5/18/2011—In a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, authors of All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, had an unsatisfactory exchange with their reviewer, Garry Wills.
They talked past each other. Wills criticized their understanding of history. They his of philosophy.
Dreyfus and Kelly are raising the very question of the modern, secular age—how to experience meaning without a God. These experiences of the sacred the authors call “shining moments”. Their answer aims at attacking a modern view that “the individual agent’s free choice alone determines what matters”.
But the emphasis on the Greeks is inevitably an emphasis on human excellence, a point that Susan Neiman made in reviewing the book in the New York Times.
Life is not really about excellence, whether exalted or simple, as in the carefully brewed cup of coffee that Wills berates. Life is about suffering. Since we all decline and die, that is true of the even most favored life.
The religious traditions by and large emphasize compassion, not excellence. Theirs is a moral vision of the meaning of life. Surely their way is more truthful to the mystery of human existence.