The Magazine

Classical Gas

Seeing things in the Hellenic world that aren’t there.

Dec 12, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 13 • By JAMES SEATON
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Dreyfus and Kelly’s criticism of Dante because “Beatrice herself is not the ultimate object of love in Dante’s final picture” recalls the Romantic objection to Dante’s placing of the lovers Paolo and Francesca in the second circle of Hell. Isn’t the passionate love of a real person more meaningful than the love of some abstract entity that, to tell the truth, doesn’t actually exist anyway? George Santayana’s reply to the Romantics in 1910 would seem to answer Dreyfus and Kelly today:

There is a great difference between the apprentices in life and the masters. .  .  . Dante was one of the masters. He could feel the fresh promptings of life as keenly as any youngster, or any romanticist; but he had lived these things through, he knew the possible and the impossible issue of them; he saw their relation to the rest of human nature, and to the ideal of an ultimate happiness and peace. He had discovered the necessity of saying continually to oneself: Thou shalt renounce.

Dreyfus and Kelly, uninterested in renouncing, promise that the adaptation of their updated version of polytheism will result in a world even more splendid than Homer’s must have been: “The polytheism that gets all these ways in balance will be more varied and more vibrant than anything Homer ever knew. This contemporary Polytheistic world will be a wonderful world of sacred shining things.”

There is only one catch: Having rejected the universal moral rules that go with monotheism, or any conception of natural law, we are left without any principles to distinguish between charismatic leaders who can bring us closer to the “shining things” and charismatic leaders whose glitter might bring us to catastrophe. 

According to Dreyfus and Kelly, “in place of the Kantian courage to resist the madness of crowds, we need the courage to leap in and experience it.” Since there is no way to distinguish on the basis of principle, all one can do (according to Dreyfus and Kelly) is “leap in” and hope that the charismatic figure is more like Martin Luther King than Adolf Hitler:

Only by having been taken over by the fanatical leader’s totalizing rhetoric, and experienced the dangerous and devastating consequences it has, does one learn to discriminate between leaders worth following and those upon whom one must turn one’s back.

It would be prudent to look for ways to learn to “discriminate between leaders” before having to experience “dangerous and devastating consequences,” but doing so would probably involve returning to universal moral standards derived from monotheism, what Dreyfus and Kelly dismissively refer to as “objective, context-independent principles.”

James Seaton, professor of English at Michigan State, is the editor of George Santayana’s The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States.