A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates


February 1, 2016

A.C. Grayling reviews Paul Johnson’s Socrates

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/review/socrates-a-man-for-our-times

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Philosopher A C Grayling

by A C Grayling

Bertrand Russell was of opinion that Jesus was not as clever as Socrates or as compassionate as the Buddha. Although this view has its merits, by focusing on the differences among the three it misses an important similarity: that they all gained large followings because (and emphatically not in spite) of the fact that they wrote nothing. All their teachings are attributed by others, their lives are the stuff of followers’ legends, their place in history secure because, inadvertently or otherwise, they anticipated the significance of the proverbial remark “Oh that my enemy had written a book!”

What little we know about Socrates comes to us, with a few exceptions, from his friends and their followers. The resulting portrait is on the whole an affectionate one, and testifies to his charisma as an individual. The same is true of the other large civilizational figures whom we know only through report; to those already mentioned we can add Confucius, Islam’s Muhammad, and Sikhism’s Guru Nanak as examples.

The trouble with such figures is that they lend themselves to endless interpretation and reinterpretation, to reading-in and reinvention, to different and often competing depictions. As far as I know, however, in the case of Socrates there has never been such a jaw-dropping hagiography as the one here provided by Paul Johnson, whose admiring — perhaps the better word is besotted — account of the ancient thinker has joined Iman Wilkens’s Where Troy Once Stood (the book that places the Trojan War in England’s East Anglia and, with perfect seriousness, claims that Achilles was a Dutchman) among my all-time favorite Amazing Books.

Johnson claims to be able to extract the “real, actual historic Socrates” from Plato’s “irritating” habit of interpolating his, Plato’s, own take on things into accounts of Socrates’ character and teachings. Johnson’s “real actual” Socrates is not just “the noblest, the gentlest, the bravest man” but veritably a kind of religious prophet, a divinely inspired preacher of surprisingly Christian-like views, or perhaps (the portrait blurs in and out as the pages turn) a proto-quasi-John the Baptist making straight the way of St. Paul — this by preparing the Greek world to be more receptive to the Christian message that Paul brought it.

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The unexamined life is not worth living (Ancient Greek: ὁ … ἀνεξέταστος βίος οὐ βιωτὸς ἀνθρώπῳ)

Johnson gets progressively more carried away by this theme as the book proceeds, these encroachments on the avant la lettre Christianity likeness of the Socratic “ministry,” as Johnson calls it, becoming dithyrambic. “It was the combination of Jesus’s inspired Hebrew message of charity, selflessness, acceptance of suffering, and willing sacrifice with the clear Socratic vision of the soul’s triumph and the eternal life awaiting it,” Johnson claims, “that gave the Christianity which sprang from Paul’s teaching of the Gospels its astonishing power and ubiquity and enabled it to flourish in persecution and martyrdom.” (A few lines later, with a sudden but all-too-brief awareness that nonsense hovers, Johnson contradictorily recants: “Socrates was not a Christian precursor…”). The fact that Christianity adopted the neo-Platonists’ version of the immortal immaterial soul several centuries into the Christian era, having until then been good Jews on the question of death by expecting actual bodily resurrection at the Second Coming, does not trouble Johnson because, obviously, he does not know it.

Ignorance is remediable; logic-blindness takes longer to correct. Johnson pounces on the fact that Socrates talked about his “inner voice,” the apotreptic (“warning-off”) prompting that alerted him against making mistakes. He described it as the voice of a god, which was in keeping with the Greek way of speaking about everything from artistic inspiration to conscience. But Johnson inflates Socrates’ inner voice to a full-blown Judeo-Christian-like deity and its message to a full-blown ministry. From giving an occasional warning it becomes the determinant of the whole of Socrates’ career: philosophy was, Johnson avers, “the mission God had given him in life,” and “his inner voice from God…ordained him to conduct philosophy as he understood it.” Note the language: “mission,” “ordination,” “ministry.”

This magnification of the inner voice is merely over-excitement on Johnson’s part; the failure of logic enters when he says that Socrates’ philosophical “mission” was to encourage people to think for themselves. So according to Johnson, Socrates is commanded by God to tell people to think for themselves, and he obeys.

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This is not the only contradiction. On page 92 Johnson’s Socrates is a postmodernist and relativist: Socrates is “hostile not just to the ‘right answer’ but to the very of idea of there being a right answer.” By page 114 he is the direct opposite; he “opts firmly for moral absolutism.” By page 119 Socrates is even more emphatically anti-relativist; he there espouses “moral absolutism at its most stringent.”

Johnson asserts that Socrates’ interests were strictly practical, in that he was not interested in “justice in the abstract” but in actual practical workaday justice. This claim breathtakingly ignores Socrates’ relentless quest for the essence — the abstract defining quiddity — of justice, continence, truth, courage, virtue, knowledge, the good, and so on, which in the early dialogues typically terminates for the participants in aporia, the state of no longer knowing what one does or should think about the matter. Since Socrates’ claim was that he only knew that he knew nothing (which is why the Delphic oracle pronounced him the wisest of men), he was officially excluded from himself offering a definition; his role in the elenchus — the method of enquiry by question and answer, conjecture and refutation — was to get people to see that they were as ignorant as himself. We are a far cry here, in knowing no answers, from knowing any absolutely right answers.

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My Favorite Quote from LKY–Din Merican

In the middle and later dialogues of Plato, where Socrates is even more obviously a mouthpiece than he is in the early dialogues, answers most certainly appear — Plato’s answers, of course — in the doctrines of the Forms and anamnesis (this latter literally means “unforgetting,” that is, recalling the total knowledge one’s immortal soul enjoyed in its pre-embodied direct contact with the Forms, which are the eternal, immutable, and perfect exemplars of things).

Johnson’s misunderstanding of Socrates’ aims as they appear in Plato’s early dialogues, as well as in the tangential reports of others — admiringly in Xenophon, satirically in Aristophanes — and his insistent eagerness to make Socrates look like a Christ-like figure of perfect virtue and self-sacrifice, result in massive distortion. Oddly, his desire in the latter respect chimes with Plato’s own effort to portray Socrates as saint and martyr, though Johnson dismisses Plato’s portrait with lofty (and, as we see, hubristic) contempt.

Johnson’s beatification of Socrates leads him to claim, “In terms of his influence, he was the most important of all philosophers.” Were Johnson acquainted with philosophy beyond the Teach Yourself level he would know that Plato and Aristotle between them have an influence that is as Everest to Socrates’ molehill. A. N. Whitehead’s description of philosophy as “footnotes to Plato” does not exaggerate by much.

But what is the influence that Johnson thinks Socrates exerts? “What he did,” Johnson claims, “was to concentrate on making more substantial the presence of an overriding divine force, a God who permeated all things and ordained the universe. This dramatic simplification made it possible for him to construct a system of ethics that was direct, plausible, workable and satisfying.” Not one word of this even remotely applies to anything known of Socrates. Socrates was a religious prophet? Socrates was a pantheist? Socrates constructed an ethical system?

If you wish to know how Johnson gets to miss the point of Socrates so comprehensively, you only have to note two things. First, he ignores the possibility that Aristophanes’ depiction of Socrates in The Clouds probably contained enough truth to make a knowledgeable Athenian audience laugh.

And second, and at his greater peril, he disdains Plato, asserting that  “[the Republic] is not a text where, in general, the real Socrates speaks, though I think he does in this particular passage” — meaning that he, Johnson, knows better than Plato (or any Plato scholar of the last 2,500 years) when the “real Socrates” speaks. When Plato’s depiction fails to chime with Johnson’s made-up version, it is dismissed as “illustrating his [Plato’s] irritating habit of foisting his personal views on others.” Pot and kettle here! So he cherry-picks words and passages that suit his purposes, and discards the rest.

Yet only consider the views that Johnson foists on Socrates. He has the sage teach that “[t]he most important occupation of a human being was to subdue his bodily instincts and train himself to respond to the teachings of the soul.” On another page, remember, his ordained mission was “to teach people to think for themselves,” as God told him to say: which is a bit closer to the Socrates we see through the dark Platonic glass.

One of the biggest twists Johnson gives to the tale concerns the politics of Socrates’ trial and death. Socrates and Plato had been associated with the aristocratic party that led Athens into ruin and subjected it to tyranny, and he was put to death by the democracy that supplanted it, a few years after the democracy had granted amnesties to various members of the tyrant party in the hope of soothing the troubled character of state affairs. That Socrates was brought to trial about four years after the amnesty suggests that he, alone or with others, was regarded as still a problem.

Subsequent history has blamed the democrats for executing Socrates, but Johnson tries to distance the sage from the tyrant party and thus have him wrongly maligned and condemned. Here, at least and at last, he is with Plato and Xenophon in painting Socrates in victim’s colors. But there is enough reason to think (the aristocratic fascism of Plato might alone make you think) that the smoke curling about Socrates’ head had a bit of fire under it. In the end, Socrates offers a portrait not of a real philosopher but of a fictional character, a portrait that says more about the author’s own beliefs than any Greek who lived within 500 years of Socrates.

 

Islamisation and its Freudian discontents


October 27, 2016

Islamisation and its Freudian discontents

by Azly Rahman

http://www.malaysiakini.com

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I am back. I took a few weeks hiatus from this column to wrote a few literary essays, chapters from my memoir of growing up in the “sewel but sober and sensible seventies” – the best of times of the times of P Ramlee – as well as writing a long essay on the key novels of Salman Rushdie.

I spend days listening to the music of Pink Floyd and reading a collection of essays from the book ‘Pink Floyd and Philosophy’. These however did not keep me away from thinking about the issues in Malaysia, viewed from a global perspective.

The unresolved issue if the world’s record-breaking, hideously-linked case of the 1MDB. The ongoing drama of PAS, UMNO, Amanah, and the opposition parties. The continuing push for the Sharia Law add-on of the hudud. The story of the insanely massive amount of cash found in Sabah as it relates to corruption in the Water Department. The seeming helplessness of the Malaysian people in their struggle to demand for better and cleaner governance.

The failure of the Mahathirist slogan of ‘Bersih, Cekap, Amanah’ (Clean, Efficient, Trustworthy). The continuing saga of the Dr Mahathir Mohamad-Najib Abdul Razak-Anwar Ibrahim triangulating vendetta in the tradition of Mario Puzo’s la Cosa Nostra.

And today, I read about the story of the young father who jumped off the Penang Bridge in an apparent suicide for personal and political reasons, it seems. A Muslim who ended his life, leaving a wife and two young children – leaving this world after asking for forgiveness from God as well. A suicide note written both in despair and in great confidence.

At the global level, I thought of these: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton – both will be warmongers of the new age of Russian-American authored Armageddon. World War III. New weapons of mass destruction. Aleppo, Syria. The battle for Mosul. The new Saudi Arabia after the fall of the empire of oil. The Saudi attacks on Yemen. The new Saudi Arabian venture: finance, tourism, and arms manufacturing.

Then there are also these global bogeymen called Al-Qaeda and IS – the invisible and elusive armies of Islam it seems that are keeping the American and the Russian war-machine going.

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All these in my mind as song after song from classic Pink Floyd albums play on. “Mother do you think they’ll drop the bomb?” asks Pink Floyd in the lyrics and I thought of Aleppo and the total destruction of once-beautiful Syria. Just like the total destruction of the once-beautiful and learned Baghdad. Destroyed by the Americans in their tens of trillion-dollars war.

I thought of these. I thought of this thing called ‘Islamic philosophy’ I thought existed. I had these questions:

Is Islamic philosophy totally dead? Murdered by the Charlotte Cordays of the theocratic-hypocritical imams of its own creation? As we know from the history of the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday murdered the scientist and revolutionary-philosopher Marat, signifying the beginning of the political war between the Jacobins and the Girondins.

How could it be possible for Muslims, whose daily confessions include saying that “God is closer to you than your jugular vein”, be creating governments that help “society be closer to Nature”, to philosophies of sustainability, rather than be destroyers of it?

Progress mistaken to be monopolising of licences

How could such a spiritually-cognitive dissonance be the leitmotif of many an Islamic government when the religion itself is supposed to preach, amongst others, ecologically sustainable plans for national development rather than surrender to Das Kapital – or capitalism – spiced with Quranic verses calling for the advancement of the ummah through economic progress, yet progress here is mistaken to be the monopolising of the licences to rape and plunder Nature – cutting down trees, destroying rainforests, desertifying fertile lands, throwing indigenous peoples out of their traditional lands (because they are not Muslims and therefore spiritually incomplete as human beings), and to do everything that tak

In short, what manner of a French-Revolution that Islamic societies, such as Malaysia, such as the state calling itself “the verandah of Makkah” (serambi Makkah) that is allowing the rape of Nature to happen whilst the idea of Islam as a religion of peace (at peace with Nature) is being made the agenda of global dakwah?

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Public Display of Piety in Malaysia by UMNO Malays

Help us understand this:How do Muslims remedy this situation? Resolve this contradiction? Reverse this trend of Islamisation? Could it be that Islam as a religion does not have a praxis (applications of the principles of Philosophy to social needs), demanding Nature to be preserved and the dignity of human Nature be upheld?

This could be an improbable claim but judging from the way Islamic governments engaging in destroying rainforests, building weapons of mass destruction, allowing leaders to live like Pharaohs and Croesus (Firauns and Qaruns), and bombing each other to the seventh level of Hell (as in Saudi Arabia and Yemen) – it looks as if Islam is devoid of a Lao-Tzian/Daoist philosophy of living and statecraft much-needed in this world already destroyed by the excesses of Western Civilisation which pride itself in a strange descartian pride of controlling and destroying Nature through the growth of Empires, colonisation, Imperialism, and now post-Imperialistic post-Apocalyptic regimes engaged in all forms of state-sponsored terrorism, sanctioned as well by an underlying philosophy of false Judeo-Christianity.

Guns, guts, glories – destruction of the colonies. Civilising mission. The Crusades. The Conquistadors and the Cross – these are prelude to the anti-humanism of the teachings of the Jesus at The Sermon on the Mount – of the reminders of the Beatitudes. These are ignored and hence, the new world of a strange brew – religion, capitalism, a truncated version of Weber’s protestant ethics and the ghosts and spirits of capitalism roaming the modern world ruled by cybernetic-terroristic technologies.

Is this the world we created? A nightmare of Cartesian absurdities? Help explain these.

 

Excellence: A Point of View


October 18, 2016

Excellence: A Point of View

COMMENT: Everyone in Malaysia talks about the pursuit of excellence and some pretend to know what it means, especially  our mediocre politicians in power and men in the public service who are tasked to implement our national education policy and Blue Ocean Strategy.

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We employ snake oil consultants  and experts to write glossy blueprints and reports at horrendous cost to taxpayers but fail to execute them.  We create institutions like Pemandu to promote Najib’s deformation agenda, and Permata for bright kids, while our Chief Secretary to the Government makes himself advocate-in-chief of the Blue Ocean Strategy concept to suck up to Najib Razak. In reality, we do not know what excellence is, what it takes and how to get there.

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Excellence is a simple idea if we are serious about it. All we need to do is change our attitude. Talk is cheap. Stop it and start taking action.

Malaysia has an attitude problem and it is our greatest obstacle to our future as a people and a nation. Where to begin? It has to be first fixing our education system to become a nation of high achievers and second we must stop playing politics  with the education of our future generation. But we are not doing that because UMNO politicians are afraid of  smart and pushy Malays in particular.

I wish to share with you A C Grayling’s thoughts on Excellence. This philosopher is endowed with the ability to communicate with ordinary men and women in clear and concise language. Read his article and share your comments.–Din Merican

Grayling on Excellence

When Matthew Arnold wrote Culture and Anarchy over a hundred years ago, he described the pursuit of excellence in the fostering of culture as “getting to know, on all matters that most concern us. the best which has been thought and said in the world, and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.”

Arnold was an inspector of schools, and a champion of higher education, and he believed in excellence in education as the way not only to staff the economy but to produce an enculturated society which would live up to the ideal in Aristotle’s noble dictum about the educated use of our leisure.

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From China to France, every country that is or aspires to be developed has an elite educational stratum, aimed at taking the most gifted students and giving them the best intellectual training possible. In China this is done at an early age, with special schools for the brightest children. In France the system of Hautes Ecoles–superior universities, entry to which is fiercely competitive–creams off the outstanding minds and subjects them to a rigorous discipline. The aim in all cases is to enhance the best in order to gain the highest quality in science, engineering, law, national administration, medicine and the arts.

Few could object to the rationale behind this, save those for whom universal mediocrity is a  price worth paying for social equality (or in the case of Malaysia where mediocrity is a means of political control, added by Din Merican). But there is the danger to which meritocratic means to the cultivation of excellence – or what should be solely such – fall prey. It is if, after the establishment of the means, merit by itself ceases to be enough, and money and influence become additional criteria. In many, perhaps most, countries in the world, money and influence are the determiners of social advancement, even where meritocratic criteria still apply too: in America money is needed to gain social advantages, in China it helps to be a Party member.

The rich and the well connected are not the kind of elite an  education system ought to be fostering. It is easy for popular newspapers and populist politicians to make pejorative use of the term ‘elite’ to connote these elites of injustice; but they are just as quick to complain if doctors, teachers, or sportsmen playing for national sides fail our highest expectations- if, in short, they are not elite after all, in the proper sense of the term.

Although there are few if any true democracies in the world– most dispensations claiming that name are elective oligarchies–the democratic spirit nevertheless invests Western life, for good and ill both. The good resides in the pressure to treat everyone fairly, the ill resides in the pressure to make everyone alike. The latter is a levelling tendency, a downward thrust, which dislikes excellence because it raises mountains where the negative-democratic spirit wishes to see only plains.

But democracy should not aim to reduce people and their achievements to a common denominator; it should aim to raise them, ambitiously and dramatically, as close as possible to an ideal. And that means, among other things, having institutions, especially of learning, which are the best and most demanding of their kind.

The Meaning of Things–Applying Philosophy to Life by AC Grayling (London: Weidenfeld &Nicolson, 2001) pp.160-161

A.C. Grayling on why Read


October 9, 2016

Why Read

by A.C. Grayling

How many a man dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book–THOREAU

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A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience–A.C. Grayling

It seems that some doctors prescribe books instead of medicines to patients suffering from depression, stress and anxiety. The patients are referred  to a bibliotherapist–yes, bibliotherapist–who gives patients reading lists suited to their conditions. The treatment’s inspiration was the observation by librarians  that borrowers are apt to say, on returning a book, that it did them good by making them or by distracting  them from their troubles.

There are almost too many things to say about something about this amazing fact. Cynics will ask,What sort of pass are we in that people need a doctor’s prescription to prompt them to read? When did we forget that reading is, for a thousand reasons, one  of the chief resources of life! Will doctors turn to prescribing dinner for the hungry and sleep for the tired as the next step in the medicalization of human existence, or as a response to the supine inability to think and act for themselves?

There is a tincture of justice in these exclamations, but it is not appropriately directed at doctors. It should be directed at the failure of our culture to show people what rich deposits of pleasure and usefulness, and what expansion of horizons, are to be found in reading. An education in reading includes guidance–very easy to give; it takes five minutes (much less if you say, ‘Ask a librarian’, which is excellent advice)–on how to find any required book or a kind of book. And just a little experience as a reader grants access to the great country where one flies as an eagle over the history, comedy, tragedy and variety of human experience, at every point garnering much, if reading is attentive, from the abundance on offer.

The key is ‘attentive’. The best thing any education can bequeath is habits of reflection and questioning. Reading can be a passive affair, an entertainment leaving  no impression on the mind beyond a pleasant present distraction. Many books are skillfully written to demand no more, and there is nothing wrong with that But for anything more, reading has to be an activity , not a passivity. It is hard to define what makes  good books good, because good books come in so many different kinds, but one thing common to most of them is that  they make readers think and feel, elevating or disturbing them, and making them see the world differently as a result. In short, they elicit the activity in active reading. “We find little in a book but what we put there”, Joseph Joubert said. “But in great books, the mind finds room to put many things.”

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Rodin’s Thinker @ Columbia University, New York

Reading does not automatically people wiser or better. When it has that effect  it is because readers have the work themselves, quarrying the materials from  their response to the printed page (or today the e-page). But apart from practical experience of life, which is everyone’s chief tutor,scarcely anything compares with books as the mine where that quarrying can begin. To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivates others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, an even to sympathize  with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behavior towards others; it is also  the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

I keep a photograph on my desk of the Philosophical Library in Strahof Monastery in Prague. Taken from the upper gallery, it captures the tranquil beauty of that deep room, filled with light from the clerestory windows in the right-hand wall.The photograph shows one long bar of sunshine  lying across a tier of book-shelves, illuminating  the richness of the leather bindings ranked there. Below, on the ground floor, three desks are disposed, among an ingenious reading wheel any scholar would envy.

This scene is wonderfully expressive to do with books, and the reading of books, with study and thought, with books as the distillations of time and man’s endeavors–even of the world itself, brought into reflective equilibrium and clothed in quietness and retreat. If, off to one side, there were a closet with a bed in it and wherewithal to make tea, one would not mind being locked in there, and the key thrown away.

A cynic might proclaim this beautiful and evocative library a mere dead mortuary of dead books, a past curiosity for dull-eyed tourists to glance at, a selling point for postcards that now represent its only product. But I think it is a work of art, and represents something opposed to the uneasy, fickle, failing norm of most human life and its compromises.

In the Library, The University of Cambodia

A library is like a hive storing honey, a part of the best, sweetest and most nourishing exudate of human experience. A commentator on Virgil’s Gerogics Book IV, which tells of honey-bees and lost love, remarked that only four things withstand time–gold, sunlight, amber and honey. Some archeologists digging in Greece once came across an ancient amphora filled to the brim with honey 2000 years old. They took a little each day to spread on their bread at breakfast. After a time they noticed that at the bottom of the amphora. When they looked, they found that it was the body of an infant.

It is an extraordinarily touching thought that the mourning parents of this child, so long ago, buried it in honey to preserve it forever. The action of great wealth and great love.

Note: This essay is from A.C. Grayling’s book, The Meaning 0f Things–Applying Philosophy to Life ( London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001). pp. 178-181. I recommend this book because, to quote the publisher’s note, it is “a wonderfully stimulating book and an invaluable guide to what is truly  important in living life whether  facing success, failure, passion, intolerance, love, loss or any other of life’s profound experiences”– Professor Din Merican, The University of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Spare a Thought about Philosophy: A.C. Grayling Interview


October 5, 2016

Spare a Thought about Philosophy: An Inte.rview with my favourite contemporary Philosopher, A.C. Grayling

by Will Bordell

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Bertrand Russell said, ‘Most people would rather die than think; most people do,’” quips the British philosopher A.C. Grayling, leaning forward in his chair at a London café as though offering me a truffle of wisdom for my delectation. Philosophy is a rather strange business in the modern world of consumerism and commerce, I suppose. We’re so used to being force-fed ideas these days that we rarely, if ever, stop and think for ourselves. And that’s where Grayling bucks the trend.

Author of over twenty books, including The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, as well as countless newspaper and magazine columns, Grayling has been a paradigm of humanism for many years: vice president of the British Humanist Association, patron of the UK organization Dignity in Dying, honorary associate of the National Secular Society… the list goes on. And yet, anyone anticipating stuffy Socratic dialogue with a kooky academic or a living, breathing replica of Auguste Rodin’s The Thinker (with added mane), would be taken aback by Grayling’s down-to-earth, congenial presence.

What makes Grayling tick, in his words, is “the fact that the world is so rich in interest and in puzzles, and that the task of finding out as much as we can about it is not an endless task, but certainly one which is going to take us many, many millennia to complete.” There’s a sort of childlike grin that beams out at me, as he affirms: “That’s exciting—discovery is exciting.” Grayling takes pleasure in doubt and possibility, in invention and innovation: the tasks of the open mind and open inquiry. It’s a mindset, he reveals, that “loves the open-endedness and the continuing character of the conversation that humankind has with itself about all these things that really matter.”

It’s also a way of thinking that marks a line in the sand between religion and science. The temptation to fall for the former—hook, line, and sinker—is plain to see: “People like narratives, they like to have an explanation, they like to know where they are going.” Weaving another string of thought into his tapestry of human psychology, Grayling laments that his fellow human beings “don’t want to have to think these things out for themselves. They like the nice, pre-packaged answer that’s just handed to them by somebody authoritative with a big beard.” He looks down towards a small flower arrangement on the table, and plays with it contemplatively before continuing in an almost plaintive tone: “And that is a kind of betrayal, in a way, of the fact that we have curiosity but, most of all, we have intelligence and so we should be questioning, challenging, trying to find out.”

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But the pessimism doesn’t persist for too long. Grayling’s biting wit is never too far from the surface of his arguments, especially when he’s waxing lyrical about theology. By tracing what he calls “a kind of Nietzschean genealogy of religion,” he adopts a storyteller’s tone: “You see a geography—and it’s an interesting one—in that the dryads and the nymphs used to be in the trees and in the streams.” After that they evaporated into the wind and the sun, he says, noting that the more humankind has discovered about the world, the more remote our gods have become. “They went from the surface of the earth to the mountaintops, then into the sky, and finally beyond space and time altogether,” Grayling observes. Not only have gods and goddesses retreated into their extraterrestrial hiding places, but they’ve also dwindled in number (generally) to only one or three, depending on your divine arithmetic: “So they’re being chased away bit by bit,” Grayling chuckles.

For all his cutting cogency, there’s an underlying empathy to what he says. Grayling seems desperate to reach out to those he believes are lost in an intellectual fog of their own making, his aim to lend a hand and pull them out. But he’s worried—and rightly so. The problem with extreme strands of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism is self-evident: “They force people to narrow their horizon of vision down so that they are almost blind, almost infantilized, as if in a straitjacket of captivity. But every religion goes through a fundamentalist phase,” he acknowledges in his typically even-handed manner, “and every religion leaves its fundamentalist rump; you can see this very clearly in the case of Christianity.”

Will we ever really outgrow religion, though? Grayling leans against the wall casually, stretching out his legs before responding with an assured brand of optimism: “It seems to me that in five or ten thousand years’ time, when people look back (if there are any people) at this period of history, the two or three thousand years when Judeo-Christian influence in the world was considerable, they will collapse it down to a sentence.” Just as we view the advent of Cro-Magnon humans in Europe in 40,000 BCE and the disappearance of Neanderthals around ten thousand years later as historical events and nothing more, so future historians will consider religion as a mere artifact. Indeed, according to Grayling, they will astutely recognize religious history as “a bad time for human beings, because they were getting cleverer with their technologies, but they were no wiser.”

Still, it’s crucial to Grayling’s philosophical outlook that when we lose faith, we don’t lose hope. “Almost any religion can be explained to another person in about half an hour,” he claims, adjusting his imperious-looking gold-rimmed spectacles. “But to know anything about astrophysics or biology or anything that really gives us an insight into the real beauty of the universe? That takes some years of study at least.” Such logic allows the adversity of a world without faith to be rebranded as opportunity, oblivion as salvation. Grayling pauses briefly, before launching into another gem in his immensely vibrant stash of anecdotes and references: “There’s a writer, a man called J.B. Bury, who wrote a wonderful history of Greece a long time ago now. He talks at one point about the Greeks’ own histories of their city-states, and he writes about one in particular, the kings of which could be traced back to divine origin.” I wait, as though anticipating the punch line of a joke, while he stalls for a second in his recollection. “And Bury effectively says, how boring! It was only a god who founded this city. But if it had been a real man who had struggled, fought against enemies and been ingenious in getting his people together, now that would be a really interesting story.” It’s an incontrovertible truth, and it highlights the contrast “between religion, which is very boring, and reality, which is much more exciting.”

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As long as religion rules the roost, however, Grayling acknowledges that we can only undermine it inch meal. But challenge it we must. “I think one of the most wonderful things I’ve ever heard is the remark that George Bernard Shaw made about the Golden Rule when he said, ‘Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.’” A barrage of rationality and clarity storms through Grayling’s argument, measured and incontrovertible: “It’s a very, very deep insight. What you really have to do is try to understand the diversity of human nature and others’ needs and interests. Try to see people in their particularity.” For religious zealots, he remarks with a knowing shake of the head, this is nearly impossible. If there’s one right answer, one absolute truth, one correct way of living, “there can’t be any diversity because that’s heresy.”

Dealing with plurality, then, is perhaps the greatest challenge that faces modern civilization, but Grayling doesn’t believe the solution is multiculturalism. “I very much agree that multiculturalism was well intentioned,” he affirms with the considered enthusiasm that I’ve come to expect of his responses. The notion of a mosaic society, though, has developed flaws, allowing disempowered and oppressed individuals to slip through the cracks, causing injury upon injury. “By allowing Sharia Councils to exist, young women who are brought to European countries as brides who don’t speak English, who are then divorced by their husbands and lose their children and their property, don’t even know that there are proper courts of law in the country to protect their rights.” Grayling prefers aspects of the French laïcité, the implication that citizens of France are “first and foremost French men and French women,” everything else being incidental and a matter for private choice. Though it has its problems (discrimination against the “invisible” Algerian and Moroccan minorities, to name but one), he believes it ensconces a better sense of cohesion than what has become a divisive multicultural policy.

“It’s terribly interesting, isn’t it?” Grayling continues, with his characteristic passion for all things discursive, “that the French have banned the face veil, and the Germans have just banned circumcision.” Never one for impertinence or rashness, he reclines in thought for a second or two: “I’m in favor of banning both of them,” he concludes. Why ban the veil, though? “Well, if I went to Saudi Arabia I wouldn’t walk around the streets in shorts,” Grayling responds, elaborating that just as wearing shorts in Riyadh is seen as an insult, covering your face in London is seen as suspicious and troubling. “But the law is an interesting one,” he says, acknowledging the caveat to his argument, “because it has a very neat nuance to it.” Face coverings, he explains, are deemed unacceptable by the government only in publically funded spaces (like hospitals and schools); “The law doesn’t stop people wearing face veils when they’re doing other things.”

What strikes me as extraordinary about Grayling is his lack of fear, intellectual or moral. He’s never afraid to offer his thoughts for general discussion, but nor is he afraid to admit he doesn’t have all the answers. After all, who does? I’m not surprised, therefore, when he responds tentatively when I ask about the vexed ethical question of military intervention in Syria and other tyrannies across the globe.

“Well, this is a hard question and therefore a very good question. A terribly difficult one,” he repeats, flicking aside his mane of silvery hair. He begins slowly but surely in a matter-of-fact tone: “The clear thing that one can say is that where there are unarmed civilian populations being terrorized, oppressed, murdered, tortured, and imprisoned by a regime, there seems to me to be no argument; one should go in there, and help them, and protect them.” It’s an ugly situation, though, and one that Grayling does nothing to pretty up. “On the other hand,” he goes on, “the people who are fighting against Assad include people like al-Qaeda and Hezbollah. It’s a real tightrope.” He’s visibly torn, his empathy pitted against his desire not to open up another Pandora’s box in the Middle East. “Meanwhile,” he looks across at me with an almost pained expression, “children, women, old people, innocents, and non-combatants are suffering. It’s a murky situation. I think everybody in the West wants to see Assad fall—I do—that would be terrific; if only we could be reasonably sure that what would follow would be a much more humane and sensible setup. But,” he forewarns, “there can be no guarantees.”

With the interview coming to a close, I decide to pose one final question. What’s the secret to the good and happy life? I half-expect him to pause for thought, but Grayling bursts with effervescence: “It’s being engaged, it’s having a project, it’s being outward-looking. I think it was Emerson who said that a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.” I’m intrigued to discover that taxi drivers, upon discovering his profession, often quiz him on the meaning of life. “And I say, the meaning of life is what you make it. There will be as many different meaningful lives as there are people to live them.” It’s an incredibly positive and open-minded outlook. He closes by reminding me that “if we honor the obligation we have to ourselves to develop, to the best of our ability, the constellation of interests and passions and talents that we have—even if we don’t succeed, never win a gold medal, never get knighted, never get published—that in itself is the good life.”

As I stroll out of the Bloomsbury café in which we’ve been sitting for the past hour or so and head off towards the train station, I finally feel that I have some sense of what Bertrand Russell meant when he said that most people would rather die than think. Thought can be scary, even iconoclastic. It can make us feel desperate and hopeless. And yet despite that, as evidenced by people like Grayling, thought and reflection can invest our lives with something more than hope, and more than wishful thinking: with meaning.

“Is he wise?” a friend asks me later that evening. A nod is all that’s necessary.

Here’s Smokey The Cat: A Philosopher’s Friend

thehumanist.com/magazine/january-february-2013/features/spare-a-thought-for-philosophy-an-interview-with-a-c-grayling

The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction


September 29, 2016

The Erudite and Prolific Noam Chomsky: A Man of Conviction

Knowledge and Power–A Documentary

Manufacturing Consent is my favorite Noam Chomsky book. It reminds me of the awesome power of government in shaping public perception and influencing the way we think about public and foreign policy.

The media dominates our lives for as long as I can remember. When I was very much younger in 1950s I relied on the media and the radio for news and views and never realised that I was being manipulated by Big Brother to support causes which I would not  have agreed to if I had access to sources of information other than what the government was sending out through the airwaves for public consumption.

Fortunately, to day I can no longer be led to accept “official truths”from my government and its controlled media. I have always maintained a posture of doubt and will not accept anything I read without subjecting them to careful scrutiny. Naom Chomsky’s books have influenced the way I think.–Din Merican