One of the stories that came out of the Tucson tragedy is that the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, in a prior public meeting in 2007, had asked Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords the following cryptic question: “What is government if words have no meaning?” According to Loughner’s friends, Giffords’s inability to answer the question stoked the troubled young man’s anger and frustration. Though I doubt that it would offer consolation to anyone touched by the shooting, Loughner’s question and its nihilistic underpinnings form the subject of a new book by a pair of academic philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly. In a culture where belief in God no longer speaks to some people, All Things Shining proposes to investigate whether and how meaning, in both words and deeds, can nonetheless be found.

The book has already created a bit of a stir, including a positive notice by New York Times columnist David Brooks. Critics have praised its authors for writing an accessible book that asks fundamental questions about the meaning of life. In the process, they have tapped into our secular anxiety, our capacity to be haunted by that age-old existential question, “If God is dead, is everything permitted?”—a question Jared Loughner seems to have answered with a violent yes. Against this bleak backdrop, Dreyfus and Kelly search for a way out of that dead end, and find it eventually in everyday, mundane things like the cherished morning cup of coffee. An intriguing proposition, but (as the Irish say) it’s a long way from there to here. So let’s walk through it.

All Things Shining holds that we can find meaning in our secular age if we manage to steer a way between the hard rocks of monotheism and the devouring whirlpool of nihilism. To do that we must embrace, enjoy, and seek to create little graces in our lives—the pleasures of hearth and home, for instance—as well as the occasional ecstatic moments when we are caught up in something beyond ourselves, which the authors infelicitously call “whooshing up.” Dreyfus and Kelly offer us a world in which a sense of the sacred and the divine abides, even if the God of monotheists does not. Resolutely eschewing metaphysics in favor of a phenomenological approach, they explore states or moods, such as wonder and gratitude, that connect us to those “shining” moments when the best is called forth from us.

The flesh and blood of this argument is provided by wide-ranging conversations with Western literary classics from Homer to Melville, and with philosophers like Augustine and Descartes. The authors spice their lively book with references to contemporary movies like Pulp Fiction and engaging stories like Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech. Significantly, All Things Shining views history not as a narrative of seamless progress, but rather as a procession of discrete, unrelated ages, which, if anything, represent a fall from original brilliance. The West’s original sin is perhaps its fall into monotheism. Thus, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, Homer’s unabashed polytheism places The Odyssey as a privileged text alongside Melville’s Moby-Dick, which, in rejecting Ahab’s fanatical, failed pursuit of ultimate meaning in the white whale, harks back to Homer’s more modest but more nourishing “polytheistic truths.”

Readers should be forewarned: The literary analysis in these pages tends to be quirky. At times, the authors’ readings of classic texts seem surprisingly straightforward, with little sense of irony. Ishmael’s voice, for instance, is accepted without hesitation as conveying Melville’s view of the world. At other times, an interpretive single-mindedness shrinks these rich texts to the status of mere “articulators” of their culture—turning Aeschylus, Dante, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. into message-bearers whom “their audience understands immediately.” Really? Discussing The Odyssey, the authors see Helen of Troy as the paradigm of all things shining because she singularly displays the life of Beauty (the goddess Aphrodite), attaining an unalloyed excellence that places her beyond moral censure from our prudish modern sensibilities. That claim is puzzling, given how Homer himself presents her in book 4—this betrayer of men who absconds with Paris, taking along her considerable wealth, then switches sides again to Menelaus, and gives the members of the banquet a drug powerful enough to leave a parent who watched his child “mauled by weapons of bronze” unmoved by tears.

The authors’ treatment of Helen is illustrative of the way in which, despite their often perceptive analyses, they tend to strip their heroes of the ethical dimension in order to hold them up as aesthetic exemplars. Helen was a looker, undoubtedly, but most readers of Homer have found that her impulse-control issues take a bit of the shine off her. Indeed, she remains a fearful, fascinating figure precisely because she is so complex. Homer’s world is a long way from ours, but what remains so engaging about his great works is the way they capture the human condition in all its moral complexity. If we are to find meaning in great literature, it must, I think, give us more than shining peak experiences. It must also plunge us into great sorrows and, rather than offering us Helen’s drug, make some sense of our grief.

Similar problems arise when Dreyfus and Kelly turn from literary interpretations to philosophy. I find their rejection of metaphysical questions somewhat baffling. If gratitude and wonder are meaningful experiences, why isn’t the quest for ultimate meaning a legitimate human enterprise? In exploring gratitude, why can’t we at least ask if gifts could imply a giver? The authors don’t argue that we cannot return to the God of believers and philosophers; they simply assume it.

Religious considerations aside, the most disturbing lacuna in the book is its rejection of the ethical, presumably traceable back to the authors’ roots in Heidegger’s philosophy. However mightily the authors try to dance around it, this rejection impoverishes their analysis: when they assert, for instance, that “there is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord or...the praises of the Hail Mary pass”; or, more disturbingly, when they perceive only a “vanishing small distance” between a speech by Hitler and one by Martin Luther King Jr. Given Heidegger’s whooshing up to National Socialism in Germany, one could wish for a more discriminating criterion. Their example of Wesley Autrey, the New York “Subway Samaritan” who in 2007 jumped into the path of an oncoming train in order to save a stranger’s life, is instructive here. Are we really sure that Autrey’s leap—his willingness to risk his life for a stranger—was an “unthinking” act, as Kelly and Dreyfus insist? Might it not have been motivated by a moral sense of the preciousness of life and by what Aristotle would call good habits developed by reasoned choices? How can you separate the quest for a meaningful life from an understanding of the good life? For my part, I cannot.

Still, I want to give this engaging book its due, from its insightful phenomenology of gratitude and wonder to its welcome critique on autonomy. (GPS technology comes in for some delightful banter as well.) In the end, any book that tries to lure one back to a conversation with the classics is all right with me. If All Things Shining can entice someone to curl up with a good old book and a fresh cup of coffee, that is surely a good thing.

Published in the 2011-05-20 issue: 

Francis Kane is professor emeritus at Salisbury University and co-director of its Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement. He is the author of Neither Beasts nor Gods (Southern Methodist University Press).

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