A C Grayling: The Mystery of Things
… 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