The shortest of the books of the Good Book, The Good is also the best of them. It has a simplicity and a poetry that the other books aspire to but fall far short of.
But it starts on page 591 of the volume, and all but the most stalwart of readers is likely to have given up by then. I find myself hoping that some of them at least skipped to the end, and read this book. And wondering why Grayling didn’t either write the whole book this way, or write a much, much thinner book.
Ah, well. It is what it is.
Until the Bookmadness! strikes again, my friends.
Epistles is framed as 25 letters of fatherly advice to a son who has gone out into the world, and it’s here at last, writing in first person, that one finally gets some idea of Grayling the man.
Honestly, he seems a decent chap, if a little enamoured of the wisdom of the ancients (his letters exhort his son to read, among others, Demosthenese, Epicurus and Cicero). But he has a faith in humanity, a keen sense of how virtue is to be cultivated in the self and encouraged in others – and at base, he seems to agree with Kurt Vonnegut: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”
It’s hard to come down too hard on him for this book. Writing in first person even seems to improve his prose style: Epistles is less stilted and flows more logically than any other book in the Good Book. That said, the divisions of the book into the various Epistles is a curious one: the Epistles vary wildly in length, and while most are self-contained, some of them follow on directly from their predecessors in such a way that I cannot fathom why they weren’t just continued as the same Epistle (length does not appear to be a factor).
The final epistle advises the reader to strive for wisdom, happiness and virtue and to seek to contribute to the greater good. A fine and worthy note to close with.
The final character portrait of the book of Acts is that of the Roman orator Cicero. Again, as with Cato, Grayling seems more able to give an even-handed portrait of a Roman than a Greek – although he is careful to emphasise that Cicero was educated in Greece as a young man, and how this coloured his later actions.
If anything, Grayling’s evenhandedness here appears to err on the side of being over-critical, and it’s notable that in Cicero’s case, he seems more willing to include the arguments of later historians rather contemporaries and near contemporaries. But his celebration of the man’s virtues has the same self-congratulatory tone as his other such writings.
Only two more books of the Good Book to go. I’m so glad.
Finally, with the fourth of his word portraits, Grayling returns to the idea with which he introduced the book of Acts: the idea that we should read and judge for ourselves. But again, he’s going to push us – not terribly gently – in the direction he thinks we should judge.
His account of Cato is more balanced than his accounts of the Greeks, but then, Cato was a Roman. For all their cultural borrowing from the Greeks, the Romans had strong and vital traditions of their own, and Cato stands somewhere between the two cultures.
If Grayling’s accounts of Lycurgus, Solon and Pericles had been as even-handed as his portrayal of Cato, I’d have spent less time complaining in recent posts – although his prose style remains as deplorable as ever.
As much as Grayling’s philhellenia was on display up until now in the Good Book, all prior entries must take a backseat to his man-crush on Pericles of Athens. Combining this with Grayling’s infatuation with his own knowledge leads to some of his most self-congratulatory passages yet.
Grayling’s account of the life of Pericles makes constant reference to assorted writers of antiquity who wrote about Pericles, mostly for the purpose of disagreeing with them when they say nasty things about his hero.
Grayling also displays his accustomed lack of irony, pompously criticising those who dared to criticise Pericles for his pomposity without any trace of self-awareness. It would be disturbing if the Good Book were not so obviously a triviality, an academic writing for a tiny audience of other academics and no one else.
Something that only just struck me about the work of A.C. Grayling is that the man is a professional academic. He must, in his time, have marked literally hundreds of assignments and essays submitted by his students, and his own student days, he must have written his own share of such.
I cannot help thinking that any student of his who wrote so tediously and so pedantically, yet so digressively, would surely have been awarded a failing grade by Grayling. Unfortunately, Grayling has reached a point in his professional career where he is beyond the dictates of superior academics, or even apparently, editors. It’s a shame.
Grayling’s philhellenia continues unabated in his recounting of the life of Solon. And while the facts of Solon’s life are all very well and good, it is rare for Grayling to actually come to a point, to say this thing is worthy and that thing is not. Perhaps he was seeking to resemble the infamoous multiplicity of interpretations of the Bible in his own book by being similarly opaque and open to interpretation. A point on which I differ with him greatly: if I was seeking to rewrite the Bible for a modern era, I would seek to improve upon it, not to faithfully copy its flaws.
Grayling suffers from a particular disordering of the senses that seems oddly common amongst the academics of Britain: the idea that no one has had a good idea, anywhere in the world, since around the time that Marcus Aurelius died. Grayling’s encomium of Lycurgus of Sparta continues several of his previous themes:
- It is unabashedly patriarchal and hetero-normative
- It begins with the idea that ‘the glory that was Greece’ represents the finest ever flowering of civilisation – that it is not just a predecessor from which we can still draw wisdom, but that practically every change that has occurred since its day has been an error.
- There is much criticism of young people today, although mostly in the guise of praising the very different young people of Sparta and leaving the obvious conclusion as an exercise for the reader to draw.
- There is the unassailable belief that age does not merely confer wisdom, but causes it. (Grayling himself is 64)
Despite his injunction in chapter 1 of Acts to see the flaws as well as the virtues of his subjects, Grayling himself seems unable to do anything other than idealise Lycurgus of Sparta. Nor does he seem willing to look into the work of any historian of a more recent vintage than Plutarch – Grayling’s Lycurgus is that of Plutarch – Grayling even dares to disagree with Plato and Aristotle on the subject. And while Grayling is sufficiently realistic to note that the example of Sparta is not one that it likely to be restored anywhere in the world today, he cannot bring himself to criticise it with any real force – although 1 of the 14 chapters is devoted to criticisms, they are half-hearted at best, and their inclusion serves more to list them than to address them.
Now this actually is interesting.
The Book of Acts, contrary to the book of the same name in the New Testament, uses this opening chappter to call upon the reader to reflect upon the doings of the great and good, in order to gain moral instruction – but rather than the pollyanna-ish perfect men of scripture, it also specifically exhorts the reader to think also upon the faults of those studied, to see the whole person.
For the remainder of this particular book, I’ll be treating each person with a separate entry here.
Okay, I have, to date, given Grayling a lot of crap for the contents of this book, but now there’s finally something worth talking about. The Lawgiver, as a section of The Good Book, finally lives up to its promise.
It’s a meditation on the subject of governance and justice, of politics and law. And it says many a sensible thing on the subject, and draws some excellent examples from Greek and Roman politics that really illustrate how timeless the truths of human nature in politics are. It makes me want to read some of his other works – the ones less about religion and more about politics (of course, that’s easy for me to say, with a copy of Liberty in the Age of Terror : A Defence of Civil Society and Enlightenment Values sitting on my shelf awaiting my attention). There’s only three more books to go in this one – and for the first time in months, I’m actually looking forward to them.
Prepare for an incoming lack of irony…
- 1. Something is learned every time a book is opened.
- Indeed. So far I have learned that A.C.Grayling is a crappy prose stylist.
- 2. A book may be as great a thing as a battle.
- Or better, given how many fewer people die from books.
- 3. Books are ships that traverse the seas of time.
- I like this one.
- 4. Books cannot always please, however good; minds are not always craving for food.
- Not sure about this one – as usual, it seems too broad to me.
- 5. Books give no wisdom where there was not wisdom before.
- Not convinced.
- 6. Rather a study full of books than a purse full of money.
- I think my creditors would disagree on this one.
- 7. There is nothing so old as a new book.
- What? If the two adjectives switched positions, I would agree, but this?
- 8. The best companions are good books.
- Depending on what you want from a companion, that is.
- 9. The books that help most are those that prompt most thought.
- In which case, this book is not particularly helpful…
- 10. The virtue of books is to be readable.
- …and lacks virtue…
- 11. There is no frigate like a book to take us to lands far away.
- Indeed not.
- 12. Wear the old coat and buy the new book.
- Oh yeah.
- 13. The world may know me by my book, and my book by me.
- Unless you really are boring, pedantic and lacking in irony, you better hope not.
- 14. Word by word the great books are written.
- Yeah, but also the shite ones.
- 15. The reader’s fancy makes the fate of books.
- Believe me, it’s going to.
You know what? He’s convinced me. There’s another 123 chapters of Proverbs, and I think it’s a safe assumption that none of them are any better than the 22 I’ve already looked at. In the interests of finishing the rest of the book before I die, I’m going to skip the rest of the Book of Proverbs, and move on to the Book of the Lawgiver.
Boldness. Right. I can’t help thinking this is a subject Grayling mostly knows about theoretically.
- 1. The bold never lack a weapon.
- 2. Bold knaves thrive without a grain of sense, while the good starve for want of impudence.
- 3. Boldness is an ill keeper of promises.
- Sadly, also true.
- 4. Great boldness is seldom without some absurdity.
- Indeed, but what’s so bad about absurdity?
- 5. It is a bold mouse that breeds in the cat’s ear.
- And a very small one.
- 6. Boldness is a bulwark.
- 7. Boldness leads to the highest or the lowest.
And again, Grayling discusses things it strongly appears he knows nothing about:
- 1. Whoever blushes is not quite a brute.
- Not quite, no. They can still be quite a bully, though.
- 2. People blush less for their crimes than their weaknesses.
- 3. Rather see a young man blush than turn pale.
- Nice, but unnecessarily gender-specific
- 4. When the guilty blush it is a sign of mending.
- Or maybe they’re just embarassed they got cauight.
- 5. Rather bring blood to the cheek than let it out of the body.
- Agreed. Pride heals much faster than bodies.
Lacking all irony, Grayling discusses blindness:
- 1. The sky is not less blue because the blind cannot see it.
- True, but it’s hardly a nice thing to point out to them.
- 2. A pebble and a diamond are alike to the blind.
- That depends on whether they want to cut glass or not.
- 3. Better be blind than see ill.
- Truly? Seeing ill is curable.
- 4. Better half blind than both eyes out.
- 5. People are most blind in their own cause.
- 6. The blind eat many a fly.
- Nice metaphor.
- 7. Blind men should judge no colours.
- I think they know that
- 8. The eyes are blind when the mind is elsewhere.
- 9. Among the blind close your eyes.
- Is this a “when in Rome…” thing? Because it seems dangerously unsafe.