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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age
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All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  1,045 Ratings  ·  190 Reviews

An unrelenting flow of choices confronts us at nearly every moment of our lives, and yet our culture offers us no clear way to choose. This predicament seems inevitable, but in fact it's quite new. In medieval Europe, God's calling was a grounding force. In ancient Greece, a whole pantheon of shining gods stood ready to draw an appropriate action out of you. Like an athlet
ebook, 272 pages
Published January 4th 2011 by Free Press (first published January 4th 2010)
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Webster Bull
Jan 21, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
As a former book publisher, I know the severe limits of book review space in major newspapers. So when the New York Times publishes an op-ed piece and two reviews about a new book within 24 days (December 30, January 3, and January 20), one is forced to stand up and take notice. And when that book is a work of pop philosophy, which by January 30 had reached only a lowly 25th on the NYT Nonfiction Bestseller List, one must extend one's hand and scratch one's head. One must also ask, Who's paying ...more
Anna Keating
May 21, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I'm so grateful to the friend who sent me this book, and someday when I have more time I'd love to write a full review of it, especially as it has garnered so much praise. On the one hand, it was a pleasure to read a book length essay about the books I teach and some I don't (Eat, Pray, Love?!) It was also enjoyable to read authors I disagree with who say things like, whatever diety or system of belief one's gratitude is directed toward is totally irrelevent. The gratitude is the point. This sou ...more
Nov 20, 2011 rated it really liked it
The highest praise that I can give this book is that it makes me want to reread the classics, particularly Homer's ILIAD and ODYSSEY and MOBY DICK, the latter of which the authors regard as crucial in understanding what 21st century western humanity believes in, or doesn't. As well, it makes me want to read, for the first time, the contemporary writings of David Foster Wallace which are at the heart of our existential questioning.

At just over 200 pages this is a short book but packed with provo
Jan 09, 2012 rated it it was ok
Grabbed this on a whim at a cozy independent bookstore in DC over the break. Started reading it over a pint of porter.

The in-depth discussion of David Foster Wallace's suicidal nihilism was pretty interesting, as were some of the bits about Homer. The chapter on Melville was oustanding. Otherwise, it was a mish-mash of woo-infected academic BS trying to pass itself off as "secular." Now I just want to read Moby Dick again.

To grapple with some serious, secular, useful ideas about human life and m
Feb 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2012
I think over the past couple years, without being aware directly of what I was doing, I was testing the authors' hypothosis. I was looking for a way to innoculate myself against the gravity of a postmodern despair. I started to carve a life that included the classics. I started to look for a positive beauty within and near the Western Cannon. Anyway, this book was a nice framework to continue my 'experiment' with the classics.

Favorite part of this book was the chapter on Melville. I think this
David Sasaki
Mar 13, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: paperback
I get the feeling that a lot of us, privileged Americans, as we enter our early 30s, have to find a way to put away childish things and confront stuff about spirituality and values.
David Foster Wallace

Somewhere in the digital ether I'm sure an NSA surveillance bot is concerned that I'm having an existential crisis. Last week I read Man's Search for Meaning and now this week, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. I promise, I'm not having an existen
Oct 27, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction
This is the first book I’ve read as a direct result of reading Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work.

The problem All Things Shining addresses is that the more choice of thought and actions we have, the more we are prone to nihilistic tendencies. This is counter-intuitive but in many ways, it's true. Being free from the shackles of religion, superstition, fate, and god-ordained kings should be empowering and joyful. But it's not that simple. Freedom can be whatever we make it which, it turns ou
Feb 19, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
I very much enjoyed the literary criticism parts of this book, but was less enchanted with the final "self-help" chapters. (But then, I wasn't looking for a self-help sort of book...) The authors are philosophy professors and the book is at its best when they relate ideas of philosophers to their chosen literary texts. The western classics explored at length are Homer's "Iliad" and "Odyssey", works of Aeschylus, Dante's "Divine Comedy" and Melville's "Moby Dick". I only read Homer fairly recentl ...more
Mar 20, 2011 rated it did not like it
surprisingly and disappointingly shallow. overly simplistic readings, especially of the christian tradition. their proposal for "meaning in a secular age" is embarrassingly naive.
Jul 30, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This fascinating book traces Western civilization's journey from a world that was open to the experience of the sacred and meaningful to a world where meaning has come to be something entirely up to the individual to create. It begins with the Homeric Greeks, and takes us to David Foster Wallace (my favorite) as the best contemporary example of the dilemma this position (most clearly described first by Friedrich Nietzsche) creates for us. On the journey between this beginning and end, they take ...more
Nov 22, 2015 rated it it was ok
Yikes, somebody hire an editor. On page 18, the authors repeat the exact same sentence we read at the bottom of page 17. Later, they misuse the word "nonplussed" when they clearly mean to say "not surprised."

A very bad sign: the first sentence of chapter two gushes: "David Foster Wallace was the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether." Anybody else sick of the DFW worship? Reading this book is like overhearing a pair of college professors over-explain an idea to
Oct 01, 2011 rated it did not like it
Are you kidding me? We go from a heady discussion about the nature of the sacred and the evolution of thought on the character of the divine, and conclude that it's all meaningless compared to watching Roger Federer work his magic from the baseline? After the chapter on Moby Dick, I was thinking this is a 4- or 5-star book. Brilliant insights and well-thought themes from the literature reviewed. And then to conclude that the ideal state for man is a polytheistic culture that worhips at the altar ...more
Michelle Schwarze
Feb 07, 2011 rated it did not like it
"Rubbish" is the best word to describe this book. It's too bad, given how good Dreyfus' work on Heidegger is.
Mary Ronan Drew
Jan 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
Polytheism. Greek polytheism. That's the solution to modern nihilism, according to the two very clever philosophers who have written this book, a quick overview of the highlights of Western Civilization as interpreted by literary and religious figures.

Sounds pretty dull but it's actually crackling with electricity. I would have said it was not humanly possible to write a chapter entitled, "From Dante to Kant: The Dangers and Attractions of Autonomy" and keep me on the edge of my chair but Dreyfu
Chris Holliman
Aug 13, 2011 rated it liked it
It was the title that attracted me: All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. I felt that the authors were making two assumptions outright: 1) that we dwell in a fallen age devoid of the intensely passionate lives that our ancestors enjoyed and 2) that great books can cure this.

Sure enough, the authors suppose that the overarching zeigeist of our time is nihilism, marked by a loneliness and alienation familiar to us all. They also take for granted that t
Aug 10, 2013 rated it it was ok
This book sounded so interesting I talked my Sunday Philosophers group into choosing it for our discussion this month. Bad idea; now they'll blame me.
I found myself disagreeing with the authors on page 3. I should have realized when they described David Foster Wallace as "the greatest writer of his generation; perhaps the greatest mind altogether" that the authors and I were not sympatico ( for more reasons than that they apparently do not know how to use a semi-colon properly). Then things got
David Gross
One possible summary: don't look for a unifying intelligence or purpose to life, the universe, and everything. Instead, develop an attentiveness, intelligence, and craft that aligns with what you care about, and be receptive to the emergence of opportunities to apply these things. This worldview corresponds less with scientific reductionism and with monotheism than with the ancient polytheism, and we would be wise to investigate how this polytheism worked and may work for us again in some form.
Sep 10, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book seemed adrift, as if the authors didn't really know where they were going with it. It jumped around way too much and the conclusion was pretty disappointing. I think my own personal approach to life is less complicated and more in-tune with big ideas than anything they wrote about. I was very disappointed by this book.
May 08, 2011 rated it really liked it
Interesting and thought-provoking literary criticism, although the last self-help-esque chapter can easily fall short of expectations. This book doesn't do much in terms of telling you what you should do, but it has changed the way I think about certain things.
Jun 07, 2011 added it
Shelves: 2011
I'm over a week overdue on this book already, and YET, and YET I have to finish it despite its density.
Clare Cannon
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction
A full response to this book would require a doctoral thesis. Below are some brief thoughts about what I understood were the books claims and why I agreed or disagreed.

This is a complex discussion of some philosophical problems of our age, which considers aspects of philosophies discovered in the cultural or religious traditions of Western history. Many of the philosophical concerns are valid, as are many of the historical philosophies they look to for insight, but the authors formulate the cont
Jun 19, 2011 rated it liked it
This book was interesting, although I was not sure I liked it until I got all the way through it. It came to my attention in a joint review with "Examined Lives" about books that look at ethics and morality through the point of view of the classics. The intended punch line seemed to be a reaffirmation of the liberal arts perspective and the generalist approach to dealing with the big questions of life. There was an early chapter on David Foster Wallace that really whetted my appetite. But then i ...more
Terence Blake
Oct 23, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
ALL THINGS SHINING is an ambitious book, it aims at helping us to find meaning in our lives by way of a philosophically informed reading of some of the great classics of the Western Canon. It seeks to address a popular audience rather than a professional one: it has its roots in Heideggerian philosophy but the style is not that of academic prose and it uses examples taken from news items, the practice of sport, and readily available literary classics such as THE ODYSSEY, THE DIVINE COMEDY, and M ...more
Feb 19, 2012 rated it liked it
All Things Shining is an exploration of existential philosophy applied to a criticism of wallace, Nietzsche, Homer and Moby Dick, among other things. The goal of the book is essentially something like a re-enchantment in the wake of modernity brought about by Descartes and Kant in their emphasis on individual autonomy. All that autonomy landed us with Nietzsche and later wallace, both nihilists insisting that we must make our own meanings. The authors see an alternative in the writings of Melvil ...more
Aug 22, 2016 rated it liked it
This book is an ambitious project – examining how we search for meaning in a secular age. I liked it. In particular, I enjoyed the chapter on Melville's Moby Dick. Their analyses of David Foster Wallace's nihilism and Dante's Divine Comedy are also worth reading.

But when the authors switch to proscriptive suggestions on how to find meaning in life the book loses a bit of steam. Ultimately they encourage us to develop our creative talents and to allow ourselves to be drawn to them, similar to the
Sean Carman
Jan 12, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Brilliant exposition of Dreyfus' explanations of Heiddegarian philosophy, and an accessible application of Heidegger's ideas to literary criticism. Dreyfus is, I think, making a phenomonological argument that, contrary to the prevailing mood in our culture, we have the experience, as part of consciousnesses, of being connected to something larger than ourselves. We are not completely and solely responsible for our own happiness, or for developing our own morality, or for our own creations. Inste ...more
Dave Maddock
Feb 28, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy
Based on the subtitle, I was expecting the book to be about replacing religious practice with humanistic ones. That is, when one becomes secularized and religions' dictates can no longer provide meaning for your life, here is how one can turn to the Western Classics for fulfillment. Instead, it was a whirlwind survey of cherry-picked works from the Western Canon, how each addresses the problem of nihilism, and a plea to revive a polytheistic approach to assigning meaning to life.

Unfortunately, t
Dec 07, 2011 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I agree with many of the comments of previous reviewers. The book builds up to the final chapter: Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age but then it falls short. Although I agree with the premise that it is not necessary to follow a monotheistic religion or develop a set of prescriptions about how to act, I think that the authors never really explain what it would mean to be more receptive in today's world.

For them, it has been all downhill since approximately 700 B.C when Homer wrote the Odyssey a
Sep 05, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: biography, history, ethics
THE GUIDING THEME of the book can be stated in a series of questions.

First, what understanding of being human has shaped the various epochs in the history of the West?
Second, how did these accounts of human being, and of the sacred, keep the problem of nihilism at bay?
Third is there anything in these self-understandings from our history that we can use to combat the nihilism of our secular age?

I don't think the authors really drew any real conclusions in this book that made much sense to me. The
Jan 15, 2011 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a deep book. The authors may say it's for the non-specialist, but if you haven't been educated in philosophy and religion and to some degree literature, you're probably going to struggle getting through it. In fact, I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who doesn't have a good liberal arts background.

The book is really a number of smaller books in one. The chapter on Homer, David Foster Wallace and Moby Dick were very interesting. At times I wasn't quite sure how each chapter built on the
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Hubert Lederer Dreyfus was professor of philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, where his interests include phenomenology, existentialism, the philosophy of psychology and literature, and the philosophical implications of artificial intelligence.
More about Hubert L. Dreyfus...

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“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” 1 likes
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