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Wills on the Big Questions (updated)

Garry Wills has a witty demolition of a new book, All Things Shining, attempting to sketch a philosophy of life in the current New York Review of Books. I've not read the book. But as described by Wills it seems silly. (The conclusion apparently includes a meditation on the deeper meaning of making one's own coffee.) And yet it has blurbs from figures I greatly admire, and whose work I know reasonably well (Charles Taylor) and also big names in American higher education (Vartan Gregorian). I wonder: is Wills too harsh or do these big names endorse books they don't even read?Update:See Sean Kelly's thoughtful (and admirably undefensive) response to Wills here. I take this to mean that Kelly (and Taylor and his other admirers) have something important to say, and that I need to actually read the book.

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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One of the coauthors, Sean Kelly, briefly responds to the Wills review in this thread: promises a more thorough response.

Although it is true that Christians have at times used Greek Philosophy to help explain Christianity, Augustine's source for "all things shining" is Truth Himself.

I haven't read the book, but it looks like Wills might have missed something. The authors have a blog which I visited some time back, and I admit that I found it extraordinarily shallow. But the Big Names who praise the book, e.g, Charles Taylor, are no fools, so I assume there is something to be said positively for it, something Wills missed. I think, however, that there can be no doubt but thqt given a totally secular world the choice is between nihilism and essentially trivial pleasures which charm for the moment. Here are some more reviews and also Kelly and Dreyfus' blog, also called All Things Shining. "Visiting the website "All Things Shining" will give you the latest information on the book, the authors, the podcasts and showing of the movie.Visit Sean Kelly's and my blog!, Reviews and more: [In no particular order and not mentioning the multiple blogs that talked or discussed the book.]Simon & Schuster: Street Journal: York Times - Book of the Times: York Times - David Brooks: Radio - Forum with Michael Krasny: September 18, 2009

First Things is none too shiny on the book either:

No doubt, only in a secular world, would the tragedy of Marilyn Monroe be considered a wonderful thing.

Nancy --Nobody -- NOBODY -- said that Marilyn's death was a wonderful thing. Stop putting words in other people's mouths. Stop it.

I'm speaking about those who were complicit in the exploitation of Marilyn Monroe.

"I think, however, that there can be no doubt but thqt given a totally secular world the choice is between nihilism and essentially trivial pleasures which charm for the moment." I can't address the book, which very well may be trivial, or not.But I must say I find it curious that this either/or has become something of an accepted doctrine of late. Making sense of the "good pagan" is an ancient theological question. And just a few decades ago it was again a central concern of theology as Christians tried to make sense of the generosity and sacrifice of non-believers around them. I don't think there is any less evidence today of such non-Christian and non-religious goodness. Indeed it is widely evident in some highly secular demographics--e.g., journalists, human rights activists, serious anarchist communities.Of course one can always broaden the meaning of nihilism.

Vince --I haven't read the book, but I did read an article by Kelly in the NYT and then read some stuff on his blog. This was some time ago. As I understand him, his topic is neither moral good nor ontological good generally, so his question is not 'what is a good man'. His aporia is how to dispel the sadness consequent on the realization by contemporary man that there is no one ultimate value that will satisfy our longing for a single, overwhelming ultimate value.For him, values seem to be limited to those objects, acts, and events which produce a "wooshy" feeling in us. As I understood him, his position is a sort of limited utilitarianism which restricts goods/values to the feelings caused by these objects, acts, or events, or perhaps the values are the objects, acts, events themselves. So the question I raise is not: are the people who are devoted to wooshy experiences morally or ontologically good persons? Some of them obviously are what I'd call "good people". My question is: where in the ladder of values people believe they have discovered to be real do the wooshy ones rank? It seems to me that one of Dreyfus' main points is that we need to learn to be satisfied with what are , sadly, the lesser values, such as a good cup of coffee with friends. The reason we must be satisfied with them is because the other purported highly transcendent values, e.g., God, are not real ones. But I doubt such things can give "meaning" to most people's lives (whatever that ambiguous and obscure but important word means). Yes, at times they can distract us from unfulfilled longing. But I don't call that a happy life in any sense at all. Yes, I may have misread him. But I'm not inclined to read more. It's not very wooshy reading. It's sad.

Oops, that should have been "0ne of KELLY's main points . . ."

Ann, I haven't read Kelly at all, but I do think there is a serious case to be made for an ethics (or value system or whatever you want to call it) that acknowledges yearning for GREATNESS in the here and now or in the hereafter is a substantial human longing that needs to be carefully managed -- the unchanneled or thoughtless search for GREAT and BIG wooshy things (or "meaning" as you might put it) is frequently what leads to destructive nationalism and war or, perhaps, religious jihad. In the words of an author on a book about Iraq, "War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning." We mock a spirit of contemplative moderation at our own peril.

I have read the book, and, while I admire the attempt to link the classics with contemporary debates about feelings of plenitude and transcendence in a secular age, Dreyfus and Kelly left me pretty dissatisfied. Far too often they rely upon gross generalizations that misrepresent the texts at hand. When discussing Dante's journey to Paradise, for instance, they claim that, when given a preview of the beatific vision, Dante "seems to lose all sense of himself as an individual." God's love causes the pilgrim (and, by implication, all of the saved) to see that "all other earthly joys [are] irrelevant": the individual self is obliterated and absorbed into a homogeneous, heavenly host. This is a weak reading of Dante (the saved remain individuals despite their experience of the beatific vision) and of the Catholic theology that Kelly and Dreyfus want him to represent. Gross mistakes like this occur throughout the book, and Wills points to only a few of them.This isnt just carping over some misreadings, because these specific kinds of misreadings show the weakness of the projects overall mission. I understand that this type of book demands simplification, but how is it helpful to say that Augustine showed the complete irreconcilability of Greek philosophy and Christian theology, or that David Foster Wallace's vision of the artist needs correction by that of Elizabeth Gilbert, or that the whale in Moby Dick ultimately symbolizes monotheistic visions of the world? The classics are endlessly rewarding, but this is precisely because they're endlessly complex and challenging. You can't reduce Augustine or Dante or Melville to a few take-home lessons about the human condition; that's why they're so illuminating of the human condition. Kelly and Dreyfus ignore this, and it weakens whatever force their argument may have had. (And, by the way, Wills is also spot on about the ridiculousness of the books examples of modern transcendence. I love coffee as much as the next person, and I admire the beauty of a Roger Federer drop shot and a Pedro Martinez changeup, but Id be hard pressed to acknowledge these as sacred in any meaningful way.)

I have not read the book but I have looked at Kelly's self-presentation on his blog. He comes across as well meaning and likable but what he has to offer, I have the distinct impression, is ultimately supeficial. He may say that this is all there is so why knock it. I think there is more and so, apparently, does Wills.

What Joseph just said.

Though I have not read the book, from the two reviews and Ann Olivier's analysis I am reminded of the second half of Andre Compte-Sponville's book on Atheist Spirituality. In it he attempts to find meaning, a relative, self-created meaning and spirituality in the immediate present (past and future do not exist) and relies on a few moments of transcendent experience to illustrate his oneness with the universe (he is influenced by both Buddhist and Hinduist understandings of reality and the self).Compte-Sponville's book is worth a read because the first half is dedicated to deconstructing the arguments for God (he does a good job, though very Kantian) and the second half is a wonderful example of not applying the same force of reason (or any, in fact he makes several anti-rational statements) to your own sentiments as to the classical religions you just spent 75 pages destroying.

Unlike the recent past and before it, the word "transcendent" keeps being used seriously these days by secular folks, something like the word "soul", which also sometimes sneaks into the vocabularies of neuroscientists and other surprising seculars. Even the phrase "spiritual values" has started to reappear in non-religious contexts. Those words used to be anathema to the dominant anglophone philosophers, the positivists, who thought that there is nothing which transcends this world, and the only thing that is, is what we can sense with our physical senses. That view has persisted among many scientists and even a few philosophers, but generally in the secular world it seems to be dead. These days you can be "spiritual" without being religious in any sense. You can be a soul seeking to transcend. but to transcend what is not clear.As Kelley and Dreyfus show (if they don't say it), "transcendence" seems to be a necessity for people. K&D also speak of "transcendent experiences". The question is: what do they MEAN by that "transcendent"? Literally, it means going *beyond* or *above* other things. In philosophical lingo I'd say it usually has meant going *above* the physical into a non-physical dimension. But these days. as with Kelly and Dreyfus, transcending seems to mean just some sort of *lateral* move, not a move upward, to something superior to this world, to what is intrinsically different from the everyday stuff. They seem to be caught in the everyday, lateral values of such things as a cup of coffee or a Super Bowl game, with experience of union with other people being privileged ones. The latter goal can of course be very civilizing, and K&D's encouragement of such experiences can be to the good. But as they themselves point out, group experiences can be vicious, e.g., a Nazi rally with Hitler exhorting Nazis to conquor Europe and kill the Jews.So there needs to be a distinction made between the various types of unitive wooshy experiences. Unfortunately, if the reviews are correct, the authors don't seem to offer a basis for making such a distinction. It's the old problem the existentialists like Sartre wrestled with unsuccessfully, and the amoralist still might ask: why shouldn't I be a Nazi?

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