Thomas Nagel’s Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002-2008 (Oxford 2010) is a breeze to read, and at just 168 pages can pretty much be read in a day. Nagel’s enormous strength (akin to Richard Rorty’s) is his calm explanatory clarity. He is very good at getting to the heart of a thing, then discussing it with insight and measure. For example, there is an essay on Nietzsche in this collection that, for its clean, seemingly effortless prose—and the light that he casts upon his subject—is worth the price of the whole book. Nagel also discusses Hobbes, Rawls, Michael Sandel, Catharine MacKinnon, and Sartre admirably.
In this particular collection of essays, however, it is on the subject of religion and atheism that Nagel shines most brightly. He is very good at talking about naturalism, Richard Dawkins, and Intelligent Design. By contrast with the entrenched factions dug in around these subjects, Nagel is sane and insightful. My impression is that Nagel, when push comes to shove regarding the question of telos in the universe, inclines toward Camus’s notion of the absurd. In other words, the universe has no purpose. But he is just agnostic enough to keep other possibilities in play, and so not shut down discussion with eye-rolling contempt. This makes him noxious in the eyes of New Atheists. And well he should be, for his is a still open mind.
Here’s a passage from Nagel’s essay on Nietzsche that I think illustrates his power as a writer, framer, and clarifier of a subject:
Most people take life as they find it, and try to make something of the possibilities that are offered by their personal and social circumstances, avoiding catastrophe or failure, pursuing happiness, and working to realize some acceptable private or public ambitions. A small minority have the leisure to devote themselves systematically to understanding life and the world: scientists, historians, and thinkers. Others, seeing that there is much that is wrong with the world, spend their lives trying to change it for the better, and not just for themselves. Still others, creative artists, try to add to the world wonders that do not yet exists. Friedrich Nietzsche’s conception of his own task, the task of the true philosopher, was closest to the last of these—not merely to understand the world or to change it, but to create something new. And the field of his creation was himself.
Pretty good, huh?