Top critical review
on 14 August 2016
Anyone seeking a reasoned, informative and, above all, dispassionate account of theories of the 'Good’ will be disappointed by this volume. For Grayling’s book is little more than a vehement assault on religion – in particular Christianity – and a concomitant celebration of the virtues of modern Humanism. I say ‘little more’ because ‘What is Good?’ starts out in a fairly promising fashion with a short, highly readable survey of Greco-Roman thought on the subject, but even here the author falters by giving insufficient attention to Epicureanism (the forerunner of all subsequent humanist thinking) and too much to its great rival, Stoicism – an imbalance attributable, it seems, to Grayling’s infatuation with the latter’s emphasis on the ‘brotherhood of man’ and other sentimental notions of a similar nature. This uneven treatment continues with barely a single mention of Scepticism, one of the most influential philosophical schools in classical antiquity, and of Neo-Platonism, which likewise had a profound bearing on contemporary concepts of the Good.
Grayling, of course, gets finally into his stride with religion and here he proceeds to indict Christianity with all the fervour and messianic conviction of a medieval zealot. The Bible is so packed with contradictions, inconsistencies, and hopelessly absurd improbabilities, he insists, that it is quite impossible to take seriously, let alone respect and believe in, such a ridiculous document. Evil is all too often ordained, excused or otherwise awarded divine sanction within it – how can this conceivably be reconciled with a striving for the Good? Petty doctrinal disputes have generated unprecedented intolerance, unleashing ruinous conflicts among warring parties; incalculable suffering has additionally been inflicted on dissenters by Church officialdom, e.g. the Inquisition. Much of Grayling’s argument is patently true – much of the history of Christianity is certainly not a pretty picture. But this is to ignore the obvious benefits to many of its adherents – the psychological reassurance afforded by the promise of salvation and an afterlife, the strict injunctions discouraging bad behaviour, the comprehensive array of explanations and answers to almost all life’s questions and dilemmas, the inspiring fellowship and support of other Church members etc. Above all, he fails to acknowledge the supreme importance of faith itself, the overpowering sensation of a true believer that a divine presence resides mysteriously within him, guiding and motivating all his actions - an overwhelming and inexplicable conviction impervious to all rational analysis.
The later chapters chart the development of modern Humanism, from its roots in the Italian Renaissance to its emergence as a distinct philosophy in the early 20th century. Here, the roles of scientific progress, increasing secularism and social liberalism in inducing us to accept fuller responsibility for managing our own lives - with ever diminishing subservience to a supreme deity - are discussed in detail, the values and virtues of this new outlook contrasted most favourably (and arguably unfairly) with those of traditional Christian teaching and morality. Religion and Humanism, it is implied, are mutually exclusive, it not being possible for the same individual to subscribe to both. But is this true? May one not choose to lead one’s daily life entirely in accordance with humanist principles, yet retain a belief in God when it comes to our spiritual thinking?
A final issue in ‘What is Good?’ is what constitutes the true role of philosophy itself. Here, Grayling delivers a withering attack on the still dominant position of analytic philosophy in English-speaking countries, especially its overriding obsession with highly abstract minutiae, arcane definitions and hair-splitting, trivial distinctions, especially in the areas of language, meaning and mathematics. All this is largely irrelevant to daily life, he maintains; rather, we should devote ourselves to the study of ethics, on how to lead good lives and come up with viable approaches to ameliorating human suffering and addressing our most urgent problems. But this superficially welcome proposal neglects the huge divergence in opinion on these matters: given this scenario, how are we ever to achieve a consensus on how to proceed? At least analytic philosophy, one might say, by virtue of its restricted focus and quasi-scientific methodology, offers the prospect of measurable progress, however meagre, in clarifying and helping to resolve the issues that it narrowly concerns itself with.