What happens in the rush to gain the world? We lose our souls, of course—and, Edmundson (English/Univ. of Virginia; Why Football Matters, 2014, etc.) adds, our ideals to boot.
“The profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds,” writes the author on the first page. They’re passing from our minds because we are so occupied with making money, that most realistic of endeavors, that we have forgotten even the barest outlines of how to be idealistic. If this seems a grumpy-old-man jeremiad, Edmundson avoids get-off-my-lawn, Harold Bloom–ian impulses by almost immediately settling on a most unlikely culprit: namely, William Shakespeare, whom he credits for putting our minds onto the matters of the bourgeois age so thoroughly that he finds, and we find, “little use for chivalry and the culture of heroic honor.” Other players in Edmundson’s drama of the great states of Self and Soul include Freud, Plato, Blake, Tolstoy, Buddha, Jesus, and Donne, to say nothing of Frye and Pound. In short, it’s the usual who’s who of the Humanities 101 of yore, though that course has now given way to less heady surveys. Edmundson identifies three central virtues: courage, compassion, and contemplation. Each has found numerous interpretations; the author, for example, contrasts Achilles and Hector in the Homeric poems, the former as an example of self-interest, the latter as one of self-sacrifice, each addressing the matter of courage in different ways. Edmundson’s essays are smart and to the point, and there are some very good turns, as when he lists all the positive things that come from a life devoted to contemplating the ideal. A big-screen TV is not among them, but, he counsels by way of consolation, “having freed yourself, you will make others free.”
Though Shakespeare fans may feel defensive, Edmundson delivers a welcome championing of humanistic ways of thinking and living.