The Homeric Greeks lived intense and meaningful lives. Heroes, emotions, moods, and gods were constantly welling up and drawing them in. Their world was a world of shining things.
Nietzsche describes this happy state well:
[T]o enjoy a strong, bold, audacious soul; to go through life with a calm eye and firm step, always prepared to risk all—festively, impelled by the longing for undiscovered worlds and seas, people and gods;…— who would not wish that all this might be his possession, his state! This was the happiness of Homer.[i]
Our age is different. The poets and thinkers of the contemporary West tend to see us in terms of what we lack. Eliot’s Prufrock is terminally indecisive; Beckett’s famous couple are engaged in their interminable wait; Auden contrasts the vibrant shield of Achilles with its modern, expressionless counterpart. Perhaps most poignantly, David Foster Wallace finds a lostness to America around the millennium, a “stomach-level sadness” that, arguably at least, is Homeric happiness turned on its head.
How did we go from the intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s world to the sadness and indecision, perhaps even the nihilism, of the current age? And how can we find the shining things once more?
Bert Dreyfus and I are just completing a book on this topic. It is called All Things Shining: Reading the Western Canon To Find Meaning in a Secular Age. As we put the finishing touches on the manuscript this summer, and as we prepare for courses on the topic at Berkeley and Harvard this fall, we hope to use this blog to lay out some of the themes of the project and to generate discussion among a wider group of folks.
The issues are philosophical and literary, and we come at them from our background in these disciplines. But the book is intended for a non-specialist audience, and we hope the discussion here will bring in a wide range of people. Anyone who lives in the contemporary world has valuable expertise to contribute, and anyone who hopes to enrich his or her life by reading and discussing classic philosophical and literary texts can hope to find a forum here. We look forward to a vigorous and illuminating discussion, and eventually to luring back the shining things.
[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Walter Kaufmann, Trans., Vintage Books, 1974, p. 242.