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The Good BookReview - The Good Book
A Humanist Bible
by A. C. Grayling
Walker & Company, 2011
Review by Michael Pereira, MA
Jan 31st 2012 (Volume 16, Issue 5)

It is often said that to not believe in some form of deity or not to advocate a specific religious tradition is to 'believe in nothing'. One way to judge A.C. Grayling's 'The Good Book' is as a comprehensive response to this view, by presenting the many complexities that are present in human life, without any reference to deities or the supernatural. The Good Book explores aspects of human life such as love, war and friendship. Grayling examines life in almost every significant aspect.

The Good Book is organized into separate books stylized purposely to remind the reader of the King James English Language Bible. Some of the books allude more to other works such as Aesop's Fables, Herodotus' Histories, or the prose of Schopenhauer. The introductory letter addressed to the reader welcomes anyone to engage with the book and emphasizes how the book is to be read not as a legalistic or dogmatic document but as something to critically engage with as food for thought. This inclusive tone establishes the character of humanism as a worldview and even a person of religious faith is able to engage with the Good Book. In this way Grayling represents the non-religious and secularist outlook at its best: we are all in this predicament called life together.

Sympathy is an important aspect of Grayling's ethical perspective. In books such as Acts and Histories, we are presented with stories of great lives who lived in specific circumstances which facilitated their greatness and also their flaws. The book of Histories, which went on for 100 pages longer than it should have, can be read as a story of how leaders had come to be great and eventually declined due to some imperfection of character. The book of Acts describes the lives of figures of statecraft such as Cicero and Solon in a way that puts them in a wider historical narrative, such as the transition of Rome to an Empire, and the process of founding Athens' democracy respectively.

When reading this book it is easy to forget the absence of religious or metaphysical reference. Many of the parables and accounts occur within an ancient Greek and Roman cultural context. It is interesting to note that this context would be historically inaccurate without reference to the divinities of their time, namely, the Orpheus cult. For the sake of allegories and in the instances of historical account, omission of the supernatural does no harm to the effectiveness of the stories.

In various places, Grayling addresses aspects of the human condition such as the process of aging, living through calamities (book of Proverbs); the importance of social graces in interacting with other people (Epistles) and the art of leadership (Lawgiver). Each individual book deserves its own attention of the kind a book review like this could not allow. The ideas addressed deserve the kind of delicate exegetical consideration that is normally saved for say, the Talmud or Aristotle scholarship. This is not to say that the book is difficult to read. The Good Book is a collection which could read and find relevance at any particular time of their lives.

Given the organization of the book, one can remember passages in terms of its book title, chapter number and verse number not dissimilar to how religious texts are indexed. The separation of the themes in the Good Book allow for a reader to read sections and individual books at their own pace and not necessarily from start to finish. The separation by themed books allow for the option of a casual and noncommittal reading experience, which doesn't require one to remember every intricate detail of what has gone in pages before despite the intimidating size and weight of this book. I would add that maybe a couple of books such as Parables and Histories cannot be read casually, as both build on a continuing narrative thread.

The Good Book is an exercise in the poetic and literary potential of philosophical and moralistic writing. Philosophers are seldom good writers, this is as true now as it has ever been as history remembers the better stylists. In the Good Book, Grayling adheres to the Socratic notion of philosophy as a guide to the good life. Grayling utilizes a variety of literary styles: he writes poetry in 'Songs', some of which are very lyrical while others are not so. The books of Parables and Proverbs are eloquent and good humored, while other books (Histories, Lawgiver) are particularly dry and difficult to read. Overall, I would say that Grayling's writing is 'hit and miss', While the presence of genuine candor and almost personal expression in books such as Songs, Concord and Lamentations; there are some descriptions of sex in the book of Songs which are just terrible to the point of repulsion.

Grayling writes a book such as this to distill the great wisdom from historical writers of numerous traditions. While I cannot comment due to my lack of expertise on the influence of Chinese and non-western writers such as Confucius and Mencius. There was an overwhelming assumption that the default reader's perspective is male. The book of Songs for instance describes a heterosexual relationship with a very specific voluptuous red headed woman. The parables and historical accounts are taken almost entirely from a Greco-Roman context, and homosexuality is given about one paragraph of acknowledgment in a 600 page book. This doesn't fare well in the politics of difference.

Grayling has created a book so bold that it essentially has identified a gap in a publishing market of non-spiritual spirituality, or non-religious self-help. The very presence of such a book almost essentially dares others to try and do better as a work of non-religious moral guidance, and I'm sure many will try. This isn't too bad for a book which may essentially invent a new genre of literature.

 

© 2012 Michael Pereira

 

Michael Pereira has an MA in Philosophy and a BSc in Sociology and Philosophy. He has been invited to give talks on Kant's philosophy, social science and the philosophical underpinnings of ecology. His area of interest is Kant's theoretical philosophy and Kant's (supposed) relevance to contemporary philosophy of science.


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