The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.
The preface sets out the book’s project:
The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)
The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.
Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:
There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)
While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.
For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?
Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)
The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)
Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.
In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.
The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.
The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)
Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.
No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.
2 thoughts on “Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age”
Fascinating stuff. I don’t understand the formal definition of “nihilism”; my understanding is confined to the vulgar notion that nihilism = negativism. So I’ll refrain from commenting on that aspect of the essay.
I think that I can offer a useful thought in respect to the loss of purpose brought on by the rise of secularism. As I have endlessly preached, we are all just Pleistocene hunter-gatherers faking it as civilized people. Pleistocene hunter-gatherers lived in a harsh and simple world. It wasn’t quite kill or be killed, but it was close enough. You stuck close to your clan and followed its beliefs. There was no anonymity and no nonconformity.
People say that they want freedom, but they need a firm social straightjacket to be happy. Freedom demands replacing social conformity with individual purpose, and that task is beyond the cognitive capacity of most people.
This issue is tearing society apart and will lead to its extinction. People feel lost in a free-wheeling multicultural modern society; they need to “know” that their personal set of social strictures is the one Universal Truth that they may take comfort in. The problem is that there are so many different groups trying to assert their own Universal Truths. They simply cannot share the same space with each other, and the tolerance and freedom necessary for a modern urban population to function is at odds with this need.
Perhaps the problem can be perceived as a collision between urban and rural cultures. Most urbanites understand the need for tolerance; most of the resistance to multicultural secularism comes from more rural communities. If this were true, then perhaps we could wait for continuing urbanization to overwhelm the rural element of our society. I am pessimistic about this possibility.
The only way that different social groups with differing Universal Truths can coexist is to eliminate their commingling. If we reduce the population to a few million and revert to our hunter-gatherer lifestyle, we can return to a socially sustainable life.
With the increasing political power of the anti-secularists, and the election of reactionaries like Mr. Trump, we appear to be moving in a direction that will indeed return us to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
A second thought: it seems that war is the strongest force in shattering traditional mores. The Enlightenment was ushered in by the horrors of the Thirty Years War. Americans learned the importance of peace after Vietnam, but their memories were short. The invasion of Iraq seems to have taught us reality, but I have little confidence that the lesson will stick this time. Both Japan and Germany renounced militarism after their defeat in 1945, and 70 years later they remain committed to nonviolent resolution of conflict. The peace that followed the Napoleonic wars held for a century, but then collapsed in an orgy of chauvinistic chest-thumping.
Perhaps we need a good bloody war every now and then to remind us. Not some sideshow like Iraq, but something where people’s homes are destroyed, entire families wiped out, the economy is shattered, and people realize just how bad things can get. Certainly Americans these days are just begging for a proper kick in the butt to get them back on course. It’s sad, but hey, they’re Homo Sapiens — what can you expect?