Book Review: All Things Shining (Dreyfus & Kelly)

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular AgeAll Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert L. Dreyfus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The rise of Nihilism in Western Civilization explains the visible rise and problems of individual autonomy, the loss of the sacred and the evils of free will.  This is the main thrust of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly in their book, “All Things Shining.”  Dreyfus and Kelly survey a multi-generational shift from the realm of the sacred to the realm of mankind being the sole active agent in the universe.  In other words, “All Things Shining” covers the decline of the sacred and the rise of Nihilism from the ancient Greeks all the way to contemporary philosophers and authors such as David Foster Wallace and Elizabeth Gilbert. 

According to Dreyfus and Kelly, Western Civilization’s current golden calf is the idea of free will and personal autonomy; however, it hasn’t always been this way.  During the time of the middle ages people made sense of the world through their understanding of God.  Everything had its proper place within God’s divine plan.  It was no different for the ancient Greeks either.  Their plethora of gods also provided a context in which society operated.  This ideology of an outside force/god within culture brought mankind to a position of passivity.  Rather than seeing mankind as the center of the universe, it was perceived that mankind was simply a piece of a much larger puzzle.  Mankind would often be acted upon.  This ideology of mankind’s relationship with a source of meaning outside of himself/herself is precisely what kept Nihilism at a distance.  But, according to Dreyfus and Kelly, there has been a constant pressure or one could say progression of civilization away from the sacred into Nihilism.  The advent of Nihilism is most evidently seen in assessing the life of David Foster. 

Looking at David Foster, one can see the depressive mood of the American spirit; a spirit that has been plagued with Nihilism and the burdens of autonomy, free will and lost-ness.  The breakdown of the divine order that once was present in the middle ages now opens up uncertainty.  In this age of Nihilsm, on what basis is one to make decisions and where is one to be stabilized?   If mankind is all that exists and there is nothing outside of himself/herself how is one to make decisions?   If mankind is the lone source of meaning then free will is only as good as the strength, force and wisdom of the individual’s free will.  How does mankind cope and survive with the pressure of being the only active cause in the cosmos?  This now presents a realm of pressure upon mankind, a pressure that was too great for David Wallace and may have been one of the contributions/reasons for his suicide. 

Dreyfus and Kelly’s main point is not only to paint a picture of culture’s decline into Nihilism, but towards the end of the book they offer their own solutions to combat Nihilism and its fruits of free will, autonomy, depression and lost-ness. 

In interacting with this book I kept recalling Genesis 3.  I said to myself, “Isn’t the fall the quintessence of Nihilism?”  At the fall mankind aspired for autonomy and free will.  At the fall mankind aspired to become like God.  This is no different than Nietzsche saying that we must become gods ourselves and that we must become the source of all “divine, creative, unknowable eternal mystery.”  The very deception that betook Eve in the Garden is the very deception that modern mankind has bitten into; the deception that mankind is able and capable of surviving as spiritually, emotionally, and physically autonomous free will beings. 

While Kelly and Dreyfus do not come at this subject from a Christian Worldview, I do believe that they have rightly assessed the evils of Nihilism.  They state, “As autonomous subjects we have closed ourselves off to the calling of the gods, and it is in this sense that we have banished them.”  While I also grieve the closed disposition of the Western Man, I struggle with their conclusion and solution to Nihilism.  Kelly and Dreyfus hope that in the future that Western Man might open to a contemporary polytheistic world.  For obvious Biblical reasons I reject their notion of contemporary polytheism as a solution.  Rather, my hope and prayer is that the pains of Nihilism would create an atmosphere where contemporary mankind would be open to Christ and Him Crucified, for it is the cross that shines.

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