NYT: Overthinking as a Means to the End of Missing the Obvious

This little essay by Sean D. Kelly, chair of the department of philosophy at Harvard University, ponders a post-God-is-dead world full of little meanings that manages to dodge the bullets of  ‘purposelessness and angst’, which are, apparently, the only problems faced by a post-God-aware person – you know, an enlightened Modern:

The new possibility that Melville hoped for, therefore, is a life that steers happily between two dangers:  the monotheistic aspiration to universal validity, which leads to a culture of fanaticism and self-deceit, and the atheistic descent into nihilism, which leads to a culture of purposelessness and angst.  To give a name to Melville’s new possibility — a name with an appropriately rich range of historical resonances — we could call it polytheism. 

If it has occurred to Mr. Kelly that demons more fell than purposelessness and angst might happily step into the void, he fails to mention it. While he is required by law to mention the evil wrought by Catholics – “Indeed, a life outside the Church was not only execrable but condemnable, and in certain periods of European history it invited a close encounter with a burning pyre” – he seems to have blinked and missed a few incidents perpetrated by   Nietzsche’s  natural children when they had a shot at power. But I suppose the deaths of 6 million Jew, 6 million Gypsies, gays, commies, Catholics and other assorted undesirables, not to mention 20 million Ukrainians and untold millions of Chinese cannot be laid at the feet of the post God Is Dead crowd? Because…?

He calls his brave new world “polytheistic”. Mr. Kelly likewise inhabits an irony-free universe unencumbered by any need for consistency. Otherwise, how did he keep a straight face (assuming he did) when writing:

Not every life is worth living from the polytheistic point of view — there are lots of lives that don’t inspire one’s admiration.  But there are nevertheless many different lives of worth, and there is no single principle or source or meaning in virtue of which one properly admires them all.

Soooooo – failure to inspire admiration is, what, a sin? An absolute? A matter of taste? Any way you look at it, Kelly is replacing the idea of virtue related to some categorical imperative – say, God, for example – with the idea of a life that inspires admiration. I can’t help but admire the ruthless efficiency with which serial killers follow their muses. I’m moved by the way pedophiles manifest their art. But I just don’t admire the sloppiness of my neighbor’s lawn care or the unstylish way the Armenians were slaughtered.


In his heavily-opiated world, fundamental moral issues are addressed as matters of taste. Oysters. Snails. The worst moral issues he seems to want to address have to do with being a good neighbor in an otherwise civilized town. When faced with real evil, what does he propose? Reprimanding the barbarians with the stinging rebuke that their lives don’t inspire admiration?


Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s