Yesterday, I attended a lecture by Professor A.C. Grayling. His subject was Responding to Socrates: Philosophy and the Making of the Best Life. Grayling is a good, if rather affected, speaker. He's big on affectation actually, with his flowing locks and cravat. I welcome such signs of rebellion against the grey, puritan spirit of modern Britain.
There is little of the rebel in his thinking, however. A regular contributor to
Pravda the Guardian, he seems to me, while undoubtedly a serious thinker, very much an apologist for New Labour's and now Blue Labour's despotic approaches to government. His political views have, as he has put it himself, "a permanent list to port."
His subject was how to respond to the challenge in Socrates' statement that "the unconsidered life is not worth living." This thought is at the heart of post-Enlightenment values in the West. I could not agree with Socrates more. I could hardly agree with Grayling less. As he spoke, he seemed the model of the reasonable man. Everyone, he argued, should try to plan his goals in life, based upon his inclinations and according to his talents. As his life unfolds, he should consider the extreme responses to every choice that faces him, only so as to steer the middle path between them.
Grayling's opinions, rooted firmly in the classical tradition, seemed sagely liberal. The ancients, he explained, valued the martial virtues of courage, strength and endurance but Socrates favoured the "civic virtues". These, according to Grayling, mean that a man should follow his own inclinations only insofar as they do not conflict with the interests of society.
Man is, of course, a social animal. A civilised man should respect others in his community. The danger, however, is in the nature of that "respect" and the way in which it is enforced. I accept I have a duty to do no physical harm, but reject (mere politeness apart) any duty to spare another's feelings. My freedom to express myself is not limited by the sensitivities of those around me. I expect of them pre-Socratic virtues in the face of my words, if not my deeds. Unlike most in modern Britain (and unlike the law) I therefore respect the freedom of Umran Javed to call for the bombing of Denmark and the United States, while not respecting his right (had he the martial virtues) actually to do it. What he says may be infuriating, but I claim no right to assault him, either personally, or by the use of State power on my behalf, for saying it. In return, I expect equal forbearance if I call (for example) for the abolition of the the Commission for Equality & Human Rights, or the bombing of Tehran.
Professor Grayling would consider me lacking in "civic virtues" on all these counts. I also consider that I should be able to choose whomever I please as my friends, colleagues, customers and suppliers. Professor Grayling disagrees. He pompously declaimed that he was against "discrimination of all kinds." Let us pass lightly over the fact that, in saying this, he abuses the English language. It was clear from the cut of his clothes, for example, that he discriminates firmly in his choice of tailor. I assume he meant to say that, with tedious conventionality, he disapproves of discrimination on certain specific grounds; the currently fashionable ones being race, sex and sexual orientation. On this basis, he was firmly against the Catholic position in relation to the new Sexual Orientation Regulations.
He is strongly anti-clerical in his views (although he was sickeningly unctuous to the religious in his audience in regretting his strong tone against churchmen in the past). It seems to be his view that the religious man by definition lives an unconsidered life, perhaps on the basis that faith is the opposite of reason. As my readers know, I am as much an atheist as Grayling. However, I hope I have the humility to accept that others may arrive at different conclusions, even after all due consideration.
Given the failure of the Socialist idea as a justification for State power, would-be totalitarians are on a quest for a replacement. The members of the proletariat having proved resistant to the temptations of the dictatorship offered them by Socialist Statists, today's "true believers" have sought to replace them in the vanguard of tyranny with "oppressed minority groups." Ever greater powers are demanded to prevent others (to most of whom the idea had never occurred) of "discriminating" against such groups. So effective has this tactic been that a ludicrous game of "trumps" is now underway, as the Statists try to work out which victim group outranks the others on any given issue. Meanwhile, all except the hapless, despised white working classes (the last acceptable hate figures, as Jade Goody recently found) vie with each other for victim status, so as to increase their claims to the "protection" of the State and the money extorted from its taxpayers.
The more victims clamour for protection, the more powerful it seems the State must be. The more our every move is seen to cause nebulous harm to such groups, the less free we are to live as we please, however considered our choices may be. It is possible so much to qualify a thought as to make it meaningless. That seems to be Professor Grayling's approach. I was sad to see him so well-received by an audience that should have known better.