AC Grayling- No beating about the bush
by George Stafford
Holding the record for the highest number of canings in his school’s history, realizing how humans can attain happiness, knowing what the most important thing is in the life of each and every person on the planet, and solving the Meaning of Life; all things that Anthony Grayling claims to have achieved.
The canings came first. Grayling was born in Luanshya, Zambia, in 1949. He spent his early years in the East African expatriate community, and was educated in African boarding schools. Aged twelve he was sent to Falcon College, situated deep in Zimbabwean bush. Describing himself as “a cheeky little boy”, who was distracted and untidy, he did not respond well to the school’s “awfully stupid” rules. Unfortunately for him, disobedience meant beatings. His tally of canings first surpassed the House record, and – because his Housemaster was fond of whiskey and Grayling was fond of breaking rules – eventually the school one. After a particularly fierce beating one night, he recounts that he was unable to remove his pyjama bottoms the next morning, stuck as they were to his backside with dried blood.
The rebellious streak that Grayling exhibited in his childhood manifests itself today in the hair he wears long and swept back, like a greying David Seaman with his pony-tail undone. But the maverick instinct has also survived to some degree in his professional career. The vast majority of academic philosophers do not believe that it is their duty to engage with the general public. If asked whether they had ever considered writing for popular consumption, most would be likely to respond, just as novelist Martin Amis did when asked whether he had considered writing books for children: “only if I had a serious brain injury”.
But Grayling spends a great deal of time making media appearances, writing for a popular audience, and generally contributing to the public sphere. He defends his actions strongly:
“The whole history of philosophy is about engendering debate, attempting to create a much more disciplined form of public conversation. It’s only been in the last 100 to 150 years when philosophy has been swept back into the academy of people who have been paid salaries all their life to be professional philosophers. This is a recent development, and it’s not clear that its been an entirely healthy. Philosophers have to contribute their ha’penny to the public debate.”
He even goes as far too say that the entire endeavour of professional philosophy might be a mistake, suggesting the emergence of salaried philosophers has made philosophy too insular, making “thinkers too scholastic, and too bound up in the ivory tower.”
Too much abstract, detached thinking draws philosophy away from real life and genuine human experience. It has become too abstract, too complex. For Grayling, this makes it difficult to reflect on one of the major questions of philosophy. ‘What is the good life?’ is a problem central to much of Grayling’s writing, and he has a clear view on what we should be aiming for.
“Its natural – and not altogether incorrect – to think that what we all want, is simply to be happy. But of course the term ‘happy’ is an extremely loose concept, and we need to unpack it if we are to make any use out of it.”
For Grayling, pursuing happiness itself is impossible. Instead, we should pursue certain goals and ways of thinking that are conducive to happiness, and that allow it evolve naturally. Critical to this is the Aristotelian idea of flourishing:
“We need slightly more precise ideas that we can pursue. Flourishing – that is the sense of doing well, and moving towards something worthwhile, identifying things that you value and putting in the good work of trying to realize them.”
It would be a mistake to infer from this that Grayling thinks that the source of happiness is achievement, obtaining wealth or acquiring possessions. His philosophy of flourishing includes striving towards goals, but he stresses that these goals need to be the rights ones. This in turn doesn’t mean that there is a one size fits all vision of human flourishing. Indeed, he thinks success in your work life can be highly conducive to happiness. But, Grayling maintains, a problem comes when people are so focused on their other goals that they forget and neglect the one project that has the capability of making people happy everywhere, whoever they are.
For Grayling, the most important thing to each and every person is the simple task of building good relationships. Forging strong relationships with other people is the cornerstone of Grayling’s construction of happiness. While work can be a huge source of human flourishing, if it takes over one’s life it can become a hindrance rather than a help:
“There are people who allow their consciousness to be changed, or allow their social lives to be captured by the world of work, and that really does have an effect that is subversive.”
In Grayling’s view, our relationships with others take on a central role in our lives. We don’t necessarily have happiness if we have strong relationships, but we can’t have happiness without them, either.
Grayling comes across like he takes his own advice very seriously. He is friendly, accommodating, and extremely cheerful. But the more skeptical observer might be inclined to find all this a bit vacuous. Grayling, like other ‘popular philosophers’, is certainly open to the charge that what he is saying is all rather obvious, just said articulately from a position of authority. Stressing that we should focus on what is important in life, take time to reflect on one’s choices, and appreciate those around us is not particularly original: indeed, almost all of Grayling’s advice is over two thousand years old. Then again, if people didn’t need or want to keep being reminded of it, Grayling wouldn’t sell so many books.
He becomes most animated when he talks about what he considers to be the meaning of life:
“People ask the great philosophical question of life, and there is an answer to it. It is something that we make, something we ourselves seek. We create meaning and import in our own lives by thinking about what we can do, thinking about what is essential to our experience – good relationships – and the idea of doing worthwhile things. Giving our world it’s own meaning, and relishing it; that’s the meaning of life.”
For Grayling, that’s about as abstract and complex as philosophy needs to be: – it seems to be working for him.