on 15 May 2011
A.C. Grayling's 'Towards the Light' is a historical overview of the development of human rights and liberal thinking in Western Civilization. Things begin with the reformation. Grayling's points out the liberal views of Castellio and Erasmus but then also shows that the likes of Luther and Calvin were - in some respects - Christianity's version of the Taliban. This may come to a shock to some but Grayling's argues well. German peasants thought that Luther would sympathise with them but instead he urged the ruling classes to crush them in his piece 'Against Murderous Thieving Hordes of Peasants'. In his 'Sermons on Dueronomy' Calvin states, it should be "severe punishment" for blashpemy and since we we "muzzle dogs", men should be treated the same way regarding free speech. But Grayling also reminds the reader of several examples where Roman Catholicism went out of its way to control human thought. Not only by using the well known stories of Gallieo but other pertinent points that most people wouldn't know. The Roman Catholic Archbishop Theophilus destroyed 200,000 volumes of literature of antiquity in the library in Alexandria, Emperor Justinian closed down the Greek philosophical schools and Bossuest provided scriptural support for absolutism rule in France. Things did get a bit better in the reformation but there was still a long way to go.
Graylings details several other important junctures in the advancement of an enlightened West. For example the American Civil War. He doesn't just detail facts but makes some very interesting points. For example, one reason why Southern states were more reticent about ditching slavery was because their economy was more dependent on it. The Cotton, Tobacco and rice plantations were labour intensive and built on slave labour. This made it more difficult for people to see the enlightened views of the likes of Thomas Paine. Similarly, on the theme of fearing change and lose of power, Grayling makes the point that when Lord Grey tried to introduce parliamentary
reforms he met inertia from none other than the Church of England. Why? because they were afraid their automatic right to 28 seats (in the House of Lords) and afraid that more democracy meant more freedom for people, ergo less power for them.
Grayling also does a good job describing the rise of political idealism. He details not just Marx and Engles, but Robert Owen - the man who coined the term 'Socialism'. Owen put forward radical ideas about the entitlement to quality of life for every living human being. His ideas would have been considered Utopian in their day but they are ideas that nowadays most reasonable people would really just take granted. But Grayling does not treat anything - including the left - with kid gloves. He details specific examples of alliances between the left and the Roman Catholic Church to stop women having the right to vote. This happened in France and South America. He suggests the left considered women more conservative and more likely to vote for their opponents. Enlightenment values are predicated on a desire to think more critically thinking and to search for accurate information. But accurate information isn't always something easy to come by. Grayling details the entry for the word 'Negro' in the 3rd edition of the acclaimed Encylopaedia Britannia (1798). This deplorably states that "negro" is a "variety of human species" which contain a range of "vices" including:"revenge, cruelty, impudence. stealing, lying". Let's be thankful we have better encyclopaedias now. But, let's learn the lesson here. Take nothing for granted and question everything. In summary, this is a great book. A huge amount covered regarding religious freedom, workers rights, universal suffrage and the abolition of slavery. Obviously not room for everything. For example Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Gandhi don't get much of a mention. In fact, it's very much a Western centric view of things. To have a full understanding one also pay homage to the East. Now, obviously
not enough in one book to do that. But it's an important footnote for the reader, something they should not forget.
on 22 May 2009
To the reviewer who commented that Grayling is not a historian: well, yes, but that's not the point. This book is very good at giving an overview of many of the events that have shaped our current society. It does not pretend to give a detailed analysis on each case: rather it is to fulfill the thesis that our rights and previleges have been hard fought. That cannot be denied, and this is a brilliant and (I thought) easy to follow narrative on that theme. Whether it is good history is not, I think, in doubt (it's not, particularly), but it does provide the historical context for his philosophical position. Too often past events are left out of philosophy, and in that vein this book is to be welcomed.
His central thesis I thought important and relevent. Free speech, tolerance but, vitally, the ability to ciritise have been vital to our progression as societies, and imporved the lives of countless. Constant vigilence is necessaray to avoid a backslide, and the undoing of all the sacrifice people have made.
Whether or not his conclusions are valid is not certain, I think he overstates the case (ID cards are not as great a threat to liberty as the stifling intellectual environment we came from). But it was certainly eye-opening and enjoyable.
on 19 June 2009
Although this book overpromises, it's still a fine canter down the path which brought us to where we are today in terms of freedom of thought, speech and a few others.
If you are looking for detailed analysis, or balanced history then this book is likely to disappoint - it would be a rare feat to capture 500 years of nuanced development in 300 pages. Similarly, despite the author's reputation as a fine thinker, the quality of the prose leaves a great deal to be desired and an impression, frankly, of something finished in a hurry.
However, it's best to take this for what it is, which is a relatively readable review of some of the first, and hence most significant, steps on the long road to the position we enjoy today where we are able to take many of our freedoms for granted. For example, few can fail to be inspired by the example of Sebastian Castellion, who may have been the first to debate publicly whether it was a good idea to burn heretics. Similarly, it helps frame the context and significance of a number of key thinkers including Milton and Locke, albeit without any great discussion of their views.
For anyone looking for a thought provoking and accessible entry to the history of political freedoms and ideas, then Towards the Light (at least the first 2/3) may be just the library ticket.
on 29 November 2008
I quite enjoyed this outing from Prof. Grayling.
It is a brief overwiew of the struggles for freedom and liberty over the past 500 years, for a non-specialist, it is an easy read. Not dry at all in my opinion.
I have to agree with his conclusions about the state of British and US democracy since 2001.
Our freedoms and liberties were hard won and we have to be eternally vigilant against their erosion by an over-powerful centralist state.
on 11 February 2012
Philosopher A.C. Grayling provides a tour de force through 5 centuries of European history, highlighting some of the key events, personalities and struggles that led to the establishment of rights that Westerns enjoy.
His work is not an exhaustive account of these struggles, and I understand that this was not the author's aim. Indeed, the book offers a brief cover of that story, with an extensive bibliography at the end for those wishing to study further the issues that he raises.
The Reformation and Counter Rereformation, the Inquisition, the Scientific Revolution, The Glorious Revolution in England, the French and American Revolutions; political thinkers like Locke, Montesque and JS Mill, scientists like Galileo and men of action like the Founding Fathers of America; and struggles for the emancipation of slaves, women and workers; these are some of the issues that are being analysed in a clear and accessible way that highlights their interrelationship.
The book delivers on what its title claims to do; it is both a short history of those struggles, and a polemic aiming to wake up Westerners to the danger of erosion their rights are under, under the pretext of the war on terrorism and security. A book worth reading as an introduction to a further study in an exciting period in the history of the West.
on 21 February 2014
This is a great book on a vital subject. Grayling brings to life the personal stories and sacrifices that have been made in the name of greater freedom, and in the process gives much-needed context to contemporary debates. Read this book in a weekend, and thank the accident of history that spared you the struggle for fundamental freedoms that too often we take for granted in the modern world
on 18 November 2008
I am a huge fan of Grayling's philosophical writings, and as far as I am aware, I have read (and enjoyed) all of his published books. But this really was disappointing, despite my own active interest in human rights.
The main problem is this: Grayling is not a historian. And, more importantly, it shows. The author trudges through key figures and events in his "story of the struggles for liberty and rights" offering very little historical analysis along the way. His key point is this: all the rights and liberties we enjoy, only exist because of the struggles and sacrfices of those who have gone before us. Further, we would do well to remember this at a time when our governments seem determined to erode our liberties in the name of security. This, of course, is a worthy point, but I'm not sure that 272 long pages, which merely outline the factual circumstances of each struggle, individual and collective, is the most effective way to make this point.
Grayling has offered interesting and powerful, historically focused works in the past. "Among the Dead Cities" looks at the historical evidence and asks whether the allied policy of carpet bombing German cities during WWII was a moral crime. As with all his philosophical works, the result is a fascinating, thought-provoking read. But the difference between that and the current book is that in "Among the Dead Cities" he never takes his eye off his central philosophical question. As such, it is not a historical work, so much as a philosophical look at a particular historical episode.
Unfortunately, the same just cannot be said of this book. It is dry and often uninspiring. While Grayling's premise may be correct, the main lesson I took from the book is this: Grayling is not a historian.
I originally gave this book 1 star. On reflection I think I may have been a little unfair, perhaps because I always expect so much from Grayling's books. Also, some of the positive points about the book are well made by other reviewers.
However, to my mind, it is still Grayling's least interesting book to date. Many of the stories of struggles that Grayling outlines are undoubtedly inspiring; but Grayling's argument is far from it. In one sense it may successfully make a single point to state a premise and then provide just shy of 300 pages worth of factual examples to back it up; but good argument consists of so much more. It requires interesting and insightful analysis around examples and counter examples. It is clear from his other books that Grayling understands this better than anybody. Indeed, it is this which makes this book so disappointing.
Another reviewer suggests that the book's point is not to provide quality historical analysis. The problem is that the book, very unusually for Grayling, largely fails to deliver any interesting analysis. Not a great acheivement for a philosopher as great as Grayling.
In a week - August 2011 - when London and other major British cities have had their peace shattered by rioting and rampaging groups looting and destroying property and the police, public and politicians are now with the twenty-twenty clarity of hindsight considering why and what can be done to ensure it never happens again, AC Grayling's book makes fascinating reading.
Modern technology - like this - makes so many aspects of life more enjoyable, easier and interesting but it also facilitates communication between gangs, rioters and looters. The result may be severe limitations placed on certain aspects of social and other media in the future. Liberty, the first victim again.
Grayling, in a comprehensive summary and analysis of the advancement of freedom across many areas of the globe, charts how freedom expanded in hard fought struggles to become the treasure we have today. This historical sweep, seen through the eyes of an erudite, exceptionally well-researched and clear-headed philosopher, establishes the ways in which these abstract ideas became the reality we live today.
Grayling shows the ways in which these hard-won freedoms can also be lost more easily than they were won, against the backdrop of today's challenging and violent world with all its sophisticated technologies, e.g. much of the hindsight policing is now being done using the ubiquitous CCTV camera footage which constantly monitors us being free, "for our safety and security".
PS For a much less philosophical approach to the same subject but no less interesting or challenging, read Bruce Bawer's "While Europe Slept", Doubleday 2006, ISBN 0385514727. He concentrates on post 9/11 and the effects of radical Islam.
on 10 March 2010
Picking his way carefully through the troubled history of ideas of freedom and liberty, Grayling inspires his reader to recognise basic human rights and to consider the modern dangers that threaten those rights. An excellent work of popular political philosophy
on 12 October 2013
Though I haven't read the book yet,which was highly recommended by my lecturer. I can comment on the delivery, which was super fast and the book is pretty much brand new even though it was used.