Philosopher AC Grayling on our age of political uncertainty

by Diana Wichtel / 23 September, 2017
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AC Grayling. Photo/Getty Images

The prolific writer and philosopher AC Grayling says democracy is noisy and chaos can be productive.

We’re supposed to be talking about the 17th century. AC Grayling, the luxuriantly maned British philosopher, writer and public intellectual, has written a book about that rowdy, bloody, intellectually fertile epoch.

The Age of Genius makes a spirited case that the 17th century saw the greatest change to have occurred in the mind of humanity. It was the age of René Descartes, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, Shakespeare, Donne and Galileo. Science began to get the upper hand over religion as a way of explaining the world. In the 17th century, declares Grayling, modernity was born.

A lot to be going on with there, then. But just try to get Anthony Clifford Grayling, CBE, to stop talking about what he sees as a maddening reversal in the inexorable progress of humanity in our own times: Brexit. Well, he is very active in the “Brexit resistance”. “Ha, I am indeed. It’s a sort of nightmare,” he says, in emphatic Oxbridge tones. “Now, if you’ve got another 24 hours to chat …”

He’s only half-joking. He threatens to send me Hansard documents. “One can supply them very easily. But very, very briefly …”

As a public intellectual, Grayling is of the Richard Dawkins school. He takes to Twitter with the sort of energy that makes people create parody accounts. Sample “AC Grayling-ish” Brexit tweet: “I gave them my best and what did the great British public do? Bastards.”

The non-parody version of Grayling, on the phone from London, doesn’t do “briefly”. In The Age of Genius he marches us through the Thirty Years’ War, the bloody upheaval that helped spur the 17th century’s advances in science and philosophy, in what can seem like real time, though the section repays reading for such pivotal episodes as the Defenestration of Prague, which gives literal resonance to the idea of throwing politicians out of office.

You imagine he’d like to see a few politicians defenestrated over Brexit. “It was meant to be advisory,” he says, of the 2016 EU referendum. The vote on the day represented only 37% of those able to vote. “Now, there is no constitutional arrangement anywhere in the world that could possibly think that was a justification for leaving the EU.”

The referendum was badly constructed, he fumes. “It excluded 16- and 17-year-olds, British expats who had been abroad for more than a certain length of time and EU citizens living in the UK and paying their taxes here … The three groups of people most materially affected by any referendum were deliberately excluded.” It is, he says, a disaster. “And it’s premised on a misunderstanding, fostered by the tabloid press here over decades, of what all the advantages of EU membership really are.”

He’s characteristically undaunted. “A survey of the great landscape of history shows steps forward. There might be a step back every now and then. I think we’re in one of those moments of faltering and uncertainty.”

But as he argues in the book, chaos can be productive. “In the breakdown of systems of control over the movements of people and their ideas, exchanges … were able to occur with much greater freedom than hitherto,” he writes. The book is ambitious in scope, covering everything from the scientific marvel of the Transit of Venus to the galvanising of ideas by the development of a European postal system. The colourful cast includes French priest and indefatigable correspondent Marin Mersenne, who acted as a sort of “internet server” in a new “republic of letters”.

How has the book been received? “Very well, by historians of ideas and by philosophers. And it’s been rather grudgingly attacked by archival historians, who think that history is just one thing after another and you can’t trace any connections or lines of progress.

“As a philosopher, I’m interested in the history of ideas. The history of how they evolved and how intellectual progress happened is an important way of understanding the concepts themselves.”

The “liberation of the mind” Grayling charts was a mixed bag. Until 1790, it remained legal to burn witches at the stake. Newton advanced science but clung to magical thinking, remaining fascinated with alchemy. In those war-torn, fractured times, a despot could still rise. “The contest in the 17th century was between the noise and inefficiency of getting more people involved in politics who felt they had some kind of stake in what was going on, as opposed the Louis XIV, Sun King figure, whose every word was a diktat.”

Democracy is noisy, says Grayling. “It’s lots of discussion and disagreement and suggestions and criticisms … It’s inefficient in a positive way. Dictatorships are silent and very efficient.”

Reading The Age of Genius in the age of Trump, Putin and Le Pen, it all sounds a little familiar: mistrust of science, alternative facts, denialism and despotism in the air. “Oh, very much so. Some of the oppositions that are present today were present, in a slightly different key, in the 17th century. So the opposition between evidence-based, scientific, rational attempts to make sense of our world and to understand ourselves are being opposed by lots of traditional ways of thinking, particularly religious ways.”

As science becomes ever more complex, the gap becomes greater. “Any of the major religions, you can explain the chief doctrines in about half an hour. It takes a bit longer to understand physics.”

Grayling has yet another book, Democracy and Its Crisis, published last month. “People are feeling afraid and uncertain about the direction democracy might be leading them in, and so they’re reaching for these awful people like Trump, who just bang their fist on the table and say, ‘I’ll do this and I’ll do that’. The strong arm, the desire for it, alas, we saw in the 1930s and too often in our history, and it really has to be contested.”

He doesn’t hold back about Donald Trump. “He’s a great big narcissistic baby. His attitude towards foreign-policy matters is made up on the hoof. He’s a real danger. And North Korea is run by an equally narcissistic baby who hasn’t got any better idea than Trump has. So we live in dangerous times in that respect.”

Still, as The Age of Genius argues, dangerous times can be productive when it comes to change. “Of course, it would be vastly better if we could achieve the same kinds of progress and the fostering of new perspectives without having to kill people to let it happen. To have the advantages without the disadvantages.” Indeed. We turn to the refugee crisis in Europe, our era’s flow of people across borders. In the short term, there may be social tensions, says Grayling, “but in the long term, it may be that these kinds of inevitable societal changes are what drive history forward, which indeed happened with great displacements of population in the 17th century, because of that war.”

Richard Dawkins. Photo/Getty Images

In Grayling’s 17th century, you are always just a couple of degrees of separation from Brexit. He recalls a moment in the campaign when Trump mentioned Brexit approvingly in a speech. Trump also tweeted, “They will soon be calling me MR BREXIT!” For Grayling, it was a hugely significant moment, to do with Big Data, the mining of information from social media to target audiences.

“They begin to identify the kind of people who have certain kinds of anxieties or desires and then they can use this to target messages to particular constituencies.

Grayling says that a Trump speech may sound like “inconsequential bloviation” but is, in fact, precision-targeted bloviation. “Each constituency will hear the message and it will resonate with them and they won’t really pay much attention to the other messages that don’t, which is why you can even say contradictory things. In this way, you can take lots of little groups of people and aggregate them into a single cohort to vote for you.”

There’s debate about the extent and influence of such techniques, but it does sound scary. “Yes, it is. You can now manipulate referendums and elections and you can win them. You get bigger majorities by using these techniques.”Not that he’s a Luddite. “Think about the great advantages that increased communication brought to the 17th century and you now look at the tremendous facility of communication – here you and I are, on opposite sides of the world, chatting away on a telephone.” But there’s a cost. “Email, mobile telephones, WhatsApp, Facebook – they all strip us naked to the view of any public or private agency that wants to invade our privacy. We haven’t really thought through the consequences of that properly yet, so we’re grappling with our own success in most respects.”

Grayling seems to find time to grapple with just about everything, including God. He’s been called the fifth horseman, along with Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris, of the New Atheism. The nice one, I put it to him. “I’ve seen myself described as ‘the velvet atheist’. I don’t know who invented that one, but I quite like it,” he says.

One of the more-than-30 books he has written is The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, a title that might have had him burnt at the stake in the 17th century. But for him, the argument isn’t so much against God as for secularism and humanism: “I would like people to know that they don’t have to cling to a religion in order to have a very rich and satisfying view about how we should live.”

These days, for him, a rich and satisfying life means he’s back to the barricades. Activism is his short-term solution for what ails democracy. “I’ve still got the 1960s hairstyle,” he muses. “I haven’t been on a demo or a march for several decades, but I’m getting back onto the streets with anti-Trump and anti-Brexit and the March for Science.”

In the long term, his answer is education: “If you go back to the 1920s and 1930s, some of the leading philosophers of that time – Bertrand Russell, Wittgenstein, Karl Popper, who, by the way, taught for a while in New Zealand – all of them got involved in education.”

Carrying on that tradition earned Grayling the title of the most hated man in academia when he started a college in London in 2012. He is to be referred to, his assistant tells me, as “philosopher and Master of New College of the Humanities”. Grayling founded the private college at a time of protest at a rise in tuition costs at state-funded universities, and its even-higher fees attracted accusations of elitism. He took a bit of flak “from some quarters in the academic community”. Someone told him a joke he thinks explains the negativity. “‘How many professors does it take to change a light bulb? And the answer is, ‘Change?’”

In a way, he says, the college is a form of activism, too. “There’s no direct public subsidy for the teaching of humanities. The universities that used to be polytechnics have had to give up a lot of their courses. If you go back to our point about an intelligent, alert, civilised community, things like the humanities matter greatly.” It’s going well, he says. He offers to show me around if I’m in London.

Christopher Hitchens. Photo/Getty Images

As for the trends in some universities to things such as no-platforming (the proscribing of contentious speakers on campuses) and trigger warnings (of distressing content in a text or film), not on Grayling’s watch.

“Bad ideas only get worse if the people who have them begin to feel that they are being marginalised. But you get them out in public, you can really attack them. At my own college, I say, ‘This is a safe space for free speech.’”

Well, he likes a fight. He’s a politely pugnacious, unapologetic idealist. “It’s a little bit like holding the lantern above the floodwaters and trying to pass it on,” he says, of his education project, “and the hope is that, little by little, more candles and lanterns will be lit from it.”

Now 68, Grayling maintains the workload of a driven man and a remorseless forward momentum that may have its roots in personal tragedy. When he was 19, he lost his sister and then his mother. His family were living in Zambia, where his father worked for a bank, when his sister, then living in South Africa, was murdered. Her husband was tried and acquitted. The case has never been solved. Soon after the murder, Grayling’s mother died of a heart attack.

For a long time, he never spoke of these things. “They were – they are – very painful. And I also used to think it would be a burden on others to mention it, until I realised that these losses and griefs are very common and they are just part of what it is to be human.

“When you think of whole families being wiped out, in Afghanistan or Syria or in war atrocities, you realise that tragedy is the shadow cast by the happiness that we feel, by the positive things that we do.”

The Age of Genius is out to show how the worst of times can push history forward. Yes, he says, his tragedies have driven him. “These horrible things happen in life, so one has to work to try to make something good in their place.”

He’s been called, not always kindly, “Whiggish” – the sort of thinker, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “who interprets history as the continuing and inevitable victory of progress over reaction”. In other words, he’s a hopeless optimist.

“It’s a slightly worried optimism,” he says, “because, of course, bad things happen and preventable bad things happen and it takes such a lot of time, energy and watchfulness to try to prevent them, or to lessen their harm. But overall, my view is that there isn’t any alternative to optimism, other than jumping off a very high building.”

As I write, he’s still tweeting up an anti-Brexit storm: “Big Ben symbolism? It’s fallen silent in dismay at Brexit; not wanting to ring the UK’s knell. It’ll chime when our EU membership is secure.” He’s undaunted, besieged, ever hopeful. “There’s a big fight on our hands,” he tells me, with a certain glee, “but we’re pretty determined to win it if we can.”


This article was first published in the September 23, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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