A. C. Grayling

English philosopher

Anthony Clifford Grayling (born 3 April 1949) is a British philosopher and author.

Grayling in 2010

Quotes edit

Life, Sex, and Ideas: The Good Life Without God (2002) edit

British title: The Reason of Things: Living with Philosophy
All page numbers from the trade paperback edition published by Oxford University Press in 2005, ISBN 0-19-517755-X
British spelling and punctuation, as in the book
  • Of all the questions we can ask ourselves the most important is: how is one best to live?
    • “Introduction” (p. xi)
  • A civilized society is one which never ceases having a discussion with itself about what human life should best be.
    • “Introduction” (p. xiii)
  • Folly tends to predominate over wisdom because it is usually easier to understand and more convenient (or exciting) to believe; but a little reflection usually sifts one from the other.
    • Chapter 1, “Emotion” (p. 3)
  • The media no longer hesitate to whip up lurid anxieties in order to increase sales, in the process undermining social confidence and multiplying fears.
    • Chapter 2, “Moral Education” (p. 7)
  • Moral panics occur because the increased availability of information about what happens in our society is not matched by a public capacity to reflect upon and make sense of it. Western societies might be advanced in many ways, but if the standard of debates set by the popular media is anything to go by, their populations are woefully bad at engaging sensibly with new and evolving moral demands.
    This last remark is not meant to imply that there are, say, too few religious education lessons in schools. Far from it: religion is part of the problem, not the solution. And moral education is not best done by haranguing people, especially the young. On both counts standard views about moral education need rethinking.
    Religion is worse than an irrelevant as regards the inculcation of morality, for the following reasons: in an individualistic society, where personal wealth is the chief if not the sole measure of achievement, a morality that enjoins you to give your all to the poor that says it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to enter heaven, and preaches selflessness towards one’s neighbor and complete obedience to a deity—such a morality, wholly opposed to the norms and practices not just accepted but extolled in our society, has little to offer. Most people ignore the contrast between such views and the universal instruction to go forth and multiply one’s income and possessions; and obey the latter.
    And when religious fundamentalists add a preparedness to incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb, and terrorise—all in the name of faith—then religious morality becomes not just irrelevant but dangerous. With such examples and contrasts, it has less than nothing to offer proper moral debate.
    • Chapter 2, “Moral Education” (pp. 7-8)
  • New and challenging moral dilemmas are always likely to arise, so we need to try to make ourselves the kind of people who can respond thoughtfully.
    • Chapter 2, “Moral Education” (p. 10)
  • Emancipation is always at risk from the usual sources—demagogues, civil and international war, the tenure that superstitions have over the human imagination—so there are no guarantees that progress will continue.
    • Chapter 3, “Emancipation and Ethics” (p. 12)
  • The claim is that educating moral sensibility through imagination has a general tendency, not a universal effect.
    • Chapter 3, “Emancipation and Ethics” (p. 14)
  • Symbols have the unfortunate power to acquire the importance of what they symbolise.
    • Chapter 4, “Symbols” (p. 19)
  • Worst of all, symbols sometimes live on in their own right when what they symbolise has long been forgotten.
    • Chapter 4, “Symbols” (p. 19)
  • People not only live by symbols, but die by them, as wars of religion and nationalism attest.
    • Chapter 4, “Symbols” (p. 19)
  • Four kinds of answer are standardly given to the question why religion exists. One is that it provides explanations—of the origin of the universe, of the way it works, of the apparently inexplicable things that happen in it, and of why it includes evil and suffering. Another is that religion provides comfort, giving hope of life after death, providing reassurance in a hostile world, and a means (by supplication, propitiation, and the practice of one or another form of prescribed behaviour) to get a better deal in it. A third is that it makes for social order, in promoting morality and social cohesion. And a fourth is that it rests on the natural ignorance, stupidity, superstitiousness and gullibility of mankind.
    • Chapter 5, “Religion” (p. 20)
  • Credulity, insecurity and desire form a potent combination in the human psyche. Together they make us eager to believe any nonsense if it purports to yield a glimpse of the future, or offers even the slenderest hope of success in love or fortune. On this rests the livelihood of many tricksters and charlatans—the crystal-ball gazers, palmists, astrologers, and readers of tarot cards.
    • Chapter 6, “Credulity” (p. 24)
  • They beautifully illustrate the recipe for nonsense, which is: take something strange-looking, whose meaning is now forgotten, and liberally stir in imagination and superstition. In this respect the divinatory tarot is a paradigm of all superstitions and wonderfully illustrates humanity’s clever, ingenious, and intricate capacity for folly.
    • Chapter 6, “Credulity” (p. 26)
  • Evil” is first and foremost a religious notion. It means whatever a religion dislikes.
    • Chapter 9, “Evil” (p. 33)
  • And then, to sink the roots of this fear deep, the church introduces the idea of evil and the devil to children, for it knows that if it can cut early psychological scars it has a better chance of holding on to the minds thus wounded.
    All religions are anxious to proselytise the young. Society seems not to see either the absurdity or the danger in the fact that pupils in one school are taught, as truths of history, that the Normans conquered England in 1066 and that Jesus is the son of God, in another that the Normans conquered England in 1066 and Jesus is not the son of God but that Mohammed received the definitive divine revelation, in a third that the Normans conquered England in 1066 and that neither Jesus nor Mohammed is of any significance besides Guru Dev—and in a fourth that the Normans conquered England in 1066 and all three of Jesus, Mohammed and Guru Dev are false distractions, attention to whom is likely to provoke God’s jealous wrath.
    Yet in schools all over the country these antipathetic “truths” are being force-fed to different groups of pupils, none of whom is in a position to assess their credibility or worth. This is a serious form of child abuse. It sows the seeds of apartheids capable of resulting, in their logical conclusion, in murder and war, as history sickeningly and ceaselessly proves.
    • Chapter 9, “Evil” (p. 34)
  • There is no greater social evil than religion. It is the cancer in the body of humanity.
    • Chapter 9, “Evil” (p. 34)
  • Prudery expresses itself most forcibly as censorship.
    • Chapter 13, “Sex” (p. 47)
  • The growth of civilisation is measured by refinements of living and increasing distance from the immediacies of survival.
    • Chapter 13, “Sex” (p. 49)
  • There are even more general points to be made about “cultural politics”. Despite appearances in the absurd and often comic debate about “political correctness”, the concept of high culture is not the possession of the political Right, nor does rejection of “post-modernism” and its essence, relativism (rejection of which is required for defence not just of the notion but of the value of high culture), amount to rejection of a progressive political perspective. Political resistance against hegemonies of wealth, class, race and sex in the late-twentieth-century Western world has mistakenly included rejection of the idea that there are cultural and intellectual values which transcend accidental boundaries in human experience, and thereby constitute a possession for the species as a whole. It has been a cheap source of reputation for “theorists” to claim that “reality is the product of discourse”, which means that different discourses constitute different realities, and therefore the truth and value are relative. Those who mistake the politics of resentment for the politics of justice find such views useful, because they equate “high culture” with “culture of the politically and economically dominant class, race or sex”, and therefore take it that attacks on the former are attacks on the latter. One disastrous consequence is that it allows the political Right to present itself as the defender of art, literature and free intellectual speculation, whereas historically yet has it has been the right—from Plato onwards—which has sought to repress the best human endeavours in these respects, on the grounds that art, literature and the unrestricted play of reason threaten to set people free and make them equal.
    Rather than attacking the idea of a culture, therefore, reflective progressives (that is or should be a pleonasm) should assert their right to the high cultural terrain, and disentangle themselves from those aspects of movements, particularly in ethnic and sexual politics, whose tendency is not to promote the realisation of a just society but satisfaction of the petty appetite for revenge on groups perceived as historical oppressors.
    A better aim for progressives would be to free high culture from the citadel of inaccessibility—mainly financial—into which dominant groups have kidnapped it. They should not commit all their attention to promoting counter-culture or “mass” culture, for the excellent reason that—especially in respect of this latter—much of which passes for “mass” culture is a means of manipulating majorities into quiescence and uncritical acceptance of political and economic conditions favorable to dominant groups. This is notably the case with escapist entertainment and sports.
    • Chapter 17, “Cultures” (pp. 74-75)
  • Aristotle’s thought is that to live well and flourishingly, a person needs to be educated—which means: informed, and able to think. He is of course right.
    • Chapter 19, “Teachers” (p. 82)
  • Part of the problem facing teaching in the contemporary world is that its status as a profession has been undermined by the contemptible view that only what makes money is admirable.
    • Chapter 19, “Teachers” (p. 83)
  • When the Bible was the only book people knew, they naturally thought it embodied all that is true; but when their reading expanded, and with it the world, and a sense of other times, other voices, other possibilities and points of view, that authority could not last.
    • Chapter 20, “Intellectuals” (p. 86)
  • It often enough goes too far, conjuring mountains from molehills (or from nothing), but excess is better than deficit in this instance, because unless the press were absolutely vigilant, the politicians would use their time-honoured methods—cover-up, sleight of hand, rationalisation—to get away with things. They would think themselves foolish not to.
    In consequence, consumers of the media have to exercise their own watchfulness. They have to exercise judgement concerning whether the media are offering a good story or a good point.
    • Chapter 21, “Politics” (p. 92)
  • One can judge between candidates by remembering Georges Pompidou’s remark that a statesman is a politician who puts himself at his country’s service, whereas a politician is a statesman who puts the country at his own service—or that of a group or class, usually his own.
    • Chapter 21, “Politics” (p. 93)
  • These amazingly recent achievements were built on dead bodies. For centuries ordinary people struggled against absolute monarchs, rich aristocrats, princely bishops, colonisers, landowners and industrial magnates for a say in the running of their own lives. They did it on barricades, in demonstrations charged by saber-wielding mounted cavalry, in sit-ins crushed by tanks. These people are dishonored by stay-at-homes on polling day.
    • Chapter 22 “Voting” (p. 95)
  • Sceptics and idlers think that their one vote will make no difference either way. They are wrong—wrong both in practice: some elections turn on mere handfuls of votes, as witness Al Gore’s fate in Florida—and in principle: for every refusal to vote is an act of self-disenfranchisement in which a citizen, betraying the endeavours of history, demotes himself into a serf.
    • Chapter 22, “Voting” (pp. 95-96)
  • “The first principle of a civilised state,” said Walter Lippmann, “is that power is legitimate only when it is under contract.”
    • Chapter 25, “Power” (p. 105)
  • Power’s tendency to corrupt is a function of the work it does in liberating man’s worse characteristics.
    • Chapter 25, “Power” (p. 105)
  • On the best view, justice is fairness.
    • Chapter 26, “Protest” (p. 107)
  • Thus justice is not equality but equity; as Aristotle says, “Injustice arises when equals are treated unequally, and unequals are treated equally.”
    • Chapter 26, “Protest” (p. 108)
  • Politicians react to terrorism by limiting liberties….Zealots, most especially religious zealots, hate the liberality of liberal society; their terrorism aims to destroy it. To start putting handcuffs on ourselves is to achieve their goals for them.
    • Chapter 28, “Liberty” (p. 114)
  • Tolerance is not only a key feature of liberalism, but—familiarly—its paradox too. Liberalism’s tolerance leaves the democracy of ideas to decide which among opposing viewpoints will prevail. The risk is the death of liberty itself, because those who live by hard and uncompromising views in political, moral and religious respects always, if given half a chance, silence liberals because liberalism, by its nature, threatens the hegemony they seek to impose.
    • Chapter 28, “Liberty” (p. 114)
  • It is the technique of the baboon to try to get its way by violence.
    • Chapter 28, “Liberty” (p. 114)
  • Anger is the chief emotion driving the deadly reciprocity of reprisal and revenge which has engulfed the recent history of the Middle East. The other dominating emotions of that tragedy—grief and terror—would bring the violence to an end without it. But anger, bitter and implacable when the only response it gets is anger returned, feeds on its reflection until it becomes insanity.
    • Chapter 30, “Anger” (p. 121)
  • But in vitriolic conflicts there is neither appropriateness nor proportion, so the arguments of history and justice become lost in vengeance.
    • Chapter 30, “Anger” (p. 122)
  • The recent discovery that humans have only twice as many genes as fruitflies has tipped the balance in the nature-nurture debate back to nurture. On this evidence it is our culture, history and belief-systems which make us what we are. We look at the rest of nature and see carnivores killing to eat, but we do not see zebras forming armies to wage war on gnus. It is only humans, with their congenital vice of inventing differences of politics and faith, who murder one another because they disagree. And what makes the tragedy more poignant is that the less secure their grounds for belief, the more anxious and violent their adherence to it—and the greater their readiness to kill and die in its defence.
    • Chapter 31, “Conflict” (p. 125)
  • The ease with which birds and beasts, men, women and children, can now be shot into sudden oblivion is breathtaking. If the murderer had nothing but his hands, he could kill only a few on a single outing, if lucky. But a victim might fight back, and win. What a limitation, a frustration, for the poor murderer. But with a Kalashnikov – joy! – all such frustration vanishes. In a few seconds dozens of human beings can be left twitching and bleeding on the ground, their possibilities, hopes, loves and endeavours abruptly and arbitrarily obliterated, their families drowned in shock and grief. How satisfying for the murderous of mind; how fulfilling; and all thanks to those who make and sell guns.
    • Chapter 32, “Guns” (pp. 126-127)
  • None of the major faiths is bloodless; history reeks with the gore of their wars and persecutions, all the more disgusting a spectacle for being, in essence, as simple as this: A kills B because B does not agree with A that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden.
    People should be left to believe what they like, so long as they harm no one else. Apart from normal expectations of politeness, it is not however clear why people should require their personal beliefs to be treated with special sensitivity by others, to the point that if others fail to tip-toe respectfully around them they will start throwing bombs. From a secular point of view, religious beliefs are at best absurd and at worse dangerous, and the amount of free play they are given in the public domain is a menace. Believed-in fairies should be kept at home as an entirely private matter, and their votaries encouraged to cease taking themselves so seriously that, when irritated by those who differ, they resort to Kalashnikovs. Apart from anything else, such reactions speak little confidence in their own violently-held certainties.
    • Chapter 33, “War” (pp. 129-130)
  • “Faith-based” schools entrench and perpetuate the differences which too often lead to conflict; by educating children from all backgrounds together there is a far greater chance of mutual understanding and personal friendships. Enthusiasts of all faiths oppose secular education because exposure to other traditions has the effect of loosening the grip of their own. That, from a secular standpoint, is of course the consummation devoutly to be wished.
    • Chapter 33, “War” (pp. 130-131)
  • At the time of writing there are, by one measure, more slaves in the world than at any time in history: 27 million people all told, in forced labour camps, debt bondage, the sex industry, professional beggary, domestic servitude, and work—work without pay and under threat of violence, which is the definition of slavery—in agriculture, mining and factories. A very large proportion of them are children, many of whom are commercially trafficked….
    Those who are enslaved by history—who dwell on past wrongs, who keep ancient conflicts and quarrels alive, who even seek reparations for the wrongs suffered by their ancestors—would do the world a greater service by turning their attention to present-day slavery instead. A concerted effort might open the gates of China’s forced labour camps, free the Haitian sugar-plantation slaves, rescue the child prostitutes of Southeast Asia, and end the chattel slavery in Mauritania and the Sudan where slave markets still exist and where you can buy six children for one Kalashnikov.
    • Chapter 42, “Slavery” (pp. 154-155; ellipsis represents the elision of one paragraph of examples)
  • We can therefore all demand apologies from one another for mankind’s turpitude. But it is better worth remembering that we poison the present by our self-imposed slavery to unforgivingness over offences of the past—and that this explains almost all conflicts, from Northern Ireland via the Balkans to Kashmir. That is a form of slavery which we desperately need to abolish too.
    • Chapter 42, “Slavery” (p. 156)
  • Outside the formal disciplines of logic and mathematics there are no absolute certainties—except of course in religion, which abounds in them, to the extent that people commit murder for their sake.
    • Chapter 43, “Experience” (p. 159)
  • It is an oddity that those who invoke the sanctity of life are not as invariably opposed to war, arms manufacture and capital punishment as they are to euthanasia and abortion. Yet these latter are intended to help the living, while the former are designed to harm them. A proper sense of what makes death good or bad has to include this premise: that the quality of life is the sacred thing, not its mere quantity.
    • Chapter 44, “Suicide” (p. 164)
  • Remembrance Day should therefore also be about war’s causes: ugly faiths, intolerance, lust for power and revenge, mutual hatreds prompted by historical accidents or differences of colour, custom or culture.
    • Chapter 47, “Remembrance” (p. 173)
  • In one collective form of insanity, whole populations of people rise from sleep at about the same time each day, move in great herds to locations at some distance from their home territory, perform repetitive manoeuvers there, return home when evening falls, slump in front of a flickering coloured light, and after a while fall asleep again. They repeat the process day after day for decades. The disease is called “normal life”, and variations from it are regarded as eccentric; if the variations are marked enough they are even called “madness” and “delusion”.
    This thought is intended to show that what counts as abnormal is a relative matter.
    • Chapter 51, “Madness” (p. 187)
  • The nonsense people talk about cloning stems from the prison-cell of religious belief. Pious exclamations about the sanctity of life, and about not interfering with God’s purposes, conceal a farrago of confusion. Life’s sanctity resides in its quality, not its mere quantity, for there is nothing sacred in suffering. And if we were to “avoid interfering with God’s purposes” we would not use penicillin, nor raise money for the Third World’s starving, nor build a roof over our children’s heads (which, as it happens, Jesus instructed us not to—“consider the lilies of the field”—but not even Christians are foolish enough to obey).
    • Chapter 52, “Clones” (p. 194)
  • If there is a deity of the kind imagined by votaries of the big mail-order religions such as Christianity and Islam, and if this deity is the creator of all things, then it is responsible for cancer, meningitis, millions of spontaneous abortions every day, mass killings of people in floods and earthquakes—and too great a mountain of other natural evils to list besides.
    • Chapter 52, “Clones” (p. 194)
  • This brings into focus a startling fact: that the practice of contemporary reviewing, whether fiction or non-fiction, owes nothing to self-styled “critical theorists”, those succubi of English Literature departments whose jargonings are read (if they are read at all) only by one another, and who have contributed nothing to the wider world since they hijacked the academic study of literature from its original Quiller-Couchian purpose: which was to educate, liberate, and civilise.
    The reason is that the professionalisation of the academy has diverted its form of criticism away from engagement with life.
    • Chapter 55, “Reading and Reviewing” (p. 207)
  • [Academic criticism] is not concerned with taste, but with technique; not with the common readers’ response to books and their connection with life as lived, but with specialist academic interest in methods and classifications, schools and “-isms”, unconscious influences, supposed hidden meanings, patriarchal oppressions, deconstruction of texts, and multiple readings.
    • Chapter 55, “Reading and Reviewing” (p. 207)
  • There are many ways that reviewing can be dishonest. Here is one illustration, drawn from no less a personnage than the self-appointed doyen of the literature dons, Terry Eagleton. A standard rhetorical device in discursive literature has the form “some say X, but I say Y.” The author might not disagree with X, but thinks Y is the more important point. A scurrilous reviewer can systematically misrepresent the author by saying, “the author says X” and omitting the author’s rider “Y”. This is one of Eagleton’s techniques of choice (chapter and verse can be abundantly supplied). Of course, this might not be intentional on Eagleton’s part; he might merely be stupid or lazy. But since it is better to doubt this, we have to conclude instead that he is guilty of wilful misrepresentation. It is alarming to think that such are the ethics of criticism he teaches his students at Manchester University.
    • Chapter 55, “Reading and Reviewing” (p. 208)
  • And sometimes Bloom is thunderously wrong—which is itself valuable, because he thereby ignites explosions of disagreement that prompt thought; and anyone who makes us think does us a service.
    • Chapter 55, “Reading and Reviewing” (p. 210)
  • Among the striking ideas that everywhere blossom in Bloom is his view that Shakespeare’s imaginative resources “transcend those of Yahweh, Jesus and Allah”, and provide a grander alternative vision of human nature. He is right. He says that genuinely intelligent people do not think ideologically; right again.
    • Chapter 55, “Reading and Reviewing” (p. 212)
  • The one thing that is more dangerous than true ignorance is the illusion of understanding.
    • Chapter 57, “Becoming Philosophical” (p. 226)
  • Ideas are the cogs of history—and too often the barricades that stand in its way.
    • Chapter 58, “Philosophy” (p. 230)
  • Confusion is the beginning of wisdom.
    • Chapter 60, “Values and Knowledge” (p. 236)
  • Most moralists, and certainly all those of a religious persuasion, think that pupils should be “taught values” at school, not mainly so that they can apply them in thinking about the implications of science, history and other subjects, but to make them behave in ways that they (the moralists) find acceptable.
    But the point of equipping people to think about ethics is not to impose some partisan set of principles upon them, but to develop their powers of reflection, and to inform them of possibilities and options so that they can think for themselves.
    • Chapter 60, “Values and Knowledge” (p. 236)

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