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Reviews

The Good Book

Nick Spencer

The secular Bible
A C Grayling
Bloomsbury, 416pp

Grayling's The Good Book is an intriguing volume. It is sold on the jacket flap as 'an alternative, non-religious Bible', 'made in just the same way as the Judaeo-Christian Bible was made: by redaction, editing, paraphrasing, interpolation, arrangement, and rewriting of texts from the last three thousand years of the great secular traditions. The Bible was made over many years by many hands: The Good Book was made by philosopher A C Grayling.'

Beyond the provocative packaging this 'non-religious Bible' raises several questions: First and most obvious: Why? Have the humanists of the world been calling out for 'a book of life and practice' (as it is called) to illuminate the way to 'the good life'? For a promised one to lead them out of darkness?

The Good Book is divided into 14 books - from 'Genesis' to 'The Good' - and each of these is divided into numbered chapters and verses. When even secular readers of the Bible admit that it is a literary jewel, full of timeless poetry and stories that penetrate the depths of human existence, it is easy to see Grayling's Good Book not only as an ambitious undertaking, but a remarkably arrogant one. One wonders how many years his hands have laboured over it - it must have been some while, given the importance of such a formative humanist project. Indeed, it would be a shame for such an enterprise to be constrained or dictated by the realities of contemporary publishing. (O cynic - you who wonder how profit and packaging might relate to 'The Good' that Grayling extols as the aim of all things - read on.)

When one moves beyond form to consider content a further question arises: On what authority? If one wishes to be a 'pious' humanist - if there is no higher good than 'the mind finds within itself' (The Good 9:1) and no higher power than the cumulative voice of humanity - would one not go straight to the horses' mouths? If 'Reason' rules supreme, surely one should exercise it by learning at the feet of the great humanists of history, rather than accepting a single thinker's distillation of them. A N Wilson has called the book 'a commonplace book of quotations', but Grayling provides no scholarly apparatus to indicate his sources, instead including a single page vaguely acknowledging that 'over a thousand texts by several hundred authors' lie behind his words. He provides 124 of 'the most drawn upon' - from Abulfazi to Zhuxi - in a paragraph-long list at the end, but seems to have forgotten to mention that among them are thinkers who were decidedly religious (arguably even polemical, in the case of that pillar of the Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant). If nothing else this means his readers will not sound as knowledgeable as they could at dinner parties - indeed, were they to attribute things to Grayling rather than their rightful owners, they would be in danger of sounding ignorant.

But it is true, after all, that presenting a secular bible in the voices of these luminaries themselves would come at a cost - one would have to pay for things like text permissions, which is expensive, rather tedious, and ugly: it might clutter up the pages with things like footnotes, putting off some less intellectual readers and narrowing the market. It might also become apparent that 'Reason' does not reveal everything to her subjects universally - that is, that the great minds of history don't think alike. But this could confuse the poor readers who need 'a target to aim at' in order to 'master the art of living' (as Grayling writes in his introductory 'Epistle to the Reader'). Could they handle the fact that history's greatest thinkers were not unanimous about what 'the good life' is? That some even believed God to be necessary to it? One had better not take the risk.

In the introductory 'Epistle' Grayling writes that the procedure of compiling his 'Bible' was the same as that of the 'Judaeo-Christian' one, but that 'the purpose is different'. As to purpose, Grayling clarifies, he does not wish to 'demand acceptance of beliefs or obedience to commands, not to impose obligations and threaten with punishments, but to aid and guide, to suggest, inform, warn and console; and above all to hold up the light of the human mind and heart against the shadows of life' (vi). This is encouraging, for it would be quite something for A C Grayling to think himself God.

The Gospel according to Grayling - though claiming no inspiration by a deity - professes a faith of a different kind: faith in the ability of the 'light of the human mind' to illuminate all the shadows of existence. It is a Gnostic Gospel for the age of science. In Genesis 2 we read of the rise of knowledge, when a 'new hope' dawned 'that the world would reveal itself to inquiry and investigation' (2:4). Religion is a thing of immaturity; like other 'legends and the ignorance that give them birth' it is a 'house of limitations and darkness' (2:10). But knowledge, on the other hand:

Knowledge is freedom, freedom from ignorance and its offspring fear; knowledge is light and liberation,
Knowledge that the world contains itself, and its origins, and the mind of man,
From which comes more knowledge, and hope of knowledge again.
Dare to know: that is the motto of enlightenment. (2:11-14)

'Dare to know'. So Kant famously wrote in his essay of 1784, 'What is Enlightenment?' (where, incidentally, one of his examples of not being enlightened is to allow a book to usurp the role of one's own understanding). Like the Sophists of ancient Greece, Grayling will sell you enlightenment - 597 pages of the freedom, light, and liberation of knowledge which might otherwise be called selective plagiarism - for a mere £25. That is certainly cheaper than enrolling at his controversial 'New College of the Humanities' selling knowledge for £18,000 a year.

The Good Book's packaging has turned several heads. But one wonders whether it will turn much of a profit, despite measures to keep costs down: this Gospel flirts more with patronizing platitude than poetry.

(Note to the publisher: although the ribbon is appreciated, superior Bibles usually come with a concordance. I should have liked to have re-read several verses, but did not have a way to find them again).

Kate Kirkpatrick

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