Hamburger Kunsthalle/Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz/Art Resource

Helen of Troy; painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1863

This book, which was featured on the front page of The New York Times Book Review, comes recommended by some famous Big Thinkers. It is written by well-regarded professors (one of them the chairman of the Harvard philosophy department). This made me rub my eyes with astonishment as I read the book itself, so inept and shallow is it. The authors set about to solve the problems of a modern secular culture. The greatest problem, as they see it, is a certain anxiety of choosing. In the Middle Ages, everyone shared the same frame of values. One could offend against that frame by sinning, but the sins were clear, their place in the overall scheme of things ratified by consensus. Now that we do not share such a frame of reference, each person must forge his or her own view of the universe in order to make choices that accord with it. But few people have the will or ability to think the universe through from scratch.

So how can one make intelligent choices? Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly call modern nihilism “the idea that there is no reason to prefer any answer to any other.” They propose what they think is a wise and accepting superficiality. By not trying to get to the bottom of things, one can get glimpses of the sacred from the surface of what they call “whoosh” moments—from the presence of charismatic persons to the shared excitement of a sports event. This last elation is sacred and unifying:

There is no essential difference, really, in how it feels to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Lord, or to rise as one in joy to sing the praises of the Hail Mary pass, the Immaculate Reception, the Angels, the Saints, the Friars, or the Demon Deacons.

(The Demon Deacons, for those as ill-informed as I was, are the Wake Forest football team.)

One gets swept into an experience of the sacred by these whooshes. Perhaps they impress the Big Thinkers by the elitist choices of the charismatic people who inspire Dreyfus and Kelly—Rudolf Nureyev, for instance: “Nureyev’s charisma was palpable; he stood taller, smelt better, walked prouder, and simply outshone all the others around him.” Would they say the same about the whoosh some people get from Snooki, or Lady Gaga, or Justin Bieber? Do they all smell better?

Another thing that may impress the Big Thinkers is that the authors get their glimpses of the sacred from “reading the Western classics.” The two classics they begin with are by David Foster Wallace, “the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether,” and Elizabeth Gilbert, whose Eat, Pray, Love proved its cultural importance by ruling over best-seller lists forever. I know that people often find cultural indicators in what people buy. That is why Big Thinking hovered in the past over Colin Wilson’s The Outsider, Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. But Dreyfus and Kelly stretch this approach when they praise Gilbert’s openness to surface whooshiness, her sacred impulsiveness. Gilbert “writes well only when the god of writing shines upon her, only by the grace of the attendant spirit—the genius—who comes to tell her what to write.” They think she is even more receptive to “shining moments” than Wallace.

But they praise Wallace for uniting the two main sources of whoosh, celebrity and sports, in his ecstasy over the tennis-playing of Roger Federer. They admire his “claim that watching Federer play is like having a religious experience: it focuses a new understanding of human beings and their pursuits,” yielding a “new understanding of the sacred.” They admit that Wallace is not an entirely safe guide (despite all his whooshes he hanged himself at age forty-six). It is hard for modern people to respond spontaneously to whooshes because our culture unfortunately invented “inwardness,” the search for deeper meanings under the surface—a development they blame on Augustine of Hippo.

To get a healthier responsiveness to sacred rushes Dreyfus and Kelly go back to Homer, who (they say) had no sense of an inner life. Homer’s heroes are open to the gods, to sacred “moods” (by which they seem to mean impulses), which frees one from the anxiety of choice. Like natural athletes, Homer’s heroes do not “overthink” or try too hard.

Their prime exhibit is Helen of Troy, who without having to choose anything just obeys the goddess Aphrodite, going with her whoosh. Homer, we are told, does not judge this adulterous woman, and the proof is a line they quote from the Richmond Lattimore translation of Odyssey 4.305, which says she is “shining among women.” This proves that “Homer deeply admires Helen.” The authors do not understand the formulaic nature of oral poetry. The line-ending metrical formula dia gynaikōn is used for outstanding women, as the similar phrase dia theāōn, “shining among goddesses,” is used for outstanding deities. The formula is just another way of saying “Helen,” as “fast on his feet” is a way of saying “Achilles.” It expresses no personal judgment by Homer (whoever or whatever he is). Since the same formula is used for Penelope, the virtuous wife of Odysseus, the authors claim that Homer made no moral distinction between the two. They even say that Helen is a goddess, since dia gynaikōn can mean that. It does not, without the addition of theāōn (to describe, for instance, Hera).


In this view, the characters in Homer’s epics just go with the flow of the god-induced moods, and thus they escape the anxiety of choice. The authors are relying here on a 1948 claim by Bruno Snell that Homer’s characters have no inner core of identity for making choices, but are simply permeable to impulse.1 That claim has been discredited by many later scholars, including Bernard Williams and Bernard Knox. So common is the struggle to choose in Homer that it has frequent formulas to express it. One has a man “converse with himself in perplexity” (Ochthēsas d’ ara eipe pros hon megalētora thymon.”2 A strong line ending has a person “puzzling in thought” (eni phresi mermērizein). A third formula has him “puzzling at heart” (mermērizein…kata thymon). The struggle is sometimes strengthened by adding dikha (dividedly) or entha kai entha (torn back and forth).

A striking description of the anxiety of choice occurs when Odysseus is trying to decide how to oust the suitors from his home. No course seems clear to him, and he tosses about in irresolution. The Robert Fitzgerald translation (which the authors usually prefer) says:

…He…rocked, rolling from side to side [entha kai entha],
as a cook turns a sausage, big with blood
and fat, at a scorching blaze, without a pause,
to broil it quick: so he rolled left and right [entha kai entha],
casting about [mermērizōn] to see how he, alone,
against the false outrageous crowd of suitors
could press the fight.

Has there ever been a better presentation of the anxiety of choice, which our philosopher-authors tell us Homer knew nothing about? It is true that after this struggle, Athena comes and tells Odysseus to have confidence and go to sleep. But she does not give him a course to follow, and she certainly does not spare him the anguish he has been going through.

The fall from Homer’s sublime superficiality occurs, in this book, when Augustine invents interiority. He does this by merging the specific time and space of Jesus with the timeless essences of Greek philosophy. “Augustine was the first important Christian to interpret Christianity using the categories of Greek philosophy.” Anyone who knows anything about either Augustine or Greek philosophy knows that this is nonsense. There were any number of important Christians who did this before Augustine—Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Mallius Theodore, Marius Victorinus, Ambrose of Milan.3 These people were not only earlier than Augustine, they were acquainted with Greek philosophy more deeply and intimately than he was. They read and spoke Greek, and he did not.

It is hard to imagine how Dreyfus and Kelly could get sillier about Augustine, but they meet the challenge. They say that he invented the inner life of the mind. “Augustine had to get people to realize that they had an inner life.” How did he do this? By pointing out that Ambrose was seen reading the Bible silently. “Apparently, in Augustine’s time everyone read aloud.” This is a myth that Bernard Knox destroyed years ago.4 Besides, Augustine does not say that Ambrose was reading the Bible. Pierre Courcelle was probably right in guessing he was boning up on Greek theology after an early life training as a Roman lawyer.5 If he had read Greek out loud, it would not have meant anything to Augustine and the other Latin speakers near him in any event. And Augustine resented the silence of Ambrose, perceiving it as a way of refusing to hear him convey his own troubles to him.6 Apart from the inner life of Homer’s heroes, how can professional philosophers think that Plato and his followers (down through Plotinus) needed to wait for Augustine to reveal the reality of inner moral choice?

The book skips along through other “Western classics,” reaching Dante. He began the right way with a whoosh that made him fall in love with the little girl Beatrice. But as she leads him up to God, she and his humanity get obliterated. The beatific vision cancels the Beatrice whoosh. Deep meaning destroys the surfaces that these two philosophers love. From there they speed on through “the Western classics” (Shakespeare not getting even a nod) to Milton. One would think that Milton’s Satan had a whoosh these men could admire. But they find in him the anxiety of choice: “He wants to make up his own mind about what to worship.” And, besides, Milton has Dante’s monotheism to block him from the polytheism of Homer’s divine impulses.


To Homeric polytheism this book finds only Herman Melville as a true successor. In Moby Dick, Ishmael responds to Homeric urges when he wants to go to sea. This is contrasted with Ahab’s need to plumb deep meanings, his “monomaniacal monotheism” (the supreme fault in this book). Queequeg of course has the virtue of his tattoos. (What could be more on the surface?) But the authors make the real hero of the book the mentally defective Pip, who can see only shining surfaces, which makes him a wise fool, a lad of “pure openness.” “Pip’s madness, however, is also a kind of truth. Pip has seen the total emptiness of the universe—the absence that is all that is left of God.” No deep meanings for him.

At the end of the book, the authors face the problem that whoosh moments can sweep people along in a Hitler rally. What is to counter that danger? They argue for the calmer joys of craftsmanship. They take us through five pages on the sacred craft of the wheelwright and then through four pages of the “revered domain” of making the proper cup of coffee—the sacred beans, the sacred cup lovingly tended, the company worthy to share this holy communion. The liturgy takes patient experiment and rapt devotion:

If it is the warmth of the coffee on a winter’s day that you like, then drinking it in a cozy corner of the house, perhaps by a fire with a blanket, in a cup that transmits the warmth to your hands might well help to bring out the best in this ritual. If it is the striking black color of the coffee that attracts your eye and enhances the aroma, then perhaps a cup with a shiny white ceramic interior will bring this out. But there is no single answer to the question of what makes the ritual appealing, and it takes experimentation and observation, with its risks and rewards, to discover the meaningful distinctions yourself.

This experimentation with and observation of the coffee ultimately develops in you the skill for seeing the relevant features of the ritual and ultimately develops the skills for bringing them out at their best. These skills are manifold: the skill for knowing how to pick exactly the right coffee, exactly the right cup, exactly the right place to drink it, and to cultivate exactly the right companions to drink it with. When one has learned these skills and cultivated one’s environment so that it is precisely suited to them, then one has a ritual rather than a routine, a meaningful celebration of oneself and of one’s environment rather than a generic and meaningless performance of a function.

Thank God we have been delivered from the meaningless inwardness of Augustine and Dante, to worship at the shining caffeine altar. This must be what the Big Thinkers were celebrating—Charles Taylor when he said the book offers “fascinating insights about the search for meaning in our time,” Charles Van Doren when he called it “one of the most surprising, demanding, and beautiful books I have ever read,” or Vartan Gregorian when he intoned that the book “delves into the transcendent values of the classic works…. I could hardly put it down.”

Reader, put it down.

This Issue

April 7, 2011