Friday, 12 April 2013

The Good Book

When I asked the question a few weeks ago about atheist world views, my relative and favourite atheist Roo referred me to AC Grayling's The Good Book: A Secular Bible. 

AC Graying was until recently Professor of Philosophy at London University, and is a prominent advocate of secular humanism which he equates with atheism.  The purpose of The Good Book, it seems, is to provide humanists with their own guidebook which could take the place of the sacred texts of the religions he sees as obsolete or discredited. 

This book reminded me of those high-functioning autistic savants who are able to translate their singularity of focus into works of obscure and unusual genius.  Sometimes these works are merely brilliant curiosities, like Stephen Wiltshire, who produces lifelike paintings of real cityscapes based on the briefest of observations, or Gilles Trehin, the creator of Urville, an incredibly detailed imaginary city.

On the other hand, some have a huge and lasting impact.  Think, for instance, of JRR Tolkein spending decades in his study creating the detailed languages, history, geography and folklore of Middle Earth.  And surely Geoffrey of Monmouth had something of the autistic savant in him to compile 2,000 years worth of stories of imaginary British kings including Arthur and Lear. 

The Good Book falls somewhere between these examples.  It is not so odd as to be unapproachable, but it seems to me to lack the breadth and universality to outlive its author.

The first impression you get is that this is a parody of the Bible.  Its title, its division into books with biblical-sounding names, its chapter and verse structure with a new line for each verse, and its stilted and overformal language seem intended to evoke the King James Bible.  He's even mimicked the biblical authors by being extremely coy about his sources.  Using the enigmatic list of surnames at the back of the book dedicated scholars could probably trace them, but I was none the wiser. 

I didn't find these elements of parody offensive so much as distracting.  They made me unsure if I was meant to take the book seriously, or if it was just taking the piss.

This is a shame, because Grayling does actually have some worthwhile things to say.  The early parts of the book are especially effective.  His Genesis provides a lovely scientifically-based paean to the wonders of nature.  Lamentations is a meditation on the brevity of life and the inevitability of suffering and grief, and it is followed by Consolations which extols the virtues of true friendship.  Amongst a number of books which copy the wisdom traditions of the Old Testament and Apocrypha with more or less success his Proverbs is as good a collection of popular maxims as you will find anywhere.

Near the end of the book, Grayling provides his own secular version of the Ten Commandments, and the one Great Commandment that sums them up.

Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try. 

Add to these ten injunctions this: O friends, let us always be true to ourselves and to the best in things, so that we can always be true to one another.

It's hard to disagree.  If we all followed these commandments we would be better people.  Yet they lack the specificity and concrete detail of the originals.  What, after all, does Grayling think we should do?  Throughout the book he gives various bits of advice, but in the end it is difficult to pin him down.

Other parts of the book are less successful.  There are two long historical books.  The first, Histories, provides a long and detailed account of the war between Greece and Persia in the 6th century BC.  The second, Acts, presents detailed biographies of five ancient statesmen: the Spartan Lycurgus, the Athenians Solon and Pericles, and the Romans Cato and Cicero. 

I found these choices odd.  His point seems to be that the foundation of our own society lies in ancient Greece and Rome, the seedbed of the Western tradition.  The Persian War thus represents the pivotal moment in which the Western love of freedom triumphed over Eastern totatitarianism.  I'm not convinced by this duality but I get the point. 

I'm less clear what purpose the statesmen serve - if they represent the foundations of the Western tradition, it is strange that they are all politicians.  Where are the philosphers, poets and playwrights whose influence has been so much greater than the statesmen whose works have long since passed into obscurity?

Nor is it only the histories that betray a rather obsessive love of all things classical.  The Romans appear repeatedly throughout his book, telling their tales, extolling their ideal virtues, providing examples of friendship and filial devotion.  There are three consequences of this.

The first is that he finds himself, whether by accident or design, very much a Stoic.  He praises virtue for its own sake, as something which accords with nature and which makes for the greatest happiness.  Reason must rule over emotion, we must strive to be virtuous, we must accept whatever nature brings us.  This attitude was the pervasive philosophy of the Roman rulers, and it also appears to be Grayling's. 

Secondly, since none of the ancients, including the Stoics, were atheists and Grayling is, he has had to replace the role of the gods in ancient ethics with something else.  This "something else" appears to be a concept of natural law.  What is right is self-evident, and can be deduced from the nature of things.

Thirdly, and most disturbingly, his viewpoint is highly patrician in the ancient Roman sense.  It is an ethic for rich, powerful men.  He writes at length on the uses of power, of kindness towards one's inferiors, of the ethic of public service.  This is not an ethic for the poor or downtrodden, or even for the working class, it is an ethic for those with leisure and choice.  Nor is it an ethic for women.  Female voices and characters are almost completely absent.  It is certainly not an ethic for slaves, whose pervasive presence in ancient Greece and Rome he conveniently glosses over. 

When he does move forward in time, Grayling barely makes it into the 19th century.  His science is certainly reasonably modern, but the closest he gets to the problems of modern politics is the beginning of The Lawgiver, which lifts some ideas from John Stuart Mill and provides a kind of Politics 101 introduction to Victorian Liberalism.  There is not much here to help the 21st century statesman or stateswoman.

Grayling, as per my request, certainly has a world view.  He expresses it at length, yet in the end it is very slight.  We have a brief time on this earth, and then we die and are no more.  We should make the most of that time, striving to do well, to learn wisdom, to benefit others and to leave a good legacy.  If we think carefully and read judiciously, it will be clear to us what this good consists of. 

There's nothing wrong with that, but it didn't really need a 600-page mock Bible.  I won't be abandoning the actual Bible for this book.  Aside from the presence of God, in whom I continue to believe, the original is just so much more interesting.

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