward, as Lasch-Quinn says, ‘you encounter something other than yourself, something that you may be speaking to, or that you’re holding things up to. And that for Freud was your superego. Your moral conscience that you have imbibed with your mother’s milk, as it were, from early childhood.’
So, just as the moral self for Rieff was a shared, cultural achievement, so inwardness for Lasch-Quinn is a social accomplishment. It is the place in which we are able to judge and see ourselves in a moral light. Or better still, it is ‘the place where the individual encounters the requirements and gifts of social existence’, writes Lasch-Quinn, ‘as well as the call of freedom and the will of individual existence, and negotiates between them’.
And that’s part of the problem right now, as Lasch-Quinn sees it. The therapeutic, especially its Gnostic version, denigrates the authority of parents and teachers, dismisses societal existence as corrupting, oppressive, inauthentic and so on, and therefore depletes the very moral resources on which the capacity for inwardness depends.
But all is far from lost. As Ars Vitae demonstrates, the need for moral coherence persists. It underpins to a large degree the very re-emergence the schools of thought Lasch-Quinn has identified, from the new Stoicism to the new Cynicism – ‘possible signs of something that could actually be coherent’, as Lasch-Quinn calls them.
Moreover, there is still an all-too-human need for inwardness. After all, says Lasch-Quinn, it is inwards, in search of that faint moral force, that absent god, that people still ‘go to handle the most difficult things that they have to handle’, from ‘something as vast as genocide’ to what might be deemed a much smaller loss for the individual. ‘Suffering is suffering and extremes of it are what people often have to find a way to handle’, she tells me. ‘And the only real way is inward. And so inwardness is a way of taking what we have to bear, and finding the inner resources to be able to endure.’
So suffering still produces a need to reckon with one’s life, a need to give it some moral coherence, a need, using what is morally, spiritually to hand, to judge it, to give it some meaning at the very moment it can feel most meaningless. But not only do we still go inwards ‘to find the inner resources to handle suffering’, she tells me, ‘it is also where we find the inner resources to feel good about something’.
This marks the inexorable return of the ancient question of how to live – the question that informs Ars Vitae. Because to ask it, to ask oneself how to live, to think in terms of ‘oughts’, is to think in terms of the good life – to think in terms of something that transcends the individual self. And this, she writes, ‘presupposes an interest in ethics and in the common life of the community’.
All this is a start. But there are as yet no clear answers to the moral chaos in which it sometimes feels we are mired. And Lasch-Quinn, in her work and in person, is possessed of too much humility to offer them. But then, perhaps answers are not the answer. ‘A workable public philosophy does not end questions but questions ends’, writes Lasch-Quinn. ‘It admits that we are beings in progress with decisions to make every day.’ It is in this humble approach to the art of living that Lasch-Quinn points beyond the therapeutic horizons of the self.
Tim Black is a spiked columnist.
Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living, by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, is published by University of Notre Dame Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
(1) ‘Introduction’, Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn, in The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006, pXXV
(2) The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006, p4
(3) The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006, pp8-9
(4) The Triumph of the Therapeutic, by Philip Rieff, Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006, pXII
(5) Race Experts, by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, WW Norton, 2001, p62
(6) p643, ‘The Ego and the Id’, by Sigmund Freud, in The Freud Reader, edited by Peter Gay, Vintage, 1995
All pictures by: Getty Images.
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