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What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live
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125 of 127 people found the following review helpful
on 22 July 2003
Anthony Grayling is a philosopher with a difference: he actually wants people to read what he writes! And, with books like this, we should all be reading him. The majority of the book is taken up with overviews of how the "good life" has been seen through the ages: from Plato and Aristotle, through the various religions, to more modern interpretations. Grayling beautifully debunks the claims of religion, not least by demonstrating that there is no connection between belief in a god, and behaving well to our fellow creatures. He also questions whether god, on the evidence of the Bible, is actually good, and, whether good or otherwise, why we should obey. Grayling's style is pacy and readable, free from jargon and easy to follow, though far from dumbed down. Grayling shows that a life free from religious superstition is far from bleak, lonely or immoral, but is, in fact, a life of reason, full of the joy of being a part of the natural world which science and the arts have opened up to us. He demonstrates that a morality based on a sincere regard for life is far more valid than one based on religious superstition and the fear of retribution from an "invisible pliceman". Anyone who has ever asked themselves questions such as "What is life for?" "Why am I here?" or "How do I live a good and meaningful life?" really needs to read this book.
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
Grayling provides what must be the most enjoyable journey through the history of the search for the good life that is in print today. Always adopting a strong humanist slant (and he puts his cards on the table in the introduction) he charts the struggle between "free will" and submission to divine power across the centuries. In his closing chapters he endeavours to make an overwhelmingly strong case for the human life in a human world, humanly lived and in my opinion he succeeds.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 26 March 2009
Broadly speaking, there are two "ways of understanding the nature and sources of value": the secular and the transcendental. Since the rise of science in the seventeenth century these attitudes "have come increasingly into competition, and the resulting accumulation of tension between them is one of the greatest problems faced by the modern world." So begins A. C. Grayling's inspiring exploration of what it means to be good. "My claim is that the great ethical debate that has always confronted mankind, and does so still, is between a fundamentally humanistic view and the religious moralities it opposes." There is no doubt which side Grayling himself takes and that voices like his need to be heard, given the power and privileges and deference still demanded by some religious groups. Many continue to believe in the supernatural origin of good and would nod approvingly at the church sign that says "good" without "God" is "o" or nothing. That this is false is made clear throughout this tremendous book.

The historical scope is daunting, the subject challenging philosophically and yet personally important to each one of us, the positions entrenched - it's a tribute to Grayling's professional expertise and commitment to clarity of thought and writing that he marshals the material so well. The tour begins in ancient Greece with Thales, "the first known Enlightenment thinker", whose rejection of "superstition or reliance on traditional beliefs" was "an essential feature of the Greek mentality". Socrates thought that scientific knowledge was "of no practical use to mankind" and that the more important question was that "of the good life and how to live it." For Aristotle, we were "part of the natural world" and our "defining mark or essence" was our reason, which we as moral agents could use "to determine, from the actual facts of an individual case, what is the right course of action in that case". There is no code or list of rules. What a difference that would make today: how often do we hear a politician or a banker plead - I did not break any rules! - when they have clearly done wrong? Diogenes preferred his barrel of happiness to "the intellectual path to enlightenment." Epicurus advised a clear understanding of "god, death, pleasure and suffering" in order to "make ourselves strong and secure from harm".

Into this variety and complexity of ethical thought steps St Paul, with his simple focus on sin "as an offence to God". Unlike many religions, Christianity is "expressly ethical" with "a central commitment to a morality of divine command". A "god commands and we must obey" - "divine ethics rests on a demand and a threat, not on reasons, and certainly not on reasons prompted by reflection on the facts of human nature and human experience." Indeed, "faith is a commitment made in direct opposition to reason, in the very teeth of the evidence."

Grayling argues convincingly that Christian morality, far from being essential to a good life, actually gets in the way of living a moral life in the modern world. Apologists draw "a perfumed smokescreen over the evidence of religion's own signal failures to be moral" while mourning the loss of power that once enabled the church to "coerce compliance with its orthodoxy". They promote the notion, without evidence (remember, faith circumvents the awkward business of having to provide good reasons), that we're living in a moral vacuum. Nothing could be further from the truth. For a secularist, "the notion of the intrinsic worth of others and of nature is the only true source of morality." Contrast this with the Christian doctrine of the Fall: "human nature is corrupt, infected by original sin; there is nothing man can do on his own account to save himself." Why bother to get out of bed in the morning, why not kill yourself now and have done with it?

The Enlightenment made explicit the importance of "science and reason" and denied revelation as a source of knowledge. David Hume, however, argued that reason alone could not lead to moral values, but that neither did we need God since we have "an innate human moral sense that determines what we think is good and bad". His natural virtues include "friendship, faithfulness, generosity, courage, mercy, fairness, patience, good humour, perseverance, prudence and kindness" and compare favourably with "the whole train of monkish virtues" - "celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self denial, humility, silence, solitude".

Grayling lists "as the elements of the good life" the positive humanist values of "individual liberty, the pursuit of knowledge, the cultivation of pleasures that do not harm others, the satisfaction of art, personal relationships, and a sense of belonging to the human community" - all of which do not require that we believe preposterous claims regarding supernatural events or beings. Unfortunately, inquiry into what is good also involves an unflinching and unsentimental appraisal of where we have gone wrong in history and why. Neither atheism nor secular humanism nor Darwin were responsible for inquisitions, burnings at the stake, witch-hunts, crusades against heretics and infidels, and wars of religion. Such mass murder and immense suffering can be laid directly at the vestry door of Christianity, which has dominated Western civilization for much of the past two millennia and enjoys an unparalleled heritage of pain. In contrast to the dogmatic assertions of faith, the scientific attitude "values inquiry, curiosity and observation, rigorous testing of ideas, experiment, open-mindedness, preparedness to think again in the face of new evidence" - all of which virtues are as valuable in the living room as they are in the laboratory.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 3 June 2008
If you are looking for a prescription of what constitutes a 'good life' then this book may disappoint. It would be better seen as an overview of the twists and turns which moral development in the West has gone through. It starts by considering the contributions of the ancient Greeks, passes through the Oriental influence from Christianity and Islam and ends by considering contemporary issues in medical ethics and human rights.

Other reviewers have already heaped praise onto the fourth chapter - The Ordinances of God. Whereas Richard Dawkins praises the morality portrayed in the New Testament, A.C. Grayling has a much more hard-hitting and uncompromising approach. He points out that there were more highly developed moral systems in existence at least 500 years prior. In addition, he describes Christianity, Islam and Judaism as anti-moral or, sometimes, immoral. This is indeed an excellent and thought-provoking chapter.

One other revelation from this book was the two paragraphs (on page 45) where he describes the Epicurean attitudes to deities and to death. This was very elegantly done and left me with a realisation of the extent to which Epicureanism was slurred as hedonistic. I suspect that many atheists would nod in agreement with the Epicurean stance.

If you approach this book expecting to be told the best way to live, then as I said above, you may be disappointed. On the other hand, if you treat it as a 250 page history of 2500 years of Western morality then it is an engaging, stimulating and thoughtful book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
My first A. C. Grayling purchase was the excellent Ideas That Matter, whose subtitle - 'A Personal Guide for the 21st Century' - hints at a similar approach to the one taken in this book. In essence Grayling seems to be, book by book, aiming to distil the best (and most useful) of human thought over the millennia. An ambitious and worthy project! His latest book at the time I write this, The Good Book: A Secular Bible, continues to work in this same vein.

'What Is Good' takes a chronological approach, starting with the humanist aspects of classical civilisation, reappraising such misrepresented schools of thought as Cynicism, Epicureanism and Stoicism, before moving on to what he casts, in effect, as the 'dark ages' of Christian religious dominance in 'the West'. Whilst Christianity takes most of the flak here, by inference - and even occasional direct reference - he's referring to all religion, but particularly the 'religions of the book' whose influence has been so strong in the cultures of this (European) part of the world.

Overall this is a pleasingly simple and accessible exposition of Grayling's position, which he presents as being the humanist/rational/liberal face of what's best in modern secular culture, contrasting this with the irrational/illiberal/deity oriented position of religion. In essence his argument boils down to this: we are natural parts of a natural world, and therefore we need to look to understanding ourselves and the world as is, rather than looking to outdated inventions of our past ignorance to explain how the world works and how we should behave.

He also argues, pretty convincingly in my view, that choosing his stance as opposed to the religious position is the only credible way forward for a just, humane, and - this is a key concept in the book - tolerant society. And, contrary to a still very prevalent view fostered by religious tradition, he argues that not only does religion not have a monopoly on morality, or point to the true source of morality, but that religions are ('by their fruits ye shall know them'), on the overwhelming evidence of history, neither morally sound, consistent, or admirable, and, if anything, stand between us and a proper understanding of how to arrive at a sound form of morality.

For me it's wonderful to find a book that eloquently and succinctly summarises an emotional, intellectual and moral journey I went through many years ago now, freeing myself from the oppressive and stultifying chains of superstitious ignorance, and instead choosing to partake of the humanist tradition of open inquiry, testing theories for evidence myself, striving for an autonomy and freedom that would maximise personal potential in the real world of here and now, rather than conforming to ancient hand-me-down stereotypes of conformity to ancient superstitions designed to secure a place in paradise in the hereafter!

My only criticism is this: Grayling himself says he's aiming for simplicity and clarity in this book, and on the whole he does just this, but here and there he's seduced by the florid verbiage of the professional academic and philosopher, which occasionally, only very occasionally thankfully, makes his expression of an idea less clear than might be ideal. It's some time now since I read the book and typed the body of this review so I don't recall specific examples, but the gist of my contention is, why choose to say 'x', when 'y' expresses the same content much more clearly? This is, however, a very minor gripe in relation to the excellence of the book as a whole.

All things considered, this is another enjoyable part of Grayling's very laudable body of work, and I'd thoroughly recommend it.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
Unlike some of Graylings other books, this is not a collection of short articles, but a journey from Ancient Greece through to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
It compares and contrasts the Stoics with Christianity, and then on to Darwin and Mill. The book builds to the final conclusion that you don't need organised religion, the public domain should be wholly secular, leaving religion to the personal sphere.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 7 April 2007
This book is summary of centuries of philosophy. Grayling is surprisingly good in taking the reader through the debate between reason and superstition across the centuries. His style is simple and pages turn quickly. This book can be read by everybody and it is so direct and honest that I cannot see how to object Grayling's reasoning.
Chapter 4 in particular is a pleasure for the brain!!!
Grayling intellectual honesty is to be praised. He clearly chooses a humanistic approach, but he never sounds arrogant or unconvincing for at least he has more than 2000 years of disbielef to support his case.
A highly reccomended and enjoyable reading.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 22 January 2008
I will restrict my review to just the second chapter of this book, "The Ordinances of God". This perfectly formed 30 page section is the book that Dawkins should have written instead of The God Delusion. Where many had hoped that Dawkins might write a magic bullet of a book, one that could be handed to believers and nullify their faith by its conclusion, in reality, he succumbed too easily to the temptation to rant. Grayling's approach, whilst making no attempt to hide his atheism, is a more tightly reasoned and altogether more concise and affecting repudiation of the religious "fairy story".
The fact that the rest of the book is an excellent summary of thought about the 'right way to live' from classical antiquity to modern day is a bonus.
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on 14 January 2015
A good, readable review of philosopher's through the ages on this topic, culminating in Grayling's own humane and humanistic conclusions and, unlike some self-styled humanists, he pays due regard to fiction and literature generally for leading us to appreciate what really is the good life - resting on the nature of our interaction and care for our fellow humans.
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on 30 July 2013
The book is written in plain English easy to understand without talking down to the reader. It has added to my understanding of the progression of enlightenment and I have already purchased one of the books referred to in order to extend my understanding.
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