Sean Dorrance Kelly is chair of Harvard University’s philosophy department and has published on topics like cognitive science, philosophy of mind, and aesthetics. For his first general-audience book, though, he teamed up with his former teacher Hubert Dreyfus and took on the Western canon. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, published this year by Free Press, is a daring proposal for a new embrace of ancient polytheism. Looking back to the epics of Homer, they find resources for thwarting the nihilism that has haunted some of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I spoke with Kelly over cappuccinos in a noisy Midtown Manhattan diner, while he was waiting to catch a train back up to Boston.
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NS: What exactly do you mean by the sacred in All Things Shining?
SK: Usually when we talk about the sacred, we punt the question and kick it off to Nietzsche. He said that the sacred is whatever you’re not allowed to laugh at in a given culture. One of the ways that you might characterize our age is to say that there’s almost nothing left that people aren’t allowed to laugh at. You can take a kind of ironic distance with respect to almost anything. That gives us a certain kind of freedom, of course. You might think of that as progress over what we had before. On the other hand, it also destabilizes lives, because it makes it very difficult to know on what basis one should make decisions. In a sense that I think we owe to Charles Taylor, we call this a secular age, an age without a notion of the sacred. That doesn’t mean there are no religious believers in it—obviously there are a lot of religious believers in America, for instance. Instead, it means that the role of religious belief in a person’s life today is different than it was in earlier epochs in the history of the West. Our commitments, including our religious commitments if we have any, seem to take place in the general social context of what is always and essentially retractable, and for that reason they cannot ground our lives in the way they might.
NS: How does it differ, would you say, beyond everything being potentially funny?
SK: As a matter of caricature, for instance, you could say that in the Middle Ages, if you came across someone who didn’t share your religious beliefs, then it was socially justified for you to think of them as less than human. This was a justification for all sorts of religious wars. But this move doesn’t seem to be socially sanctioned in the modern West. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who make that move, but we call them fanatics. I think this is a kind of progress. But such progress has an undermining effect. If it’s true that you have to take seriously the possibility that someone who doesn’t share your religious beliefs is nevertheless living a life worthy of your admiration, then you can’t think that the life that you aspire to live is a life whose principles can be gotten from your religious beliefs alone.
NS: Then is the kind of polytheism that you call for structured by the condition of pluralism?
SK: Yes, I think it is. But this polytheism is importantly different from relativism. It is not the view that any set of values is equally good as any other set of values. Rather, it’s the view that there’s a plurality of possible good lives that people could aspire to live—some of which are incommensurate with others. It leaves open the possibility that some lives are just objectively bad and not worth living. But we’re not in the position, and don’t want to be in the position, of identifying what the objectively bad lives actually are.
NS: Does this polytheism address the existence of gods?
SK: That’s a really good question. And a hard question. I think the book is neutral with respect to that question, at least on one interpretation of it. What the book is against is the idea that the only source of meaning in life is the individual. That’s the view that we think ultimately leads to a kind of destructive nihilism, of the sort that we find in David Foster Wallace, say. In a certain way, we’re against the Enlightenment ideal that the most basic characterization of us is as autonomous agents who can freely give meaning to our own lives. You can’t make something be meaningful for you just by deciding that it’s going to be meaningful. There’s something psychologically plausible about this. If you’re going to experience certain aspects of your life as mattering more than others, you can’t expect that to happen just by deciding it will be so on your own.
NS: But you can expect it from gods? Are your gods really there in some sense?
SK: It would be silly for us to say, for instance, that Athena really exists. Almost nobody would accept that. But there’s a genuine phenomenon that Homer understood, which is the phenomenon of human excellence taking place in the context of masterly, skillful activity, which, when you perform it, isn’t experienced as having you as its source.
NS: Such excellence has to be, even in a vague sense, given to us?
SK: That’s right. Especially if a culture is in danger of nihilism—that we’re going to experience nothing as having any more meaning than anything else—then the conception of human beings that characterizes us essentially as autonomous is going to be inert. We need to look somewhere else. And no other epoch prior to our own was characterized so centrally by the threat of nihilism, precisely because no other epoch rejected so totally the importance of experiencing the meaning of a situation as in some sense given to us. So the question is, is there something in earlier epochs that we could appropriate, consistent with the progress we want to hold on to, that would give us the resources for resisting that threat? One thought in the book is that it may be worth retrieving and appropriating from our history the various accounts it offers us of how one might cultivate in oneself the capacity to experience the demand for a certain type of excellence as given to one in a life or a situation
NS: It’s common for Western philosophers to go back to the ancient Greeks to answer these sorts of questions, but it’s less common for them to turn to Homer, rather than to Plato. Why do you turn to Homer?
SK: The Homeric age was one in which people stood in wonder at the amazing things—and awful things—that could happen to them in their lives. That’s something like the opposite of the nihilistic threat that many say characterizes our contemporary age. This led us to ask what is operating in the background of Homer’s understanding of the world that motivates him to emphasize this mood of wonder. One thing seems especially important for him: that human beings can’t be acting at their best unless they’re in a situation that is drawing them to act, in which the gods are present in their acting. In the Odyssey, at any rate, in example after example, when the heroes do something extraordinary, it is explained by Homer as involving the work of the gods in the agent’s activity. That doesn’t mean that the gods are responsible for the agent’s action, but it doesn’t mean the agent’s action was performed autonomously either. The two need to come together in a kind of Homeric middle-voiced action for human excellence to emerge. Even when characters are acting at their worst, Homer seems to explain it in terms of characters having provoked the gods to abandon them. This runs directly counter to our age, in which being at one’s best is understood as making free decisions, rationally and autonomously. Of course, we can’t endorse everything Homer said. There are ways in which our culture has made progress over Homer’s culture—abolishing slavery, for instance—and that make us want to hold it at arm’s length. A long arm’s length. But there’s something interesting in this central thought of his culture nevertheless.
NS: So where does that leave the thinker? You mention passages like—quoting the Odyssey—“Be silent; curb your thoughts; do not ask questions.” Isn’t this antithetical to the very philosophical task you’re engaged in? How does one think about not thinking?
SK: It’s true that thinking of the sort that is central to Western philosophy doesn’t seem to play a central role for Homer. He was interested in a paradigm of human excellence that happens in skilled activity, in one domain or another. When you’re at your best in that domain or activity, you don’t experience yourself as the source of the activity. That’s the phenomenon that we’re interested in. Now, I think you could say that this kind of masterly, skillful activity can happen in the context of thinking. Homer doesn’t say that; his paradigmatic characters are characters of action, not contemplation. But when the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century French mathematician Poincaré talks about the moment of insight, he talks about working really, really hard on a problem, and banging his head against it for days and weeks on end, until some moment when he’s not thinking about it at all and the answer finally comes. He doesn’t experience it as having himself as its source, but as having been given to him. That’s parallel to what Homer was talking about.
NS: How does one cultivate this kind of orientation toward the world, if not by just rationally assenting to it?
SK: In order to put yourself in the position of being able to experience these moments of excellence, you have to acquire certain skills that allow you to navigate certain domains. Whether it is Achilles’ domain of being a great warrior, or Odysseus’s domain of being a great adventurer, or the domain of being a great pianist, there’s some kind of skill—often a bodily, physical kind of skill—that you need to perfect before you have the experience of being drawn to do what the domain demands. I think we’re with Pascal on this. He realized that even if you’ve come to be convinced by his Wager—his argument that it is better to believe in the existence of God than not—it doesn’t mean you’re a believer yet. You can’t make yourself a believer by deciding you should be. Rather, you need to find people who are believers and cultivate in yourself the skill of doing the things that they do. Partake in their rituals; learn their skills. Through that, you at least open yourself up to the possibility that you’ll experience some non-identical authority that leads you to act in certain kinds of situations.
NS: How, then, do you choose which domains are worthy of cultivating?
SK: That’s a difficult question, and I don’t think there’s any general answer to it. We don’t have a substantive proposal in the sense suggested by the question. But what we do think is that, insofar as you’re a human being, you’re the kind of being that already cares about particular domains. One way that you could try to figure out what those domains are is by asking yourself whether your life would be as full if you gave up a certain practice for another one of equal functional value. If you think you could make that substitution without loss, then the domain isn’t really one that you care about. But if you feel somehow that it wouldn’t be right to make that substitution, then you’ve discovered that it’s a domain you care about, and that there’s more you could uncover by developing the skills for navigating it.
NS: So, it’s a process of discovery.
SK: It’s a process of discovery, that’s right. We’re the kind of beings that already care about stuff. But we can fail to recognize that about ourselves by taking an ironic distance from everything. To the extent that we’re successful in achieving that kind of distance, it will eventually become the case that nothing matters for us. It’s a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. But it also means that we’re the kind of beings that can undo that by coming to recognize what we do care about and allowing ourselves to rediscover the distinctions of worth that are already there.
NS: The subtitle of the book speaks of “rereading the Western classics.” But it also seems like a lot of the classics get tossed out, or at least harshly criticized—everything from the advent of Greek philosophy to Herman Melville is stricken with a kind of blight in this account.
SK: Well, Melville is the savior.
NS: That’s what I mean. So, how would one go about reading Western literature on this account? What do we do with the thousands of years in between? What do we do with Shakespeare?
SK: We don’t talk about Shakespeare in the book, of course. It would take another whole book to talk about Shakespeare.
NS: What, then, are we to get out of the authors you do consider?
SK: On our reading of the history of the West from Plato forward, there’s an increasing emphasis on seeing people as rational, autonomous agents, until it finally becomes the central characterization of ourselves in the modern age. But to the extent that earlier works of art still have in them a sense of us as beings open to an already-given meaning, we think they’ve got something important. Interestingly, different epochs in the history of the West articulate this kind of openness in radically different ways. The wonder Homer has in describing the beauty of Odysseus when he encounters Nausicca, or in describing Helen’s beauty, is a completely different way of being receptive than the sort you find in Dante. Dante thinks that what you’re receptive to is God’s love, which grounds a very different kind of conception of how to live an admirable life than the one we find in Homer. Indeed, their views about the life worth aspiring to are so different that in Dante’s account of the universe Odysseus is consigned to one of the lower circles of Hell. Yet despite this difference, Dante shares with Homer the idea that trying to give meaning to our lives autonomously is what makes things likely to go awry. For him, the people inside the city of Dis are full autonomy freaks, so to speak. They really believe—and Satan is the worst of them all—that the meanings in the world come from the decisions they make rather than from God. Some aspects of Dante’s story are hard to be devoted to, on our view, but he got this really right.
NS: What do we do with the ways in which they fundamentally differ, though? Do we have to choose one over the other—Homer’s Olympians over Dante’s Christ?
SK: The polytheism of the book is a polytheism that runs across Western history. In it, there are lots of different modes of receptivity, and some are incommensurate with each other, but each might nevertheless ground a life that’s worthy of our admiration. It’s up to you and me and every one of us to ask ourselves whether there is anything in a given story that we can appropriate. Each represents a possible way for us to resist the threat of nihilism.
NS: Might this kind of polytheism threaten to bring us around full-circle? You call for “a life attuned to the shining things,” yet this sounds to me suspiciously like a really good description of modern consumer culture.
SK: Those are shiny things, not shining ones!
NS: What, then, is the difference between shining things and shiny things?
SK: David Foster Wallace, for one, was concerned about all the shiny things. He was concerned about the massive amounts of entertainment that we find in our environment, things which won’t let us stop looking at them, and yet looking at them undermines our ability to be at our best. Those are shiny things. Shiny things attract us to themselves, but make us less worthy of people’s admiration in the end. Shining things, as I take it, are the opposite. They’re the kind of things it takes work to be attracted to. You have to cultivate in yourself a skill for recognizing them as attractive. Once you do, they draw you to act in ways that are worthy of admiration.
NS: One of the great aspirations of modern, autonomous reason is to universalize ethics, to agree on what is valuable and what we reject. How does one go about thinking about ethics in your view? There’s a worry among people reading the book that you don’t quite give us what we need to stay away from Hitler rallies. Maybe they see the ghost of Martin Heidegger in what you’re doing.
SK: The Hitler rallies are an important issue; we don’t underplay that. But it’s true that the book doesn’t offer a prescription one can follow that will allow us to distinguish between rhetoric it’s worthwhile to allow yourself to get caught up in and rhetoric it’s dangerous to allow yourself to get caught up in. We don’t think there is any general rule that will distinguish these cases from one another, and so we don’t think there’s a general principle to apply. Still, we’re committed to the idea that there is such a distinction, and that one darn well better learn to develop the skill for recognizing it—just as a wheelwright can recognize the distinction, through his skill for working with the wood, between a piece that’s worth using and one that should be thrown out. This might sound risky. It might sound safer to just avoid rallies altogether and stick to just dispassionate rational discourse. But if you are worried about the threat of nihilism, then dispassionate, rational discourse is never going to help. Besides, it really seems as though progress wouldn’t have been made on various issues of social importance if people didn’t allow themselves to get caught up in the passionate rhetoric of an articulate leader devoted to the cause of change. The example we use in the book is civil-rights legislation. If there weren’t lots and lots of people who allowed themselves to get caught up in the passionate rhetorical discourse of Martin Luther King, Jr., then it seems likely that the important social changes he provoked would never have occurred. The danger of never allowing yourself to get caught up in those kinds of situations, therefore, is that it keeps changes for the better from happening. That’s the danger that our critics have to confront.
NS: But I don’t think you necessarily have to choose between a King rally and dispassionate, rational discourse. You could think of someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose response to Nazism was by no means cool and rational, but was still predicated on a kind of universalism. He felt that the one God was speaking to him through history, telling him to assassinate Hitler. Could you claim Bonhoeffer as representing what you propose as well? Or even King himself?
SK: Universalism might be a red herring in this case. In a secular age like ours, nobody really wants to deny that, at least on the surface, there’s an apparently incommensurate range of admirable lives. Universalism, in this context, is just committed to the idea that there is a single, unifying principle that brings them all together. But this is a kind of eschatological hope that I think we can step back from, at the moment. Given that we’re not at the end of time, how are we supposed to live in the context of apparent plurality? It seems to me that even somebody who is committed to an ultimate universal story has to deal with this question. So, yes, maybe Bonhoeffer is the kind of figure we could appropriate.
NS: So, to be clear: you’re not requiring people to abandon their monotheism to partake in your polytheism?
SK: I don’t think our position should require anyone to give up their commitment to monotheism—though it puts pressure on monotheism when it’s interpreted in a particular, fanatical way, and most people in our culture can agree that such fanaticism is something more or less to be avoided anyway. Take, for instance, Ishmael in Moby-Dick. He confronts the character of Queequeg, whose way of life is radically different from his. He’s a cannibal! He eats fifty people before breakfast, he’s tattooed all over, and he’s perverse in all sorts of ways—as far from the Christian way of life as you could possibly imagine. Yet Ishmael, who says he was “born and bred in the bosom of the infallible Presbyterian Church,” concludes that he needs to take seriously what he finds to be admirable in Queequeg’s life. It’s Queequeg’s coffin that finally saves Ishmael. Melville seems to be describing a kind of Christianity open to what is admirable in other ways of life. This kind of open Christianity may still be committed to the idea that, in ways we cannot fathom from here, there is a kind of unity to the apparently incommensurate goods with which we are confronted. We have nothing to say against that kind of monotheism. But we are against Ahab’s idea that the meaning of a life cannot be grounded except in an ultimate understanding now of that eschatological unity.
NS: I’m curious about your reflections about how the book has been discussed and received. What do you think was at stake, for instance, in the vitriolic response from Garry Wills?
SK: It’s a good question. I’m afraid I don’t really understand Wills’s personal background well enough to know what’s at stake for him. It seems to me clear that something rubbed him the wrong way early on in his reading of the book. Sometimes when that happens a person loses interest in finding out what the book is really about and starts reading it instead for whatever examples he can find of how to win points against it. I think that something like that must have happened, since that’s the only way I can explain the huge range of mis-readings that the review promulgates. I will say that on our blog, Charles Spinosa has written an essay analyzing Wills and David Mikics’s responses as motivated by the very commitment that the book is trying to diagnose as what leads to the danger of nihilism. That seems to me an interesting possibility.
There are a range of other interestingly motivated responses to the book as well. I recently discovered, for example, that some people are misreading our appropriation of the Homeric Greeks as something like what Nietzsche did: admiring nobility and strength instead of weakness and humility. Nietzsche thought that the noble warriors of the Greeks were worth admiring because they were noble warriors. But that’s not our position at all. We’re admiring them for almost the opposite reason. We’re interested in the idea that you can’t become noble on your own, that there’s a sense in which we require for our excellence non-self-identical authority, and that, in moments of excellence, we experience that what is not-us as drawing us to act in the way we do.
NS: Since we started on Nietzsche, maybe that’s a good place to end.