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Philosophy and Life: Exploring the great questions of how to live by A. C. Grayling

This is a substantial book – in content and in weight. “How should I live my life?” asks philosophy professor Grayling, in the opening paragraph. Most of us don’t take the time to ask ourselves this question, he suggests, although we have probably absorbed a shared ‘philosophy of life’ that guides how we choose to live. He says that we may not be aware of having a personal philosophy until an unexpected life event triggers deep self-reflection.

Grayling, who lives and works in the United Kingdom, has written and edited over thirty books on philosophy, history, science and current affairs, as well as newspaper columns. Although Grayling doesn’t provide answers to all the questions that have puzzled philosophers over time, he does recommend four simple, proven steps to achieving a contented life: “Have good relationships, make a contribution to family and community, eat healthily, take exercise”. Who could argue with that?

Grayling explains that there are many types of philosophy, each with a different focus. Some branches, for example, focus on knowledge, truth and reason, others on literary theory or psychoanalysis. Philosophers are novelists, poets, scientists – or indeed anyone who takes the time to reflect on life’s “complexities and possibilities” as well as “how we do, and should, live”.

Grayling outlines the diverse approaches that have been adopted over time, identifying common themes as well as the diversity of philosophical practices. He describes the many influences on ways of thinking and being – both positive and negative. He delves into the differences between ethics and morals – and their interconnectedness. To illustrate his points, he draws on the work of other authors, including contemporary writers such as Ursula Le Guin as well as Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Socrates, Spinoza and numerous others. As might be expected of a philosopher, Grayling shares many personal insights. He muses on the role of significant teachers in his own life, and the lecturers who fueled his interest – including a “vigorous atheist” fond of after-hours port and brandy who would “stalk up and down, smoking furiously and talking very fast”.

Grayling explores not only how we live, but also what happens when we die. He urges us to think beyond the physical loss that occurs when a body finally shuts down. “Distinguish the death of a person from the death of a body. When you die, your personhood becomes a matter of what you leave behind in effects on the lives of others.” Death, he reminds us, is part of life’s rhythm.

The range of topics covered is vast. Chapters include Luck and Evil (in which Grayling writes of the Holocaust and provides stark descriptions of Auschwitz), Duties (he points out that we all have obligations and demands upon us to conform), and ‘The Meaning of Life’ and ‘A Life Worth Living’ (and the distinction between the two).

Although the book covers serious matters, there are elements of humour too. Despite the necessary jargon it does not read like a textbook, although readers will require concentration and commitment to engage with the theories, beliefs and ideas addressed. (And if, like me, you don’t understand Latin, you’ll need to use Google translate to understand the dedication.)

This is an interesting and thought-provoking book that deserves effort and time to read. There’s a whole lot of text and not a lot of white space on each page, so it’s not a book that can – or should – be galloped through. Nevertheless, if there are particular aspects of philosophy that most interest you, or particular philosophers whose teachings you want to learn more about, then the detailed index will help you to leap straight to the relevant page or chapter. Grayling also provides a bibliography with links to many online resources, and comprehensive notes for each chapter.

Reviewer: Anne Kerslake Hendricks

Penguin Random House


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