[13 September 2011]
When I was a teenager—back in that long-ago, barren era between bell-bottoms and grunge—I could’ve done with a book on how to be good. But teenagers, at least in my day, didn’t worry too much about ethics—not while jumping up and down to Madonna’s “Ho-li-day! Ce-le-brate!”
Ethics, or the conscious search for the principles of good behavior, is mostly a grown-up concern. It requires us to step out of our own dance shoes and pimples, and into the shoes and pimples of others. It demands an ability to handle big words and universal concepts that don’t always fit into the lyrics of pop songs. “Every art and enquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, aims at some good; therefore the ultimate good has rightly been described as that at which all things aim”—is one example from the very first page of this good book, by A. C. Grayling.
Indeed, reading The Good Book: A Humanist Bible ain’t no holiday. It condemns “horse-play, romping, frequent and loud fits of laughter, jokes, waggery and indiscriminate familiarity” (Epistles 9:2) and displays only scrupulous pickiness and gravitas. Much like the real Bible, but without Big Father to punish our slip-ups with the torments of hell.
It’s Grayling himself who plays the paternal role here, in the liberal-but-hard-to-please parenting style you’d expect if your father was a modern-day philosophy professor—which is exactly what Grayling is. First he kindly helps us with our homework by distilling into 600 pages thousands of years’ worth of secular thinking; then he expects us to pass final judgment on ourselves.
Confucius, Nietzsche, Rousseau, traditional folklore—from these and many other sources he cuts, edits, and pastes material into a format inspired by the real Bible, freely adding his own stuff in. (Note to either impress or freak out your father: the ‘real Bible’ is an abstraction; in practice there are countless Bible versions, translations, and interpretations.) The sources are unattributed; the language olde-worlde; the text laid out in double columns; and the whole thing divided into books, chapters, and verses, with the books christened ‘Genesis,’ ‘Wisdom,’ ‘Parables’, etc, and hung loosely together.
Genesis, for example, features an apple, a tree, and a garden, but the apple is Newton’s apple, not Adam’s, since the aim is to introduce readers to a scientific account of the origins of life and of the nature of existence; ‘Wisdom’ goes dialectical in its statement that “the recognition of necessities is a liberation” (6:5), but stretches this insight dangerously close to the passive, Stoical ‘let it be’ attitude: “Do not demand that things should happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen” (11:1); ‘Songs’ is a series of poems celebrating love, nature, and life, and prophesying that “at fifty and sixty one is free from all ills” (103); etc.
Being the work of man (more accurately, many men, few women) and not God, The Good Book is an eclectic and contradictory mix, containing much that really is very good, but also some that’s bad and ugly, and quite a lot that’s unbearably dull—yes, much like the ‘real’ Bible. Worst of all is ‘Histories’, a 187-page chronicle of the wars between the ancient Greeks and Persians. Unless you happen to be an avid collector of military trivia, it will reveal to you nothing more fascinating than King Cyrus’s opinion of marketplaces (sites in the middle of cities where people gather to cheat and lie) and King Xerxes’s grooming habits (only soaps his head on his birthday).
In principle, of course, anybody could compose their own humanist bible by scrapbooking together other people’s great (and not so great) texts—perhaps even pop songs. I half expected Grayling to assign readers this task as homework, but he doesn’t. I suppose it’s cheeky enough that he actually goes ahead and does it himself.
The final two books come closest to fulfilling the author’s paternalistic good intentions. ‘Epistles’ is a collection of letters from father to son containing personal advice on, among other matters, the importance of keeping good company. (Translation—What? You’ve got 3,000 friends on Facebook?). However, since advice is “What the wise do not need and fools do not take” (Proverbs 3:1), it will only be of help to readers mature enough to admit that they fall somewhere in between.
The final chapter, ‘The Good’, briefly sums up the best of Grayling’s humanist case. Namely, that death is not the end but a return to the elements; that it’s “a wonderful and grand thing to be oneself and part of all, and to have the dignity and the capacity for thought”; and that it’s “our duty to make and find something good for ourselves and our companions in the human predicament”.
It closes off by asking us to “help one another” and “build the city together”, so that “the best future might inhabit, and the true promise of humanity be realised at last”. The humanist Heaven on Earth would never be perfect; but it would be, it would be so nice.