Monday, 13 October 2008

Review of AC Grayling's The Choice of Hercules

AC Grayling is a useful ally in the battle between secularism and religion. It was largely through this conflict that I encountered him. A citing in Richard Dawkins God Delusion prompted me to look out for him. A reader in philosophy at Birkbeck college, a writer of numerous books on philosophical subjects both technical, academic and lay. A member of Humanist and Secular organisations. A contributing editor of the intellectual journal Prospect. It is mostly through the lay books (in particular The Meaning of Things and the blistering Against all Gods) that I am familiar with him along with his Comment is Free articles on the Guardian. He is the house critic of religion and stupidity with a near weekly polemic launched on Christianity and its consequences.

Its not just his criticism of religion that is welcome and useful, he is a good guide through the world of western and ancient ethical thought. His mission in many of his books is to bring the subject of moral philosophy to the lay reader. Not only that Grayling does the rare thing and actually moralises (in a good way). His writing is clear and concise, liberally garnished with choice quotes from master philosophers and essayists. He is a rare thing, an intelligent writer who does not obfuscate, temporise or pander to sensibilities. Someone like me grounded in humanistic values may find his views normative even trite but it needs constant reminding just how many people hold diametrically opposed views. So Grayling makes the secular humanistic case in a splendid, virtuoso way. As such his writing and views crystallise the humanistic position, resting on such luminaries as Mill, Bacon, Hume, Kant, Aristotle, Socrates and Epictetus.

His latest book is The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure Duty and the good life in the 21st Century. He writes early on that this is the sequel to his previous one Towards the Light where he documents the struggle for the modern day human rights and freedoms that was won against the forces of unreason-namely Christianity. This book begins where that ends in asking the question Pleasure or Duty? And what is the best way to live?

As the title of the book suggests, it bases it premise on the myth of the choice of Hercules. Hercules working on a farm as punishment for murdering his family (he was struck mad by Hera as revenge for his father- Zeus’s dalliance with the earthly ladies.) He is approached by two women, one simple plain and slender the other tantalisingly curvaceous and beautiful. Given a choice between a life of slothful, sensuous, sex-laden pleasure or hardship, pain and simplicity of Duty. Hercules chose the latter of course and went on to do all the things he is renowned for (though I mostly know him through the TV series starring Kevin Sorbo)

Grayling sees this rightly as a false dichotomy and he explores the social, moral and artistic background and history of the myth. As a launch pad for the book its an interesting beginning but it fails to address the right questions. Firstly what are we to think of duty? Or more importantly to whom? The other phrasing of the question is sometimes posed as vice or virtue? Though he does not miss it entirely-it is there only somewhat implicit is that the real question is between small mindedness and big mindedness. Ignorance versus education, reflection versus delusion, generosity versus selfishness. In a sense a life that betters the individual and the society or that one resides in or a life unexamined and narrow minded. To be fair he does tackle these issues but the issue of work and its compromises (overriding individuality, moral concern etc) and clearly labelling what our duty is not dealt with. I would guess from being familiar with his work he would suggest the development of an internationalist, a person who holds ethical views and political opinions which transcend local politics and the glib nature of national identity. I would also hint that the main duty is to improve ourselves and to extend universal human rights to the rest of the world.

This concern dominates the latter half of the book and it can rightly be seen as a Herculean task. In the early portions of the book though Grayling outlines the ideas or rather strums the “notes” of the good life.

Let me clarify perhaps his thesis. Pleasure and Duty are a false dichotomy. Pleasure is as he sees it essential to the good life. Duty is seen as a dual way: to grow oneself to make “educated use of ones leisure” which is to have a life of meaning and value. Secondly to hold responsibilities towards others, the aforementioned spread of human rights and a compassionate social policy. Grayling deploys ethics in a way similar to the Greeks, that it is about questions, attitudes, views on well-doing and well-being and that ethics how one regards the good is inseparable from politics.

The meat of the book then rests on seven “notes” that when “struck” and played in harmony signal the good life. They are meaning, intimacy, truth, endeavour, freedom beauty and fulfilment. Meaning is seen as a life of values and goals. This surely is essential and fulfils Socrates maxim that an unexamined life is not worth living because it is at the mercy of powers that the individual has no control over and is hence easily swayed. The other being the question should one commit suicide? Intimacy can be seen as friendship both platonic and sexual and loving. Truth is honesty, the ability to change ones mind, to live without delusion and to want to have ones view of the world, map onto reality. Endeavour is as what is says, that achievement in life does not come without sacrifice and hardwork. Freedom naturally is an essential, both freedom of body in a social, institutional sphere but perhaps more importantly freedom of mind and the ability to express those views without fear and opprobrium. Beauty the experience of pleasant sights and sounds and the development of “taste”. lastly fulfilment the bringing together of all of the above in a rich harmonious whole. An embrace of Aristotle middle way: The golden mean, between rashness and cowardice is courage, generosity between meanness and profligacy etc.

It’s a fine list and he explores each in a considered interesting manner. I was a little disappointed though that they were not explored in more depth throughout the book in a more detailed way and ways of cultivating them. However the rest of the book is sufficed with them and they underpin the discussions of morality and “moral” problems later on. Meaning and freedom here stand out in particular. I believe them to be the two most essential in the list. Though confirming his view of harmony the commitment to truth grounds them and keeps them in focus. I am of course hinting at religion here and how one could claim the two but its irrelevant if its not true. The note of beauty is a odd one. To me a 22 year old and someone of very different background and “taste” to Grayling it strikes me as somewhat fanciful, precious and glinting of an ivory tower. Grayling is of course an aesthete and a gentleman, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Though he includes things like pottery, gardens and ornamentation he is clearly putting forward the western canon as the best and most beautiful. I furrow my brow at such things. Not because I’m a young philistine or expound some modish PC doctrine of cultural inclusiveness, no because it begs the question.

John Carey in his book What Good are the Arts? tackles head on the idea that art can make us better people or ideas that “high” art is “better” than low art. Indeed can there be a distinction between high and low art? Can art provide ethical answers? I would ask is it necessary for happiness? Indeed is it even required at all? Carey is no philistine an oxford intellectual well versed in the classics. He asks some very tough questions of the arts and gives some very honest answers without cant or bullshit. I love movies and literature. I believe I could happily live a good life without ever again seeing a movie or reading any of the English classics. I could quite contentedly go to my grave without ever experiencing the music of Bach or Beethoven. For me I think I could get on pretty well without ever playing GTA again. The music I love though- would be tough giving that up. That does not confirm his thesis though. Arts are pleasures, they should be thought of as amenities not necessities. They are incidental to the good life and to ethics. Admittedly whatever your pleasure is (and I believe it could be anything from football to chess, to reading to Coronation Street) life would be a little duller and a little greyer if you were denied it. Considering this issue though forces us to ask what really is happiness or well-being and what is the minimum needed for it?

What would I add? Tolerance I think is an essential one though it could be subsumed under freedom. Tolerance though can be seen as quite distinct and not just for letting others flourish and prosper. No tolerance is essential and it leads me into something which is missed entirely by Grayling that is Equanimity. Intolerance is based on emotions such as fear, anger, hatred in short self destructive emotions. I think all of our intuitions of the good life lead us to conclude that mental states of calm serenity are more conducive to happiness and wellbeing than their opposites. Generosity is another note I would wish to add, not just material but being generous in spirit, wishing well people who succeed and not clinging to jealousy and envy. Generosity would also signal letting go of greed and selfishness. Once again I believe these states are essential for happiness and the good life.

Grayling later turns ethics and morality. He thus conceives a useful distinction in particular the chapter Moral Attitudes and Ethics. “Morality is about what is allowed and forbidden in particular realms of behaviour;” and “ethics is about character of one’s personality and life, and what flows from both in way of choices, relationships and action.” and “(ethics) are questions about human intelligence, human flourishing-which is to say: human well-being and well-doing. They therefore seek answers not only to questions about what sort of people we should be, but about what sort of society we should have”

I will go on to say that we should conceive of ethics as an attitude, a way of thinking and a method. His application of reason, evidence and compassion to such “vexing” questions as drug legalisation, sex and relationships, marriage, divorce is refreshingly straightforward. He also turns to other more emotive issue such as abortion, and euthanasia. I found his views as I have said to be normal and unexceptional though argued with clarity and conviction. Grayling does show how religion and unthinking traditional attitudes has obscured our thinking on ethical issues. Indeed once one jettisons religious morality and applies the principles of reason, happiness and suffering, the golden rule and what constitutes a civil society, you come to counter-intuitive or untraditional conclusions. His view of drug criminalisation is a fine example of this (he is in favour of decriminalising it)

Grayling rightly argues that many of the issues that are battlegrounds in the culture wars are either non-problems, trivial or obscene when set against human rights abuses. Our attention should be to such global concerns and not fixated on parochial and pedantic worries. Though Grayling is earnest and his sentiments are to be applauded he offers no in depth practical way of alleviating such abuses both in macrocosm and microcosm. At the very least the world needs to aim at some kind of world government or at the very least a armed and properly funded UN that can deploy quickly and effectively in such cases as Darfur and Chechnya. Though he may well respond that perhaps that is our duty, to think how to tackle these issues and to work towards them.

A few quibbles. I found his views of science-well in particular evolutionary psychology bemusing and further proof of Mr Graylings aesthete nature (not that that is intended to be a insult). I’m in no position to judge between Sui Generis, blank slate human nature and man an animal just as much a part of the evolutionary escalator as everything else. All I know is that there is a vast, detailed and interesting literature on evolutionary “influences” on human behaviour. Not least from the popular and academic work from people like David Buss, Steven Pinker and Helen Fisher. Grayling’s distaste here resembles the protestations of Christians who accuse scientists of being barbarians for saying that humans are no more an animals than a ape-indeed we are apes. For an effective critical thinker he sets up a straw man for the EV argument. “ (Evolutionary psychology) which says that all aspects of human nature….is explicable by reference to mankind’s early evolutionary history”.

Grayling response to this is “this essentialist view wholly ignores facts about the intricate interplay between human subjectivity and culture which no mechanistic account can hope to capture”. This is a non sequitar. What are the facts of human subjectivity? what does intricate interplay between subjectivity and culture mean? The facts are that post-enlightenment culture has only been around for a few hundred years, Greek society was around a few thousand years ago. Humans have first existed between fifty and two hundred thousand years ago. Before that we had homo erectus, homo habilis and before that Australopithecus and so on. Evolutionary psychology, cognitive sciences and neurosciences are “rattling at the gates of Rome” of some of our most cherished and perhaps wrong ideas of human nature. Perhaps this was the philosopher who Richard Dawkins was talking about in his conversation with David Buss who refused to accept the evidence of evolutionary imprints on human nature.

This next criticism leaves me somewhat ambivalent. I despise religion as much as Grayling probably does but his many pot shots and haranguing of religion- mostly Christianity in a book not expressly about religion I believe undermines it. People maybe sympathetic to religion who might not appreciate the wisdom on offer here because they are put off. At the very least his chapter Reason and Religion should have came early on and should have absorbed much of his justified ire. Another complaint was that much of the writing in that chapter was recycled from another of his books The Meaning of Things which in turn was taken from newspaper articles. I think he could have freshened it up a bit. The final gripe here was that I believe he takes aim at the soft target of Christianity, Islam at the minute is more responsible for human suffering and outrage and is more unhinged that even the most extreme form of Christianity.

Before I finish I want to highlight something in dire need of correction. He writes that in the US state of Georgia homosexuals can be executed (page102 paragraph 3) this is just plain wrong.

My final remark is more an observation than a criticism indeed its more a general point about western philosophy in general. Really its two things: the lack of discussion on consciousness and engagement with eastern thought in general in particular Buddhism. The two are although related quite distinct. For someone like Grayling who is so clearly interested in the good life seems cheerfully ignorant and dismissive of perhaps a even vaster, richer, more systemic tradition. This seems a trend in general two examples will suffice. Zen Buddhism has a rich history and expansive literature on consciousness and the inner workings of the mind that has been largely born out by experimental science, indeed as we speak neuroscientists are studying the brains of people who practice meditation. Reading the work of the philosopher Daniel Dennett in particular his book Consciousness Explained there is not a single mention of anything of eastern import yet plenty of citing for western philosophers. Another case would be Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy does not deal at all with it (though it does acknowledge this oversight).

The point seems especially apt to me because I finally pursued a long held curiosity about Zen by reading Stoic literature. Indeed the only person or collection of writing I can compare with eastern contemplatives would be Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. A touching, deeply human book of a mans private feelings who seems to have overcome abet in a very unsystematic way the dualism and subject object problem that western philosophy is wedded too. There is much much more to recommend about the book though.

There is nothing sectarian or religious about contemplation. Admittedly there is much bullshit and new age nonsense associated with it. Sam Harris I believe is right when he writes that “although the Christians invented physics and the Muslims Algebra-we don’t talk of Christian Science or Muslim Mathematics in the same way we might not talk about Buddhist meditation and methods of observing the mind.

I don’t have enough room here to go into the issue in depth but the notes of the good life that Grayling writes about and indeed a conception of happiness and equanimity that he seems to overlook has been achieved again and again in eastern contemplatives. When mystics go off onto a cave or Zen masters peer into the mind, ideas like loving-kindness, generosity, equanimity, states of non-hatred, non-delusion is what comes back. Perhaps meditation and mindfulness are the methods for better achieving and understanding the good life. The point being that we live in the prison of our owns minds every day of our lives and anyone who has even glimpsed at their consciousness transformed with the mind at rest and not in constant reactive mode is a happier, better mind to have.

Western philosophy like its religions suffer because they never deal with the moment to moment experience of the mind. We should be tolerant or generous because of some intellectual understanding or commandment but out of a deep unprompted, emotional understanding that transcends language and conceptual thinking. Indeed you could be on the surface tolerant and generous and perfectly miserable. What Zen and eastern contemplation aim at is the inner workings of consciousness to achieve freedom and happiness or rather well-being.

I am not seeking to simply denigrate one or more tradition, I’m looking to synergise and use the best of every piece of human knowledge and experience available. There are many on all sides who simply do not and this is a disservice both to their own tradition but to the ongoing human conversation.

So despite to caveats I highly recommend Mr Graylings work, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this little book and will dip into it from time to time to refresh and refocus my own ethical outlook and to top up ones own arguments against the credulous, the ignorant and the superstitious.

Best and Be well

Michael Faulkner.

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