Agony ancients

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, by Natalie Haynes, Profile Books, RRP£15.99, 288 pages

Driving with Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones, by Robert Rowland Smith, Profile Books, RRP£12.99, 224 pages

The Good Book: A Secular Bible, by AC Grayling, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 608 pages

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD79, spewing rock and ash high into the air, Pliny the Younger sat across the Bay of Naples watching with his family. His uncle, Pliny the Elder, insisted on sailing over to take a closer look at this extraordinary phenomenon and help rescue his friends on the other side. The young Pliny declined to come with him, on the grounds that he would rather continue reading Livy’s histories of Rome. As a consequence of his studiousness, he was spared the fate of his uncle, who was stranded at the volcano’s base and killed by the smoke and fumes. What do we learn from this story? Clearly that reading the classics can save your life.

Or at the very least it can change you for the better. At Easter time, non-believers can be left wondering where they should turn for something more meaningful than chocolate egg-laying spring bunnies. Fortunately there is a rich tradition of secular philosophy left to us by the ancients – complete with its own martyr, Socrates, who died not on the cross but through poison forced on him because he refused to give up what he called “the examined life”. A host of new books is setting out to show that these great thinkers of the past can help us find wisdom and meaning in the present.

Natalie Haynes, a former Cambridge classicist turned comedian and writer, aims in her non-fiction debut, The Ancient Guide to Modern Life, to demonstrate the modern-day relevance of the Greeks and Romans. Their civilisation is so close to ours, she argues, that we would do well both to listen to their advice and learn from their mistakes. This underlying commonality to the human experience is also central to Robert Rowland Smith’s latest book, Driving With Plato: The Meaning of Life’s Milestones. A former prize fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, Smith draws on “history’s great thinkers” for a guide to life, from birth to the grave.

Dwarfing both of these in size and ambition, however, is AC Grayling’s The Good Book: A Secular Bible. This work, which Grayling has, in his words, “conceived, selected, redacted, arranged, worked and in part written” draws on thinkers from around the world and throughout history, ranging from Locke to Lao Tzu. But the great majority of the book consists of extracts taken from the classical writers of Greece and Rome. Grayling offers himself as “a guide” among these “master-thinkers”. Describing the result, he claims that “anyone who rises above his daily concerns in hope of finding and following truth, will discover it here”.

Though similar in intent, these three works differ enormously in their approach. Haynes’s introduction to the classical world is jolly, lucid and packed full of good yarns, such as that of the Younger and Elder Pliny mentioned above. But her one-liners are also insightful: ancient cities, for example, “are like drunks: all the fun in the world one moment but with the ever-present risk that they may suddenly flip to violence and aggression”. Her impressive range of material is arranged thematically – with chapters, for example, on politics, philosophy and work; while those on the theatre and the role of women (who usually had to take a back seat – “and often that seat had been many rows back”) are particularly strong.

The book’s only flaw is in trying too hard to live up to its rather misleading title: in attempting to show how we can learn from the ancients, her conclusions can be trite – for example, her claim that because Athenians holding offices of state were paid only expenses we nowadays would get better politicians by offering lower salaries. Haynes is at her best when doing the reverse of what the title suggests: not providing an ancient guide to modern life but a guide for us moderns to the richness and variety of ancient life. This is fascinating and worthwhile even without a takeaway to-do list. The benefits are like those of travel: more a new perspective than a manifesto.

Robert Rowland Smith’s writing has a different kind of lightness: whereas Haynes has the cheery conviviality of the enthusiastic amateur, Smith has the suave wit of the professional intellectual. Driving With Plato divvies life up into 20 significant events, from learning to ride a bike to retirement, and offers on each a pert 10-page essay. In spite of the Plato reference, his sources are not limited to the toga-wearing. The title chapter on learning to drive, for example, ranges from a meditation on freedom, Virginia Woolf and the film Thelma and Louise, through how machines challenge what it means to be human, to the Romantic idea of the quest – then back to freedom again, whereupon he makes the nice observation that the driving licence represents a kind of “false liberty” as it is only conferred when you have proven that “you’ve internalised your instructor’s instructions”.

Smith, however, has his foot a little too firmly on the accelerator pedal as he takes us on this philosophical journey through life. Thoughts and their thinkers whizz by in a blur. What is worse, Smith’s streams of consciousness are full of clever connections but seem to lead nowhere, never collecting into a greater whole. In the chapter on taking exams we read about the gruelling intellectual ordeal he went through to win the prestigious Prize Fellowship at All Souls; the book reads as if he were still writing these assessment essays, erudite and allusive but devoid of any purpose or point beyond impressing some imaginary examiner.

Grayling, a professor of philosophy at Birkbeck College, London, habitually dismisses popular philosophy of this kind as “cream-puff stuff”. His own offering is certainly neither light nor fluffy. Indeed, it is self-consciously sombre: he has adopted a kind of mock-biblical formality in his language in order to convey the seriousness of his intentions. The book, he tells us, “is a text made from all times for all times, its aspiration and aim the good for humanity and the good of the world.” The book’s sections have mock-biblical names – “Genesis”, “Wisdom”, “Parables” etc – and are even written in chapter and verse.

Little wonder, then, that he has been accused of affronting, even mocking, the Bible mark one. But this charge is over-stated: The Good Book is not another volley in the ongoing God debate. Indeed, it does not even mention God once – and that is the point: it is not an anti-Bible but an alternative to the Bible, drawing on wisdom from around the world for the edification of the secular reader.

Grayling takes as his starting point that “A human life is less than a thousand months long” and his concern is how to spend this short time wisely. There is a strong stoical theme, of accepting necessity and finding contentment despite the vicissitudes of the human lot: “The rich man,” for example, “is he who is satisfied with what he has,” while life’s highest goal is “the desire of knowledge for its own sake and the sake of the human good”. This book is Grayling’s proof that the classical and philosophical traditions contain all the guidance a human life needs, without recourse to faith or revelation.

Still, most people, if they wrote their own 600-page Bible and offered it “to humankind” would be regarded as certifiable lunatics. As Grayling, recently appointed president of the British Humanist Association, is not most people, his accusers limit themselves instead to hubris – overweening pride and immodest ambition. Their case is strong: the title is presumptuous, the introduction is pompous and the writing is portentous. The whole is an extraordinary conceit.

But my guess is that Grayling knows all that. These are the faults that the book wears on its cover, as it were. Some readers will be put off by them; others might be intrigued or provoked to look further. Those who make the effort will find quite a treasure trove of poetry, proverbs, and selections from the great philosophers, historians and writers of the past; plus contributions by Grayling himself, particularly in the opening Genesis section and the closing section “The Good”. In this latter he even sets forth his own 10 commandments: “Love well, seek the good in all things, harm no others, think for yourself, take responsibility, respect nature, do your utmost, be informed, be kind, be courageous: at least, sincerely try.”

The real problem, however, is not presumptuousness, much of which can be dismissed as marketing puff and deliberate provocation. Rather it is that Grayling never makes clear where his contributions end and those of his wise forebears begin. There are huge chunks – many tens of pages – taken directly from ancient writers such as Herodotus and Thucydides, retelling, for example, the history of the fifth century BC Greek-Persian Wars. Yet these are not introduced as having been copied and pasted; indeed there are no notes or references at all. The only nod in the direction of sources is a half-page list of “most drawn upon” authors at the back of the book.

Grayling argues that his model is the original Bible, a work that was the “writings of many hands, ancient and otherwise, taken, wrought, arranged, edited, supplemented and changed” – and without footnotes. But for someone who rejects the tradition of revealed truth it is a little odd to adopt its style, rejecting the conventions of the scholarly tradition that Grayling holds up as an alternative.

I would suggest that the real inspiration for this scrapbook approach is not the pre-modern but rather the postmodern. There is a fashion in certain contemporary literary circles for the “collage” work – one that rejects the divisions of fiction and non-fiction, authorship and citation. Its advocates argue that originality is anyway a myth and that truth cannot be copyrighted; all writers should therefore feel free to select and amend as they like in order to create works that best reflect an elusive reality.

This suits well the essayistic style of writers such as Smith, and is exactly what Grayling has attempted on a grander scale in The Good Book. It is, however, enormously, hair-tearingly frustrating. Without knowing who wrote what and when, it is impossible to put the text in its proper context: though this might be acceptable for a few aphorisms, it is deeply unhelpful when we are presented with large chunks of historical material. It also effectively prevents further enquiry: you cannot be inspired by the story of the Persian wars to read more Herodotus if you don’t know it was Herodotus who wrote it. This is a disservice to the sources, to scholarship, and to the reader.

But in spite of this flaw, much of the content of The Good Book is indeed very good. I would recommend first reading Haynes’s introduction to the ancients: many of Grayling’s historical extracts would then make much more sense. All three of these books share the conviction that serious thought should and can be accessible to everyone but what is particularly admirable in The Good Book is the conviction that this should also make a real difference – that it can help us to “live many lives in the fullness of one life”. This is an understanding of philosophy – the love of wisdom – of which Socrates would have approved.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.