Books

A. C. Grayling
The Challenge of Things

The great hope of the Enlightenment – that human rationality would enable us to transcend our evolutionary limitations – has taken a beating from wars and genocides, but only now, on the problem of climate change, has it foundered altogether.

Could such a sentence ever have emerged from the pen of A. C. Grayling? It could not. In his role as a public intellectual, the British philosopher and humanist champions Enlightenment values – reason, justice, wisdom – not just as the framework for right living but as instruments of hope, viz.:

… if there is one thing we can know with certainty it is that we must keep thinking and discussing, presenting each other with ideas and listening to each other’s proposals for how we can move from our dilemmas towards a better world, relying on our best hopes.

The first quote, sounding the knell for rationality as the saviour of humankind, comes from an essay by Jonathan Franzen in a recent issue of The New Yorker. Franzen, a birdwatcher as well as a novelist, is critical of conservation campaigns that exhort us to change our behaviour radically so as to avert future catastrophe. We humans, he says, simply aren’t made that way, our brains having “evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments”. Better to fix on achievable efforts to, for instance, save species under threat right now, a time frame whose urgency the human imagination can grasp.

Grayling, in his new book, The Challenge of Things, claims to address our world’s “unignorable and pressing” concerns. Climate change, naturally, is among them. “There is widespread consensus,” he writes, “that because the scale of the problem is so great, the remedies have to be likewise ...” And “even if the dangers are overstated, it is still prudent to do everything sensible to mitigate possible effects”. The Voice of Reason here speaks in bromides that seem to bear out Franzen’s observations. Likewise on the subject of natural disasters, where Grayling professes himself (perhaps rhetorically) puzzled as to “why millions of us build our homes along known major fault lines, and insist on hoping that when the big one happens, it will be when we are not there”. For a philosopher, he can appear tin-eared where human nature is concerned.

Formerly of Oxford and Birkbeck universities and now master of the New College of the Humanities in London, Grayling is no ivory-tower philosopher. Rather, he is committed to bringing the philosophical tradition into the public realm, engaging in debate and commentary on questions of ethics and liberties in a civil society, with an emphasis on human rights and secularism. Agreeing with Isaiah Berlin’s view that a “philosopher … might alter the course of events fifty years after his time”, Grayling adds that public intellectual might be substituted “if the word ‘philosopher’ is given (as it should be) its widest application”. What a philosopher chiefly has to contribute to the public conversation, he says, are “breadth of interest and application to it of a worked-out perspective”.

On that basis, it may be argued that Franzen’s plea for – or, some might say, capitulation to – human nature’s evolutionary limitations, while at odds with Grayling’s rationalist outlook, is a validation of the latter’s role as a taker of the long view, drawing from history and the history of ideas for insights into present (and future) dilemmas. But still, is Grayling justified in supposing that we are equipped, or disposed, to heed those insights and the actions they commend, particularly when they depend on sustained, widespread and disinterested good sense?

The essays that comprise The Challenge of Things originated as columns, think pieces, articles and book reviews in media as varied as The Times and The Guardian, New Statesman and Prospect magazines, and The New York Review of Books, as well as talks on the BBC and elsewhere. The latest in a series of such anthologies, the book carries Grayling’s insights beyond their ephemeral origins, in furtherance of his project as a public intellectual.

The introduction outlines unifying themes not entirely borne out by the book’s constituent parts. The essays are divided into two sections – “Destructions and Deconstructions” and “Constructions and Creations” – intended to explore problems and positives, respectively. The grouping of the book’s contents is, in fact, rather arbitrary. The second section, purporting to illuminate positive aspects of the present-day world, includes essays on Montaigne, H. G. Wells, Edmund Burke and the little-known quantum physicist Paul Dirac (1902-84) – all of them informed, passionate and entertaining, if somewhat besides the advertised point.

The book’s latter half also illustrates the difficulties posed when an anthology of this kind brings together writing originally intended for a range of different audiences. A dense, scholarly review of Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs, for instance, sits intimidatingly alongside fluff pieces on subjects such as “Sleep” and “Retirement”. Dipping in and out is recommended.

In the more topical first section, the fearless Grayling calls out evil wherever he sees it, yet somehow hews to the belief he shares with Montaigne, that “man is naturally good”. He hits all the right notes for a humanist, atheist “man of the left”, with essays tackling the prospect of China as a world superpower, the immorality of “market fundamentalism”, irredentism, the abuse of human rights and misuse of liberties, the making of the modern Middle East, the privileging of religion – and climate change.

Among the best in the collection is an essay on the ethics of drones. Grayling writes: “The screen-gazers in Texas who steer their drones to targets in Afghanistan have the advantage over bomber pilots of guaranteed safety as well as the stone-thrower’s remove.” The same could be said of the pseudonymous book reviewer. And, for the record, the philosopher does not entirely disapprove.  FL

Bloomsbury, 320pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 16, 2015 as "A. C. Grayling, The Challenge of Things". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: FL