If you cannot imagine enjoying, of even finding wise counsel, in a book recommending a return to something like polytheism, you are not alone. I have difficulty enough contending with the lingering specter of monotheism: one god, or, more precisely, the loss of any sense of one God, is heartache enough.
But something about King Menelaus’s admiration for his wife Helen has always intrigued me. At a feast in honor of Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, Menelaus listens with rapt appreciation as his wife, Helen, the very Helen of Troy, recounts her passionate embrace of Paris, and her flight to Troy; she left Menelaus and their young child for this most famous of affairs. A decade-long war was fought to get her back. Now she is sitting beside Menelaus later in life recounting those days devoted to her passion? And he sits by admiring?
I’ve read the Odyssey many times, and I have always stubbed my toe on this scene. Shouldn’t Menelaus react in rage? And why no shame from Helen? The two of them seem to exult in the memory of this costly betrayal. I have shaken my head at this passage, regarding it is a bizarre prelude to the main event, Odysseus’s struggle to return home.
All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, opened my eyes. I was using the wrong standard to evaluate Helen’s conduct: she swooned for Paris not as an act of betrayal to Menelaus, but because she had responded to Aphrodites’s mood, eros. Paris shone, in her eyes, and those eyes were not beclouded with wayward lust, a Christian gloss. She responded to something stirring within and accessible to all, if they would but listen: even in our time we celebrate the sweetest passion. Menelaus was wise enough to know that he too knew the stirring of Aphrodites.
Many readers will find this foreign and even chilling. But what can we offer as a counterweight? Dreyfus and Kelly argue that the western tradition has evolved to a point at which we are left, precisely, nowhere: no God, or even gods, populate our heavens. The best among us struggle with a crippling nihilism, dissolving in anger upon selves held out as autonomous, but disconnected from any source of sustaining wonder. David Foster Wallace, a brilliant young writer, killed himself. Why? The authors wonder whether it wasn’t because, in the end, living made no sense. When all is equal to all, and choice is a matter simply of will, the glory soon recedes. Yes, Nietszche had syphilis, but didn’t he also commit suicide? Perhaps these acts of self-destruction were morally significant after all.
All Things Shining is an ambitious little book, a prolegomenon, really, to a much larger project: put simply, it argues that western civilization has spent its moral capital and is bankrupt. The ironist is our new patron saint, but all he can offer is mockery. Life requires engagement in something other than amused detachment, the authors suggest. Scoffing is our new pastime, and we are scoffing all the way to the grave.
As I was reading this book, a friend well along life’s way, a trial lawyer of some renown, sent me a long note about his struggles for meaning and a sense of identity: he wondered at his seeming inconsistency, and his inability to be but one thing to all the people in his life. He was moved at various times by different impulses: he is a lover, a father, a warrior, a friend, and so much more. Yet beneath these various masks, wasn’t there something more real, more fundamental?. I sent him a copy of All Things Shining. Read about Helen and Menelaus, I told him: we are summoned by different forces, different gods, at various points in our lives. We respond, and when that force is spent, we are spent, and await the call of something new. There are times when we are empty, flat keys awaiting expert hands to play upon as and make a melody. I’ve heard good trial lawyers say they are nothing without a case. Those wrapping themselves in a cocoon of autonomy, the Kantian prison, can never hear these calls; they do not permit their keys to be played upon. They wait in sterile silence.
I followed this argument tolerably well from beginning to end, although, I confess, the treatment of Augustine left me indifferent. But I cast my doubts overboard when I boarded the Pequot and went in search of the great whale, as the authors worked their way through Melville’s Moby Dick. We used to joke, in the long-since past and almost forgotten days of my youth, that the world historical spirit skipped North American, a play on Hegel. Grand ideas about man and the cosmos never seemed to flourish on this continent, we spat out a few lines on government, and called it quits. I see now it is time to reread Melville. I simply never understood him.
Master trial lawyers will read the last chapter of this work with recognition and profit. It is about craftsmanship, and being open to the possibilities of a moment. This one sentence summarizes the work of a trial lawyer: "The task of the craftsman is not to generate meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there." And again, "The master workman will rarely do the same thing twice." Finally, "the project, then, is not to decide what to care about, but to discover what it is about which one already cares." Read what these men have to say about woodworking, or the seemingly mundane act of preparing the morning’s coffee, and see whether you don’t recognize yourself responding to what is present in a moment. Dare to call it sacred.
The call to a renewed polytheism is not so much a plea to reconsider the tedious and metaphysical arguments about the existence of gods or God. These arguments prove everything and nothing at once. It is rather an invitation to heed impulses alive, but rarely acknowledged, within us all. It is a call to rediscover, without shame this time, a sense of the sacred. The gods appear in this work as mere tropes, figures of speech that give us a shared vocabulary, a means of joining hands across the unbridgeable silence separating us from one another. It is a call to being open to what is present: "[O]ur focus on ourselves as isolated, autonomous agents has had the effect of banishing the gods – that is to say, covering up or blocking our sensitivity to what is sacred in the world. The gods are calling us but we have ceased to listen." Amen, I want incongruously to say.
This is a profound pamphlet of a book, all the more promising and evocative as one of the co-authors, Sean Dorrance Kelly, is chairman of the Harvard University Department of Philosophy. It appears as the academy is not yet dead.. Yet the courage to shed irony and confront the divine in our midst is a call the authors cannot pull off without a certain bit of silliness. At the very end of the book, they write the following: "The gods have not withdrawn or abandoned us, we have kicked them out. They are waiting plaintively for us to hear their call." These words are noble, and they fell upon my parched heart like the promises of a lover. Why, I wonder, did the authors need to follow them with the following line? "Ask not why the gods have abandoned you, but why you have abandoned the gods." This parody of Kennedy rings like an untuned key, jangling, and making me wonder whether the authors are serious after all.
When major institutions falter and do not address the stirring of individual hearts, when grand ideas are silent in the face of a sense of the sacred open and available to all, then the wheel of time spins, and new forms of life, new ways of being, emerge. I can hear the craftsman’s wheel spinning now within myself; I see it in the world around me. Is it Chaos calling? Or is it, just maybe, a sense of the divine demanding its due?