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SWF 2011

SWF 2011: In conversation with A C Grayling

Monday, May 23, 2011
With his unrestrained and flowing grey hair AC Grayling might have been conducting a packed house in a frozen line dance, such were the number of heads cocked attentively to a talk that referenced Socrates, Aristotle, courtesans, Monty Python and Jim Carrey. And that was before he told us the meaning of life.

In The Good Book, Grayling explained, he has combined humanity’s wisest thinkers in a secular bible with only one commandment: “Think for yourself.”

Through compiling history’s best thinkers, Grayling aims to give everyone access to the tools they need to make up their own minds about right and wrong, and for them to negotiate with other people for a peaceful coexistence. He wants a world in which each person can live a good life — whatever that means to each of us — without harming anyone else or being forced to live according to anyone else’s morality.

The distinction, he argued, is between this humanistic way and the normative codes — produced by religions, totalitarians and moralists — that apply rules that everyone must follow without regard to their individual needs, talents and goals. “If we are not allowed to be individuals, our lives are distorted,” he said.

“Islam” means “submission” and “sin” means “disobedience”, he pointed out, referencing his competitors’s Good Books, which are based on a relationship of obedience between Man and some version of God. There is no chance for a person in that relationship to make his or her own decisions about how to live a good life.

“The diversity of human life should make it possible for each of us to find a good life commensurate to our talents,” he said. “We should be capacious in our understanding of human variety.”

In producing his own Good Book, Grayling modelled himself on the King James Bible, both in terms of layout — twin columns, chapter and verse — ease of reading, and the editorial process. Just as the Bible was written through a redactive process — taking documents from different sources and tailoring them to fit a single whole — Grayling has taken 30 years to bring together the best and most relevant thoughts of the best thinkers. Importantly, he does not attribute individual ideas to individual thinkers either through the text or footnotes.

“Knowing who the author of an idea is can come between you and the idea,” he said. He pointed to the tendency of readers to put greater weight on an observation because Socrates made it but dismiss it if it came from someone unknown. In a statement that might have chilled any copyright lawyers in the audience, he said, “Anything wise and true belongs to everybody, whether it was said by Aristotle or Joe Bloggs.”

“The meaning of life,” Grayling told the audience, “is what each one of us makes it through our choices and goals. There are lots of good meanings and each of us can make our own.”

The challenge, he said, was taking the time to decide what for each of us was the meaning of our lives. “Most people would rather die than think,” he quoted Bertrand Russell, “and most people do.”

If there is one person who could change that, AC Grayling with his humour, accessibility and inspirational mind could be Him.

By Steven Lewis
Steven Lewis writes the Kindle Self-Publishing blog for writers interested in becoming self-published authors. His seminar Selling Your Ebook on Amazon runs again at the Sydney Writers’ Centre.


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