The Meaning of Things

Written by AC Grayling.


Reader, lo! a well-meaning Booke 

In the preface to his little book of miscellaneous essays called Guesses at Truth, the nineteenth-century cleric Julius Hare wrote, 'I here present you with a few suggestions... little more than glimmerings, I had almost said dreams, of thought... If I am addressing one of that numerous class who read to be told what to think, let me advise you to meddle with this book no further. You wish to buy a house ready furnished; do not come to look for it in a stone quarry. But if you are building up your opinions for yourself, and only want to be provided with the materials, you may meet with many things in these pages to suit you.' There is little in common between Hare's outlook and the reflections which follow below, but with these words he provides a most suitable preface to them.

Socrates famously said that the unconsidered life is not worth living. He meant that a life lived without forethought or principle is a life so vulnerable to chance, and so dependent on the choices and actions of others, that it is of little real value to the person living it. He further meant that a life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to a human agent caught in the webs of society and history.

As the phrase suggests, the 'considered life' is a life enriched by thinking about things that matter - values, aims, society, the characteristic vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life. It is not necessary to arrive at polished theories on all these subjects, but it is necessary to give them at least a modicum of thought if one's life is to have some degree of shape and direction. To give thought to these matters is like inspecting a map before a journey. Looking at a map is not the same thing as travelling, but it at least provides orientation, a sense of place and of how places relate to each other - especially those one would like to visit. A person who does not think about life is like a stranger mapless in a foreign land; for one such, lost and without directions, any turning in the road is as good as any other, and if it takes him somewhere worthwhile it will have done so by the merest chance.

The discussions - the sketch maps - in the following pages are, with proper diffidence, put forward as prompts to reflection merely, or better: as contributions to a conversation. They are certainly not offered as definitive statements on the topics they address. And because I rarely live up to the virtues they extol, or avoid the vices they condemn, no claim to sainthood, still less sanctimony, is implied by them - far from it.

These discussions began as contributions to the Guardian newspaper, in the form of the 'Last Word' column in the Saturday Review, accompanied by Clifford Harper's brilliant illustrations. Most of them are short, some are longer. Each is self-contained, although neither their grouping nor their arrangement is arbitrary. Thus, comments on moralising are followed by some on tolerance, remarks on fear by some on courage, remarks on sorrow, death and hope are placed together, as are those on frankness and lying, betrayal and loyalty, blame and punishment. Other topics which naturally pair - love and hate, for example - can certainly be read together, but are placed apart for other reasons. Mainly, however, the discussions are meant to be read as separate self-standing pieces, and occasionally as clusters, but not as a sequence - for this is not a continuous treatise, but a miscellany prompted by commentary on the daily life of the human condition. They once each had the space of a week around them, adding to their self-containment. But just as all roads lead to Rome, so all these topics lead to one another by more and less direct routes, as a little reflection on the groupings shows.

The book is divided into three Parts, one of which concerns some of the things that are enemies to human flourishing, among them racism, nationalism, religion, revenge, poverty, and depression. Doubtless, some will take offence at the inclusion of religion in this category. If all espousers of religion behaved like Quakers or shared the views of Thervada Buddhists, there would be little to quarrel with in religion saves its super- naturalistic beliefs. But religion has for the greatest part been, and still remains, an affliction in human affairs, and cannot be omitted from discussion of the considered life.

Yet I believe passionately in the value of all things spiritual - by which I mean things of the human spirit, with its capacity for love and enjoyment, creativity and kindness, hope and courage. Although mankind is the author of much monstrous cruelty, of despoliation, greed, conflict and ugliness, it is also the author of much that is best in the world, which is a reason both for celebration and optimism. Some people seem unable to allow that mankind is the source of what makes the world bearable - pity, beauty and tenderness - nor that it is human genius which is responsible for the achievements of art and science. Such is responsible for the achievements of art and science. Such people have to believe in the existence of supernatural agencies as the source of the world's good, while fathering its evil exclusively on human beings. That is a calumny on mankind, as well as an irrational hangover from mankind's ignorant and fearful infancy, when nature was believed to be governed by invisible and often hostile powers. One thing that a consideration of life should help to achieve is liberation from such tyrannies of belief, replacing them with informed commitments instead to the human affections, tolerance, and the wisdom taught by individual experience.