All Things Shining
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All Things Shining

Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

Hubert Dreyfus, Sean Dorrance Kelly

  1. 272 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

All Things Shining

Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

Hubert Dreyfus, Sean Dorrance Kelly

Dettagli del libro
Anteprima del libro
Indice dei contenuti
Citazioni

Informazioni sul libro

An inspirational book that is "a smart, sweeping run through the history of Western philosophy. Important for the way it illuminates life today and for the controversial advice it offers on how to live" ( The New York Times ). "What constitutes human excellence?" and "What is the best way to live a life?" These are questions that human beings have been asking since the beginning of time. In their critically acclaimed book, All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly argue that our search for meaning was once fulfilled by our responsiveness to forces greater than ourselves, whether one God or many. These forces drew us in and imbued the ordinary moments of life with wonder and gratitude. Dreyfus and Kelly argue in this thought-provoking work that as we began to rely on the power of our own independent will we lost our skill for encountering the sacred. Through their original and transformative discussion of some of the greatest works of Western literature, from Homer's Odyssey to Melville's Moby Dick, Dreyfus and Kelly reveal how we have lost our passionate engagement with the things that gave our lives purpose, and show how, by reading our culture's classics anew, we can once again be drawn into intense involvement with the wonder and beauty of the world. Well on its way to becoming a classic itself, this inspirational book will change the way we understand our culture, our history, our sacred practices, and ourselves.

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Informazioni

Editore
Free Press
Anno
2011
ISBN
9781439101704
1
images

Our Contemporary Nihilism

IT WAS WARM on January 2, 2007. The newspapers reported that week that an optimistic cherry tree at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden had sprouted thousands of blossoms. Throughout the city people gathered spontaneously, drawn together by the hopeful atmosphere of spring.1 On the subway platform at 137th and Broadway in Manhattan, however, just after lunchtime, the spring mood vanished in the blink of an eye. Cameron Hollopeter, a twenty-year-old film student, collapsed to the ground, his body overtaken by convulsions. According to newspaper reports at the time, a man and two women rushed to help him. As they did, Mr. Hollopeter managed to raise himself, but then stumbled to the platform edge and fell backward to the subway tracks below.2
What happened next both inspired and awed the spring-softened world of New York. Wesley Autrey, the fifty-year-old construction worker who initially rushed in to help Mr. Hollopeter, had left his two young daughters, Syshe, four, and Shuqui, six, farther back 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. As they lay there beneath the train Mr. Autrey heard the screams of terrified onlookers above. “We’re okay down here,” he yelled, “but I’ve got two daughters up there. Let them know their father’s okay.” Cries of wonder and applause erupted from the platform. Later, after cutting the power, workers were able to extricate the two men from beneath the train. Except for the grease that smudged Mr. Autrey’s blue knit cap, and some bumps and bruises, both men were unhurt.
The newspapers dubbed Wesley Autrey the “Subway Hero,” and he enjoyed a well-deserved spate of popular press. Politicians rushed to be seen with him3 and scientists and culture commentators debated whether his actions showed that he was “more hard-wired for heroism”4 than the rest of us, or just that New York City has the same small-town values and caring attitude that you might expect to find in Dubuque.5 A self-congratulatory public insisted that they too would have acted as Mr. Autrey had, and a solemn police chief advised that New Yorkers take Mr. Autrey’s lead and act when people near them are in distress.6 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.”7
Not only a hero, one might think, but humble too! And there is no doubt that Mr. Autrey’s actions are indeed inspiring and heroic. But it may be that what comes across as humility is really just Mr. Autrey’s honest report of his own experience. As it happens, although heroic actions like this are of course rare, it is not at all uncommon for the people who perform them to report that they were just doing what anybody in their situation would have. As Dr. Charles Goodstein, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine, said at the time:
If you look at the history of most people who are designated heroes in the military and in other places, most of the time they say the reaction they had was without any mental preparation. It was spontaneous, it was without much consideration for the practicalities, the realities of the moment. I think they’re honest when they say they don’t think of themselves as heroes, they just reacted to something they saw as an emergency.8
The point here is not that anyone in a similar situation actually would do the same thing. There is ample evidence that most people would not. But perhaps what Mr. Autrey and others are honestly reporting is that when they are in the midst of acting heroically, they do not experience themselves as the source of their actions. Instead, the situation itself seems to call the action out of them, allowing for neither uncertainty nor hesitation. As Mr. Autrey said, “I just saw someone who needed help.”
THIS SENSE OF CERTAINTY is rare in the contemporary world. Indeed, modern life can seem to be defined by its opposite. 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.
The truly extreme version of this, of course, is a parody. The paralyzing level of neurosis to which a Woody Allen character descends, for example, is fortunately not the lot of most. Or consider T. S. Eliot’s famous version of this parodic extreme. J. Alfred Prufrock is so unable to take action that to him a single moment before tea consists of an almost immeasurable series of uncertainties:
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
And yet if these are parodies, they resonate precisely because there is some recognizable element of truth in them. We are not constantly paralyzed by the choices that confront us, thank heavens, but we recognize their constant flow. And sometimes we wonder on what basis we should choose among them.
The choices that confront us are recognizable to all. Some of them seem trivial: Should I hit the snooze bar again? Is this shirt too wrinkled? Fries or a salad? And so on. But some of the choices we confront, perhaps even regularly, seem deeper and more troubling. It can feel as though they cut to the core of who we really are: Is it time to move on from this relationship? This job? Shall I pursue this opportunity or that one? Or none at all? Shall I align myself with this candidate, this co-worker, this social group? Shall I choose this part of the family over the rest? Many of our lives seem rife with these kinds of choices. We wonder on what basis to make them; we regret or rue or celebrate the ones we have made.
Many will point out that the freedom to choose is one of the great signs of progress in modern life. And there is certainly some truth to this. Those who live in abject poverty worry very little about which kind of food to eat precisely because there are no choices before them. The freedom to choose one career over another is not available when a poor economy has stripped all the jobs from the area. And yet the characteristic feature of the modern world is not just that many of us have a wider range of choices than ever before—choices about who to become, how to act, with whom to align ourselves. Rather, it is that when we find ourself confronted with these kinds of existential choices, we feel a lack of any genuine motivation to choose one over the others. Indeed, about our own lives, our own actions, it is rare to find the kind of certainty that Wesley Autrey felt when confronted with a person in distress.
THERE ARE AT LEAST two kinds of people who manage to avoid the contemporary burden of choice, but in the wrong way. First, there is the man of self-confidence (usually it is a man). He plunges forth assuredly into every action he takes. He presents the world as obvious—“How could anyone wonder about the right move here?” he seems to ask—and in certain cases his assurance draws others along with him.
The man of self-confidence is often a compelling figure. Driven and focused, he is committed to bringing the world into line with his vision of how it should be. He may genuinely believe that his vision for the world is a good one, that the world will be a better place if he can shape it to his will, and sometimes he is capable of making changes for the better. But there is a danger to this attitude as well. Too often it turns out that the blustery self-confidence of such a person hides its own darker origins: it is really just arrogance combined with ambition, or worse yet a kind of self-delusion. As a result, when his plans fail, as they are bound to do at least some of the time, the self-confident man is often unable to recognize the failure. Stubbornly and inflexibly committed to his vision of how things ought to be, he has no ability to respond to the world as it actually is. The self-confident man believes that confidence is its own virtue; at the extreme, this kind of self-confidence can lead to fanaticism, as we’ll see in the monomaniac Captain Ahab that Melville portrays in Moby Dick.
Perhaps a good example of such a willful character can be found in Orson Welles’s portrayal of the newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane in his great movie Citizen Kane. Welles’s Kane is charming and powerful, and he demands total loyalty and obedience from those around him. He is astonishingly successful, enormously wealthy, and through the influence of his newspapers he claims even to be capable of directing the course of history. As he says, in a famous line from the movie, “You provide the prose poems, I’ll provide the war.” Kane is a man who never looks back, who would never dream of a moment of weakness, and who despises those who are incapable of moving with enough alacrity and force to rebut his attacks. Eventually, however, his arrogance and his lust for power become his undoing. When an affair ruins both his marriage and his political aspirations, Kane’s life spirals out of control. His dying word, “Rosebud,” turns out to be a wistful reference to the only time in his life when he lived in poverty, when his self-confidence wasn’t itself sufficient to ensure the satisfaction of his every desire.
Kane’s self-confidence allows him to avoid the burden of choice. He is clear about his desires and forges ahead in fulfilling them. But the self-confidence upon which he bases his existence turns out to be empty, grounded in nothing but his own lust for power, and in the end it is insufficient soil for a worthwhile life. 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.
THERE IS A SECOND WAY to avoid the contemporary burden of choice, but it is at least as unattractive as the path of manufactured confidence. We are thinking here of the person who makes no choices about how to act because he is enslaved by obsessions, infatuations, or addictions. Such a person is, it is true, drawn by something beyond himself to act in the way he does. But there is a world of difference between him and the heroic Mr. Autrey.
The case of addiction is well known in the modern world, and there is no need to mention its various forms. As always, there are drugs, entertainments, and manifold other temptations in the face of which we can lose all sense of ourselves. But the peculiar phenomenon of addiction is highlighted well by a modern form unknown before the technological age: blogs and social networking sites. Many people have experienced the draw of these sites. At first there is an excitement associated with them. When one discovers the world of blogs, for example, one finally feels as though one can be up-to-the-minute with respect to every breaking event on the current scene. Suppose that politics is your bailiwick. All of a sudden it seems possible to keep up with precisely what is happening on Capitol Hill. Not just this week but this very moment; not just today but somewhere between the onset of one breath and the conclusion of the next. Similarly with social networking sites. Finally one feels completely in touch with all of those friends you didn’t realize you had been missing for so long.
If one falls into the grip of these kinds of obsessions, its phenomenology has a sinking dimension. For one finds oneself constantly craving the newest, latest post, wondering what the most recent crisis or observation or tidbit could be. One cycles through the list of websites or friends waiting for the latest update, only to find that when it is completed one is cycling through the sequence once again, precisely as expectant and desiring as before. The craving for something new is constant and unceasing, and the latest post only serves to make you desire more. With this kind of addiction there is a clear sense of what one must do next. But the completion of the task fails entirely to satisfy the craving that set you on your way. By contrast with this, the heroic actor experiences a heightened sense of joy and fulfillment when a noble and worthy action draws him to its side.
The burden of choice is a peculiarly modern phenomenon. It proliferates in a world that no longer has any God or gods, nor even any sense of what is sacred and inviolable, to focus our understanding of what we are. What we have seen just now, though, is that not every way of resolving choice is equal. Although willful self-confidence and addictive loss of control are both ways of shirking the burden—the first because it refuses to recognize alternatives and the second because it is incapable of doing so—neither of these conditions characterizes the experience of the unthinking heroic actor.
WHAT CAN IT BE like to act with certainty in the way that Mr. Autrey did—to act but not experience oneself as the source of one’s actions; to be drawn by a force outside oneself but not enslaved to it? In fact, although we do not pay attention to it, a mild version of this is familiar to us in everyday life. The morning commuter all of a sudden realizes that he has gotten on the bus, but doesn’t remember doing so. The long-distance truck driver all of a sudden realizes that he has been driving for some miles without “paying attention.” Stumbling home from a long day’s work, the tired worker finds herself in a favorite chair, but then realizes that she never decided to sit there. Habitual actions of these sorts can occur “offline,” as one might say, without the agent even noticing that she is performing them. And yet it is part of the habitual action that the person performing it can break in at any moment and resist. In some sense the habitual actor, like the heroic one, is neither willful agent nor unwilling slave.
But habitual action is not heroic. The difference is that whereas the habitual actor lacks a sense not only of himself but of his surroundings, the heroic actor by contrast has a heightened awareness of what the situation calls for.
This sense for what the situation demands is nothing like an objective awareness of what is happening. The other bystanders on the subway platform presumably saw that Mr. Hollopeter was in distress; in this sense they were good, objective witnesses to the event. Many of them presumably saw, in addition, that the situation called for some kind of action. Presumably many of them even felt an urge to act themselves. But they were not sufficiently motivated to act on his behalf. Their experience allowed for hesitation; Mr. Autrey’s did not.
It is hard to blame someone who responds in a nonheroic way to such a situation; most of us are familiar with their experience. Perhaps they thought desperately to themselves, “Oh my God! That poor man has fallen on the tracks—somebody do something!” They were not lacking empathy for the victim, we can assume, and indeed perhaps they felt strongly that something must be done to help him. But if we are to take Mr. Autrey at his word, then none of these desperate thoughts ran through his head, and he therefore never decided to do anything at all in response to them. Rather, it was Mr. Hollopeter’s distress itself that drew him to act without hesitation. In this way his experience was different from that of people acting habitually with no experience of their surroundings at all. He differed from the bystanders at the scene as well, since the experience they had of the situation allowed them to wonder what must be done. By contrast with both of these, Mr. Autrey not only experienced his surroundings, he experienced them directly in terms of what they demanded from him.
This can sound like a bizarre phenomenon, and we admit that it is rather rare. In the extreme form, indeed, it is about as rare as heroic action itself. But if we pay attention we can find versions of it in our daily lives. Perhaps the most common version is found in the domain of sports. Indeed, some of our everyday locutions even emphasize this phenomenon. When someone is playing very well, for example, we can say that they are playing “out of their head”; they have left the domain of thought altogether, in other words, and are carried along by the flow and demands of the game. A master athlete at the top of his game has a heightened awareness of his surroundings not unlike what Mr. Autrey experienced.
One of the great descriptions of this kind of athletic mastery is found in John McPhee’s A Sense of Where You Are.9 McPhee’s book profiles the college basketball career of Bill Bradley, whom he describes as perhaps the best college basketball player ever. Bradley went on, of course, to be a Rhodes scholar, a Hall of Fame basketball player for the New York Knicks, and eventually a U.S. senator and presidential candidate. But McPhee’s book is about Bradley’s presence on the college court, and here he describes the phenomenon we are after.
One of the most impressive features of Bradley’s game, according to McPhee, was his ability to be aware of everything that was going on in the game at once. He had this awareness without needing to look, as in the case of a certain shot he had perfected:
The over-the-shoulder shot had no actual name. He tossed it, without looking, over his head and into the basket. There was no need to look, he explained, because “you develop a sense of where you are.”10
This kind of vision for the court allowed Bradley to be aware of everything going on around him until the moment he let himself be drawn in directly by an opportunity in the game. As McPhee describes...

Indice dei contenuti

  1. Cover
  2. Back Cover
  3. Title Page
  4. Copyright Page
  5. Dedication
  6. Contents
  7. A Note To The Reader
  8. Chapter 1: Our Contemporary Nihilism
  9. Chapter 2: David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism
  10. Chapter 3: Homer’s Polytheism
  11. Chapter 4: From Aeschylus To Augustine: Monotheism On The Rise
  12. Chapter 5: From Dante To Kant: The Attractions And Dangers Of Autonomy
  13. Chapter 6: Fanaticism, Polytheism, And Melville’s “Evil Art”
  14. Chapter 7: Conclusion: Lives Worth Livingin A Secular Age
  15. Epilogue
  16. Acknowledgments
  17. Notes
  18. Index
  19. About The Authors
Stili delle citazioni per All Things Shining

APA 6 Citation

Dreyfus, H., & Kelly, S. D. (2011). All Things Shining ([edition unavailable]). Free Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/779984/all-things-shining-reading-the-western-classics-to-find-meaning-in-a-secular-age-pdf (Original work published 2011)

Chicago Citation

Dreyfus, Hubert, and Sean Dorrance Kelly. (2011) 2011. All Things Shining. [Edition unavailable]. Free Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/779984/all-things-shining-reading-the-western-classics-to-find-meaning-in-a-secular-age-pdf.

Harvard Citation

Dreyfus, H. and Kelly, S. D. (2011) All Things Shining. [edition unavailable]. Free Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/779984/all-things-shining-reading-the-western-classics-to-find-meaning-in-a-secular-age-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).

MLA 7 Citation

Dreyfus, Hubert, and Sean Dorrance Kelly. All Things Shining. [edition unavailable]. Free Press, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.