As summer approaches, we avidly seek books to read that will enrich us and give us something to say at the next social gathering, especially after summer ends and we return to school. Perhaps you’re open to a book that gives a crash-course in history of civilization, philosophy, or of the human condition in modern times? Well, do we have the book for you! A survey of literature and philosophical thought in the Western world from ancient times to the present, Hubert Dreyfus’s and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age is the perfect book for increasing your street cred. But caveat emptor, if you would rather your worldview stay the same, this may not be the book for you. The authors present with singing prose an incredibly humane and sophisticated argument about how we should view the world, but it is quite controversial and challenges many traditional viewpoints. However, if you’re up for the challenge, delve into the deep thought of the West and see how a wholesome appreciation of our literary heritage can change your life.
Why read a book on the Western World, particularly the Western canon of literature? Isn’t that like saying, “Why don’t we have white history month?” The answer is that we live in a Western society, and despite the hegemony of the old Western classics, the worldview of this literature is remarkably holistic and inclusive. The ancient authors, the medieval authors, and the present authors all appreciate the roles of other people—from slaves to freemen, paupers to kings—and though they may not all have a prominent voice in the literature, they do have a voice which is recognized, empathized with and accepted. The ancient world was frank in its denial of social mobility, but even more frank in its appreciation and sensitive portrayal of people from all walks of life. This only widens the applicability of Western philosophy to people in our modern society, and Dreyfus and Kelly write that the current state of nihilism and atheism derives fundamentally from the progression of Western philosophy in a sort of inclusive vacuum, not because of the introduction of Eastern sources. These other philosophies are present, particularly towards the end of the book, but the authors do not survey them as they are mainly irrelevant to the narrative they develop.
The major strength of All Things Shining is its use of informed close-readings of texts you’ve heard of—from Homer, the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare, Descartes, and Melville—to support its thesis and to develop its points. Here’s an example: Academic discourse is divided on Homer’s treatment of Helen of Troy, because he seems to have created in her a fundamentally contradictory character—a loving wife, and yet a traitor to her husband; the epitome of beauty and of discord. In a scene from the Odyssey, wherein Menelaus of Sparta and his wife Helen of Troy are entertaining Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, and Menelaus asks his wife to tell a story. Helen tells the story of a lifetime, the one where she cuckolds and abandons her husband for Paris and sparks the Trojan War—and yet at the tale’s end, Menelaus smiles and praises her for telling a story worthy of a true Greek woman. Surprising, no? Dreyfus and Kelly have a solution that makes sense of the text. They call upon the Greek understanding that the gods are moods, personified forces that move us in our lives, and that to follow these “moods” is the path to maximizing our human potential and experiencing the holiest and most wholesome lives. When Eros arrowed Helen, she felt impelled to follow a divine urge to elope with Paris, and her openness and receptivity to doing so, to accepting the guidance of these forces that are larger than us, made her life meaningful and great. What’s noteworthy about this argument is its thoughtful simplicity, its complete and consistent decoding of the text, and its firm grounding in Greek history and philosophy. It’s also a rare perspective; you’ll impress even a professor with this sort of in-depth historical and cultural knowledge!
That’s a taste, the first step of this text, but it also ends up being a major part of the lifestyle the authors endorse as healthy and the path out of our modern dysthymia. I invite you to read the book, see for yourself if you are convinced! The writing is tight and strong, memorable, and infused with the wonderful historical vignettes and humorous asides. You’ll probably be a pleasantly surprised by the stance on Christianity and the nature of God. However, if you take away anything from this review, try to be open, like the Greeks, to feelings and experiences, and let them guide your life.