|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|Sean Dorrance Kelly|
In the video above (aired last night), Colbert interviews Sean Dorrance Kelly on his new book, co-written with Hubert Dreyfus, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. The authors discuss literature and philosophy from Homer to Jesus, Dante to Descartes, and Nietzsche to David Foster Wallace, in their quest to find what (if anything) is sacred in our age and what might be an answer to the collective nihilism they believe permeates contemporary western culture.
The authors’ reconceptualization of god is as exciting a reason as any to read the book. Their argument rests on the suggestion that our pluralist culture would be well served by embracing the polytheistic pantheon of Homeric literature. “A god, in Homer’s terminology,” Dreyfus and Kelly write, “is a mood that attunes us to what matters most in a situation, allowing us to respond appropriately without thinking.” With this understanding, a god, similar to Camus’s conception of the absurd, is a relationship. The relationship consists in what inspires us to right action, and right action is that which the situation calls for. I find this an exciting interpretation of Homer’s gods because it helps build a bridge between the virtues shining through Homer’s heroes and the system of ethics (later called virtue ethics) developed by Aristotle. While neither Homer (nor the authors of All Things Shining) invest much in the moderation central to Aristotle’s ethics, they all emphasize what stands at the core of any non-nihilist moral theory: that ethics is premised on shared social experiences. The authors’ diagnosis of contemporary western nihilism focuses on the dangers of shouldering the responsibility of developing life’s guidelines in isolation (i.e. without any shared, social sense of what is sacred).
Lest it sound retrograde on the religion, the book comes across not as pantheistic or even polytheistic, except to suggest that everyone will hold something(s) most sacred in their lives. In the book, the authors argue that even works of art can perform the function of gods in a society, such as the function The Oresteia served in the 5th century BC. Aeschylus uses the trilogy of plays to explain how Greek society moved from Homer’s polytheism to the city-based, earth-bound justice of which late Greek culture was so proud.
The book demonstrates what I perceive to be the strength and weaknesses of philosophy: through simple premises and logical arguments, one can reach conclusions that depart wildly from a culture’s expectations. The authors begin in an uncontroversial place — that contemporary nihilism is damaging to our culture — and end up recommending Homeric polytheism as a possible cure. But the study of philosophy trains one’s mind to be open to conclusions one doesn’t expect. I recommend the book to anyone who enjoys insightful commentary on the traditional western literary canon, thoughtful reconceptualization of religion, and the role of the sacred in an atheistic culture.