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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

The authors of this latest attempt to give life “meaning” and to “uncover the wonder” of the world—concealed, as it has been, by modern technological culture—begin their argument with an episode. In 2007, a young man waiting on a Brooklyn subway platform suffered a seizure and fell onto the subway tracks. Wesley Autry, a fifty-year-old construction worker, jumped onto the tracks and covered the young man with his own body, holding him flat between the rails, as a train bore down upon them. Autry saved the man’s life; he was a hero, and the authors detail the elements of his heroism: Autry knew what to do and he did it immediately.

We moderns envy such decisiveness, the authors claim; we find our natures are unhappily underdetermined, without direction. We suffer a peculiar “burden of choice,” in that “we often seem not to have any sense for what the standards of living a good life are in the first place . . . we seem to have no ground for choosing one course of action over any other.”

It was not always thus, they observe by contrasting Dante’s Divine Comedy with the sprawling scripts of Shakespeare. The Tuscan’s world comprises a spiritual, moral, and literal topography “laid out by God.” To live well, one must conform one’s reason and will to the path assigned to human nature that leads from birth to the beatific vision. The world of Shakespeare is a comparative mess. Hamlet, for example, is not merely undecided about his mother’s “o’er hasty” remarriage: he cannot even decide whether to be or not to be. Whereas Autry moved as if compelled by a system of law and meaning beyond his reason, we moderns are more like Hamlet. What little meaning or purpose we can muster in our lives must be self-generated. But this has the effect of cutting us off still further from the world in which we live. Eventually, the burden of having to spin all the intelligible content of our lives out of the guts of our imagination leads to moral collapse.

The authors accordingly examine the figure of the novelist David Foster Wallace. For just over a decade, Wallace was recognized as one of the great minds of his generation, a “genius” whose thick, square book, Infinite Jest, summed up the total commercialization of our age. Wallace was not content with mere postmodern posturing, however. If modern life is, in Wallace’s words, a “stomach-level sadness,” a “kind of lostness,” he saw that his generation had to “find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values.” He wanted to do that in his work, but the only way out of the desert of consumption he could discern was to “choose how you construct meaning from experience.” Out of the ugliness of things, one must use the strength of one’s genius to make meaning. Wallace, the recipient of a MacArthur Genius grant, was presumably in a privileged position to make a great deal of meaning out of the “fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up” ladies of the world. Instead, on September 12, 2008, he hanged himself.

The figures of Autry and Wallace guide the argument of this book as a whole. Wallace serves as a warning that the answer to nihilism cannot be to overburden the genius by trying to force meaning onto the world: it must be made meaningful for us by something beyond us. Autry, on the other hand, resides like a trace of a past, more meaningful universe still potentially realizable even in our modern abyss.

The obstacle to living thus, the authors insist, lies in the character of our secular age. An age is secular not when religious belief has evanesced, but when faith’s manifestations no longer possess an ordering authority on society as a whole or on individual understandings. The authors doubt that “Judeo-Christian monotheism can be culturally satisfying in the modern age,” because Christianity participated in a historical narrative that led by its own internal logic to our “secular” condition.

The authors spend most of the book expanding upon the observation of Max Weber that the history of the West has entailed a gradual “disenchantment” of the world. In Homer’s Greece, we find a people alive to the sacred generosity of things. The pantheon of the gods involve themselves in every aspect of human life, so that human actions are often enhanced or completed through divine action. As such, while human beings act, they are seldom the sole agents. To be excellent in Homer’s world means not simply to do great things but to do them in a state of attunement to the generosity and agency of the gods. To live well is to live in a constant state of openness and gratitude to the forces beyond ourselves that give themselves as a shining-forth of meanings we discern but do not generate. In Homer’s pantheon, the gods proliferate with the gifts we experience, and the poet makes no effort to reconcile them into a hierarchy. The authors believe that we can appropriate this unsystematic gratitude for the shining-out in our own day. Since Homer was not troubled to systematize the gods, we should not be troubled that our gratitude is not directed to any real divinity in whom we really believe.

The decline of the West begins with what Karl Jaspers called the Axial Revolution, the moment when human beings concluded “that there is a good beyond what we can find in the everyday conception of human flourishing,” and to which all things must be ordered. In this sense, Aeschylus appears as a prototypically tragic figure. Seeing that conflict inevitably arises between the various “tunes” of the gods, his Oresteia subordinates the old gods of kinship (the Furies) to the new gods of the polis. The superabundant polytheism of Homer takes a step toward monotheistic order.

With the coming of Christ, human beings come to believe that “people are defined by their inner desires and intentions, not their external actions,” and that the foremost such desire is that of “agape love,” a receptivity akin to that of the Homeric Greeks, but one which depends greatly upon our inner disposition. In St. Augustine, this Christian inwardness was combined with the Greek philosophical rage toward monotheistic order. The authors provide a rough sketch of Augustine’s thought which ignores the long and uneven integration of Greek thought with Judaism and Christianity dating back at least to the Book of Wisdom, St. Paul, and the Gospel of John. Thus, they wrongly convict Augustine of distorting Christianity in making it exclusively concerned with eternal and ideal things, thereby “disenchanting” both the things of this world and the human experience of agape. This is a misleading reading even of the one text on which they rely, the Confessions, which affirms the intelligible goodness of things and does not “spiritualize” the bodily senses out of existence, but rather looks forward to the resurrection of the body, when the saved will enter into the joy of the Lord.

The authors give a more sympathetic account of Dante and Aquinas. Both these high-medieval figures shared Aristotle’s conception of individual beings, rather than ideal forms, as consummately real; they also shared his vision of a gorgeous, intellectually ordered and hierarchical universe. The authors contend that Dante and Aquinas (more evidently than Augustine) viewed the world itself as richly significant, as having “its moral and spiritual meaning written on its face.” Despite that, Dante’s hierarchy, like Augustine’s, makes the meaning of things in the world dependent on a good beyond it, and so contributes to, rather than counters, disenchantment. So, when we find Dante leaving Beatrice behind to become “blissed out” in the beatific vision, we are to convict Dante and Aquinas alike of having an inadequate conception of Christ’s this-worldly emphasis on the “mood” of agape.

If this is true for Dante—and it seems a stretch—it is not true for Aquinas, who affirms that “of all things there is one goodness, and yet many goodnesses” (Summa Theologica 1.6.4). The authors wish us to see and enjoy “all things shining,” but they view any attempt to establish a first light that is reflected in all things as a step toward nihilism. Therefore, following Luther, they condemn the medieval Christian syntheses as a corruption of Christ’s “mood” of grace and agape. The authors show themselves as somehow more Lutheran than the many faithful Lutherans who view their founder’s thought as a return to St. Paul and Augustine alike.

Luther’s rejection of Aquinas, the authors continue, prepared the ground for Descartes, who radicalizes Christian inwardness and splits the world of “God’s creatures” into “subjects and objects.” After Descartes, mankind came to view the willful assertion of the self as the source of all meaning in an otherwise disenchanted, inertly material world. Cartesian idealism leads to Nietzschean nihilism.

Only a return of the gods can save us. In a compelling interpretation of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, the authors propose that Ahab’s hunt for the white whale enacts a monomaniacal desire to discover a monotheistic absolute. Pippen the ship-keeper, who has lost his identity and identifies with all things, represents, in contrast, a lapse into the absolute openness and indeterminacy of a universe that has no ordered hierarchy of meaning. Between Ahab and Pippin sails Ishmael, who refuses both the quest for order and the inanition of despair; he dwells in the manifold and polysemantic sacred mysteries of the particular.

All this resembles the compelling tale of secularization and disenchantment given by modern Catholic philosophers and cultural critics. The authors develop, also, familiar critiques of modernity from the last century, such as those of Santayana and Matthew Arnold. But one thinks also of the Cantos of Ezra Pound, which sought to renew a pantheon of gods visiting us in the concrete mysteries of historical experience. That “epic” poem rendered itself almost incoherent in the effort to represent life as a mosaic of divine mysteries without succumbing to the monotheistic rage for order, but it also indulged in the modern European pagan tendencies that helped lead to the rise of the Nazi cult.

The authors are aware of these distressing associations and they distance themselves from them. In calling us to be open to the grace and gratitude of a shining world, they have in mind chiefly the “rising as one with the crowd at a baseball game.” They wish to help their readers to see the world as intelligible again, to be able to know and to act in response to the shining-forth and gift of things. But they plainly are not calling us to actual belief in the gods—or to a moral or political reordering of our lives.

They are not, in fact, calling us to much of anything. Throughout the volume, the authors show a brilliant attunement to the experience—meaning the consumption and viewing habits—of their readers. Most of us watch sports; we know the mania of Woody Allen and have seen Pulp Fiction; we drink good coffee routinely and with relish; on those occasions when we make something for ourselves, we sense the activity as possessing a dignity absent from the keying in of spreadsheets at the office. The authors would have us do these things still, but with “reverence,” learning to let ourselves “be overwhelmed by the ecstatic and wild gods of sport” and so on.

This is disappointing to observe, because the book’s historical survey is often dazzling and its readings of classic works of literature usually compelling, if sometimes skewed. For all the talk of the return of the gods, the authors really just ask us to acknowledge that we are not the engineers of the meaning we find in the world.

But do contemporary human beings really vacillate between a post-Cartesian quest to reduce the meaning of reality to the expression of the will and a suicidal nihilism that despairs of that task? Many great minds have answered yes. But others have contended that, while the waning of Scholasticism and the rise of rationalism and scientism have lessened the social authority of Christianity, this has led mostly to the rise of new sorts of pagan idolatry—commodity fetishism. On this account the world shines abundantly, and the apparent inability of modern persons to believe in a god derives from Descartes only because he led us to accept only what we could know for certain—and as Aquinas confirms, there is nothing more certain than the pleasures of the senses. While openness to the sacred gifts of our sensory lives would perhaps lead us to issue vague prayers of thanks amid our concupiscent gorging, it would not really alter the gorging.

If the world is already pagan and polytheistic (and we have as many gods as money can buy), then it would seem odd that the authors should find the re-Christianization of our age to be impossible. The first Christians, after all, converted a relativistic but devout pagan society to the exclusive monotheism of the Gospel. They were able to do so, in part, because one can only raise so many altars to the unknown god before desiring to know his name. One can only greet the universe with awe and gratitude for so long before desiring to bow down in worship before the founder of that feast. For all the brilliant erudition of this volume, it seems the authors do not entertain Christianity as a plausible answer to our modern woes simply because they do not wish to. Theirs is one more Cartesian direction of the will, choosing to see our age as secular and nihilist rather than pagan and idolatrous. Their “Lutheran” misreading of Augustine, Dante, and Aquinas makes these greatest voices of Christendom collaborators in the march to nihilism rather than the antidote to our present idolatry.

The world shines brightly enough. What our age lacks, and what Dante’s did not, was the willingness to search for the original light—and to rise and be on our way toward it.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Reprinted with gracious permission of  The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2011

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