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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age Hardcover – January 4, 2011

3.6 out of 5 stars 69 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Many people in today’s world do not recognize “shining” things when they see them. Instead, feelings of loss, sadness, angst, and despair prevail. Dreyfus and Kelly lament that fact and respond to the situation by introducing (or reintroducing) readers to several literary classics of the Western world. With a balanced mix of philosophy and literature, the authors highlight works like Melville’s Moby Dick, Homer’s Odyssey, and Dante’s Divine Comedy. The organizing principle is mostly thematic, with chapters dealing with nihilism, polytheism, monotheism, and autonomy. The work is not religious in the traditional sense. Jesus and Christianity are brought into the discussion only occasionally as conversation partners, and the target audience includes people who would rather listen to Immanuel Kant than the Apostle Paul. Throughout, the tone is only barely academic. The authors assume their readers have no prior knowledge of the works they discuss. The conclusion is hopeful—that one can live a life worth living in a secular age. It starts with recognizing “shining” things when we encounter them. This book is proof that some of the Western classics can help us do just that. --Wade Osburn


"Occasionally brave philosophers do leap out of their professional lanes and illuminate things for the wider public. Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard have just done this with their new book, “All Things Shining.” They take a smart, sweeping run through the history of Western philosophy. But their book is important for the way it illuminates life today and for the controversial advice it offers on how to live. A rejection of the excessive individualism of the past several decades, the emphasis on maximum spiritual freedom. In this, it’s a harbinger of future philosophies to come."--David Brooks, The New York Times

"Fascinating. Even if you don’t agree that we are caught in an age of nihilistic indecision, if you attune yourself to the authors’ energetic intelligence and deep engagement with key texts in the West, you will have much to be grateful for."-- Michael Roth, The New York Times

"An inspirational book but a highly intelligent and impassioned one. The authors set out to analyze our contemporary nihilism the better to remedy it. "All Things Shining" provides a concise history of Western thought, beginning with Homer and concluding with Descartes and Kant. But there are extended discussions as well of such contemporary authors as the late David Foster Wallace and, even more startling, of "chick lit" novelist Elizabeth Gilbert.The authors' general theme, and lament, is that we are no longer "open to the world." We fall prey either to "manufactured confidence" that sweeps aside all obstacles or to a kind of addictive passivity, typified by "blogs and social networking sites." Both are equally unperceptive. What makes their case finally compelling is their insistence on the importance of openness, on attentiveness to the given moment, on what they call "a fully embodied, this-worldly kind of sacred." If, as they claim, "the story of how we lost touch with these sacred practices is the hidden history of the West," they have offered some small but shining hints on how we might hope to recover them." --Eric Ormsby, The Wall Street Journal

"Fascinating insights about the search for meaning in our time, and the threat of nihilism. All Things Shining raises fundamental questions about the religious and ethical developments of humanity since the Axial Age.  This book tackles big issues, ones that really matter in our lives today."
--Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age

“In All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, two distinguished philosophers, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, have written an extraordinary, ambitious, and provocative tour de force that frames one of the central questions of our age: how we have passed “from the intense and meaningful lives of  Homer’s world to the indecision and sadness” that too often characterizes modern times. This is compelling reading because in examining the great literary works produced in the history of the West, the authors find new ways of configuring issues of choice, autonomy, fanaticism, solace, and most importantly, the ties that bind us to the past. The book is both brief and yet remarkably comprehensive as it delves into the transcendent values of the classic works that have helped to advance modern thought and inform the development of the Western world. I found myself particularly fascinated by Chapter 5, ‘The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy.’ As with the rest of the book, reading this chapter, I could hardly put it down”
—Vartan Gregorian, President, Carnegie Corporation of New York

"Dreyfus and Kelly would initiate us into a this-worldly piety of wonder and gratitude; of attunement to moments when something transcendentally excellent shines forth in the mundane. The new age that Dreyfus and Kelly hope for is a polytheistic and basically aristocratic corrective to the leveling of modern culture, which they attribute to the mindsets of monotheism and technology. You will be arrested by their reading of the tradition, and of our current situation. If you find yourself high-fiving strangers when Tom Brady connects with Randy Moss in the end zone from downtown, or would like to, this book is for you. " 
-Matthew Crawford, author of Shop Class as Soulcraft

“There is a world out there that is as concealed as it is crucial to the good life. Dreyfus and Kelly have lifted the veil with pedagogical skill and striking insights. It's a world of things shining that can lend grace and depth to our lives. The book is itself a shining thing.”
—Albert Borgmann, author of Real American Ethics

“Stunning! This is one of the most surprising, demanding, and beautiful books I have ever read. My compliments gentleman, and I hope thousands of others share my admiration—and awe.”
--Charles Van Doren, author of A History of Knowledge

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; First Edition edition (January 4, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1416596151
  • ISBN-13: 978-1416596158
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (69 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #323,876 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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.
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"All Things Shining" is a book written by two philosophers, for a general audience. While there is textual analysis and criticism, it is in service of a goal that the authors feel should have very broad appeal in our secular and nihilistic age:

"The world used to be in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. [. . .] Anyone who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing, and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadnes and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead. Or at least that is what we intend.

The authors goal, in short, is to clear a path by which people can lure back the "merry May-day gods of old"--the sacred shining things--in order that they may thereby lead intense and meaningful lives, as the ancient Greeks once did. However, they are not interested in trying to recover anything supernatural; they are not, for example, interested in bringing back belief in a literally existing, supernatural Greek Goddess named "Aphrodite". They are instead interested in something that might be called a mood, or an attunement, that opens one to the world, and to a sacred dimension that once may have been understood as, and represented by a god or goddess: the erotic dimension and that which attunes one to it, being that which was once called "Aphrodite"; the aggressive, war-like dimension "Ares"; and so on.
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I'm a big fan of Hubert Dreyfus but find this effort as problematic as it is engaging. I've enjoyed Drefus' work from his scholarly Being-in-the-World: A Commentary on Heidegger's Being and Time, Division I. to his pamphlet-sized trade On the Internet (Thinking in Action) as well as What Computers Still Can't Do: A Critique of Artificial Reason. What sets apart All Things Shining is the prescriptive nature of this book. After examining modes of being in literature by Homer, Dante, Melville and others, Dreyfus and coauthor Sean Dorrance Kelly conclude that the solution to nihilism--the way to find meaning in our existence--is to be swept up by a crowd and to become fully engaged in daily rituals like drinking coffee. Really? I understand the richness of these ideas (the authors are indebted to Albert Borgmann's work) but two highly regarded philosophers ought to be able to come up with something more canny.

Ultimately, Hubert and Kelly seem too timid to engage in the controversial side of ontological thought--like Heidegger's maxim to "live dangerously" (see Zimmerman's excellent Heidegger's Confrontation with Modernity: Technology, Politics, and Art (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Technology).
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