All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
by hubert dreyfus and sean dorrance
kelly free press, 272 pages, $26
It may seem like a trivial question, but I cannot help wondering whether the title of this book has been lifted from the closing lines of Terrence Malick’s 1998 film adaptation of The Thin Red Line. It would make a kind of sense, given the themes of Malick’s films, and Malick’s Heideggerian background, and the way Heidegger seems to haunt this text like a genial specter. If so, then it seems to me that Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly might have done well to learn a few lessons from Malick—and from his mesmerizingly beautiful pagan-Christian-gnostic peregrinations—about the nature of the human longing for the divine, about its terrible ambiguity and urgency, and about its openness to both nature and grace. Because, in the end, All Things Shining is an oddly empty book: It asks so many seemingly deep questions, and then provides such incandescently shallow answers.
The authors begin by asserting that Western culture has reached a kind of nihilistic impasse. Modern society confronts us with an endless diversity of choices, they say, in every sphere of life, but at the same time it deprives us of any standards or ultimate values or practical skills by which we might learn what to do with our liberties. The result, not infrequently, is a condition of alienation, blindness to the splendor of the world about us, an inability to make our choices “meaningful” in any but the most inconsequential ways. And this breeds an anomie that too often mutates into either a tacit nihilism or (more desperately) a destructive fanaticism.
When, moreover, we try to escape our sad condition, we are likely to pursue either of two equally hopeless courses. We can attempt, through a purely spontaneous exertion of the will, simply to impose meaning on our circumstances, as a feat of imagination. This is the path Dreyfus and Kelly find expressed in the novels of David Foster Wallace (whom they hyperbolically describe as the “greatest writer of his generation” and “perhaps the greatest mind altogether”). Or we can surrender in perfect passivity to powers that lie beyond us, in the hope of being moved by them toward meanings that we cannot fashion for ourselves. This is a path they find laid out in the books of Elizabeth Gilbert (apparently they are not slaves to the usual distinction between high and low art).
Our proper comportment toward the world should be neither of these, however—or so Dreyfus and Kelly contend—but rather a sort of creative receptivity, neither purely active nor purely passive, but poetically open to the call of the gods, and to those experiences of fortuitous wonder in which world and self are given to one another. Life is “meaningful” only when we are swept up out of ourselves in moments of self-transcendence that call forth our highest powers of creative engagement with the world. In these “moods” we see sacred and shining things all about us. And such moods come in a vast variety—Jesus’ experience of agape, Dante’s vision of final heavenly bliss, Luther’s joyous trust in divine grace, even Kant’s sense of the categorical imperative.
Ultimately however, Dreyfus and Kelly suggest, these are not the sort of comportments of the will that can provide a solution to our present dilemma; they belong to an exhausted history. Kant’s ethics, Luther’s faith, Pascal’s commitment to God, and so on—all of these are possibilities of human existence that took shape in the age of “monotheism” (by which Dreyfus and Kelly mean the universalizing ethos of all the great systems of the axial age, even Buddhism); but the monotheistic moment has passed, and we can no longer retrieve its moods. Even those of us who retain religious affiliations do not for the most part inhabit them the way our ancestors did; we do not really believe that they provide the truth of all things for all persons. We no longer assume that there is only one correct way of approaching reality, and only one proper “mood” that can reveal the truth of things to us.
So now, say Dreyfus and Kelly, we must look further back, to an age that recognized a plurality of “proper” moods, each of which disclosed some sacred dimension of reality. In short, we need a return to polytheism, and specifically to the exuberant and wonderful commerce between human beings and gods found in the Homeric epics. There we see the divine displayed as a multiplicity of powers, occasionally seizing hold of mortals, and revealing a variety of possible modes of existence to them. Helen, for instance, was not merely an adulterous wife, as a more rigidly monotheistic culture might see her, but a woman attuned to the sacred dimension of being that Aphrodite opens up. She hearkened to the call of the goddess rather than to some abstract and uniform code of conduct. Thus her infidelity was actually piety, and her surrender to the erotic divine was actually the discovery of her true freedom. Even Menelaus finds no cause to blame her.
For Dreyfus and Kelly, these are the gods we must lure back. But, to do this, we need to remember how we drove them away in the first place. A large portion of All Things Shining is taken up with a genealogy of nihilism, much of which is a somewhat derivative reprise of the Nietzschean and Heideggerean narratives of modernity, though without the former’s acrimony or the latter’s fatalism. Dreyfus and Kelly do not actually lament the rise of “monotheism”—they recognize the revelatory power of such “reconfiguring events” as Jesus’ enactment of a transforming love, for instance—but they believe that the monotheistic impulse has led the West toward its nihilistic terminus. By positing a single standard of value to which all wills must ultimately submit, “monotheism” gave rise to a disenchantment with the world and a disastrous elevation of the sovereign individual’s bare power of choice to the highest value of all.
Dreyfus and Kelly freely admit that their précis of Western spiritual history is necessarily somewhat simplified; but that does not excuse generalities so broad that the simple is replaced by the simplistic. Nor, certainly, does it excuse plain errors of fact, of which there are far too many. It is, for instance, somewhat alarming to be told that “Augustine was the first important Christian to interpret Christianity using the categories of Greek philosophy.” Just as distressing is their misrepresentation of Augustine’s ideas—or, for that matter, of Stoicism and a number of other philosophical positions.
All that aside, though, one gets the point: Nihilism, as Nietzsche told us, is the final result of a passionate desire to know the one truth of all things, because ultimately that desire led to the discovery that no such truth could be found, and thus to the “death of God.” The only truth that remains”the only “meaning”—is the power of the will to will what it will. And, in this the age of technology, we no longer even possess the skills of practical engagement with the world that once made us open, willy-nilly, to its mysteries. Now only the gods can save us. We must find a way back to a polytheistic world, one in which the sacred might again show itself to us, not under the aspect of a single governing truth, but as a beautiful diversity of often irreconcilable truths. As the prophet of the new dispensation Dreyfus and Kelly propose Herman Melville.
So, then—where does any of this actually lead?
Absolutely nowhere, to be perfectly frank. What Dreyfus and Kelly recommend is that we should cultivate (exactly how I cannot say, since it gets rather vague here) the ancient Greek sense of being as physis, by which they mean—in quasi-Heideggerean fashion—a wonderful, mysterious, upwelling power that in certain blessed moments carries us beyond ourselves. Or, as they also phrase it, they want us to find “meaning” in moments of special transport when we collectively feel something “whooshing” up (that really is the word they use): the shared elation of spectators at a sporting event—say, watching Roger Federer at his best—or the thrill imparted to a crowd by great oratory—whether that of Martin Luther King Jr. or of Lou Gehrig—and so on.
Of course, Dreyfus and Kelly warn us, these moments of ecstatic abandon can be dangerous if we surrender to them too ecstatically, without prudence or practical skill. They can infuse life with “meaning,” but they can also lead to the rise of a Hitler. To avoid this we must turn back ever and again to the great classics of Western literature to learn how to transform the experience of the sacred into the art of living “meaningfully”—how to transform tasks into rituals and choices into moments of self-transcendence.
That all sounds rather nice, of course, but also just a little vacuous. As my generous use of scare quotes above makes obvious, I have little patience for talk about living a life filled with “meaning.” Used in the abstract, in fact, there is no word much more meaningless than “meaning.” But Dreyfus and Kelly really have nothing more concrete to offer. Their concern is “phenomenological,” they say, which means that they care a great deal about the shape of existential moods, but scarcely at all about whether those moods are based on any irreducibly definite intellectual convictions.
“Whatever we retrieve from the Greeks,” they declare, “it must be consistent with our understanding of the physical makeup of the universe.” And this means that, when Homer tells us that Ajax was slain by Poseidon for his ingratitude, we plainly cannot believe that the event was literally caused by the intervention of some “theological entity.” Instead we should read phenomenologically, as it were. Ajax ought to have felt grateful for his deliverance from shipwreck simply because an expansive mood of gratitude in such situations was an essential aspect of a life well lived in Homer’s world. And even now, they say, the question we should ask in moments of good fortune “is not whether God was the causal agent but whether gratitude was an appropriate response.”
Well, not to put too fine a point on it: twaddle, tosh, balderdash (etc.). As phenomenologists, Dreyfus and Kelly should at least appreciate that the relation between noesis and noema is never an accidental one. Not only does one’s comportment toward experience determine how one experiences things; one’s comportment is also determined by the content that one “intends” in one’s experience. It was not the case that Homeric men and women felt a mood of gratitude that they just happened to affix to one or another fantastic “theological entity”; they really believed in certain such entities and, as a consequence, felt gratitude (or reverence or dread or love or what have you) toward them. For Homer, Ajax dies not because he fails to exhibit a capacity for gratitude in the abstract; he dies because he has failed to show gratitude quite specifically to Poseidon, the god who saved him.
“We cannot return to Homer’s world,” say Dreyfus and Kelly, “[but] we can become receptive to a modern pantheon of gods—to the ways in which Gehrig and Federer shine, the ways in which Marilyn Monroe or Albert Einstein changed how we see the world in which we live.” How this is an advance over David Foster Wallace’s willful imposition of meaning on meaninglessness I am not entirely sure. Specimens of human excellence may impress us mightily, and they may shine with a special splendor. Certainly I gladly affirm the glory of Marilyn Monroe (believe me) and of everything else wonderful in the world around us. But unless we believe we see a genuinely transcendent light shining through them, we will never find any final “meaning” in them beyond an occasional frisson of pleasure, amazement, or terror.
It does not bother me in the least that Dreyfus and Kelly believe the only escape from modern nihilism to be a new polytheism; they may be right, as far as Western culture goes. But, if they are really serious, then they had better start erecting altars and temples, and praying for a return of the gods precisely as gods. Otherwise they are talking nonsense. Only if we really believe in the divine can we genuinely, lastingly, “meaningfully” experience any sacredness in the things of earth. In a world in which our “gods” are tennis players, even “all things shining” only light the way back toward the same old despair, the same familiar disenchantment. And not even Marilyn—divine, radiant, splendid woman that she was—can rescue us from that.
David Bentley Hart is contributing editor of First Things.