In response to:
Superficial & Sublime? from the April 7, 2011 issue
To the Editors:
Our book, All Things Shining, has clearly touched a nerve. Prominent reviewers have found it transformative. They have called it “fascinating,” “stunning,” “illuminating,” “inspirational,” and even a “harbinger of future philosophies to come.” But others have been outraged and dismissive. Garry Wills, the eminent historian and distinguished defender of the Catholic faith, now bears the standard for those arguing against. His recent review [NYR, April 7] expresses “astonishment” at how “inept” and “shallow” our book is, states that it is full of “silly” and “discredited” claims, and admonishes the “famous Big Thinkers” who, he thinks, have been duped by its wiles.
Many of the historical arguments Wills gives are reasonable, and his review would be fair if we actually held the positions he criticizes. Unfortunately, Wills regularly mistakes our views for discredited ones with which he is already familiar, and then, after reciting the well-known arguments against these discredited views, calls us “inept” for having spewed such “nonsense.” Some of our most sensitive and appreciative interlocutors disagree with the positions we articulate; but Wills seems simply not to understand them.
All Things Shining aims to focus and revivify an experience of the sacred that is fitting for our “secular age.” It finds in the great works of the West radically different philosophical understandings of what matters intensely in a life, and attempts to appropriate these for the modern world. The basic premise of the book is that the modern view—that the individual agent’s free choice alone determines what matters—is fundamentally mistaken. Wills’s description of our project therefore, as holding that “each person must forge his or her own view of the universe,” is an unfortunate characterization. That is the position our book is against. Any good argument against a position, of course, begins by interpreting it as sympathetically as possible. Perhaps Wills is unable to recognize this hermeneutic charity.
Elsewhere, Wills does see that the polytheism of Homer and Melville serves to anchor our project. But his discussion of Melville is strangely abbreviated; and although he discusses Homer at greater length, Wills wrongly identifies our position with the more familiar, but easily discredited, one that Homer’s Greeks are incapable of deliberation. That the Greeks deliberate is hardly news. Bernard Williams made that point forcefully over two decades ago, and Wills’s lengthy rehearsal of it adds nothing new. We even give an example of Odysseus deliberating in the book. But this issue is irrelevant to our question of what Homeric existence is at its best. In Homer it is clear that to be at one’s best is to be cared for by a divinity. Our goal is to determine whether there is anything we can recognize and admire in that experience. We claim there is, but that it takes serious philosophical work to uncover it. Wills seems unwilling, or unable, to recognize that task.
Garry Wills has been described as the “finest intellectual historian of our age.” But the particular, well-trodden historical debates he recites are irrelevant to our book’s philosophical claims, and no substitute for serious thinking about them.
Professor of Philosophy
University of California, Berkeley
Sean Dorrance Kelly
Professor of Philosophy
Chair, Department of Philosophy
Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts
Garry Wills replies:
A lot of words, and no answers. I made specific charges, to which the authors make no specific replies. The only concrete point they make is that “we even give an example of Odysseus deliberating,” and for that they give no citation, either to their own book or to Homer. But I assume (after search) they are referring to page 76, which quotes (and rearranges) Fitzgerald’s translation on Odysseus’ “mind and spirit pondering” (Odyssey, 5.424). The verb here is hormainein (which Lattimore translates as “meditate”). They do not address the formulae of choice I adduced (dikha mermērizein, or entha kai entha mermērizein). They must not have wanted me to find their passage, since they gloss the verb as “pondering and despairing.” Odysseus is not undergoing the anguish of choice. He is, in their words, “busy despairing of his options.” Despair precludes choice—which does not matter, since Athena saves Odysseus with a whoosh.
Amid all their verbiage they say nothing about most of the points that I challenge—such as that Augustine was the first to join Christianity with Greek philosophy, or that he invented interiority by watching Ambrose read silently.
They do not even mention the matters that were most noticed as sacred “shining moments” in their book—the worship of Roger Federer’s tennis, the “praises of the Lord” for Demon Deacons, the canonization of Elizabeth Gilbert for submitting to the god of her own genius. They especially do not take the opportunity to explain, at last, their wildest idea—that carefully brewed coffee is a prophylactic against the “whoosh” of Hitler rallies. They vaguely dance away from all that with a dismissive claim that I am talking history and they are talking philosophy—as if philosophy were a warrant for making false statements, over and over.