Oct 30

Book Review ~ What is Good? by A C Grayling

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One of the best books examining the origins, history and evolution of humanist ideas is “What is Good?” by A C Grayling, Britain’s foremost humanist philosopher.

Not always a light read, (Prof. Grayling doesn’t talk down to his readers), the author traces ideas of what it means to live a good life from Classical Greece, (Aristotle, Plato, Epicurus), through the backward step taken by the dominance of monotheistic religions, onwards to what he calls “The Second Enlightenment”: The Renaissance (Petrarch, Cicero, Quintillian, Erasmus), and then on to the “Third Enlightenment” of the 18th century (Kant, Descartes, Diderot, Voltaire, Hume).

Along the way he discusses the irrelevance of religion to morality. He criticises the view of Christian philosophers who claim that “good is what god wills in accordance with his nature.” In a particularly scathing passage he declares:
“Religion is not only anti-moral, it is immoral. Elsewhere in the world religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faith. It is a mistake to think that Christian clerics in Western countries would never behave likewise, for it is not long in historical terms since their predecessors were burning heretics at the stake or mounting crusades against them, whipping people or slitting their noses and ears for adultery…” He concludes: “If one looked to religions to provide historical examples of the moral life in practice, one would have to forget a great deal of immorality to find it.”

Grayling goes on to examine the conflict in the 19th century between religion and scientific discoveries in geology and biology, particularly after Darwin’s publication of “On the Origin of Species”. He proceeds to discuss the revival of ethics in modern philosophy and examines the debate surrounding the right to die. He rounds off the book with a spirited defence of Science:
“Science is to the contemporary world what art was to the Renaissance: a magnificent creative achievement that transforms humanity’s perception of itself and its relationship to the world.”

There is a lot in this book to inform and inspire the non-academic humanist. It is an ideal read for someone who wants to dig deeper into the ideas behind humanism. Grayling is a writer of great clarity and erudition.

Colin Gunter – Chair, Ely Humanists
(Review of Phoenix, 2004 ed)

Paperback: Phoenix; New Ed edition (3 Oct 2007) ISBN 978-0-7538-1755-1

Kindle: Phoenix; New Ed edition (14 July 2011)