Friday, March 25, 2011

"Reader, Put it Down"

We have rarely read a review as scathing as this one by Gary Wills on All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly.

It is not that Wills -- who has devoted much of his recent life to St. Augustine -- objects to reading the Western classics, or finding meaning in them. Quite the contrary. What he objects to is the meaning Dreyfus and Kelly claim to find: that choice is an unmanageable burden, and that the reflective interior life should be replaced by impulsiveness. Oh, and that a football game is not only as moving as a church service, but has just as much significance.

He also objects to the bad Classical scholarship Dorrance and Kelly seem to display. For example, they claim that Homer's characters "do not think too hard" about difficult choices; Wills pulls out numerous examples of Homeric characters thinking hard indeed.

More laughably still, they argue that the fall from grace, the loss of this (supposed) Homeric impulsiveness, is the fault of St. Augustine, who "was the first important Christian to interpret Christianity using the categories of Greek philosophy."

As Wills is quick to say,
Anyone who knows anything about either Augustine or Greek philosophy knows that this is nonsense. There were any number of important Christians who did this before Augustine—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Mallius Theodore, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose of Milan. These people were not only earlier than Augustine, they were acquainted with Greek philosophy more deeply and intimately than he was. They read and spoke Greek, and he did not.
Come to think of it, we're not sure why Dorrance and Kelly imagine that -- had Augustine been what they claim -- his use of Greek philosophy would have created a revolutionary interiority in the first place. Had Socrates no capacity for self-examination? Really?

We'll never know, because this is a book we have no intention of reading. But we want to express our admiration for Wills's choice of taglines. He is appalled by the number of intellectuals who have written appreciative blurbs for the book, and -- referring to Vartan Gregorian's claim that "I couldn't put it down," ends by urging, "Reader, put it down." This would be clever enough if it were no more than a reference to Gregorian. But surely, after so much talk of Augustine, it also casts a glance at tolle lege. As well, of course, as reminding us what one does with a rabid dog.


Anonymous said...

Well, I have to say -- I appreciated both the book and Garry Wills' review! Thanks for the link.

I agree that the authors are dealing with surfaces and that they missed the boat on some of what they wrote about inner lives. However I would argue that their intended audience (an audience which is not engaged with, or by, religion), as well as the technocratic nihilistic consumerist culture they are addressing (which they claim has leached meaning and denied the inner life,a claim I agree with) leaves us with almost nothing but surface. I see them as trying to open a window a crack and increase people's receptivity to something greater than the consumerist self, rather than come up with a whole system of meaning.

They are looking at a culture that celebrates consumerism and scientism and rejects a rich "thick" (as Volf would put it) religion, and saying, what's left? The two issues they're grappling with are problems of American culture:

1) a culture that denies that our inner lives can be taken to mean anything at all to anyone else (thus they point toward feelings which serve to connect people to a sense of something greater than themselves -- and let's face it, when religion is gone, what's left is entertainment like sports)

2) a culture that relies on technologies and systems which have coincidentally robbed most people of being able to exercise meaning, expertise, aesthetic judgment and creativity in their work (thus their emphasis on craft and ritual)

I loved Bryan Appleyard's book Understanding the Present, and I think this book is dealing with some of the same issues of the self versus scientism that he lifts up. I also think they hit on some of the cultural issues that Charles Hambrick-Stowe highlights in his blog post about ministry being the last real profession in the world (link:, where pastors still have enormous freedom in their work to exercise creativity and judgment, when just about everyone else is dominated by decision trees and performance metrics (I see how the latter plays out in the medical and educational professions, as members of my family are in those fields).

Garry Wills is deeply engaged with religion and finds it meaningful, so this book and the problem it hopes to address -- finding meaning when religion does NOT engage you -- has little to say to him. But I must say, he was right on with his critiques of their analyses of Homer and Augustine.

I still think they are onto something, though.

-- Anna

Father Anonymous said...

Maybe. Probably, even. I mean, the basic idea is certainly popular enough. Jung's 1933 title, "Modern Man in Search of a Soul," presupposes the general condition. And my parish is reading Mircea Eliade's "Sacred and Profane," which here and there suggests very strongly that, absent actual religious faith, people naturally use find quasi-religious meaning in alternative experiences. (And, by the way, writing a book that analyzes all this in a way that is more convincing to me than Jung and Eliade wouldn't be hard.)

Still, I'm just not sure how seriously I can take writers who set out to excavate "meaning" from the "Western Classics," and then fumble their reading of Homer and Augustine. You just don't get more Western, or more classic, than those guys.

Anonymous said...


Good point. Maybe they should quit watching so many sporting events.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that was me -- Anna - snarking about the effects of sports viewership on higher level reading comprehension.

-- Anna

Anonymous said...

What does this mean "something greater than yourselves"? You mean Long Island? The city of Philadelphia? All insect life? Microbes?
Looking for something greater than ourselves becomes another form of vanity: "I am connected to X, which is greater than myself. I am therefore even bigger than before and so even more important."

Father Anonymous said...

I see your point. And yet, so far as I can discern, those who lack any sense of connection to some thing "greater than themselves" don't display any particular humility relative to those who do. Sartre, anybody?

Which leads me back to my growing suspicion that the quest for [transcendent] meaning may be in fact be hard-wired neurologically, or at the very least so deeply inculturated that people have little choice but to pursue it. For some people, this drive manifests as religiosity; for others, as ... well, football hooliganism, I guess.

Not all people are disposed this way, of course -- we are genetically predisposed to have two hands, but some people are born with one, etc.

Obviously, this is the case that evolutionary biologists have begun promoting, and I seem to be falling for it. Some people see it as inherently materialistic, although I side with one of the faithful, who once observed that were she God, she might very well have arranged it so that her creatures would possess just such an impulse.