Friday, 15 April 2011

Grayling's Good Book

I've obtained a copy of A. C. Grayling's chunky Good Book (600 pp + viii) subtitled A Secular Bible. Although it has a cover price of £25 it can be obtained from Amazon for £15.25. Like a traditional bible it is divided into 14"Books" and each Chapter consists of numbered Verses, printed in two columns. Some of the verses are rhyming couplets, though this is not brought out by the typography.

The aim of the book, which has evidently been a labour of love over many years, has been to provide a distillation of traditional secular "wisdom", but brought up to date. By far the majority of the material comes from Grayling's encyclopedic knowledge of the Greek and Roman periods. The most recent influences cited (on page 599) appear to be no later than 1910 (Clemens, i.e. Mark Twain, and Sully-Prudhomme).

Book 1, "Genesis" is an updated version of "The Nature of Things" by Lucretius. By far the longest Books are "Histories" (pp.172-358) which is an account (presumably from Herodotus and Thucydides) of "the great war between East and West, on which the hinge of history turned" i.e. the war between Persia and Greece, and "Acts" (442-559) which concern the lives of Lycurgus, Solon, Pericles, Cato and Cicero. Like the Old Testament these pages include many accounts of gruesome acts of tyrants, particularly the Persian ruler Cambyses. The "Parables" owe more to Aesop (or possibly Dunsany) than Matthew.

It is difficult to make a judgment after a first somewhat cursory reading, but I get the feeling that there is too much sugary "goodness" and stern "duty" in the book, particularly in the Books on "Wisdom", "Proverbs" and the like; personally I would like much more leeway for foolishness and scepticism. I wonder if the author plans to follow up sometime with a "New Testament" that brings in more twentieth century wisdom - if there was any.

Addendum: What the book lacks, from the point of view of one largely ignorant of Roman history is some better indication of the sources. For instance the text "Consolations" addressed to Marcia (of whome there were many in Roman history) is from Seneca, and the text in "Concord" put into the mouth of Laelius is from Cicero. No doubt both of these are too well known to a classicist to need mention, but I had to do a computer search to find them.

1 comment:

  1. That there are no source-citations is too annoying. I'll wait for the annotated edition before buying.