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.