Commonplace Book #192

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 is 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 love, 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 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. Ideas 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.

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Art of Living, 342-343.