AC Grayling on the dangers of disengagement
Britain’s Thinking Man, the seriously popular philosopher and author AC Grayling, is headed to Tasmania to talk up a storm about democracy and engagement
Initials as names are tricky. They are either intimate or distancing. When they belong to an eminent philosopher, to whom apublicist refers respectfully as “Professor Grayling”, they can be daunting. In Australia, you cut to the chase. Do I call you AC or Anthony? “Anthony,” says the philosopher via WhatsApp from London on the eve of his first trip to Hobart. One of the world’s most widely read philosophers, AC Grayling is a writer and editor of more than 30 books. He lives in “proper Bloomsbury”, London, and was this year awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire for Services to Philosophy.
A former chair of judges for the literary world’s most famous prize, the Man Booker, Grayling will be in Hobart this month for the biennial Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival. Though he’s been coming to Australia (“loves it”, “it has a buzz”) for nearly a decade – visiting his brother John, who lives in Sydney – he has never visited the island state. In the manner of a rock star, he’s done the rounds of the other capitals – several times.
“I’ve heard about the beauty of Tasmania – and cultural life apparently is very much on the up,” he says. “I also hear so many people are going to retire there.”
Grayling reflects on his only real connection with Tasmania, when, in the year he was chair of judges, the 2014 Man Booker Prize was awarded to Tasmanian author Richard Flanagan.
“I was very delighted to do that,” he says. “It [ The Narrow Road to the Deep North] was a wonderful novel – really outstanding – especially considering that year was the first year American authors were included in the competition. Really, it was for the best book in the whole world – and Flanagan won. I hope I’ll be seeing him at the festival.”
Within three minutes’ walk from his home, Grayling says, you’ll find a rash of blue plaques that indicate where famous literary figures once lived, including poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, revolutionary Vladimir Lenin and authors Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf and Jerome K. Jerome.
Britain’s infamous satirical magazine Private Eye routinely refers to the high-profile philosopher as “ACDC”, even though, he quips, he is “rather boringly heterosexual”. Divorced for the second time, he says, he’s now “in a great position to be getting on with work, living a peaceful, solitary life” as a self-described “liberal leftie”. Britain’s Thinking Man, in dealing with the struggles of the free world, is free again, venturing farther south than he’s ever been.
You get the feeling Grayling will enjoy the intimacy of historic Hobart: he walks everywhere, including to his place of work at London’s New College of the Humanities – all of 15 minutes – where he is Master. If you were to pass him on the street you might even take him as a philosopher with his high forehead, fine round spectacles and Beethoven hair.
Grayling says he wrote his latest book, Democracy and its Crisis, “in a white heat” after Britain voted to leave Europe and Donald Trump won the presidency. While many thinking people seem less engaged in politics these days – giving up over the complexities of Brexit and hardly wishing to give the next Trump-ism the time of day – Grayling asserts that our quality of life depends on precisely the opposite – our ability to be courageous and to stay involved.
His previous book, last year’s The Age of Genius, was a fascinating riff on how the 17th century became the crucible of modernity. Before that, there was What is Good: The Search for the Best Way to Live, which I picked up after hearing the author speak at the wildly successful Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts (held annually for the past 30 years at the remote Welsh town Hay-on-Wye), where you can imagine there is plenty of partying as well as literature.
Grayling seems chuffed when I tell him I was “picked up” by a fellow seated in the row behind me at the talk: “Was there romance? Tell me you met the love of your life.”
“There was, and I didn’t,” I replied. “But, it’s 15 years since you contemplated the themes of What is Good. Do you think we’re getting better or worse at knowing how to live? Are we devolving as a species?”
“Well, yes and no,” he says with a wry laugh, almost apologising for the philosopher’s answer.
Grayling is exceptional at yes and no answers. And very good at following up with a lecture, which I won’t repeat here. You must go to his talk. For the record, Grayling is optimistic the world is moving in a better direction (he says there are smaller percentages of people involved in wars, even though the number of weapons has increased) but that Trump’s election and the Brexit result exposed many problems and failings of our democratic order.
“I’d been thinking and worrying about it for quite a number of years,” he says. “About the way we might re-organise our politics and what the right solution to the problem of how we get consent of the people to the government of that people. These very painfully worked out institutions have been manipulated. What we have are results that are not in the interests of the majority of people in the UK or US. If there are silver linings, more people are becoming conscious that the system has been gamed.”
Grayling is hoping the reality of Brexit and the Trump presidency will make people realise they have to get “very serious indeed” about operating institutions properly with real transparency and awareness. In his latest conclusion he suggests voting at 16, civic education and proportional representation are some of the ways consent will be returned to the people. (He’ll be boning up on Tasmania’s Hare-Clark system before he gets here.)
“We’ve all got very complacent – we’re democratic and we get on with our lives – but that’s why these groups of people have moved in and got hold of the levers,” he says. “Trump, clearly, by any rational standard, is unfit to hold the office of president – we have to make an exposure of the fact that there is gaining going on and expose it.”
Grayling has been awarded honours for services to philosophy, though not without giving him pause before accepting. “One always reflects on the propriety of accepting these awards,” he says. “But I think the idea of a society rewarding people who do charitable work or who make a contribution to education is in fact not a bad idea. It’s all very hierarchical, of course.” He then recounts a joke made by one of his peers – that he has become, like Russell Crowe, both master and commander (that is, both master of his college, and a commander of the British Empire).
Grayling will be in Tasmania when Australians are completing the same-sex marriage survey. While he is in favour of same-sex marriage, he adds: “Rather contradictorily, I am not so much in favour of marriage, which is a complicated viewpoint to hold.”
He says it’s so much better if two people share their lives together “as volunteers”. “The minute you go to the registry office or church, you’ve got a third party – and that’s the State – and they will take an interest,” he says. “Marriage is actually a very sexist hangover from those days when the only people who got married were rich people – who did it to protect their property.”
But he says he understands gay people want social acceptance and recognition, and want society to step up, and that the way of getting that is for same-sex marriage to be recognised legally. What astonishes him is that a country such as Australia – “one of the most advanced societies in the world” – has what he calls “a big drag anchor on society: the Roman Catholic Church”.
“It is the one very surprising thing when you consider how open-minded and fun the Aussies are in London,” he says. “You think they must come from a country very secular and mature. The fact, in 2017, there is still a debate going on about the position of gays in society is down to the Roman Catholic Church.”
Anyone contemplating what makes a good life (as I was all those years ago when I attended Prof Grayling’s lecture at Hay) will be inspired by his conclusion that it is one that is “individually crafted”. And, that a good society is one based on co-operation, conversation, discussion, argument, disagreement and compromise between people who have a wide variety of interests. “That is what the institutions of democracy are meant to deliver,” he says.
AC Grayling will deliver the opening address at the Tasmanian Writers and Readers Festival at Hobart’s Theatre Royal on Thursday, September 14, followed by an ‘in conversation’ with author Heather Rose and Distinguished Professor Jeff Malpas on the challenge of freedom. For booking details, see Notebook p4