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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb: lucid, rational, cogent. Excellent!, 8 Nov 2011
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This review is from: What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live (Paperback)
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a natural world, and therefore we need to look to understanding ourselves and the world as is, rather than looking to outdated inventions of our past ignorance to explain how the world works and how we should behave.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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