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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) March 26, 2011: Hubert Dreyfus in philosophy at Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly in philosophy at Harvard have examined carefully where we in Western culture have come from, and they suggest where we may be heading in ALL THINGS SHINING: READING THE WESTERN CLASSICS TO FIND MEANING IN A SECULAR AGE (2011). As their subtitle intimates, they have broken out of the departmental confines of philosophy by reading certain Western classics in literature. Perhaps there is still life in certain Western classics in literature by supposedly dead white males. Perhaps the proclamation of the death of those white male authors was premature.

In the spirit of Prometheus stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humans, perhaps Dreyfus and Kelly can steal meaning for our secular age from certain classic works of Western literature. The authors are secular humanists writing primarily for other secular humanists. You get the picture? Two big shots in philosophy are going to enlighten our secular age by drawing on certain classic works of Western literature, eschewing works in philosophy.

But how come all those dummies in literary studies haven't enlightened our secular age? How come our secular age has had to wait for two big shots in philosophy to enlighten us by discussing classic works of Western literature?

As I hope to show, one person in literary studies, Walter J. Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), did as a matter of fact discuss certain points that are relevant to Dreyfus and Kelly's discussion. But they do not mention Ong's work. Because he was not a secular humanist, I would raise the following question: Did Ong have anything significant to say that even secular humanists in our secular age might want to pay attention to?

Ong received his master's in English from Saint Louis University (1941) and his Ph.D. in English from Harvard University (1955). In 1978, he served as the elected president of the Modern Language Association. In 1964, he delivered the Terry Lectures at Yale University; in 1979, the Messenger Lectures at Cornell University; and in 1981, the Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. In April and May 1974, Ong's lecture tour as a Lincoln Lecturer took him to different countries in Africa. (I mention some of Ong's books below.)

Dreyfus and Kelly celebrate the Homeric life-world. They stop well short of suggesting that we in Western culture today are returning to the Homeric life-world. By stopping well short of suggesting this, they avoid suggesting a cyclic view of cultural history. But they claim to have discovered a quality of life in the Homeric life-world that may be worth recycling (my term), at least to a certain extent. On page 82, they say, "The Homeric Greeks were open to the world in a way that we can barely understand." Perhaps.

But we should remember that the Homeric Greeks are stylized larger-than-life fictional characters. They are stereotyped in certain ways so that epithets can be used to characterize them; they are also heroicized and idealized, as superheroes today are in comics and action movies. The Homeric kings and warriors served as socially acceptable role models in their oral culture, just as Beowulf served as a socially acceptable role model in his oral culture.

However, we can certainly do our best to understand how the Homeric Greeks were open to the world. For example, David Abram does his best to understand how certain oral people were open to the world in his book THE SPELL OF THE SENSUOUS: PERCEPTION AND LANGUAGE IN THE MORE-THAN-HUMAN WORLD (1996). Because Dreyfus and Kelly praise the Homeric Greeks for being open to the world, I should mention that Ong discusses open-systems thought and closed-systems thought in his book INTERFACES OF THE WORD (1977, pages, 189-212, 213-229, 305-341). As Ong notes in the last of the three essays just cited, open-systems thought is favored today. Thus if the Homeric Greeks were open to the world as Dreyfus and Kelly claim, then we should see them as exemplifying open-systems thought.

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However, when Socrates tells the story of Er in Plato's REPUBLIC, we learn about the recycling of souls. We find a similar reference about the recycling of souls in Virgil's AENEID. But the recycling of souls would be cyclic thought or closed-systems thought. Readers interested in cyclic thought should see Mircea Eliade's book THE MYTH OF THE ETERNAL RETURN (1954), Lynne Ballew's book STRAIGHT AND CIRCULAR: A STUDY OF IMAGERY IN GREEK PHILOSOPHY (1979), and Donald L. Fixico's book THE AMERICAN INDIAN MIND IN A LINEAR WORLD: AMERICAN INDIAN STUDIES AND TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE (2003).

In any event, through the character named Socrates, Plato intimates that reflective philosophic thought is an advance over the Homeric life-world. As Socrates famously puts it, the unreflective life is not worth living. Evidently, Socrates did not see the movie ZORBA THE GREEK (1964), so he does not understand how being open to the world trumps the reflective life. Even though Dreyfus and Kelly do not happen to advert to this movie, they understand the point of the movie.

If all of Western philosophy can be summed up as a series of footnotes to Plato, then we could characterize Dreyfus and Kelly as writing a footnote saying that we in Western culture today should question Socrates' dictum about the unreflective life not being worth living. In theory, I have no problem with questioning this dictum. If we do not question it, then we run the risk of accepting it on the authority of Socrates. So we should question it. We should examine it. And we should come to our own conclusion about it.

Up to a point, Dreyfus and Kelly's characterization of Homeric Greeks being open to the world is accurate and true not only of Homeric Greeks but also of all other peoples in preliterate cultures, which Ong styles oral cultures. As Dreyfus and Kelly say, we in Western culture today "can barely understand" the life-world of people in oral cultures. But there are an estimated one billion people in the world today who do not know how to read and write any language, so they live in a residual form of oral culture, as did Zorba the Greek.

Throughout much of their book, Dreyfus and Kelly in effect work with the contrast open-to-the-world and introspection. To be sure, Ong explores the inward turn of consciousness. But he characterizes what Dreyfus and Kelly refer to as open-to-the-world as the world-as-event sense of life. In the movie THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965), Julie Andrews sings of how the hills are alive with the sound of music. For the world-as-event sense of life, something like this is the case: The world does seems alive. The Walt Disney animated musical POCAHONTAS (1995) captures this sense of the world being alive in a stylized way. Even though the Homeric epics are not Hollywood musicals, we should remember that the Homeric Greeks celebrated by Dreyfus and Kelly are stylized characters.

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Aristotle was closer to the world-as-event sense of life than we in Western culture today are. For example, he refers to vegetative life as being animated by the vegetative soul; infra-human animal life as being animated by the animal soul; and human life as being animated by the rational human soul. The Greek term that is rendered in English as "soul" can be transliterated into our alphabet as "psuche" or "psyche."

When meat-eating Americans today eat meat, do they reflect on the fact that an animal gave up its life so that they could eat its meat? In the ancient world, polytheists and monotheists alike had enough reverence for animal life that they established rituals for slaughtering and butchering animals. The established rituals were usually carried out by priests. The ritual included giving thanks to the gods or God for the animal's life.

Now, in folk tales out of oral cultures, trickster figures are popular. In the Homeric epics, King Odysseus is a trickster figure. He is known as wily Odysseus. Arguably, trickster figures must engage in some kind of introspection. How could you be a trickster figure without engaging in introspection of some kind? No introspection and reflection, no trickster figure.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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