Dawn of the Idols - Reading Western Classics in the Secular Modern Age

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Niccolo and Donkey
Dawn of the Idols

The American Conservative

Samuel Goldman

May 2, 2011

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age , Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, Free Press, 254 pages

In September 1966, just a few days shy of his 77th birthday, Martin Heidegger was interviewed by Der Spiegel , Germany’s most prominent news magazine. The subject was the philosopher’s controversial entanglement with the Third Reich, and Heidegger had agreed to be interviewed on the condition that the results be held back until his death. When the transcript finally appeared in May 1976, however, it ran under a headline that emphasized philosophy and religion rather than politics. Quoting a remark Heidegger made during the interview, Der Spiegel titled the piece: “Only a god can save us.”

Heidegger offered this statement in response to the question of whether philosophy can help modern individuals run their lives. It can’t, Heidegger answered, because philosophy can no longer accept the idea of transcendent order that it once shared with revealed religion and also cannot generate such an order from its own resources. According to Heidegger, all “purely human endeavor and reflection” suffers from the same incapacity. The best that thinkers and artists can do, therefore, is prepare us for the reappearance of a superhuman source of meaning.

Although his tone is despairing, Heidegger’s diagnosis admits a more cheerful interpretation. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before a deity rescues us from the condition that Nietzsche described as “nihilism.” In All Things Shining , philosophers Hubert Dreyfus (of Berkeley) and Sean Dorrance Kelly (of Harvard) take up this possibility. In fact, they claim, “The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us: we have kicked them out.” This expulsion, they say, is by no means permanent. The gods are ready to come back if only we are willing to “hear their call.”

The first thing to note about this startling claim is the plural. Dreyfus and Kelly urge us to open ourselves to the return not of the God of the Bible but of gods . And not just any gods. On their view, the revival of the Greek pantheon offers the most promising alternative to nihilism.

Unfortunately, All Things Shining is not as exciting as this sounds. Instead of promoting sacrifices, orgies, or other delightfully anti-modern practices, Dreyfus and Kelly reinterpret polytheism as a way of understanding our own experience. They’re not arguing that we should actually worship Ares or Aphrodite as independent agents. Instead, they suggest that we use these gods’ associations with war and love, respectively, as a way of expressing the powerful “attunements” that strike us when we are engaged in certain types of activity.

The thought is not absurd. All of us occasionally feel as if we were not in control of our actions but rather under the direction of an external influence. When we perform those actions well, we experience this influence as a kind of benevolent external force. That’s what athletes mean when they talk about being “in the zone”. Kelly and Dreyfus argue that the influence that places us in the zone for primal activities like battle or sex is more or less what the Greeks meant by a god. We become polytheists when we allow ourselves to be guided by the gods rather than relying on our own will and judgment. To enter the erotic zone, for example, is to give oneself over to Aphrodite.

Dreyfus and Kelly propose two major benefits of this revised polytheism. One is that it more accurately reflects experience than accounts that emphasize deliberation. How often do we actually choose a course of action and then execute it? Isn’t much of our reasoning about how to behave actually rationalization—that is, an after-the-fact explanation of why we did things that we had no conscious intention to do? By reducing the role of willed causality in human life, Dreyfus and Kelly think that they’ve diminished the abstraction that plagues academic philosophy. In this respect, they continue to pursue phenomenological approach that also inspired Heidegger.

But Dreyfus and Kelly do not regard renovated polytheism as merely descriptive. They also contend that in recognizing the role of gods, we gain access to sources of meaning that would otherwise be obscured. Polytheism relieves us of the burden of choosing what we should do. In place of the modern struggle to establish one’s freedom, polytheism encourages an attitude of joyous gratitude. Like the Greek, they argue, we can experience our lives as a succession of unasked gifts that we do not need to earn or understand to cherish and enjoy. All things are “shining” with divinity and promise once we are open to living that way.

Of course, we are no longer accustomed to describing our “attunements” as gods, or to living in gratitude to them. So Dreyfus and Kelly propose that we look for models in the great books. Homer is the key text, and they explain the curious absence of moral judgment in the Iliad and Odyssey as a reflection of the Greeks’ willingness to be guided by the gods. For example, the recognition that Helen was attuned to Aphrodite explains why the Greeks found nothing deplorable in her flight from her husband, Menelaus.

In its presentation of the classics as an antidote to nihilism, All Things Shining resembles The Closing of the American Mind . But where Bloom urges us to recover the classical model of philosophy, Dreyfus and Kelly give philosophers a good part of the blame for kicking out the gods. Plato’s Socrates proposed that poets should be banned and Homer radically edited in a properly organized city. And Aristotle replaced the dynamic pantheon of Olympus with an impersonal prime mover isolated from human affairs. Even worse, Dreyfus and Kelly argue, Descartes redefined human existence in terms of a thinking subject confronted by mere material for the exercise of its will and judgment. They blame this idea more than any other for advent of nihilism.

But it is not clear that developments in philosophy have much influence over the experiences of ordinary people. In order to bridge the gap between intellectual and cultural history, Dreyfus and Kelly outline a sweeping and deeply flawed account of revealed monotheism, above all Christianity.

In All Things Shining , revealed monotheism appears mostly as vehicle for the popularization of philosophical concepts. Jesus is described as being “like a god” in his ability to attune his followers to a distinctive way of being. But Dreyfus and Kelly basically accept Nietzsche’s description of Christianity as Platonism for the masses. Specifically, Christianity popularized the idea that we are responsible for living up to an objective, universal moral order. Dreyfus and Kelly acknowledge that Christianity was able to provide meaning in the West for centuries. With the advent of Protestantism, however, its subjective, individualistic strand won—contributing to the triumph of nihilism.

The problem with this claim is that many people continue to find meaning in Christianity. Indeed, Dreyfus and Kelly acknowledge the evidence that the United States is the throes of a Third Great Awakening. But if tens of millions of modern men and women believe that God has already saved them, the attempt to revive polytheism seems superfluous. Put differently, the condition that Heidegger described might be troublesome on the college campuses where Dreyfus and Kelly spend their time—but it’s not a civilizational crisis.

Rather than confronting this objection, Dreyfus and Kelly subtly revise Heidegger’s account of nihilism. The problem is not so much that “God is dead” as that the Judeo-Christian God is reduced to one option on the cultural menu. Many people do find meaning in Biblical monotheism. On the other hand, there at least some are who can’t or won’t. Polytheism, therefore, turns out to be a specialized product for a niche audience rather than a solution to the decline of the West. It is the spiritual equivalent of the pseudo-antique espresso machines sold to people who just aren’t satisfied with their old percolators.

But there is reason to think that a general turn to polytheism would create more problems than it could solve. Only at the end of All Things Shining do Dreyfus and Kelly turn to the political concerns that inspired Heidegger’s interview with Der Spiegel . Their paradigm of polytheistic experience, after all, is the unthinking excellence of the highly trained athlete and the intense admiration of the watching crowd. This bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the aestheticized ideals of fascism.

Dreyfus and Kelly admit that the phenomenological difference “between rising as one with the crowd at a baseball game and rising as one with the crowd at a Hitler” is “vanishingly small.” Even more disturbing, Hitler seems to meet the same conditions for godhood as Jesus: an individual who awakens his fellow men to new possibilities of being and experiencing. The reductio ad Hitlerum would be a cheap shot if it were not for Dreyfus and Kelly’s intellectual debt to Heidegger, about whom both have taught and written extensively. Given their knowledge of Heidegger’s involvement with National Socialism, one would expect that they would propose some criteria for distinguishing contexts in which we should heed the gods’ call and those in which we ought to assert our own powers of judgment.

No such criteria are forthcoming. Although Dreyfus and Kelly acknowledge the problem, their only response is to suggest that there simply must be a method of deriving normative standards from experience without engaging in the kind of abstract reasoning that they regard as corrosive. They describe this practice as metapoiesis , in implicit contrast to metaphysics . Yet the only example that Dreyfus and Kelly actually consider is the trivial challenge of identifying the standards that define good coffee. This is an unpromising way of pursuing the meaning or direction that they presume to be absent from modern life.

Polytheism, then, is a provocative way of describing one way of experiencing the world. But it fails to provide the access to meaning or values that Dreyfus and Kelly promise. This failure is the consequence of their rejection of the philosophical tradition on the one hand and biblical religion on the other. For all their disadvantages, both recognize that access to the meaning of life involves separating ourselves from our own moods and actions and evaluating them from an external standpoint. This isneasy. But at least it acknowledges that what we regard as the most admirable actions are not only shining with intensity, but also morally right.

It is worth remembering that Homer depicts the Greeks engaged in war of conquest and that his characters express profound gratitude to the Olympians when they have successfully taken their enemies’ lives, women, and property. Even in a disenchanted world, theirs are not the gods that we are looking for.
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