When things began to shine

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.

About Sean D. Kelly

Sean Dorrance Kelly is the Teresa G. and Ferdinand F. Martignetti Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. He is also Faculty Dean at Dunster House, one of the twelve undergraduate Houses at Harvard. He served for six years as chair of Harvard's Department of Philosophy. Kelly earned an Sc.B. in Mathematics and Computer Science and an M.S. in Cognitive and Linguistic Sciences from Brown University in 1989. After three years as a Ph.D. student in Logic and Methodology of Science, he received his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California at Berkeley in 1998. Before arriving at Harvard in 2006, Kelly taught at Stanford and Princeton, and he was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris. Sean Kelly's work focuses on various aspects of the philosophical, phenomenological, and cognitive neuroscientific nature of human experience. He is a world authority on 20th century European Philosophy, specializing in the work of Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. He has also done influential work in philosophy of mind and philosophy of perception. Kelly has published articles in numerous journals and anthologies and he has received fellowships or awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEH, the NSF and the James S. McDonnell Foundation, among others. Fun fact: He appeared on The Colbert Show in 2011 to talk about All Things Shining. Sean Kelly lives at Dunster House with his wife, the Harvard Philosopher Cheryl Kelly Chen, and their two boys, Benjamin and Nathaniel.
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7 Responses to When things began to shine

  1. dorrance kelly says:

    sounds great and poignant for these troubling times

  2. Hilary says:

    Tao Ruspoli made an astonishing documentary with Sean and Bert and others called BEING IN THE WORLD that explores the same territory. http://www.beingintheworldmovie.com/

  3. William Koch says:

    This sounds like a great project, I will certainly be anticipating its publication and following the blog.

  4. Roger Albin says:

    Auden’s Shield is hardly “expressionless.” The latter term implies the bland and opaque. Showing the devastation wreaked by rapid industrialization and a concentration camp definitely expresses something.

  5. N says:

    I’m very weary of these sorts of generalizations about the human psyche. It’s too pat to think that human beings were once beatifically enchanted by their own myths, but have since “fallen” (re: undergone a psychological shift sometimes called modernity, the Enlightenment, etc.) from their former Arcadian presence of mind into a morass of introspection, alienation, ambiguity, and disenchantment with the world. Such a Romantic view of a lost, unspoiled, “pre-modern psychology,” seems too quick to dismiss the possibility that people of earlier epochs (or from non-Western viewpoints) might have actually experienced the same sorts of complexities and ambiguities of emotional life that we “moderns” assume only we have known.

  6. terenceblake says:


    Sean and Bert seem to be combining two theoretical perspectives, two models: typological and historical. According to the typological model there are two regimes of affects:
    1)pluralist – things shine, lives are full of meaning and intensity, there is a constant welling up of gods and heroes, of moods and emotions. It is a regime of abundance.
    2)monist – the world is sad and dull, meaning and intensity are absent, there is an impoverishment of emotions and of commitments, uncertainty and indecision rule. It is a regime of lack.

    According to the historical model, there is a plurality of incommensurable totalising understandings of being corresponding to distinct historical epochs. The Homeric world has a culture of receptivity to moods and of openness to the world; the postmodern world has a culture of control and an “atonic” world.
    (NB: I use “atonic” as a synonym for “devoid of moods”, “without affective tonalities”. The concept of an “atonal world” is used by Alain Badiou to describe our postmodern nihilistic epoch.)
    There is a tension between the macro-pluralism of different totalising understandings of being, which authorises a plurality of worlds, but only one world at a time for each epoch of being, and the micro-pluralism of one world that contains a plurality of cognitive and affective sub-worlds. Bert and Sean try to resolve this tension by postulating that the “totalising” world is in fact composed of a dominant understanding of being and of various “marginal practices” that incorporate other incommensurable understandings. This amounts to introducing the typology (pluralist/monist) inside each world, which is thus conceived of as a mixture of hegemonic unification and of marginal dispersion.

    There remains a major ambiguity. Is what is marginalised a plurality of constellations of practices, each aiming at imposing one unique understanding of being? Or is it the plurality of constellations itself? The Homeric world, for example, expresses a unified understanding of being, but contains a plurality of sub-worlds, each grounded by a constellation of cohering practices. The Dantean world excludes sub-worlds and contains constellations of practices only inside an all-englobing hierarchical classification. Our postmodern world denies the macro-pluralism of worlds in denying its own status as world, and denies the micro-pluralism of sub-worlds by reducing it to a relativism of democratically and judicially equivalent options. We need both pluralisms to get out of postmodern nihilism. That’s why Homer’s pluralism of worlds is not enough.

  7. JiMcL says:

    My take on it, in song, against the backdrop of a historical Jesus… https://youtu.be/v8bk1MrMYzU

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