(Harvard Univ.)

The only thing in Mark Edmundson’s new book that isn’t provocative is its title. “Self and Soul: A Defense of Ideals” sounds earnest, high-minded and dull, probably a worthy academic study revisiting territory mapped out long ago by Matthew Arnold and Lionel Trilling.

Wrong. What you will find instead is an impassioned critique of Western society, a relentless assault on contemporary complacency, shallowness, competitiveness and self-regard.

Americans have become, Edmundson says, wholly pragmatic and small-minded, always on the lookout for the main chance and conditioned to be greedy for the gaudy trash supplied by our consumerist overlords. We move restlessly from want to want, never discovering any lasting satisfaction. As for living heroic or noble lives, our video games and movies do that for us. Meanwhile, Edmundson adds, “the profound stories about heroes and saints are passing from our minds.” Our days have no purpose. Instead of aspiring to grandeur, we surrender to pettiness and accommodation.

It needn’t be this way. Edmundson devotes the first half of “Self and Soul” to several ancient exemplars of courage, compassion and contemplation, to those who, rejecting a safe and secure passage through life, consecrated themselves to some greater task. Achilles, for instance, knows he will die young, but his name and glory will last forever. In battle at Troy, he becomes fully himself. Alexander Pope summed up this warrior ethos in just three lines about another legendary fighter:

Now on the field Ulysses stands alone,

The Greeks all fled, the Trojans pouring on;

But stands collected in himself and whole

Today, Edmundson says, any commitment to military virtues is disdained “by middle-class men and women whose central aspiration is to endure and who seek not honor but respect, not ascendancy but stable existence.”

Now, one hardly expects an English teacher — a professor at the University of Virginia, no less — to celebrate the martial spirit. But Edmundson does, even going so far as to contrast Achilles with Hector, who is not just Troy’s greatest champion but also a loving son, father and husband. Nonetheless, he notes, Hector’s sheer humanity ultimately makes him a lesser soldier. Families call to us to be careful out there, to remember our children. The true warrior thinks only of honor and his code of valor.

After looking at the hero, Edmundson turns to the saint. Both Achilles and Gautama, who became the Buddha, “rebel against a safe predictable life — the kind of life we associate with the prudent Self. Both act against their own ‘happiness’ and the happiness of their families. Both go off to transform the world.” Recognizing that merely being alive brings suffering, the Buddha teaches universal compassion. In like manner, Confucius espouses benevolence, and Jesus preaches love of one’s neighbor. Nonetheless, in today’s capitalist society, “the ideal of a brotherhood and sisterhood among all is now commonly understood to be an absurdity. We are all in it for ourselves and for no one else.”

Throughout “Self and Soul,” Edmundson writes with a Thoreau-like incisiveness and fervor. “Perhaps no life that one cannot wish for as a child offers a genuine sense of joy. Virtually no child dreams of being an accountant, an insurance salesman, or even a CEO. Children dream of courage and goodness — and so, in some regions of their spirits, do many adults.” In fact, “by committing to ideals, men and women can escape the alternating peaks and low points that the life of desire creates and live in a more continuously engaged and satisfying way.”

After Achilles and Jesus, can Socrates be far behind? Edmundson stresses that a thinking life should be focused on seeking the truth, sometimes on being a disturber of the peace. One must resist the blandishments of conformity, as well as the threats of those in power. Otherwise, the mind could end up a slave to the trivial, set to sweating over account books or to outwitting our business competitors. Every day, though, the truly philosophical human being “adds something to her store of perceptions about what the true and good and beautiful are, and how men and women might live rightly in the world.”

The second half of “Self and Soul” examines the two immensely influential writers who have done the most to destroy faith in ideals. The first is — surprise! — William Shakespeare, “the first great secularist; the first authentic renderer of the marketplace philosophy, pragmatism, and the primary artist of life lived exclusively in the sublunary sphere.” He is, in fact, the poet of worldliness.

In his work, Shakespeare expresses the values of the rising middle class, assailing Homeric ideals, dismissing religion, deconstructing and undermining the heroic. In “Troilus and Cressida”— Shakespeare’s play about the Trojan War — “Achilles is a besotted fool; Patroclus a figure both narcissistic and stupid; Hector a fraud; Ulysses a hustler; Ajax a lout; Paris a ninny. Helen is a whore and Cressida (in time) is too.” As Edmundson says, “What is in it for me? That is the central question that most Shakespeare characters (and most of us) ask most of the time, if not all of it.”

In the Romantic era, poets such as Blake, Keats and Shelley did promulgate a new ideal: the transformative power of erotic love. Its energy can allow us to transcend our usual impulses toward hogging and hoarding. Not that love brings everlasting bliss — that is a delusion of the Self. “Love that is taken up fully into the imagination propels the individual forward to more work and more works. True love does not rest in complacency.”

To Freud, the second great enemy of idealism, romantic passion simply isn’t worth the suffering. In reality, he claims, the best we can hope for out of life is an ongoing feeling of mild unpleasantness. Therapy merely transforms hysterical misery into common, everyday unhappiness — for which we should be grateful. To try for a richer, fuller existence will only result in pain and disappointment. Because even love is a sham, better, then, to play it safe. Beware enthusiasm. Settle for measured satisfaction. Sublimate! Sublimate!

In his last chapter, Edmundson considers some of the ways we do just that. “Video games make heroes of us all,” he declares, before dryly pointing out that what renders one “an adept slayer of virtual enemies . . . is dexterity with a stick and some buttons — something akin to typing skills.” Information is now prized more than wisdom; journalistic punditry has ousted authentic thought. And today “nothing, it seems, is more conducive to the love of one’s neighbor than the sharing of identically branded products.”

In the end, Edmundson does relent a little, concluding that the Self’s proper function should be to guard or protect the Soul. Yet he doesn’t quite explain how one achieves the right balance between the egocentric and the transcendent. Perhaps the Charlottesville gadfly can address this further in another powerful, heartfelt book. Until then, “Self and Soul” reminds us that a meaningful life doesn’t revolve around online shopping or on-demand TV. It just doesn’t. Happy Thanksgiving!

Michael Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”

self and soul
A Defense of Ideals

By Mark Edmundson

Harvard. 283 pp. $29.95