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Marilyn Monroe and Roger Federer in ‘a wonderful world of sacred shining things.’

A Fortnightly Review of

All Things Shining:
Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
$26.00 Free Press 272 pages.

By Anthony O’Hear.

TO SAY THAT All Things Shining is a shallow book might not seem a criticism to its authors, for they quote approvingly Nietzsche’s admonition that, like the Greeks, we should stop courageously at the surface of life, to be superficial “out of profundity”. They also tell us that in our lives we should cherish the moods of the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, and all these ordinary aspects of living, as opposed to striving, fruitlessly, as they see it, to uncover some single deep or transcendent meaning in existence.

There could indeed be a good shallowness here, a Dantean sense, perhaps, that all these brevi contingenze are not too small for the divine love to have created and cherished, but this is not the way of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly; nor does their shallowness rest on Nietzschean desperation, for they see the ancient Greeks as “happy polytheists”, as if The Iliad were bathed in an Arnoldian sweetness and light; nor do they ever really appreciate Nietzsche’s own sense that the death of God is, at some level, collectively, if not individually, a catastrophe. To adopt a Jamesian manner of speaking, All Things Shining is not just shallow, it is shallowly shallow – which has not prevented the book being accorded a rapturous reception, as if the mere fact of two eminent professors of philosophy not only speaking about the meaning of life, but in doing so referring to Homer, Aeschylus, Dante and Herman Melville were in itself sufficient grounds for what they would no doubt call whooshing applause. (Melville? Whooshing? We will come back to all that.)

The argument of the book can be stated fairly simply. In the 21st century, the source of value and meaning has come to be seen as the human will. (The large numbers of people even in middle-class America for whom this is not true are predictably, in a work of this sort, somewhat overlooked.) However, Dreyfus and Kelly are keen to suggest that will is not enough. Taking human will to be the source of value, as post-Enlightenment many take it to be, leads ultimately to boredom, and worse, as Dreyfus and Kelly suggest in considering the suicide of the writer David Foster Wallace.But things were different in the polytheistic world described by Homer, in which men (and women) experienced gods as creators of moods and values to which we humans resonated. The Greeks were open to the world in a way we are not, swept up by their gods into shared moods – erotic, war-like, convivial, and so on. The gods were the attuning ones, and men responded to them accordingly.

WHILE DREYFUS AND KELLY are blissfully insouciant as to the actual existence of these gods (“one does not have to believe that the Greek gods actually exist in order to gain something deep and important from Homer’s sense of the sacred”), it is very important that there are or were a lot of them – hence polytheism. In the Dreyfus-Kelly story, Aeschylus and Christian writers subsequent to him moved towards monotheism, which does have the merit of suggesting values outside of us. But monotheism is unsustainable both philosophically (as it turned out) and psychologically in implying that there was a single value or source of value, which wiped out both individuality and the richness and variety of meaning and indeed of life. Monotheism was further tainted by its association with Platonism, which, apart from anything else was in tension with any sense of Incarnation and, of course, led to the disparagement of appearance and of this world which so angered Nietzsche.

And this is where Moby Dick comes in. For after pretty cursory accounts of Jesus, Paul, Augustine, Dante and Luther, and a suggestion that Descartes and Kant ushered in a subjectivism which had not previously existed, but which threw us back, tragically, on our own autonomy, the faceless, formless, fearsome presence of Melville’s great white whale is the best image we have of the monotheos we can never know or reach. So all we appear to be left with is ourselves, and the Sartrean hell of the responsibility for our existence placed squarely upon our own shoulders. This ultimately unavailing and boredom inducing attitude is reinforced by the promise of technology in which the world appears to be placed entirely at our disposal, manipulable and subservient to our desires.

Dreyfus and Kelly try valiantly to persuade us that we need to focus on sources of value outside of ourselves and our desires. They open their book with an account of a man who responded heroically and urgently to the demands of the moment (which were not his demands) when he threw himself under a train on the New York subway track to save a fellow passenger (though as the book goes on, we rather lose track of what might have been involved here). Then there is the anti-technological focus of attention involved in craft-work, where one is guided by the nature of the material and of long-honed skills, rather than moulding things to our own fantasies and conceptions. There is also what they call the whooshing feeling one gets when swept away by collective emotion at a sporting and other occasions, as they earlier saw the Homeric gods doing to those who came within their ambit. And, connected to this latter, there is Roger Federer, whose athletic grace and beauty they see as embodying a metaphysical mystery and magic, a this-worldly kind of sacred. Those who thought the Fed was a tennis player, a brilliant one, the very best even (until Nadal beats him yet again, maybe), but a tennis player nonetheless, might be reminded at this point of another, slightly more volatile, tennis player: ‘YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS’. They are indeed serious.

But Dreyfus and Kelly are not as sage as John McEnroe. Despite their worries that the whooshing of crowds, whipped up by benign enough charismatic figures, such as Muhammad Ali and Martin Luther King, could occasionally be just a tiny bit fascistic, their conclusion is that “we can become receptive to a modern pantheon of gods – to the ways in which [baseball player] Gehrig and Federer shine, the ways in which Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein changed how we see the world in which we live”; and, remembering some of the sacred moments from earlier times, we can also respond to the (unfortunately unspecified) “manifold senses of the sacred that still linger unappreciated at the margins of our disenchanted world”. If we are able to do these things, or, perhaps become more receptive to what they can do to us, then, in the book’s closing words, “this contemporary Polytheistic world will be a wonderful  world of sacred shining things”.

ONE COULD QUARREL WITH the detail of the interpretations in the discussions of the western classics, for example that Homer is “dangerously” noncommittal when Hector’s body is dragged round the walls of Troy. Noncommittal he may be, but that is because he shows the horror of war and what it does to men (and women) in unsparing pitilessness, and does so, in an amazingly even-handed way. Does The Iliad really give us a picture of the Greeks as happy polytheists, or is it providing foundations of Aeschylean tragedy (as Aeschylus himself said), and even in some ways anticipating elements of Christianity, as Simone Weil thought? Then again, there is indeed a tension, as Dreyfus and Kelly say, between Platonism and Incarnational Christianity, but why can the transition to Christianity, as memorably described by Augustine in The Confessions, not be seen as an intellectual and moral advance? And following on from that, is the human face in Dante’s beatific vision merely that God’s radiance is “painted” with man’s image, or is Dante suggesting something profound here about the nature of the Deity?

These are all important questions, and, to be fair, they are raised by the discussions of Dreyfus and Kelly, though their touch is far too light to provide the materials for thinking about them. But this is all rather beside the point in the context of the book as a whole. It fails completely to clarify what might be meant by modern Polytheism, even to the extent that one hardly knows whether what they call the sacred refers to any sacred being or beings existing outside our subjective experience. And, almost as bad, the examples of modern gods or shining things tend to be so bathetic as to defy serious comment. (If Federer and Marilyn Monroe are our shining ones, why not Sir Elton John, Wayne Rooney and the winners of X  Factor?) One could imagine the book as emerging from late night undergraduate meanderings, but in a culture with real intellectual standards, it would not be taken more seriously than that. That the book seems already to be making its mark on popular consciousness is a sign of a contemporary thirst for some meaning beyond Enlightenment autonomy and the prevailing scientific naturalism, but it is equally a sign of the lack of the resources to slake that thirst.

Anthony O’Hear is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham, the director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, a co-editor of the Fortnightly Review, and the author of, among other books, Philosophy in the New Century and The Great Books: A Journey Through 2500 Years of the West’s Classic Literature.

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