Living by ideas

A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
Phoenix/Orion 2004

… so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies.
King Lear

This thoroughly enjoyable as well as informative collection of over fifty essays and reviews by the philosopher A C Grayling (its title inspired by Shakespeare) perfectly illustrates both the wide range of his interests and his ability to write engagingly, in a style that neither talks down to his audience nor spares them his sometimes forthright views.

At the time of writing he is extremely active on social media decrying the disaster that is Brexit, taking British politicians to task over their wilful decisions and canvassing for a People’s Vote; but — even though you could argue this overshadows his day job — differing philosophies are actually at the heart of this make-or-break point in the UK’s history; and it’s important to distinguish between rational arguments and emotional responses, which of course is the job of the philosopher.

Unsurprisingly, then, The Mystery of Things also wanders the borderlands between reason and emotion. The first (and longest) section treats with the arts, from architecture to visual media, from film to drama and from language to literature. Some pieces ramble pleasantly without a firm conclusion — how should we pronounce the surname variously written as Bruegel, Breughel and Brueghel, for example? — while others gently question the aesthetics of much modern architecture or discourse on William Burroughs and on Shakespeare, on Austen and on the Brontës and on Goethe, on Latin and on French.

After ‘A Miscellany of Arts’ Grayling goes on to ‘Aspects of History’, and here he casts his net equally wide, whether discussing the Bible as history, Hannibal traversing the Alps, Machiavelli, anti-Semitism or, indeed, The History of Philosophy: “Isaiah Berlin once remarked that what philosophers do in the privacy of their studies can change the course of history,” he writes, going on to suggest that Berlin’s thesis is “wholly generalisable”:

… for humanity lives by ideas, and many if not indeed most of the conflicts and turmoils, revolutions and resurgences that mark the epochs of history are driven by philosophies — often half baked and usually less than half understood, dreadfully oversimplified when turned into slogans for mass consumption, and invariably destined to harden into stone if adopted by ruling establishments, so that to disagree with them is to risk all forms of punishment up to and including death.

Grayling’s final section, ‘Spectating Science’ similarly surveys a broad landscape: “I am not a scientist, but an admiring and fascinated observer of science, who tries to act upon the belief that all non-scientists should take an interest […] in what is happening in its major branches.” On this admirable basis he plunges into quantum matters and genetics, wades through the murky waters of anti-science and alien abductions, examines the life scientific of Galileo, Newton and Marie Curie, and runs the gamut from human consciousness to life elsewhere in the universe.

It’s hard not to continually quote not just sentences but whole passages. It indubitably helps that I’m largely in agreement with his points of view, as for example when he writes that for humankind to become “a fraternity intent on saving itself and improving its mutual lot […] reason and kindness would have to flourish greatly at the expense of superstition, tribalism, enmities, greed and fear” — even as he acknowledges that it is “a hopeless-seeming prospect”.

But philosophy is not an airy-fairy pursuit, whatever the nay-sayers assert: “Knowledge,” he declares in his introduction, “is a great treasure, but there is one thing higher than knowledge, and that is understanding.” If philosophy translates as ‘a love of wisdom’ I’d rather be wise and understanding before the event than after. Forewarned is fore-armed, as they say: we, as what Lear called ‘God’s spies’, would therefore be in a position to do our damnedest to persuade others of the horrors that face us all if we continue our thoughtless race towards Armageddon.

2018 Ultimate Reading Challenge: a book about philosophy

Also, in a nod to Nonfiction November, I shall try to include a couple more NF titles this month even though I shan’t be following the programmed cues

14 thoughts on “Living by ideas

    1. Yes, that magnificent mane, I’m most envious! A ‘lucid and humane’ person, I would agree, but also at the moment a very angry man where Brexit is concerned, and I entirely empathise.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. I don’t, Gert, but I follow most of the reliable news outlets, read informed comments on Twitter and sign petitions from various ginger groups designed to reverse this terrible lemming-like rush to the precipice. I’ve been exceedingly gloomy since the ridiculous and foolhardy decision was taken to hold a referendum three years ago.


  1. I’ve always assumed that writing on philosophy would be far too difficult for me, but this book looks admirably readable.

    As for Breughel, I live in Belgium and for a long time whenever I said that name (I said Broy-gel with a hard ‘g’) Flemish-speakers goggled at me, because they – those that I have met anyway – pronounce it so differently. (Though my Flemish is crap and once I had a weird conversation in which I thought I was telling my in-laws how much I had enjoyed visiting the Royal Museum of Art but was actually enthusing about visiting the Rabbit Museum, which they had naturally never heard of.) So I am keen to discover A.C. Graylings conclusions on this matter!


    1. Here’s a taste of his non-conclusions:

      Does the confusion of spellings complicate its pronunciation? The Flemish ‘ue’ rhymes with ‘fur’, the German ‘eu’ with ‘boy’. The latter pronunciation for ‘Bruegel’ has become common; some of the cognoscenti resist it.

      It all comes, he says, because Peter Bruegel’s sons spelled their surnames differently from their father and from each other (Peter Breughel the Younger and Jan Brueghel the Elder). Thank goodness Grayling doesn’t discuss Van Gogh’s pronunciation in the same piece!

      And, yes, I’m sure you’d have no problems with this collection, Helen: as an Observer reviewer wrote, he roams far beyond his philosophy brief, is wonderfully prolific and writes with “a wry, crafted simplicity”. Very approachable, I’d say!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. piotrek

    Sound like a great volume of wise words! I have a collection of collections of essays by various people I deeply admire, but it takes me so long to read any of them… there is just so much fiction. I’m 1/3 into great Hitchens volume since 2016, I’ve barely touched two (!) very interesting books by Alberto Manguel, and there are some Polish guys… come to think of it, I’ve never finished de Montaigne, and he really is excellent.

    I need more discipline 🙂

    As to the Brexit… the Americans seem to be coming to their senses, maybe you will, too? Maybe even my tribe, we defended our big cities in recent local elections 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is a fine volume and a surprisingly quick and easy read, not an uphill climb at all compared to other collections I’ve struggled through! And like you with the Manguel and the rest there’s a so much that I’ve begun but never quite completed.

      I do hope with Brexit any ‘deal’ is voted down by Parliament, and that the government comes to its senses and offers a popular vote. But daily the misinformation and obfuscation is fed to us so it feels as though no one is being a proper grown-up.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. piotrek

        It’s like observing a catastrophe happening in slow motion, catastrophe that no one is even trying to stop. I might end up having to pay duty on my book purchases and nobody seems to care 😦

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds like a very interesting collection of essays. Some of the philosophers have the enviable ability to see abstract in the concrete and the concrete in abstract, drawing astute observations, parallels and conclusions where most people wouldn’t notice them even poking them in the eye 😉

    As for Brexit, I couldn’t agree more. It’s a terrible decision, and I’m quite astounded to see it being pushed through even though almost nobody wants it anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You put it so well when you describe how philosophers can make us see and understand things anew, and they may even—very occasionally—-validate our own visions! Grayling can certainly do that.

      As for Brexit, they do say that miracles can happen. Let’s hope they don’t come too late to undo most of the unforgivable damage that’s been caused!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have never heard of this author, but reading his quotes makes me want to seek him out. Oh, what a different world we would live in if non-scientists (general public) would take an interest in its major branches.

    Thanks for this thought provoking review.

    Liked by 1 person

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