Sunday 15 September 2019

Review: The Good Book: A Secular Bible by AC Grayling

Bloomsbury, £25

AC Grayling is Professor of Philosophy at London University, and an ardent atheist, who, like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, believes that religion in general and the Bible in particular has brought much harm and superstition to humanity.

And so he has composed a "secular bible", which aims to provide us with a parallel set of stories, metaphors, wisdom, experience, proverbs and narratives to rival the Old and New Testaments.

You have to hand it to him for fortitude: he has composed nearly 600 pages in this endeavour, drawing on a number of sources, many from the ancient world, and preferably Pagan rather than Jewish or Christian. Some Christians have crept into the canon -- Baudelaire was critical of Christianity, but couldn't let go of it; Chaucer went on Christian pilgrimages, rather famously; Milton was a devout Protestant; Montaigne a practising Catholic; Newton a committed believer and Shaftesbury something near to a Christian fanatic. As for Swift, he was an ordained minister of the Church of Ireland. But Professor Grayling clearly favours the ancient Greeks and Romans -- and humanists such as Spinoza and Mill -- most.

His bible is divided into sections, such as "Genesis", "Parables", "Lamentations", "Songs", "Proverbs", etc. Some sections can certainly be read with profit -- he also draws on folklore traditions that are the fruit of long experience. "Anger is a bad counselor." "A spoilt child never loves its mother." "As the twig is bent, the tree inclines." "Rashness is the note of youth, prudence of old age."

When he turns to "Songs", he has a lyrical touch, or perhaps it is Aristotle, Socrates or Sappho prompting the lyricism. (And surely "Do you know where the lemon blossoms grow?", is straight from Goethe: "Kennst du das Land wo die Citronen blumen?" If Goethe is writing the script, lyricism there will be.) But there are long tracts, particularly in "Histories" which are mightily tedious, and where the narrative is dense and difficult to follow.

Yet it might surprise A C Grayling to know that much of the philosophy -- in terms of values -- that he expresses throughout the tome is not so very different from how a Christian child would have been instructed at home or in school. Examine your conscience daily. Do not be covetous. Pursue virtue. The world is often shallow, and life always involves suffering. Achieve self-mastery. The love of money is the road to corruption. Pleasure will have its cost. Kindness is a great good. Courage is a cardinal virtue.

He seems particularly fond of the Spartan virtues of austerity, and, most notably, the importance of disciplining -- even chastising -- a child. These Greek ideas flowed into Judaism and Christianity, so perhaps they are part of a common heritage of values anyway. And since the Renaissance, Christianity absorbed many of the ideas of the ancient world -- which, incidentally, was far from being agnostic or atheistic: the Greeks and Romans had a strong sense of the divine. Even stoics like Marcus Aurelius refer constantly to the spiritual element in our destiny.

Society will always need a moral compass, and to try to compose a secular bible is itself a well-intentioned undertaking. But can it ever have anything like the influence of the Bible, which is the residue not only of universal faith, but the seed of art, the base of law, the source of literature and the maker of entire nations -- as well as being accessible to a wide range of people on so many different levels? No.

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