Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals

Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals

In a culture that has become progressively more skeptical and materialistic, the desires of the individual self stand supreme, Mark Edmundson says. We spare little thought for the great ideals that once gave life meaning and worth. Self and Soul is an impassioned effort to defend the values of the Soul.Edmundson guides readers back to the ancient sources of the thr...

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Title:Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals
Author:Mark Edmundson
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Edition Language:English

Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals Reviews

  • Jsavett1

    This is one of the most devastating books I've read.

    Edmundson is an English Professor at UVA. The book doubles as a polemic against the self absorption of our society and a literary analysis in which Edmundson shines. But don't be put off by the latter. You need not be an academic to enjoy this book. You don't even have to have read the texts he discusses.

    In a nutshell, Edmundson's thesis is that our present culture only presents one way of living, one set of values (or m

    This is one of the most devastating books I've read.

    Edmundson is an English Professor at UVA. The book doubles as a polemic against the self absorption of our society and a literary analysis in which Edmundson shines. But don't be put off by the latter. You need not be an academic to enjoy this book. You don't even have to have read the texts he discusses.

    In a nutshell, Edmundson's thesis is that our present culture only presents one way of living, one set of values (or maybe anti-values) to pursue. This "way" is the way of the middle-class Self…the way of living for security, safety, satisfaction, and success---success as defined by materialism. He suggests that things weren't always this way. As evidence, he presents four Soul Ideals which have almost completely gone out of favor in the academy and in our society at large: the Warrior, the Thinker, the Saint, and the Poet. What links these ideal types is their dedication to the Soul as opposed to the Self. But Edmundson isn't going supernatural here…by "soul" he just means the NOT SELF…a unity of consciousness with the larger world, nature, and humanity. The representative studies he provides for each type are, respectively, Achilles and Hector, Socrates, Buddha and Jesus, and William Blake.

    INCREDIBLY interesting for me was his chapter on Shakespeare. Edmundson claims that Shakespeare is the non-idealist par excellence. Shakespeare doesn't TAKE ANY positions or advocate any lifestyle possibilities AT ALL. For Edmundson, the destructive thing he does is completely tear down all previous models of heroism, compassion, and faith. I loved that chapter. I've long felt, despite being an English teacher myself, that Shakespeare's (with the noted exception of Hamlet, which Edmundson ALSO notes) plays seem to be missing SOMETHING. I usually attribute this distaste to a lack of depth or motivation in the characters. There is absolutely no denying Shakespeare lyrical brilliance; but as Edmundson quotes Goethe as saying "It is easy to be brilliant when you don't believe in anything." His discussion of Othello and Iago is particularly salient on this point.

    The book ends with Edmundson's brilliant polemic against the SELF culture we live in. Importantly, Edmundson doesn't argue that we all need to become Achilles. Or that there aren't disturbing things Achilles does and says. In one part of the Shakespeare chapter, Edmundson suggests that Othello's chief STRENGTH is his INABILITY to see multiple perspectives…that Othello's nobility comes from his univocal way of looking at the world. Othello, unlike Shakespeare or Iago totally LACKS Keats's famous "negative capability"--the ability to hold heterogeneous conflicting thoughts in one's mind without searching/reaching for an answer. I have always considered Negative Capability a GOOD thing…a sign of wisdom and perspective. Edmundson turns all that on its head, suggesting that such thinking gives way to the cult of the Self, expedience, and middle-class pragmatism which seeks to stay alive but live for no real reason. As I began saying in this paragraph, one needn't swallow all of this whole. In fact, I don't believe Edmundson does (for one thing, he has a family…he spends much of the book discussing how family has been extension of Selfhood and middle-class drudgery which distracts us from ideals). His point is that the conversation about HOW AND WHY to live needs to have a side which has been all but eliminated, and worse, has been eliminated by those in academia and religious life who should be raising these issues, not hiding them.

    I recommend this without reservation. It is revelatory and challenging.

  • Kevin

    Wow. The final chapter of this book blew me away. It shined a bright white light on my life in America today. Fascinating and thought provoking.

  • Paul Manytravels

    I was engrossed in this book, intrigued by the theory it expressed, impressed with the reasoning that supported the theory, and in full agreement with its conclusions.

    The book is a serious indictment of current "middle class values," anode the fulness of life that we have sacrificed in order to preserve them. it is a call to awareness, reminder that there is something more to life than mere comfortable existence.

    To me, however, its best moments were in the concluding chapter, especially w

    I was engrossed in this book, intrigued by the theory it expressed, impressed with the reasoning that supported the theory, and in full agreement with its conclusions.

    The book is a serious indictment of current "middle class values," anode the fulness of life that we have sacrificed in order to preserve them. it is a call to awareness, reminder that there is something more to life than mere comfortable existence.

    To me, however, its best moments were in the concluding chapter, especially with regards to its portrayal of "Christianity" in its betrayal of the IDEALS Jesues himself proclaimed.

    It is a treat to read material that is intellectually stimulating, full of fresh and sometimes challenging concepts, and rich in creative and innovative perceptions and explanations. Equally refreshing when these points are so fully and richly supported through reasoning and examples that leave little doubt as to their power and as to their relationship to the conclusions they uncover.

    I learned a great deal from this book, will see life and living in a somewhat different way, and hunger for another book that so fully meets my hopes for finding new and exciting ideas.

  • Jeremy

    I'm not sure if Mark Edmundson actually makes compelling arguments in his books, or if I just naturally agree with him and delight in having someone build up an academic case around my existing beliefs.

    Either way, Edmundson rails against how our society has taken the great ideals and virtues of our time, and has reduced them to a safe commercial simulacrum (instead of doing heroic deeds, we watch movies and are vicariously heroic). He writes about exemplars of ideals, like Jesus, Achilles, Plat

    I'm not sure if Mark Edmundson actually makes compelling arguments in his books, or if I just naturally agree with him and delight in having someone build up an academic case around my existing beliefs.

    Either way, Edmundson rails against how our society has taken the great ideals and virtues of our time, and has reduced them to a safe commercial simulacrum (instead of doing heroic deeds, we watch movies and are vicariously heroic). He writes about exemplars of ideals, like Jesus, Achilles, Plato, and Blake, people who live for the soul, and contrasts them with today's disenchanted people, who all live for the Self. In the place of living lives charged with meaning, Edmundson argues, we live by the mediocre middle class values of living as long, as pleasurably, and as (financially) prosperously as we can. And that is why life feels so empty. In this, Edmundson tries to make a case for living a life dedicated to an ideal.

    Interestingly, he accuses Shakespeare and his heir, Sigmund Freud, of slaying and reducing all ideals and noble virtues, down to a matter of folly and delusions. They are visionaries of negative capability and reductionism. Edmundson very deliberately set out to write a polemic, if you haven't noticed. You will also notice, if you read a few of Edmundson's books, that he can't seem to write anything without at least disagreeing with Harold Bloom a hundred times.

    If nothing else, you will be entertained by Edmundson quixotic tilts at today's society. But if you are anything like me, you will be inspired to cast off what Blake calls your "mind-forg'd manacles" and try to live more beautifully.

  • Tom Mangano

    I heard Mark Edmundson discuss this book on the radio and was impressed by his message and the way he articulated it. His defense of Soul in a world dominated by Self was inspiring and resonated with the way I aspire live. My reaction to the chapters in the book varied. The chapters on courage (achilles, Hector), compassion (Bhudda, Jesus, Confucious) moved me. The chapters on Shakespeare and The Romantic poets did not. The chapter on Freud provided great insight. This is a deep and important bo

    I heard Mark Edmundson discuss this book on the radio and was impressed by his message and the way he articulated it. His defense of Soul in a world dominated by Self was inspiring and resonated with the way I aspire live. My reaction to the chapters in the book varied. The chapters on courage (achilles, Hector), compassion (Bhudda, Jesus, Confucious) moved me. The chapters on Shakespeare and The Romantic poets did not. The chapter on Freud provided great insight. This is a deep and important book and I am glad to have read it.

  • Justin Cloyd

    A solid argument favoring the ideals of courage, compassion and contemplation over the pursuit of safety, security and entertainment. It uses Homer, Jesus and Socrates as ancient exemplars and compares them to "modern" thinkers Shakespeare and Freud, effectively dismantling the self-protecting mantra of the present day for the sake of pursuing deeper meaning. The author's academic approach occasionally undercuts the depth of meaning for which he argues, but still stands as a strong defense again

    A solid argument favoring the ideals of courage, compassion and contemplation over the pursuit of safety, security and entertainment. It uses Homer, Jesus and Socrates as ancient exemplars and compares them to "modern" thinkers Shakespeare and Freud, effectively dismantling the self-protecting mantra of the present day for the sake of pursuing deeper meaning. The author's academic approach occasionally undercuts the depth of meaning for which he argues, but still stands as a strong defense against the rampant materialism of today's typical "suburbanite."

  • Rob Shurmer

    more of a 'lament for' rather than a 'defense of' - but still thoughtful and worthwhile

  • Scott

    Overall, an enjoyable book. Edmundson made some provocative criticisms of our own pragmatic age, especially the ways in which false versions of the ideals of compassion, courage, and contemplation are on offer in our consumer society.

    A different subtitle might have been "What if Nietzsche is right?" Has modernity produced people who aspire to nothing more than a comfortable existence rather than to spend themselves in the pursuit of great ideals? Edmundson wants to make the case for

    Overall, an enjoyable book. Edmundson made some provocative criticisms of our own pragmatic age, especially the ways in which false versions of the ideals of compassion, courage, and contemplation are on offer in our consumer society.

    A different subtitle might have been "What if Nietzsche is right?" Has modernity produced people who aspire to nothing more than a comfortable existence rather than to spend themselves in the pursuit of great ideals? Edmundson wants to make the case for the ancient ideals of heroic courage, saintly compassion, and philosophical contemplation, as well as the Romantic ideal of imagination, while also interpreting Shakespeare and Freud as powerful critics of these ideals.

    His analysis of the different proponents and critics of the ideals was often interesting and enlightening, but his picture of Jesus relied too much on a rather stale Old Testament God vs. New Testament Jesus contrast.

  • Elizabeth Zimmerman

    but where are the women?!?!

  • Jason Smythe

    Author waxes poetic for a bygone era he wasn't around to experience....... fascinating book and the concept behind it is extremely thought provoking.

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