“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.”
Philosophy is to learn how to die, Montaigne tells us. It’s not clear Grayling agrees: as the founder of the New College of the Humanities, a private liberal arts college in London, he very much wants to teach people how to live. The Meaning of Things is a collection of short essays (2-3 pages) to that purpose, meant for a general audience and on topics ranging from loyalty, to faith, to fear, to Christianity.
Grayling is a self-described man of the left, and the essays show a consistent perspective on the world, applied to a wide range of subjects. He argues, for example, that we are today very moral – historically accepted ideas from prostitution to child labour are now forbidden – but that we are not, by and large, civil. “The loss of civility means that social feeling has been replaced by defensiveness, with groups circling their wagons around ‘identity’ concepts of nationality, ethnicity, and religion, protecting themselves by putting up barriers against others.”
His best essays are on subjects such as racism, civility, and leisure. His weakest are those that deal with religion; an aggressive atheist, he does not give his opponents the benefit of the doubt they deserve, and so his essays on the subject sometimes feel like one-sided monologues rather than engagement with an issue or idea.
A subject as vast as fear can hardly be addressed well in two pages. What Grayling does do well is direct the attention to some possible sources for further insight: the essays draw from a wide range of sources, helping them fit into the broader scope of philosophy. Grayling himself also presents some nice insights, and most readers will likely find an essay or two that appeals. A difficult book to sit down and read in a single sitting, but certainly interesting as one to leaf through and browse as the mood strikes. Grayling’s goal, after all, is to prompt reflection, and in that he succeeds.