If you're looking for a book that (1) discusses Western classics like Moby Dick and the Odyssey in a fresh and creative fashion, (2) points the way to a philosophy of life that navigates between the danger zones of religiosity and nihilism, and (3) was featured on a recent episode of The Colbert Report, there's only one choice:
"All Things Shining," by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, two heavy-duty philosophers (Kelly is Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Harvard, but looks too young and clean-cut for this; where's the beard and pipe?)
I'm not literary enough to be able to critique these guys' interpretation of the classics. A New York Times review of their book finds some flaws, but hey, what else would you expect from a NYT reviewer? She ends with:
Perhaps Dreyfus and Kelly’s greatest service is to provoke such questions, spurring readers to think for themselves. Kant called this the task of enlightenment; it is certainly the mark of real philosophy.
Absolutely. And that's what I'm enjoying most about "All Things Shining," which I haven't quite finished yet. It's making me look at life, and myself, in new ways.
The book also is affirming some churchless leanings which I've felt were genuine and true; it's nice, though, to have some philosophers as talented and wise as the authors explain why I'm justified in looking at life the way I do now.
Not as having meaning ready-made, given to me by God or some other external power. Nor as being empty of meaning, requiring me to fashion my own meaning through my own force of will.
Instead, there's what I call a Taoist middle way -- though Dreyfus and Kelly restrict themselves to Western philosophy and ways of looking at the world, so don't make mention of Eastern meaning-of-life notions.
In their first chapter, the authors relate the tale of Wesley Autrey, a fifty year old construction worker who was standing on a subway platform when Cameron Hollopeter was overcome by convulsions and fell backward onto the tracks below. Autrey's two young daughters were with him on the platform.
When the headlights of the southbound No. 1 train appeared, however, he did not hesitate. Leaping onto the tracks he pressed his body down on top of Mr. Hollopeter, pushing him into a trough that was about a foot deep. The train's brakes shrieked before them, but the train was unable to stop: five cars screeched over the top of the two men, missing them only by inches, before the train finally came to a halt.
...The newspapers dubbed Wesley Autrey the "Subway Hero," and he enjoyed a well-deserved spate of popular press...But throughout it all, Mr. Autrey himself insisted that he was no hero, had done nothing out of the ordinary. "I don't feel like I did something spectacular," Mr. Autrey said. "I just saw someone who needed help."
His heroism was a shining moment. But Dreyfus and Kelly correctly point out that almost any moment can be shining, when we are in the proper relation to it, when the light of reality is seen as illuminating it.
The main message I've gotten from "All Things Shining" so far is this: we struggle too much. We wrestle with moral dilemmas. We fight to decide the correct course of action. We labor over existential choices.
An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and most of us could admit to finding ourselves at least occasionally wavering. Far from being certain and unhesitating, our lives can at the extreme seem shot through with hesitation and indecision, culminating in choices finally made on the basis of nothing at all.
Or, too much of something. The New York Times reviewer correctly observes that Dreyfus and Kelly over-emphasize the extent to which a secular nihilism permeates the psyches of monotheism-bereft humans.
Maybe this is true at Harvard and U.C. Berkeley (where the authors teach), but religious true believers are plentiful elsewhere in the United States, even here in less churchy Oregon.
So while some people surely are drifting aimlessly in a boundless ocean of godless choices, many others believe that they're being propelled along a straight and narrow sea lane with the Supreme Being guiding their course.
I'm familiar with both nautical analogies, which were very real to me when I held fast to them. In college I was an enthusiastic existentialist, devouring Sartre, Camus, and all that existence precedes essence stuff; meaning was to be made by me. Then I embraced an Indian guru; I had faith that my karma and the Master's grace jointly determined everything that happened to me.
Now, I resonate with how "All Things Shining" views a vibrant way of living. After discounting excessive self-confidence as a foundation for one's existence, the authors say:
In contrast with this, a genuine confidence of the sort that seems to have directed Mr. Autrey's actions is driven not by some internal set of thoughts or desires, nor by a calculated set of plans or principles.
Indeed, as in the case of Mr. Autrey, it is experienced as confidence drawn forth by something outside of oneself. It is grounded in the way things actually are, not in the confident person's perhaps self-serving characterization of them. The genuinely confident agent does not manufacture confidence, but receives it from the circumstances.
Dreyfus and Kelly then relate how Bill Bradley was able to perform amazing feats on the basketball court, both as a college player and pro, such as when he played against the top-ranked team in the nation at Madison Square Garden, scoring forty-one points.
Greatness of this sort is nearly mystical to apprehend. It is characterized by the kind of sustained responsiveness to the situation that the Subway Hero embodied when he leapt onto the tracks.
It is unflinching, unhesitating, and unwavering, and it has these certain qualities precisely because the activity flows not from the agent but through him. As a spectator of heroic activity one has the sense of watching something nearly inevitable, as though it is ordained by some force beyond the mere whim of human self-assertion.
Such moments are at the extreme of shining. But there is an entire spectrum of luminosity available to us. We just have to stop looking for something other than what is right in front of our eyes.
In the course of discussing "Moby Dick," the authors say:
This ability to live at the surface, to take the events of daily life with the meanings they present rather than to seek their hidden purpose, to find happiness and joy in what there already is, finds its easiest expression in a pre-Christian age. Indeed, not just a pre-Christian age, but a pre-Buddhist, pre-Platonic, pre-Hinduist, and pre-Confucian one as well.