For of all, this book was written by two philosophers
(Hubert Dreyfus and his former student Sean Dorrance Kelly)
and therefore is
difficult to understand (as usual, some passages might be mindbogglingly
trivial but we'll never know for sure) and impossible to refute (as
unscientific as it gets).
The title is misleading. The book is not about reading the Western classics (only a handful are mentioned, barely Shakespeare, and excluding Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Joyce and pretty much all the writers of the 20th century except the very recent David Foster Wallace and excluding all the writers of the 19th century except for the rather minor Herman Melville, both, of course, born and raised in the USA). This book is about the meaning of life in modern times: "finding a source of meaning outside of us". This book is not a history of literature. Quote: "A phenomenological account of this sort focuses on the way people experienced themselves and the sacred rather than on the rational conceptions they had of themselves and their world".
They used a few ancient books to speculate on what the meaning of life was back there. Their research is incomplete to say the least, as it dwells on such a small sample, and it is biased in what it understands of the little it examines. I also suspect they never read Julian Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (1977).
The book starts not with Homer, as you would expect, but with David Foster Wallace, a writer that was very popular in the USA. I did not understand the point that this chapter was trying to make. Maybe it was their attempt to show that we live in an age of nihilism, taking Foster as the template for every Chinese, Indian, European, Arab and African alive today, not to mention every person of every age group and ethnic group living in the USA today. It is a bit suspicious that they begin the chapter with the sentence: "David Foster Wallace was the greatest writer of his generation". Really? Worldwide or just in the English language or just in the USA or just in their state of California or just of the few novelists they have read? (For the record, to justify their claim the authors mention two articles: an article in the music magazine Rolling Stone and the eulogy written after Wallace's suicide by a New York Times film critic... which makes you wonder if the rest of the book is also based on such reputable literary scholarship).
Whatever the point was, it is abandoned in the next chapter, that restarts from Homer and its polytheistic world. The authors' interpretation of the Homeric world is that the Greeks view themselves as not the masters of their own actions but as obeying higher forces that guided their lives. They accepted this and, the authors claim, this made them happy to live in this world. One can be sad about an action but not feel remorse for it. One can regret that something happened but not view it as immoral. Because there is no introspection, then there is no sense of responsibility, then people live happy lives. Quote: "As happy polytheists, their world was the opposite of our contemporary nihilistic age". Of course, we are assuming that Homer's poems faithfully reflected the mood of the average Greek just like we are assuming that Wallace represents most people alive in his age, from Shanghai to London. (Personally, i think that most people in Homer's time were living a miserable life of warfare, hunger and plagues, and their gods might simply express their overwhelming anxiety and unhappiness, and Homer's poems were meant precisely to exorcise the terrible reality of daily life just like today humming a pop hit helps to relieve one's mind from work and family anxieties).
The story after Homer is one of slow descent into nihilism: "this history can be described as a series of stages by which we obscured the worldly wonders that people in the Homeric Age saw everywhere". Aeschylus introduces a Zeus who is no longer a "personified god presiding over a pantheon" but the "hidden and unrepresentable background" of Greek culture.
Then came Christianity. For a thousand years Christian philosophers tried to "prove" their god by reaching back to Greek philosophy. Augustine found the Christian god through introspection, and somehow the authors feel that this could not be reconciled with Platonic philosophy (as Augustine and his followers tried to do for almost a thousand years). Then came Aquinas and his attempt to replace Platon with Aristoteles. The authors examine this breakthrough via Dante's "Divine Comedy": "Dante popularized St Thomas' metaphysics". Not only they claim that Aquinas' and Dante's project failed, but instead of preventing nihilism it amounted to another step towards nihilism. I am not sure why the project failed, but it sounds like it has to do with "the impersonal mystical experience" that crowns Dante's journey as opposed to the very bodily Jesus on the cross. The authors call it "Dante's passive nihilism": there is nothing worth living on this Earth because the only thing that matters is the eternal bliss of the afterlife.
Alas, the book ignores Chaucer's Pardoner (and his Wife of Bath) and many other classics of European literature that could enlighten the authors on medieval thought. Instead the book quickly derives that "before Descartes people had little sense of an inner self." Who are these "people"? Obviously philosophers, writers, painters and musicians had plenty of that sense. Ordinary people may not have it as much, but then do they have it today or at any point in history? Most people are just busy working, raising a family and enjoy what little spare time they can afford.
Luther attacked Aristoteles on similar grounds: that Aristoteles had been a distorting influence on Christianity. Luther emphasized individual freedom. However, the authors see this as yet another step towards nihilism, this time called "active nihilism".
Among the many names that are neglected in this book about the Western classics, Shakespeare (and Racine and Cervantes and many others) would be crucial at this point. It almost feels like the authors wanted to omit the entire history of Western introspection that starts with Shakespeare's tormented heroes (how do they relate to Homer's heroes?) and is still going on today via Goethe's Faust, Dostoevsky's rejects, and Joyce's own Ulysses (to name a few).
Anyway: after Luther came Descartes, who, pushing individualism to the extreme, separated subject (us) and object (the world). Descartes returned to Augustine's introspection with a vengeance. The authors claim that Descartes basically endorsed what Dante had viewed as the defining feature of evil: the freedom to define morality (instead of simply obeying God).
Descartes never completed this ethics, but Kant did it for him: Kant's ethics views humans as totally in control of their own morality. This leads inevitably to Nietzsche's nihilism. (Note that in Nietzsche's time there were plenty of philosophers who held a much more optimistic view of life, but the authors of this book neglect all of them, assuming that Nietzsche is the one who represents his era).
Somehow monotheism led to nihilism.
After the chapter on Melville (by far the longest), we get to the conclusions. Note that the book has nothing to say about any of the European writers of the 19th and 20th century (and not even about great US writers like Henry James). In the conclusions the authors argue that sport may be the contemporary equivalent of the Homeric polytheistic world. Science cannot do what sport does: it cannot give meaning to the life moments we experience. Sport is the one sphere of contemporary life in which we still experience the magic that the Homeric people experienced. And sport is the one aspect that still involves a community and not just individual introspection. The authors regret that the technological age is wiping out the craftmen: the skills of the craftman were a form of intimate communion with nature (Aristoteles' poiesis), the antidote to nihilism. Somehow Dreyfus does not view the skills of a Silicon Valley software engineer who programs the "ruthless unintelligence of machines" as worthy of being considered a "craft"; but i feel that the "ruthless unintelligence of machines" (the product of an engineer's work) is the same thing as the "ruthless unintelligence" of furniture or kitchenware (the products of a craftman's work). And i am not sure that the environment in which a software engineer works (the faceless cubible in a multi-storey building) is all that different from the urban shop in which a craftman used to work his glass, metal, wood, marble, etc. The ones who had direct contact with nature were not the artisans but the miners, loggers, etc. The ones who have direct contact with nature in the age of machines are the miners, loggers, etc. The authors claim that "the importance of specialized skills in contemporary life" has declined, but this is obviously not the case: we live in the age of hyperspecialization, it's just that it is not about wood and glass but about many newer disciplines. Anyway, the book's claim is that the world around us is losing its meaning because we are using technological devices as mediators (e.g. a GPS to navigate instead of using the Sun and the stars), and that this loss of meaning also becomes a loss of personal meaning: we mean less because the world around us means less. Again, the objection is that those machines and gadgets actually mean a lot to a lot of people. It's just a different kind of meaning. They argue that "without the ecstatic form of the sacred our world would be a poorer place": but many young people find the "sacred" precisely in those gadgets and websites. They think that the "poietic" understanding of the world (as embedded in the craftman's work) was a valid replacement for the loss of the Homeric gods.
The book ends on an optimistic note: that a new polytheism can be created that will make us even happier than the Homeric people were.
When the authors pick baseball (a sport unknown to most of the people on this planet) as an example of how sport can be considered a modern form of religion, the provincial aspect of the book becomes self-evident. Not only did they base the story of literature of the last five centuries on Melville and Foster (two relatively minor writers in grand scheme of world literature) but they have to pick an obscure local sport instead of, say, football (the thing that they probably call "soccer"), the most popular sport in the world, or at least a sport that is popular in more than three countries.
For someone who is so critical of the 20th century, they spend literally no time at all examining any of the classics of the 20th century (again, except one minor US writer) after having spent dozens of pages examining Homer and Dante. Peculiar to say the least. But then they are philosophers and not scientists. For a book published in 2011, and so concerned with finding meaning in modern lives, there is also a stunning neglect of like on the Internet. The closest they get to discussing the digital era is when they mention the GPS. Wow. Have they ever heard of Google and Facebook? Smartphones?
An even bigger problem is the premise itself. The whole point of the book is to provide a medicine to a disease: that we are trapped in desperate nihilism and loneliness, that we lost touch with the world that surrounds us, etc etc. They never spend a single line trying to prove that premise. Are we really so unhappy? Are they sure that we are more unhappy than the ancient Greeks? Are we the ones who are missing the point or were they? I suspect that not many people feel as desperate as these authors feel. Could it be that their sense of desperation and alienation arises from the fact that they are so behind the curve and cannot understand life around them? Is it possible that they missed the train of the Internet, of email, of the World-wide Web, of smartphones and all, and therefore can't find meaning in the age they live in? Is this book about the billions of people around the world who are living in the age of globalization and of the Internet or is it just about the two who wrote the book and live in the USA with little or no contact with the masses of China, India, Latin America, Africa and even their own younger neighbors? When they set out to discuss the "sadness and lostness of the present age", do they mean the sadness and lostness of the average person in Shanghai, Mumbai, etc, or do they mean their own personal sadness and lostness?