A.C. Grayling: Master of Shallowness and Naiveté

by Christopher DeGroot (May 2018)

A View of Utopia, Ambrosius Holbein, 1518


This method answers the purpose for which it was devised: it saves lazy editors from working and stupid editors from thinking. But somebody has to pay the price, and that somebody is the author.
                                                                         –A.E. Housman



n an unintentionally amusing article called “If I ruled the world?,” published on September 8 of last year in Prospect, the so-called “leading magazine of ideas,” in a section purporting to be philosophy, A.C. Grayling, Master of the New College of the Humanities in England, outlines the sort of utopian dream by which intellectuals in our time endeavor to become shining stars in a fool’s firmament.


Despite the difficulty connoted in the proverb about taking horses to water, I’d try to get as many people as possible to share the ideal of a united and rational world, where generosity and tolerance prevail, and where moralism and the infantilising, divisive and conflict-promoting effects of religion fade away. Such a world would be a literate one, where shared humane values promote not merely acceptance but celebration of diversity, so that what people have in common and what makes them individual can both work for the good.


The sources of our world’s troubles are superstitions and the conflicts they prompt, injustice and the bitterness it prompts. Getting rid of injustices, and replacing superstition by more mature thought, would be a big step to freeing humankind from its painful internecine quarrels, so that it can face the real challenge not just of saving the planet, but of enhancing the experience of all life in it, human and otherwise, into something truly good.


Grayling would like to see a “celebration of diversity, so that what people have in common and what makes them individual can both work for the good.” Of course, diversity signifies diverse values and interests, many of them incompatible—a thorny problem in itself. Grayling overlooks another thing that makes diversity so troublesome, both psychologically and practically: the egoistic nature of man, which, when it cannot get what it wants, or even when its ends are simply hindered, will often think it has been done “wrong,” that it is “a victim” of some sort, especially in our sentimental, rights-centric era, when progressivism is not easily distinguished from the borderline personality.


The natural tendency to equate thwarted ends with a grievance or injury is greatly exacerbated by diversity, a state of affairs that produces conflicting ends by definition. It is a profound truth, although little known in our Glittering Dark Age, that because man is inherently self-interested, to the extent that our interests are not bound together by a common idea and, what is much more, concomitant feeling of unarguable justification, which depends on a common culture and history, the state is sure to be characterized by fierce strife, by the clash of conflicting interests and concomitant cultural inheritances that people themselves are in the deepest sense. As we shall see, it is the function of diversity to obviate cultural unity, so that the crucial task of justifying how we shall live together must be incoherent.


Averse to religion (mere “superstition,” to him), Grayling ironically gives us a “moralism” and “infantilising” of his own. Like so many liberals today, he appears to believe that through a rather vague notion of “more mature thought”—by which he intends, one supposes, the new Holy Trinity of (value-neutral) Science, Technology and (paper thin) Liberalism—the incompatibility of values and interests, although the product of millennia and of the deepest epistemic social conditioning (i.e., that process by which the mind perceives and therefore evaluates phenomena), and therefore ingrained in human psychology itself, can adequately be dealt with: a process that will perhaps culminate in a “united and rational world,” “something truly good.” He is a very curious philosopher, A.C. Grayling, because even if, as one may reasonably believe, there is a shared human nature that persists through the centuries, still our justificatory practices are rooted in specific cultural ideas of value: and while these specific cultural ideas of value may have certain vital affinities, it is by no means clear that their fundamental incompatibilities can be overcome by means of “more mature thought,” a phrase in which there seems to be nothing but Grayling’s own conceit. Dispensing with religion, Grayling would have “generosity and tolerance prevail,” “getting rid of injustices” (as he conceives of them) and “freeing humankind from its painful internecine quarrels.” One wants to know, then, just what are those “shared humane values [that] promote not merely acceptance but [the] celebration of diversity.” Might these be the same values that compel so-called Antifa, diversity’s most committed promoters to date, to be so accepting of non-progressives, so exceptionally humane?


And yet here she comes, old reality—inescapable, pesky thing—returning like an angry ex-lover to ruin the poor man’s diversity sublime. Yes, A.C. Grayling, the British nursing home philosopher, the truth crashes your diversity party, in league with equally cruel history, who reminds us that in every chapter of the book of man, diversity has been bad news: although today “we forget,” as Victor Davis Hanson writes in “Diversity Can Spell Trouble,” “that diversity was always considered a liability in the history of nations—not an asset.” Shaken, Grayling clutches his tea cup, smooths his bushy gray mane, looks out the window, longing for the sight of some distant dark skin to calm his befuddled nerves: but still the grim classicist goes on.


Ancient Greece’s numerous enemies eventually overran the 1,500 city-states because the Greeks were never able to sublimate their parochial, tribal, and ethnic differences to unify under a common Hellenism. The Balkans were always a lethal powder keg due to the region’s vastly different religions and ethnicities where East and West traditionally collided—from Roman and Byzantine times through the Ottoman imperial period to the bloody twentieth century. Such diversity often caused destructive conflicts of ethnic and religious hatred. Europe for centuries did not celebrate the religiously diverse mosaic of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, but instead tore itself apart in a half-millennium of killing and warring that continued into the late twentieth century in places like Northern Ireland.


In multiracial, multiethnic, and multi-religious societies—such as contemporary India or the Middle East—violence is the rule in the absence of unity. Even the common banner of a brutal communism could not force all the diverse religions and races of the Soviet Union to get along. Japan, meanwhile, does not admit many immigrants, while Germany has welcomed over a million, mostly young Muslim men from the war-torn Middle East. The result is that Japan is in many ways more stable than Germany, which is reeling over terrorist violence and the need for assimilation and integration of diverse newcomers with little desire to become fully German.


The learned Hanson, whose brief op-eds contain more wisdom than is to be found in the whole of Grayling’s prolific period pieces, reminds us that high-functioning, well-ordered societies depend on a certain cultural homogeneity, since without it there is no end to the battle of competing and irreconcilable interests. So, instead of pursuing “the ideal of a united and rational world,” diverse peoples would do better to simply leave one another alone. As anybody with even a little knowledge of history can readily understand, the notion that much good, or anyway more good than evil, is likely to result from their having to do with one another is mad indeed.


Although like him an unbeliever, I would submit that Grayling, before he invites colleagues such as Lena Dunham and Lady Gaga over to have tea in philosophic celebration of diversity, would do well to take seriously the fact, which he undoubtedly knows, that reason in itself is no more than a kind of tool, and therefore it is not obvious how he might justify his political ends via “more mature thought” only. Reason serves the interests of man who, qua man, does not so much choose them as represent them, realizing them, bringing them into being in and through time by virtue of the kind of being that he is. What is more, for all the choices anyone makes in the course of a life, he always does so within the context of a certain inheritance. That inheritance, of course, comes from without, from history and culture, and these vary a great deal, as the partisans of diversity are anxious for everyone to understand. Reason, I say, is a kind of tool, and remarkable though it is, still when it comes to how we wish to live, we hardly require rational justification, for it is in the nature of the human animal to pursue those ends which it is disposed to pursue by virtue of its endowed nature and social conditioning. As Hume put it in his immortal apothegm, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” There are passions and principles that, in the order of human value, are prior to and supersede reason because, as said, they are a culturally-specific inheritance: and while we may use reason to realize them, their value to us, in our phenomenological experience, is independent of justification. Says William James,


our judgments concerning the worth of things, big or little, depend on the feelings the things arouse in us. Where we judge a thing to be precious in consequence of the idea we frame of it, this is only because the idea is itself associated already with a feeling. If we were radically feelingless, and if ideas were the only things our mind could entertain, we should lose all our likes and dislikes at a stroke, and be unable to point to any one situation or experience in life more valuable or significant than any other.


For we are essentially passionate animals. The loss of a loved one, like the prospect of our own demise, would not matter to us if life did not already have an inherently affective value, which we feel long before we can have any idea of death. By virtue of the kind of beings we are, value is innate, to be called forth in time, like children and lovers, wrinkles and gray hair. Our most significant value judgments correspond to feelings which reflect our natural endowment, as it is shaped by our time and place in history. Again, we may, if we wish, use reason to justify those value judgments, but we need not, and quite often will not: being what we are, they are (in effect) already justified, for they lie in persons themselves. And while the feelings that correspond to these deepest of values may be universal in nature, again, the rational ideas they give rise to vary a great deal among persons and their cultures, as may be learned, for example, from the folly of endeavoring to export democracy to the Middle East.


coherent concept. “We have chosen the meaning of being numerous,” wrote the Marxist poet George Oppen. The words are simple, and yet profound in implication. For, like trying “to get as many people as possible to share the ideal of a united and rational world,” the difficulty is that in this numerousness, or diversity, there are incompatible values and interests, not “solvable” by reason alone.


For example, the liberal West and Islam, in Wittgensteinian terms, are radically different forms of life. As the word itself denotes, Islam is a religion not of liberty but of submission. A state that does not distinguish between religion and the state itself, that practices female genital mutilation, forced marriages, and polygamy—all aspects of womanhood that amount to de facto sex slavery—and that advocates disseminating Islam via holy war, is not reconcilable with the Western tradition of constitutional government, individual rights, free markets, and respect for women (and homosexuals) as equal citizens. Here “mutual interchange” must produce intractable problems by definition, because without shared assumptions or premises, or in other words, without a common culture and history, in many cases there can be no justification, only question-begging, eventually amounting to might makes right since nothing else can.


Grayling sees plainly that religion is a source of “conflicts,” yet in this he is dismally simplistic. To begin with, he lumps our Judeo-Christian heritage together with Islam, like a man who thinks all feminism is as lunatic as its third wave version. But as Alexis de Tocqueville saw long ago, and as we learn from Franz Rosenzweig, Islam is really a kind of paganism, too different in kind from the two true Abrahamic religions to be reconciled with the modern liberal West. And the trouble for Grayling is that the very democratic liberalism he espouses grew out of the Hebrew Bible by way of the latter’s complex commingling with Greek philosophy, the two producing a tree of knowledge that was later augmented by John Locke, Montesquieu, and other great Enlightenment figures.


More than that, religion, for all its evils, has also served as a check against our boundlessly selfish and aggressive tendencies. James Madison had those very tendencies in mind when, in “Federalist No. 10 (1787),” he noted that democracies have “in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.” For, as Madison understood so profoundly,


What follows from this? That   


it is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm . . .

The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS.


Of course, Madison, a truly “enlightened” statesman, more than knowledgeable about human nature, wrote these words during a time when what we now call diversity was justly regarded with prudent suspicion. For Madison, it is manifest that man is a fundamentally egoistic creature, naturally partial to his own ends (“self-love”) and to those of his family and friends, on whom he depends for his own well-being. For all their high-toned words (which, to be sure, usually serve a selfish, material end), the extent to which people are willing to sacrifice for others rarely extends beyond their own small social circle. So, men and women, on the whole, are “much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.” Diversity, therefore, is far from being a virtue, because getting people who have a common culture and history to agree is already hard work enough: doing so without such a shared epistemic foundation is even more daunting, especially since people are by no means inclined to comprise on their most significant values and interests.

There is a profound lesson, moreover, to be got from the fact that human disagreements, in politics and in every other domain, are quite often incoherent, people misperceiving and misrepresenting each other in terms of their own premises: an incoherence that usually is not even seen for what it is. Men care about nothing so much as their own selves. To do away with disagreement, therefore, is one of the greatest political goods. And again, the best way to achieve that is through cultural homogeneity. For then people may share beliefs and principles that they are not inclined to dispute, or that they are less inclined to dispute, anyway.


predictable response to the effects of global capitalism, have taken a nationalist turn. Grayling, meanwhile, speaks naively of greater unity, while being averse to what has historically been mankind’s greatest source thereof. He likewise affirms liberalism, as though its eroding affective metaphysical bedrock were no impediment. Thus the philosopher dangles from a sagging branch, proudly chanting “democracy and science and tolerance, forever and forever and forever!”


A little Nietzsche would suffice to show Grayling the profound dilemma his shallow liberalism faces. For it is not evident that man, in psychologicis, can adequately carry out his liberal democratic experiment without the metaphysical justification and, above all, moral character that gave rise to it and that has sustained it. Still, Grayling is eager to build his fortress on what is quicksand for all he knows, and furthermore considers it his virtue that he would have you join in his mad endeavor. Let us “face the real challenge not just of saving the planet,” he says, “but of enhancing the experience of all life in it, human and otherwise, into something truly good.” His problem is not only that the science whereby he would do so is value-neutral. Granting (again) for argument’s sake that there is a universal human nature, in virtue of which, for example, the life of the ordinary Western woman is superior to (note the value judgment here) that of the ordinary woman in Afghanistan, it remains true that we are essentially passionate animals, rationality in itself cold, and religion having historically served to shape and guide the affects, it is not at all obvious how man, through reason, science and technology alone, can arrive at a moral-psychological disposition which sufficiently comprehends such virtues as fairness and honesty, temperance and self-restraint, self-sacrifice and charity: and without these virtues—which, again, are essentially affective in character—there is little democracy proper, but rather the hollow language of rights, equality, and diversity in which academics like Grayling traffic like so many marketers and customer service representatives.


video if you yourself harbor any illusions concerning the religion of the sword. Much of the Islamic world, while understanding our decadent and in many respects depraved Western culture, nevertheless does not look on it with peaceful sentiments.


Still more, today we largely lack the strength of character needed to face the incompatibility of human values in a tragic world. For, where previous generations fought in wars and worked with their hands, today we tap keyboards in rooms that are cozy or cool so as to suit our taste, and what we have gained in ease we have lost in clear-headedness and willpower. Thus, where severity is needed, we choose sentimentalism. Grayling’s infantilizing statism—taking it for granted that the law can simply direct human psychology, as though human nature were as programmable as computer software—is a typical example of this.


Meanwhile, Islam presents us with a type of believer whose boldness and devotion seem unmatched in world history. On September 11, 2001 we saw Muslims sacrifice their own lives in order to murder innocent civilizations, to effect the civilizational death wish that is jihad. To his credit, Grayling has been a frank critic of Islam. To his discredit, he has been a dangerous critic of the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage, which alone affords the strength of will (once more, an affective matter) we require to face such a serious enemy. Grayling’s hope for preserving and for ameliorating the West lies wholly in reason. This approach, both naive and dangerous, finds him in very bad historical company. “The first maxim of our politics,” said Robespierre, “ought to be to lead the people by means of reason.” “There can be nothing of value,” said Hitler, “which is not in the last resort based on reason.” Others who made reason primary in politics, while ignoring the primacy of human nature itself and people’s local prejudices and traditions, include Lenin, Stalin, Mao.


Grayling’s zeal for technology is as ill-founded as his statism. Technology is by no means the unmixed blessing he suggests. “The human understanding,” said Francis Bacon, “is like a false mirror, which, receiving rays irregularly, distorts and discolors the nature of things by mingling its own nature with it.” What makes this so remarkable, and endlessly complicated and pernicious in its effects, is that each person’s understanding being specific to his particular experiences and culture and history, and the world being such a varied place, the distortion and discoloring is infinite: which is by no means to say that we will always be aware of the general incoherence, or that we are meant to be by virtue of the nature of human reason.


Nor shall we stop preferring our own ends and interests to the exclusion of others, as we naturally do as creatures whose essential characteristics are need and desire. Though Grayling is enthusiastic about our era’s impressive new technology, which “enable[s] anyone to talk to anyone anywhere in the world,” our brave new digital world also functions to promote misunderstanding en masse, indeed exponentially, as a quick look at mainstream media now shows every hour of every day. Neither is there much to be done about this, because the misunderstandings, although realized by our machines, are nothing but reflections of the nature of the human mind itself. “The world only goes round by misunderstanding,” Baudelaire wrote in his journal.


No matter for Grayling since, like many “public intellectuals,” he is in the very lucrative business of peddling rosy illusions, and so I understand that he and the drag queen RuPaul are now at work on a 2,378 page transatlantic treatise which will finally settle the matter of how those persons who choose their own “gender identity” are to be addressed. As the public looks forward to that Copernican Revolution, it may feel fortified to know that Grayling has already told us that, if the Sophist-King but had the power, he would enact the following “world-wide initiatives.”


Here it is seen that it is Grayling himself who lacks “common sense.” While President Trump has no interest in philosophy, the man does at least know how to make money, and his experiences in the business world have borne fruit in politics. As Victor Davis Hanson has remarked, the President’s undervalued political savvy derives from his time in the ruthless New York City real estate market. Thus, whatever may be his personal failings, his views have at least some basis in a demanding practical reality—the sort of thing about which Grayling, a typical insular intellectual, would appear to know nothing. Besides, the common assumption that the President, or other political leader, must be “a good man” is a typical instance of American naivete and Protestant priggishness. It is a belief that would have moved the ancients to laughter, for if anything, politics is eminently the domain of bad man, who, as such, are generally more capable of sober judgments concerning the hardest matters.


In view of these considerable accomplishments, Grayling with his easy contempt for the man (as if the President were comparable to Kim Jong-Un) comes off as a typical conceited yet clueless academic, just the sort of man whom Wittgenstein had in mind by his contemptuous phrase “philosophical journalist.” In 1944, the philosopher said in a letter to his friend and former student Norman Malcom:



Who isn’t serious about tackling climate change? People who disagree with Noam Chomsky’s rather zany fear thereof? Or is some league of Western nations supposed to wave its magic wand in order that China and India shall do what is in the world’s best interest, though not in theirs? Has Grayling’s “more mature thought” the power to transcend natural (and national) human selfishness and short-sightedness? The answer is no, but true religion does, because in the mind of the earnest believer there is an authority whom he cannot evade, unlike pay-to-play politicians such as the Clintons. The 2008 financial crisis, for instance, was the result of twenty years of reckless self-interest on Wall Street. That period, it seems reasonable to believe, would have been fairly different, it might not have seen possibly the greatest financial scam in history, had more of those moneymen been true believers, where true believers denotes inherent fear of transgression, God being an authority nobody can deceive.


What would it mean for the “UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court” to have “real teeth”? What is wrong with such teeth as they now have (supposedly unreal)? One suspects that here the criterion for “real” is agreement with Grayling.


The Security Council, according to Grayling, is in “paralysis,” so he would “oblige all member states to pay their UN dues,” which he’d “increase to enhance UN peace-keeping activities.” Blissful thought! and yet there comes to mind a poem by Thomas Hardy, his “Christmas: 1924”:


“Peace upon earth!” was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We’ve got as far as poison-gas.


An unbeliever, Grayling has deep, comforting faith in the State. Its bureaucrats are his “million priests” who, through ever bigger budgets (nevermind about any debt), are to effect his progressive vision. After all, man, as we have seen, is naturally inclined to peace, and if only we’d all heed philosophers like Grayling our nature would be as updated as the latest iPhone.


“International aid budgets” are to be used to ensure that, as we say in the United States, “no child is left behind.” Having for ten years taught students of various backgrounds and all social classes, from primary school up through college, it seems to me that the main obstacle to education in our time is not want of money but want of will. Too many students lack discipline (to say nothing of interest and curiosity), and in many cases, though certainly not all, this is owing to inept parenting. It is unusual for me to have to ask my Asian or Jewish students to apply themselves, and while that is not so with my white, black, or brown students, I don’t see that money has much to do with this, as if those who don’t come from means are without ability by definition.


Indeed, the exceptional success of so many poor Jewish and so many poor Asian persons in America shows that poverty is far from being an insurmountable hindrance in education. The main problem, without a doubt, is the individual will, as shaped by one’s culture, and by one’s family in particular. Still, there is a bizarre habit today, in both the United States and England, of assuming that all that’s lacking in education is money, as if learning were as simple and straightforward as hiring someone to repair your refrigerator. It is not so, though certainly the turn of mind here reveals the character of an age for whom profit and consumption are the highest goods. Students failing? Solution: pay someone to make them pass, and be sure to spend millions on brand new computers, for does not Harvard itself have a student technology center that would be the envy of Plato and Aristotle? 


In Grayling’s Republic, “equal opportunities and pay between the sexes would be made internationally mandatory.” Internationally mandatory, he says. The problem of sovereignty is again ignored, though the feminists may wish to pat the good fellow on his head. And, short of genetic engineering, that is, making them quite literally the same, how are men and women to have “equal opportunities”? When it comes to getting jobs that they both want and are qualified to do, are women still oppressed in nations such as England and the United States? No. On the contrary, proselytizers of progressivism like Grayling are going out of their way to get as many women as possible into STEM and other lucrative fields, though, tellingly, not in bricklaying or carpentry.


And yet, equality of outcome eludes those who, in the face of mere disparity, perceive discrimination by definition. The reason is that—trigger warning—men and women are not the same. Aaron Neill, in his useful essay “Why It’s Time To Stop Worrying About First World ‘Gender Gaps,’” helps us to understand that what many think is injustice in the workplace, is in fact a sign of real progress and freedom, of women being free to be themselves, that is to say, different from men. As we learn from the research, on the whole, women are not nearly as interested in STEM as men, so fewer women choose to go into those fields. Of course, this in itself is value-neutral: it is status envy, indeed idolatry, that makes a scandal of this. When, moreover, we adjust for the fact that women, on average, work less as well as less dangerous jobs than men—an inequality that nobody seems to mind—the “wage gap” vanishes.

Grayling wants international “aid increases . . . to support more clean water and health initiatives, a high priority being safe childbirth and universal immunization against communicable and infectious diseases.” Easy for an affluent academic to support all this, which is certainly worthwhile, but most people don’t have it as good as Grayling. What about someone who is just getting by, who is terrified at the prospect of retirement, having no savings, and not counting on the state to be able to support him in his old age? Should this person not put his own country’s interests above international aid? If he does, would Grayling be justified in deeming him morally unenlightened, or insufficiently progressive?


More generally, just where would Grayling lead us with his “more mature thought,” his diversity, his secularism, and his liberalism? The answer is nowhere, for Master Grayling is all confusion. Where peoples used to be bound by tradition and certain moral virtues, they are now divided by rights. Lacking the moral-psychological disposition by which man arrived at democracy, Western democracies are destroying themselves from within. Grayling, meanwhile, is like a man who, though he has terminal cancer, thinks the disease can be cured by passing certain laws and policies. Those laws and policies, in effect, amount to a dubious effort to preserve Christianity: Universalist goods but without their theological justification and the essentially affective virtues by which those goods came into being and were preserved.


Men like Grayling have a weird faith in the power of the law to improve human affairs. It is as if the law were something ontological, like the earth’s motion in relation to the moon and the sun. Grayling’s progressivism is far more vexed than he gives us to understand, and he himself is no more credible than a used car salesmen or street hustler. I regard Grayling’s political thought rather as I do one of those automated phone calls informing me of my free trip to the Bahamas: the trip is not real, the man is a cheat, and he deserves no respect whose objects are wasting my time and getting my money for nothing.


Christopher DeGroot—essayist, poet, aphorist, and satirist—is a writer from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. His writing appears regularly in New English Review, where he is a contributing editor, and occasionally in The Iconoclast, its daily blog. He is a columnist at Taki’s Magazine and his work has appeared in The American Spectator, The Imaginative Conservative, The Daily Caller, American Thinker, The Unz Review, Ygdrasil, A Journal of the Poetic Arts, and elsewhere. You can follow him at @CEGrotius.

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