Wednesday, May 20, 2015

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

A return to ancient Greek polytheism. That’s the answer.  What is the question? The question, or better the dilemma, is the modern and very desperate struggle to escape nihilism. In its starkest terms, nihilism is the belief that the universe (life) is ultimately meaninglessness. In the dim light of nihilism paralysing fatalism and suicide are genuine life-options.

Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly tackle the challenge of nihilism head on in their book All Things Shining. Their answer is not exactly a return to polytheism but rather harvesting something of its spirit. There was a sense in ancient Greece that autonomous persons were not all that autonomous, that a man or woman’s existence was not fully and completely their own responsibility. The gods played their parts and individuals could be swept up in events greater than themselves. This was understood and accepted.

In a secular world that is embracing relativism faster than the spread of cellphones the all important search for meaning and values has become the great challenge of our times. One strategy for dealing with this challenge could be to examine our history and figure out how our ancestors viewed their own humanity in relation to sources of meaning outside of themselves. The examination of western literary classics, then, could be just the ticket for discovering and then borrowing insights from people who believed in objective sources of values. The authors take this idea and explore it using classics such as the plays by Aeschylus, Dante’s Divine Comedy and Melville’s Moby Dick among others. Some insights lead to dead ends. Interestingly, and controversially, the authors argue that Dante’s beatific vision in the finale of the Paradiso and with it the whole of western style monotheism is just another road to nihilism. Some of the other classics, however, offer promising intuitions. Melville’s great work belongs to this category with its portrayal of Ahab and his monomaniacal pursuit of ultimate truth in hunting the white whale (i.e. the representation of ultimate truth and mystery).

The mining for evidence and lessons regarding this spirit of possession (my phrase) through the classics yields some thought-provoking findings. Art is a gargantuan topic for any single, slim volume to cover and the authors, quite legitimately, provide only a brief taste of the plethora of western literature. But one of the more interesting strands they pick up is the old idea that works of art work.  Art has the capacity to infuse and inform a culture. Allow me a simple example to elucidate. Have a look at an ancient Greek temple. Today it is a decayed, crumbling semi-organized pile of stones. In its heyday it was a shining, painted symbol of Greek civilization. The temple was alive. It manifested a way of life. Men and women knew who they were and their place in the cosmos thanks in part to this structure so full of meaning. How times have changed for the temples of the Greek pantheon. They are little more than the play things of classicists and archaeologists, better understood today as tourist attractions good for a photo but completely lacking in the power (spiritual power?) to enliven a culture and focus the hopes and dreams and efforts of a people.  Banks and cellphone towers and condominiums don’t give us the thing we crave. Something has clearly been lost. But what is this something? Placing the marble and stones of the old temples under a magnifying glass would never reveal the secret.  And this is what the authors are pointing at. There is something missing from our technologically advanced, scientific world. It is a spiritual thing. We need to get it back. How? The answer is polytheism—kind of.

The polytheism that is ultimately endorsed by the authors can be categorized fairly if simplistically as “going with the flow.” To my understanding, their claim for a meaningful life is reminiscent of the Stoic advocacy of living in accordance with nature (nature very broadly construed and incorporating aspects of laws and fate). There are limitations to this attempt at a correlation. The authors would object to it because the Stoics had a very deterministic view of the world. We (the hip west) are way too autonomous for stoicism. The authors would insist that it is ultimately up to each individual whether or not to heed the call of the gods.

And there you have it. It is our autonomy, our unquenchable sense of self that has banished the gods. The gods aren't dead, you see, there just isn't room for them in this world of inflated egos. You and I have drained the world of its haunted character. In the end the authors’ message is a hopeful one. The new polytheism that they promote provides strings of meaning revealed through our science, technology and art. If we open ourselves to the call of meaning we too can be possessed the way Helen of Troy was by the events roaring around her.  

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