THINKER, THERE­FORE

The em­i­nently rea­son­able AC Grayling has been an­noy­ing people for years, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

AC Grayling re­minds me of a duck, glid­ing across the sur­face of a pond while pad­dling fu­ri­ously be­low. Serene and ap­par­ently age­less, with his long hair and owlish pro­fes­sor’s glasses, he smiles and nods, sits back in his chair, and replies rea­son­ably no mat­ter how of­ten “Yes, but...’’ is thrown at him. He seems to have all the time and pa­tience in the world.

Grayling is one of those rare beasts in the An­glo­sphere: a fa­mous philoso­pher. His out­put is prodi­gious. He has writ­ten dozens of books, some­times pub­lish­ing sev­eral in a year. Some are quite tech­ni­cal; more and more are writ­ten with the gen­eral pub­lic in mind, de­signed to help people for­mu­late their own ethics in a rud­der­less world.

He also sits on any num­ber of boards and ad­vi­sory pan­els, has hon­orary pa­tron­age of oth­ers, trav­els quite a bit, has a wife and young daugh­ter to con­sider plus two adult chil­dren from a pre­vi­ous mar­riage. And he still finds time for ac­tive en­gage­ment in var­i­ous causes.

“It helps that I don’t drink,’’ he says. Ap­par­ently be­ing a tee­to­taller gives him many more hours in the day: he seems to draw a thin line be­tween hav­ing a glass of wine with din­ner and rag­ing al­co­holism. He’s a veg­e­tar­ian too, for moral rea­sons not squeamish­ness, though he doesn’t evan­ge­lise about it.

His ab­stemious life­style fits his mod­est de­meanour, but the ap­pear­ance is de­cep­tive. In fact, Grayling has been an­noy­ing people for years. Mostly it has been with his in­de­fati­ga­ble ar­gu­ments against re­li­gion: more po­lite than his fel­low trav­ellers, but sus­tained nonethe­less.

In the past decade, his writ­ing has veered from the purely tech­ni­cal to­wards med­i­ta­tions on how ethics can be prac­tised in a “dis­en­chanted’’ world, one that no longer be­lieves in gods. That, of course, pre­sup­poses agree­ment that gods don’t ex­ist.

A book that came out less than a year ago, The God Ar­gu­ment, makes a calm ar­gu­ment against the ex­is­tence of gods from the philo­soph­i­cal po­si­tion of scep­ti­cism. It is a bravura per­for­mance, de­signed to make the reader think hard about the bases of re­li­gious faith.

The sec­ond half of the book is equally in­ter­est­ing, and may be more use­ful. It of­fers hu­man­ism as an al­ter­na­tive, and one that the­ists may find il­lu­mi­nat­ing too if they sur­vive the first half.

“Hu­man­ism is an at­ti­tude,’’ Grayling ex­plains. “When you think about the val­ues you live by, and the re­la­tion­ships you have, you must be­gin with your best, most gen­er­ous, most sym­pa­thetic un­der­stand­ing of hu­man na­ture and the hu­man con­di­tion.

“Emer­son said we should give other people the same ad­van­tage that we give a paint­ing: that is, the ad­van­tage of a good light.’’

He em­braces the corol­lar­ies of hu­man­ism, which re­sets the moral radar away from a higher power to­wards hu­man be­ings as self-leg­is­lat­ing moral agents. The re­sult is a gamut of free­doms usu­ally pro­scribed by re­li­gion, in­clud­ing the right of own­er­ship over one’s body. Grayling is a pa­tron of the Bri­tish or­gan­i­sa­tion that ad­vo­cates for vol­un­tary euthanasia, Dy­ing in Dig­nity, for ex­am­ple (along­side some sur­pris­ing fel­low pa­trons, in­clud­ing Hugh Grant, Jasper Con­ran, Kim Cat­trall, Ian McEwan, Jonathan Miller, Bernard Lewis, Prue Leith and the odd min­is­ter and rabbi).

“Eth­i­cal re­flec­tion is very sub­ver­sive of moral­ity,’’ Grayling says pleas­antly. “Many years ago I wrote a lit­tle book called The Fu­ture of Moral Val­ues, and some­body said, ‘ Your book Moral Val­ues should be called Im­moral Val­ues.’ Es­pe­cially on things like drugs and sex work and mar­riage and so on, it can be very sub­ver­sive of or­di­nary moral think­ing.’’

In 2012, he found a novel way to an­noy people: by es­tab­lish­ing a pri­vate univer­sity on an Amer­i­can en­dow­ment model. Be­ing a “man of the Left’’, as he says some­what wryly, he was hurt by the at­tack on his univer­sity as an as­tro­nom­i­cally priced in­sti­tu­tion with a star-stud­ded fac­ulty de­signed to at­tract the wealthy.

“Ed­u­ca­tion is the last great op­por­tu­nity for

I DO SEEM TO HAVE AN AFFIN­ITY FOR CON­TRO­VERSY

AC GRAYLING

cre­at­ing so­cial jus­tice; that is, for help­ing people to move out of rel­a­tive de­pri­va­tion, or back­grounds that are in­im­i­cal to suc­cess in a com­pet­i­tive world. We’ve al­ways thought that a so­ci­ety should in­vest fully in all lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion in or­der to try to level the play­ing field for people,’’ he says.

As more and more young people enrol in uni­ver­si­ties, how­ever, higher ed­u­ca­tion can no longer be funded from the pub­lic purse, he says. What’s more, stu­dent debt is crip­pling and spi­ralling. What he is try­ing to do is to cre­ate a univer­sity funded by alumni and other well­wish­ers so that any­one, rich or poor, can at­tend.

“My aim in the long term is to have a means­blind ad­mis­sion pol­icy, so you don’t bother about whether people can pay or not, you just take the best people,’’ he says.

The jury is still out on whether he will achieve that, but the up­roar seems to have sub­sided — though it’s not clear whether that’s be­cause his crit­ics have been re­as­sured or be­cause at­ten­tion spans, and the news cy­cles that fuel them, have be­come so brief.

Last month, he stepped into an ex­ist­ing up­roar when he was named chair­man of the 2014 Man Booker Prize, which is go­ing to be open to writ­ers out­side the Com­mon­wealth and Ire­land for the first time. He had been a judge once be­fore, in 2003.

“That was when we chose DBC Pierre’s book, Ver­non God Lit­tle. I do seem to have an affin­ity for con­tro­versy,’’ he says de­murely.

He is drink­ing tea in a lux­ury city ho­tel, obliv­i­ous to the hub­bub around him, dressed con­ser­va­tively in a jacket and tie de­spite be­ing on hol­i­day in Syd­ney to visit his brother. Pushed on the Booker con­tro­versy, he continues. “Per­son­ally I’m de­lighted be­cause I think keep­ing the Amer­i­cans out of it is just an act of timid­ity re­ally,’’ he says, and it takes a mo­ment for the st­ing to emerge from the mild­ness of tone. “I think people are anx­ious be­cause Amer­i­can fic­tion is very strong, it has a very strong tra­di­tion, and it is a big coun­try. It has a pow­er­ful pub­lish­ing in­dus­try, and Amer­i­can au­thors are a force to be reck­oned with.’’

Grayling him­self is a role model for re­main­ing com­pet­i­tive in a di­min­ish­ing mar­ket. His other new book last year, Friend­ship, is a very pleas­ant, un­ex­cep­tion­able trot through great friend­ships in clas­si­cal lit­er­a­ture and the mostly clas­si­cal, with some early En­light­en­ment, phi­los­o­phy that de­scribes it. It’s a primer rather than a cri­tique, ideal for sum­mer read­ing.

He ig­nores the con­fronting dis­cus­sions of 20th-century con­ti­nen­tal phi­los­o­phy, such as Carl Sch­mitt on friends and en­e­mies or Jac­ques Der­rida on pol­i­tics and friend­ship. In­deed, he de­nies any def­i­ni­tion of friend­ship be­yond two­somes or what once would have been de­scribed as in­ti­mates of the house­hold. Grayling has a knack for mak­ing philo­soph­i­cal ar­gu­ment sound like com­mon sense. He also has a knack for sidestep­ping ob­sta­cles. Asked about the his­toric­ity of his lit­er­a­ture, he replies, “In­ter­est­ing ques­tion, that one’’, be­cause it was only in the 20th century that people started to be­come friends across gen­der, age and eth­nic­ity di­vides, that people ex­pected to be­come friends with their chil­dren and par­ents, for ex­am­ple.

“Prior to that time we have, as ex­em­pli­fi­ca­tions of friend­ships, male friend­ships be­cause women’s voices were so silent,’’ he continues, sec­ond-guess­ing my next ques­tion about the boys’-own tenor of the book, “be­cause women were clos­eted in the home or in the harem or wher­ever.

“If you re­ally were to pen­e­trate the veil ... and see what it was like for women liv­ing to­gether in those very closed com­mu­ni­ties, you would prob­a­bly find out some­thing about the na­ture of friend­ship, and love and ha­tred, that is much more di­luted be­tween men.’’

For a man in his 60s, reared in a Bri­tish colo­nial board­ing school, the un­con­scious bias im­plicit in these well-mean­ing words may be un­sur­pris­ing. More sur­pris­ing is his cheer­ful ac­cep­tance of so­cial me­dia.

“I don’t think that things like Face­book and Twit­ter and LinkedIn have changed the na­ture of friend­ship,’’ he says. ``All they have done, like the in­ven­tion of the clay tablet and the postage stamp and the tele­phone, is widen the pos­si­bil­i­ties for friends to con­tact one an­other.

“And I don’t think any­one is fool enough to think that if you have 500 friends on Face­book that they re­ally are all friends.’’

He continues: “The thing about the bond of friend­ship is that it is a nat­u­ral bond. It’s ex­pres­sive of the fact that we need those sorts of con­nec­tions with other people in or­der to flour­ish our­selves.

“And it’s not just that we need the oth­ers’ af­fec­tion, or con­cern, or sup­port. It’s that we need to give af­fec­tion and sup­port and con­cern.”

He ap­plies the 2am test: who could you ring at two o’clock in the morn­ing if you’re in trou­ble? The an­swer will sort our your true friends from the back­ground chat­ter. That’s Grayling’s whole mis­sion in a way: sort­ing out the truth from the back­ground chat­ter.

AC Grayling

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