What Is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live, by A.C. Grayling (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003, ISBN 0-297–84132-7) 241 pp. Cloth $34.
It is a good rule to try and read stuff you disagree with as often as you read stuff you agree with. It’s a good discipline. There are few better incentives toward tolerance and some sort of intellectual modesty than to surround oneself with opponents. The other by-product of this policy is that it increases the joy you experience when you come across a book that you really agree with. What Is Good? The Search for the Best Way to Live was such a book for me. With no other book have I had such a strong feeling of “I wish I’d written this.”
A.C. Grayling is a British philosopher of long standing. He has written on skepticism, Berkeley, values, logic, Russell, and Wittgenstein and has edited the important overview Philosophy: A Guide to the Subject, which has run to two volumes. More interestingly, Grayling has always kept the nonspecialist in mind. Without condescension, he has written for the general public in his capacity as philosopher-at-large for the Guardian newspaper in London. His Guardian pieces have recently been published as The Meaning of Things and The Reason of Things. Even more relevant, Grayling is an Honorary Associate of the Rationalist Press Association and an outspoken rationalist and humanist.
What Grayling does here is to provide a general overview of the history of humanist ethics in the Western tradition, from ancient Greece through the rise of Christianity to the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and on to the twenty-first century. Each era is discussed in general terms, and the best of humanist thought of the times is summarized for the reader. If this isn’t good enough, Grayling is also prepared to go where others fear to tread when he itemizes clearly the differences between the humanist and the religious worldview. No vacuous talk of essential harmony for Grayling. The two accounts of the world are different and have different implications and muddying the waters leads only to confusion.
It is worth repeating that this book is approachable for the nonspecialist. Indeed, Grayling has some very harsh words for the dreary specialization in the universities today. After complaining of the “unreadable, unread, and soon-forgotten papers” in the academic journals, Grayling adds: “If there is a justification for this, it is that flowers require compost to grow, and indeed real advances occasionally happen as a result. But much of it—probably most of it—has little value, either instrumental or intrinsic” (p. 89). This is not anti-intellectualism. Grayling acknowledges the value of the academic process, but laments how few people even see the need to do what Grayling has done so well here. In the best tradition of
Bertrand Russell, Grayling has marshalled his scholarship and written a much-needed summary of the depth and range of humanist thought over two and a half thousand years in Europe. At the end of the book, the reader has a clear, general grasp of the nobility, the passion, the depth, and the integrity of the humanist experience.
I have tried to work up some complaints about this book in the interests of appearing balanced, but was unable to come up with any. The only possible suggestion is that this wonderful book highlights our need for someone to do the same for the Eastern tradition. After all, the humanist tradition in China and India is just as long and just as rich as the Western tradition. Grayling has been involved with Chinese issues in the past. Maybe he should look at that project as the necessary complement to his excellent study of the European tradition. Either way, What Is Good? is a wonderful addition to the humanist library. Excellent, excellent, excellent.
Bill Cooke is international director of the Center for Inquiry–International and a senior editor of Free Inquiry.