Arts & Culture

Whistling through the darkness

5 min read

Authors offer perspective, guide to finding meaning in a secular age

It is an existential, uncertain age, one in which the old coping mechanisms no longer apply.

That’s the central concern that Philosophy Department Chair Sean Dorrance Kelly and his former teacher, Hubert Dreyfus, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, discuss in their new book “All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age.”

The book, which has garnered significant attention since its publication in January and even landed Kelly on “The Colbert Report,” uses literature as a lens through which to understand how humans have given meaning to their lives from antiquity to the present.

It’s only natural, Kelly said, for people to ask themselves questions like “What constitutes human excellence?” and “What is the best way to live a life?” But those questions prove particularly troublesome in this age, he said, because religion no longer provides many people with a shared set of values or justifies their existence the way it did in centuries past. Without God to anchor a reason for being, people are liable to feel plagued by the sense of meaninglessness that author David Foster Wallace called a “stomach-level sadness.”

“The current age is different, not because it is the nihilistic age, but because nihilism is the great threat for our age,” Kelly said. “It’s a particular kind of danger that wasn’t around in earlier epochs.”

Several philosophers, most notably Charles Taylor, have termed this “a secular age.” Kelly is quick to point out that this isn’t to say that belief in God has disappeared, but rather that belief generally plays a different role in society than in the past. In particular, he said, in more-religious eras, people outside their culture’s dominant faith were deemed lesser. Today, religious pluralism is celebrated in most cultures.

“All sorts of ways of life that in earlier epochs were automatically marginalized are now open as possibly admirable ways of life, and that’s a wonderful thing,” Kelly said. “But it’s also a destabilizing thing. If there are lots of religious beliefs that lead to potentially admirable lives, they don’t play the automatically self-justifying role that they did in the past.”

Recognizing this challenge, “All Things Shining” offers a model for how to give meaning to a secular life.

“The first step is to recognize moments in your existence when you’re absolutely taken over by the utter thrill and wonder and awesomeness of something that’s going on in the moment,” Kelly said. “You have to learn to recognize and cultivate and nurture those moments.”

The authors cite large sporting events as potential sources of such moments. When an extraordinary play happens, you get caught up in the mood and recognize that you are sharing that with the people around you.

“That kind of thing brings people together,” Kelly said. “That’s one of the moments in which we find it impossible to think that nothing matters more than anything else.”

Other occasions, like family meals, concerts, and religious services, can provide similarly meaningful experiences. Yet the pleasure associated with being part of a collective experience can also prove dangerous, as Kelly and Dreyfus acknowledge. People have to be able to distinguish between positive collective experiences, such as a speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and negative ones, such as a Nazi Party rally.

The ability to make these distinctions of worth, which they call “meta-poiesis,” involves learning to bring out the best in ourselves and others.

Their book comes at a time when the humanities have been forced to defend the teaching of the classics. Kelly emphasizes the importance of studying classic works of art, but is careful to distinguish his approach from the “Great Books” movement, which is predicated on the belief that certain books say something universally true across culture and time.

“That’s not the way cultures work, and that’s not the way history works,” Kelly said. “Homer had a characterization of us that’s radically different from ours, and if we could get in touch with that, it would expand rather than just reinforce our understanding of human excellence.”

For each era, Kelly and Dreyfus chose to discuss authors such as Dante and Herman Melville who characterized the spirit of their age. While they observe that there are many competing characterizations of this secular age, they pay particular attention to the work of Wallace, whose 2008 suicide brought him to the attention of a wider audience. Kelly and Dreyfus discuss Wallace’s suicide in the context of his philosophical and literary struggles against nihilism.

The solution, the book suggests, is not to actively resist nihilism. Rather, meaning and purpose will come only if people are open and receptive to those brief transcendent “whooshes” — whether they are experienced while watching a sports match, attending a political rally, or just sipping the perfect cup of coffee.