Book Notes: ‘All Things Shining’

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
By Hubert L. Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly
Free Press, 2011

We’re beset with wicked problems. Ecological degradation. Political extremism. Social injustice. Wealth inequality. On top of all those, a pandemic. It’s easy to despair given so many complex challenges. Our response depends on how we frame our understanding of reality.

Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly are philosophers, and All Things Shining is a book of philosophy in the practical sense: not a dry, academic tome about esoteric distinctions but a guide on how to lead a better life. At its core is one of the key questions of modern living: how do we keep nihilism at bay?

What is nihilism? “The idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other” — a particularly modern affliction. In contrast, our ancient predecessors had clear value hierarchies. This book traces the evolution of how humans (in the West) have related to reality and — more to the point — how these various ways of being helped us keep nihilism at bay.

The book examines this idea by looking at key works in Western literature. All but one of the authors are men. I believe this isn’t bias by Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly but a reflection of the fact that men have articulated most of the influential books and ideas for most of Western history. Still, I wonder what a more inclusive book would look like. (I’m concurrently reading The Chalice and the Blade, with which I hope to tackle this imbalance.)

All Things Shining starts by relating a curious incident: on January 7, 2007, a man risked his life to save a stranger who’d fallen in New York City’s subway tracks. He did so on impulse, without overthinking it. He wasn’t a hero, but a man present to what the time asked of him. Our standard modern way of being disconnects us from this sort of present-ness to the needs of the moment, leaving us with the “burden of choice” in an uncertain world.

This framing leads to an examination of a book that represents our current malaise: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest — “in part an exploration of society’s increasing devotion to the perfection of distraction.” Wallace’s book, career, and life are representative of our contemporary “lostness.”

The rediscovery of values that might get us back on the right track starts with Homer. The ancient Greeks’ moral code was very different than ours: they were moved by ‘moods’ characterized as gods. (E.g., Aphrodite = Eros.) For the Homeric Greeks, actions and events weren’t driven by individual whims but by the needs of the moment. These people didn’t see fortuitous events resulting from blind luck (as a modern person would) but as the effects of being cared for by forces beyond themselves. (This idea reminded me of the guardian angels of my Catholic upbringing.)

Acknowledging these impersonal forces and moods can be an antidote to overthinking, another modern affliction that disconnects us from being present. Alas, we’ve lost this connection.

The story of how we lost touch with these sacred practices is the hidden history of the West. Rather than a catalogue of unrecognized historical facts, this history can be described as a series of stages by which we obscured the worldly wonders that people in the Homeric Age saw everywhere.

From the Homeric pantheon of polytheistic forces, we make our way to monotheism via Aeschylus’s tragedies, which decenter the Homeric gods, to Jesus, who reconfigures our understanding of what it means to lead a good life. Subsequent articulators of Jesus’s worldview (e.g., St. Paul, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas) aim to reconcile the Judeo-Christian focus on tangible experiences with the abstract philosophical concepts of the Greeks.

This thread reaches its apogee in Dante’s Commedia, a divine text in more than one sense. The medieval concept of a strict hierarchy of being is in contrast with the Greek pantheon, but as with the Greeks, there’s no room for nihilism in a universe where there’s no doubt about the order of things.

The central feature of Dante’s world is his sense that the universe is created by God, and therefore that its moral and spiritual meaning is written on its face. Medieval Christendom, in other words, was a world in which absolutely everything had its place.

This certainty starts to dissolve with the Enlightenment, exemplified by Descartes — “the only reconfigurer in the West besides… Jesus” — and his articulator, Immanuel Kant. With the introduction of the distinction between subjects and objects, the individual’s autonomy becomes the highest good — a radically different stance from those of Greek or medieval believers.

This leads to the final major work examined in the book: Moby Dick. Melville re-examines the question of how to relate to reality from various angles. Christianity’s “totalizing turn” leads it astray, and the “monomaniacal pursuit of the final, ultimate truth” in an uncaring universe can only sink us.

So how do we “lure back the gods of old”? The authors suggest the spirit of being present in the world is evident in sporting events, which allow us to participate in “sacred community” — if temporarily. (This notion reminded me of Eno’s concept of surrender as one of the critical functions of art.)

As the authors put it,

As an antidote to this condition we have been arguing that the basic phenomenon of Homeric polytheism—the whooshing up that focuses one for a while and then lets one go—is still available in American culture today. This source of meaning, of course, stands in direct contrast with the ideals of Enlightenment individualism, for at least the simple reason that whooshing up takes its start in the response of a community rather than of the individual. It is in this kind of community, for example, that Ishmael felt he could go on squeezing spermaceti forever. And the moment of exultation in a ballgame can be like that as well: one wishes it would last forever while knowing that it can’t. That sort of moment offers what autonomy cannot: a sense that you are participating in something that transcends what you can contribute to it.

The challenge is rediscovering the flow of surrendering to sacred community without succumbing to the lures of totalitarianism. (I.e., preserving our individuality amidst the crowd.) One way to do this is by reconnecting with being-in-the-moment through greater awareness of craft in everyday actions, such as in making a cup of coffee. (The authors use the term poiesis to describe this way of being.)

This idea resonates strongly with me. As designers, we’re told to aim for ‘seamless’ and ‘intuitive’ experiences. And yet, doing so risks eliminating human presence from the system.

advances in technology have diminished the importance of specialized skills in contemporary life. Indeed, perhaps the central goal of modern technology is to make every domain accessible to everyone, no matter what his or her level of skill. “Even a child can do it!” is the mantra of the technological age. To cook a meal is to press a button, to travel across the country is to step on a plane. To navigate an unfamiliar terrain is to turn left or right whenever the Global Positioning System (GPS) says. Technology improves our lives by making hard things easier. That is a basic axiom of the contemporary world.

In other words, frictionless experiences remove the need for us to be genuinely present. While this makes many interactions easier, it also means we’re less engaged in meaning-making.

Flattened out along with this worldly loss of meaning is our understanding of ourselves. Moods of affection and reverence—born of close and skillful attention to distinctions of worth in a domain—are nearly lost to us…

If we are to be human beings at all, we must distinguish ourselves from others; there must be moments when we rise up out of the generic and banal and into the particular and skillfully engaged.

Ultimately, All Things Shining isn’t a call to re-embrace polytheism but to be more present to what reality demands of us at any given moment. It’s not something we can think about — we must be about. (Cue Dr. Frank N. Furter: “Don’t dream it. Be it.”) This requires that we learn to see the world differently. Looking to the past offers clues for how we might learn to see things shining around us so that we can engage more deeply with them and each other.

All Things Shining book cover

See the book in the Open Library