In their book All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly claim that in order to lead meaningful lives we have to go back to the mode of being of the Homeric Greeks. This is a striking and puzzling claim.
On one common story of human progress, life in the distant past was mainly tortured and meaningless for the vast majority of people, for they had to be the slaves or otherwise subordinate to the kings and priests who had the majority of power in society. On this common story, life became better, and so enabled most people to lead meaningful lives, only with the dawn of modernity and the rise of democracy and the idea that each person has an ineliminable right to choose their way of life; that instead of the kings or priests dictating how people in society should live, it is up to each person to determine for themselves how to live. With the casting away of the chains, people are now responsible for their own lives, and it is this capacity for self-determination which makes them free, and how they utilize that freedom is what determines how meaningful their life is. On this common story the basic point is that the distant past is horrible, the recent past enabled people to more free, and so we are generally better off now than in the distant past.
The striking aspect of Dreyfus and Kelly's argument is to turn this common story around. Their view is akin to Rosseau's Noble Savage view, where it was in the natural state of their distant past that human beings were truly free, and the introspective freedom of modern man is an ersatz freedom riddled with doubt and anxiety. Unlike Rosseau, Dreyfus and Kelly focus not on the noble savage free to roam the forests as he chooses, but on the citizens of polytheistic Greece before the advent of rationalistic Socratic philosophy. On Dreyfus and Kelly's view, before Socratic philosophy disrupted people from their habitual actions, people lived lives filled with meaning, for, free of nagging doubts of whether their upbringing was in fact right or whether there are reasons to believe in Gods, people were completely immersed in their actions and with the world, and in that immersion they experienced viscerally that every act they performed was magical and meaningful. Every action they performed was called out of them by the world, and the Gods were the locuses of meaning in the world towards which the actions were directed. Dreyfus and Kelly suggest that in order to find meaning in our contemporary world we have to go back to that Homeric mode of being, and live our lives being open to moments of being called by the world into action. Instead of thinking about the meaning of life, to lead meaningful lives we are better off not thinking, but simply being with the world, attuned to hidden dimensions of action which the world elicits from us.
In a way Dreyfus and Kelly's view can seem common sensical, as if it were a more scholarly version of the Zen idea of going with the flow. Dreyfus and Kelly see Achilles as a prototype of someone leading a meaningful life because he is loved by the Gods and is instinctively and skillfully pulled into the world of action. But one can imagine that on their view The Dude from The Big Lebowski also leads an exemplary meaningful life. For The Dude, like Achilles, goes with the flow and does not seek to impose meaning on the world through his deliberation, but stays open to the ways in which the world calls out to him to act. So one might boil down Dreyfus and Kelly's message as follows: think less, act more, be.
It is one thing to hear this advice from The Dude. Or from the Dalai Lama. Or Deepak Chopra. But it is interesting to hear this suggestion from two professional philosophers whose job it is to think. A lot. Whose professional expertise consists of interpreting texts, developing arguments, critiquing other views, and generally engaging in the kinds of activities which are more similar to Plato than to Achilles. In fact, the brunt of the book is not focused on how one can cultivate the kind of skillful actions which can lead to a meaningful life--it is not a practical book in that sense. Rather, most of the book consists of arguments for why other ways of conceiving of meaning, by Augustine or Dante or Kant or Nietzsche, are bound to fail--it is a theoretical book in that sense. The kind of convincing the book aims for is a theoretic ought: of how one ought think of a meaningful life, and importantly how not to think of it.
Here, though, there is a puzzle. The thesis of the book is that one lives meaningfully to the extent that one doesn't deliberate about how to live a meaningful life and instead throws oneself into, or opens oneself to, skillful actions developed through habit and practice. Given this thesis, what is one to make of the book itself? How is one supposed to use it? The most obvious way might be akin to how Wittgenstein suggested one use the Tractatus: that it is like a ladder one throws away after one has climbed it. On this possibility, the idea would be that one reads Dreyfus and Kelly's book, realizes that meaning in life is a matter of skillful engagement with the world, puts the book away and dedicates one's time to carpentary or cooking or sports, etc. This is in fact how Wittgenstein envisioned one would use the Tractatus: whether one stopped doing philosophy was for him a sign of whether one understood the book. However, this way of thinking of the Tractatus was only possible because Wittgenstein himself gave up philosophy, or felt that he no longer had the need to do it. Given that this is not true of Dreyfus and Kelly, given that they are still philosophy professors, it is hard to know what it might mean to say that their readers should discard the book after they have internalized it. Does it mean to discard just this book? Or philosophy books in general? But surely philosophy professors cannot advocate that people would be better off practicing their jump shot instead of reading philosophy books. Or could they advocate that?