Sun, Jan 09, 2011 - Page 14 News List

The classics as antidote to a modern malaise

Stuck in a maze of nihilistic indecision, Americans need to stop striving for the Truth to find the exit, argues Hubert Dreyfus in ‘All Things Shining’

By MICHAEL ROTH  /  NY Times News Service, New York

ALL THINGS SHINING: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus and his former student Sean Dorrance Kelly have a story to tell, and it is not a pretty tale for us moderns. Ours is an age of nihilism, they say, meaning not so much that we have nothing in which to believe, but that we don’t know how to choose among the various things to which we might commit ourselves. Looking down from their perches at Berkeley and Harvard, they see the “human indecision that plagues us all.” In All Things Shining they offer readings of classic texts to show both how we got into this mess and how we can overcome it.

Though brief, this is an ambitious book, offering insightful readings of authors including Homer, Dante, Descartes and Kant, as well as the novelists Herman Melville and David Foster Wallace. Dreyfus and Kelly believe that great books are the “gathering places” where the major forces of a culture are focused, and so they are able to chart our descent from Homer’s gratitude before many gods to Wallace’s paralysis before a plethora of choices.

All Things Shining is not a book that asks, though, which Greeks would have been filled with gratitude, or which Americans have so many options that they are overcome by indecision. The philosophers stay very general, so everyday religious practices, poverty and gender dynamics play no role. This is especially unfortunate because it undermines their call to pay attention to, and be grateful for, the ordinary things around us.

Like Allan Bloom and Harold Bloom, and more recently David Denby and Alain de Botton, Dreyfus and Kelly think that classic texts point the way out of our contemporary malaise. They focus on philosophical issues, relying heavily on a version of Martin Heidegger’s narrative of cultivated despair with our technological age. Once upon a time in the West, way before Socrates and Plato kicked off what we now think of as philosophy, people were open to the wonderful variety of things. When we began to look for the Truth, however, we got locked into a cycle of certainty and skepticism.

Our desire for an Essence or a God to anchor the world made us increasingly oblivious to our experience of it. As our monotheistic quest for the foundation of meaning fell short, we slid down the slippery slope toward nihilism, toward the sense that nothing had any sense at all. As we strove to get out of this morass, we only slipped further, since striving was a big part of the problem.

For Heidegger, particularly after his awful alliance with the Nazis, finding a way to listen to great works of art and philosophy, to hear the lessons of the poets and craftsmen, was our only hope for turning away from contemporary emptiness and oblivion. Dreyfus and Kelly provide an Americanized version of Heidegger’s narrative: Wallace and Melville play crucial roles, and the book ends by extolling the openness to communal feelings Americans display at sports events.

Dreyfus and Kelly see in the Homeric past a world in which “the highest form of human excellence” is “to recognize, be amazed by, and be grateful for whatever it is that draws you to act at your best.”

They say that Homer’s heroes were able to open themselves to a variety of gods, to “whatever stands beyond us that requires our gratitude.” In the authors’ reading of Homer and other texts, they rely heavily on Heidegger’s concept of “attunement,” which conveys how receptive moods allow us to acknowledge meaning in the world. We get out of tune when we pursue monotheism, the notion that there is a unifying principle at work in the world, because we then try too hard to make the universe reveal its secrets or serve our interests. When we try too hard, we lose touch with the world.

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