For a variety of reasons stemming from his great self-assurance, the British philosopher AC Grayling has been called “the most hated man in academia.” He has published over thirty books in his lifetime, including The Meaning of Things (2001), The Mystery of Things (2004), The Heart of Things (2005), and The Form of Things (2006). This week we consider The Reason of Things (2002), an edited collection of Grayling’s newspaper columns examining a wide range of topics from his unique philosophical perspective.
I read a couple volumes of AC Grayling’s short essays – The Reason of Things and The Meaning of Things – and thought they’d be right up your alley. In these collections (and in the two others that I then read, The Challenge of Things and The Heart of Things), Grayling engages with everything from war and peace to contemporary arts and culture to personal and societal virtues. In very brief essays, he summarizes a wide range of thought about a particular issue – courage, say – and then offers an observation or two about its application to our modern circumstances.
He’s a very Renaissance-and-Enlightenment kind of guy – a champion of reason and an enemy of nonsense, possessed of a very keen eye about the ways that our assumptions and values play out in our day-to-day lives. Like I said, I thought he’d be right up your alley. Not so, though! How come?
I like Grayling fine, and agree with him often, but I guess I’m just not sold on the collected-newspaper-columns-as-book idea. It’s basically 200 pages of drive-by commentary on a wide range of issues, each with a quick conclusion and very little argument. He’s like here’s a problem, here’s the answer, on to the next. It’s not thoughtful. And he moves so quickly across so many different topics that I never had a chance to commit myself to any single one. Maybe I just read it wrong. Maybe you’re supposed to go a chapter a day, like one of those devotional books. Were you pondering each with silent prayer or a snifter of port?
Nah, I was gobbling this stuff down like crab legs at a seafood buffet. Part of it was the sheer ease – I knew I was gonna get a break every page or two, so I never felt burdened by the weight of The Whole Book. But I also liked the process of figuring out how all of these individual arguments add up to a larger worldview (or how the worldview generates arguments on such a sweeping range of topics). I share a lot of his views, but I hadn’t seen them extrapolated into such diverse territory before.
I’m surprised to hear you say that it isn’t thoughtful. I did encounter the occasional clunker, but for the most part, I thought Grayling did a nice job of summarizing lots of material and presenting well-reasoned, humane conclusions. Do you have any specifics in mind?
Maybe “not thoughtful” is unfair. But Grayling’s mini-essays are so mini that he has to skip a lot of the process in order to keep them short. So his tendency is to build premises atop a mountain of pre-drawn conclusions that are taken as given. As long as you are willing to grant all of those premises, you can enjoy the essays. And the thing is, I am willing to grant them in almost every case. But I like to have access to the process, and I feel a little short-changed when I don’t.
Consider religion. Grayling has a chapter in The Reason of Things on religion, called “Religion,” and it’s three pages long. Three. To be clear, I am all about precision and concision in writing, especially when the material lends itself to generality and opacity. But there is something basically off-putting about a text that claims to cover a massive topic in such a bare minimum of words. It feels disrespectful to the material and hubristic in the writer.
And it’s not just religion that gets this passing treatment. Identity, Culture, Politics, Power, Liberty, War(!), Loss, and Nature offer just a short sampling of chapters that exceed no more than four pages each. (To his credit, Grayling, gives Sex a full fifteen.) How can these possibly do justice?
My sense is that he’s trying to name some core aspects of each topic, rather than saying everything there is to say. And that feels useful to me, even if he does sometimes overreach.
You and I have talked a lot about religion, an area so full of personal feelings and associations that it sometimes feels difficult – at least for me – to find any clarity. (I think this is even more true of religious discourse at the societal level; it’s soaked in gauzy pieties and wishful vagueness.) What I like about Grayling is his willingness to boil things down to their essentials. Why do people believe in supernatural beings? He names four reasons, all of which are essentially psychological (as opposed to reason- or evidence-based).
Let’s assume he’s right. Even if he is, that doesn’t begin to touch the million ways religion inflects people’s daily lives – but it does clarify the questions. One is, “What’s true?” The other might be, “How do people live out their religious beliefs and commitments?” Just separating the questions like this clears the ground. It helps us figure out which questions are real, and which ones are just wishful.
I suspect, then, that his brevity is part of the point. It’s an effort to cut through all the piety. People have been talking a lot of nonsense about “arguments for god” for thousands of years. None of them have come up with anything worthwhile. Let’s just acknowledge that and move on to the real – and fascinating – questions that remain.
How many aspects of our lives – individual and collective – require this kind of de-muddling? A lot, I’d say.
It must be a lot, because Reason of Things has like sixty chapters. Let’s say I grant you all of that and admit that my irritation with Grayling’s method prevented me from appreciating the value of his insight. What was most valuable to you? Gimme a topic and let’s get down to brass.
The religion stuff! And the general encouragement to lean much more heavily on reason and the Enlightenment tradition than we often tend to. I just listened to a great podcast between Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne on this topic, and it’s helping me articulate the frustration I feel when I hear somebody like President Obama talk about religion.
I don’t know what Obama believes in his heart (though I struggle to imagine that he believes in Jesus’ literal resurrection), but he certainly shows religious faith a lot of respect. I think Coyne would say that Obama is an accommodationist – that he acts as if supernatural religious claims are somehow compatible with reason/science. (And yet, like most people who hold this view, he doesn’t tend to examine any of those supernatural claims closely – at least not out loud.)
Grayling calls this stuff out. Being civil to one another is important, but so is being intellectually honest. Grayling thinks we can have both, and I do too. What do you think?
I think so, too, and it feels weirdly applicable to me at this particular moment. For many years (as you know) I’ve been struggling to move beyond evangelicalism while also maintaining an interest in (and a respect for) the faith. Abandoning it entirely felt like a betrayal both of my past and my loved ones, so I never strayed more than an arm’s length away. And I hovered there, in the near distance, for years.
I thought about Christianity a lot in graduate school, and wrote a dissertation about it, and some other stuff, and I built my life upon it even though I wasn’t going to church.
But then, on the morning of Wednesday, November 9, that all stopped. When I read that white evangelicals had turned out for Donald Trump at a rate of 81%, I felt my connection to the faith evaporate. And I think “felt” is the right word. I wasn’t angry or sad or anything like that, but it was a physical sensation. The part of me that wanted to straddle the line between religious feeling and rational thought just vanished. It disappeared. If anything, I felt free.
I can accept now that this belief system and the community it spawns have nothing for me. I don’t intend to dissolve any of my relationships over it, but neither am I going to pretend that I believe it, or value it, or that I think it has a positive impact on those who do. If believing those doctrines and attending those churches has created the type of religious believers who can embrace Trumpism in those numbers, then it is an unequivocally destructive thing. We don’t need to defer to it. We would be better off without it.
And yet, oddly enough, reaching these conclusions has left me feeling weirdly drawn to other people – especially those who disagree with me so sharply. I am interested in understanding the forces that made Trump possible, and the feelings that his supporters seem to have in surplus. I’m exploring ways to interact with them – to listen and to express my views in a civil way. I feel ready – maybe for the first time ever – to be fully intellectually honest with myself and others.
So I hope you – and Grayling – are right. The book is due back tomorrow but maybe I’ll give it another look before I go to sleep.
Man, that experience sounds powerful. I’m torn between just letting it stand and wanting to acknowledge and honor it somehow. For now, I’ll just say this: let’s keep exploring this stuff together. I want to see what comes next for you. Let’s delve into some of these ways of connecting with our fellow citizens, too – perhaps in our next round of posts.
BookBlog is on hiatus until January. Happy Holidays!