“All Things Shining”: How Greek philosophers can bring back wonder

Hey kids, ever wondered how Western philosophical thought has evolved over the past few thousand years, and why, and what we should think and do about it now? Well, we can start with a new book by What Computers Can't Do author and iTunesU podcast-lecture rock star Hubert Dreyfus of UC Berkeley and his former student Sean Dorrance Kelly, now Harvard's chair of philosophy.

All Things Shining, it's called, and maybe that sounds too optimistic for a book whose ambition is partly to explain how the various heavy hitters of human understanding wound up giving mankind a self-image that “destroys the possibility of a meaningful and worthwhile existence.” But these authors, gods bless them, have in mind an antidote to all that destruction — namely, “the basic phenomenon of Homeric polytheism.” That is, now that we live with a tyranny of too many choices in life, we sure could use an array of ancient-Greek-style gods to guide us through them. Or at least a sharper sense of amazement and gratitude. Dreyfus and Kelly see our having bottomed out in nihilism as an opportunity for renewal. They see us “released from the ancient temptation to monotheism” (although to many that'll be a tough sell) and in need of opening ourselves up to the multitudinous wonders of our world.

Enriching modern literary philosophy, or just another crusty “kids today don't read anymore” rant? The rhetorical “shining,” the backward gaze, the implied catechism: There's a worry going in that Ronald Reagan will be invoked, that putrescent Important Texts will be exhumed and confirmed lifeless, that nunlike fingers will be wagged, and that the authors will prove so culturally out of touch as to have embarrassed themselves and bored the rest of us. But soon enough the worry dissipates. Yes, it does seem a tad ingratiating for a book like this to quote Pulp Fiction at length while tending to abbreviate The Odyssey, especially as Dreyfus and Kelly obviously have more insight to offer on the latter. In fact their readings of canonical books are brilliant and inspired. How swiftly we zip from Dante, who forecast “the attractions and dangers of autonomy” in his Divine Comedy; to Melville, who saw Captain Ahab's need to clarify his place in the universe as a tragic flaw; to David Foster Wallace, whose suicide was the canary in the coal mine of modern existence. From there, believe it or not, it's a short leap to Eat Pray Love, whose author, Dreyfus and Kelly so invitingly suggest, “could have been a character in a Wallace scene.”

Observations like that, or like the gadget-weary assessment that using GPS for navigation can be dehumanizing, “like being the central figure in a Beckett play without the jokes,” cut through what can sometimes seem like a candy coating of self-help. Dreyfus and Kelly advise us to concern ourselves less with how to generate meaning than with how to discern and cultivate it.

Eventually, as we find ourselves in a pantheon of athletic demigods including Bill Bradley, Lou Gehrig, and Roger Federer, it is fair to wonder: Are we still Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, or just Attending Sporting Events? In either case, that Meaning is available, if only briefly, from the communal public “whooshing up” we feel when witnessing performances by athletes agleam with grace.

Dreyfus and Kelly do recognize some menace here, and proceed with caution: Perhaps there is no better summary of the contemporary philosopher's duty than a mandate to explain how, if you're caught up in a moment, rising as one with a crowd, and not sure if what just happened was the Giants winning the World Series or Hitler demanding the annihilation of European Jewry, reading Kant can help. Sometimes just a sense of deep consideration is its own example of meaning found.

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