There is no statement so absurd that no philosopher will make it, or so said Cicero in the first century BC. And philosophers as a class have a reputation for wasting years and lives on fruitless speculation.
Which is why AC Grayling is so impressive. On paper he has the qualifications for sterile theorising – he is, after all, a Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. In practice he writes accessible books which take positions about real world issues.
Grayling’s work before Towards the Light, called Among the Dead Cities, looked at the responsibility of those who make civilians targets in war. In that book, he gets right into whether and how people should be held to account for actions they take in a war they win. It’s stirring stuff; generating strong feelings and robust debate on both sides. Not quite the classic image of academic philosophy! It’s no surprise that Grayling’s credentials include real world activities like BBC Radio, newspaper columns and being a fellow of the World Economic Forum.
Towards the Light is subtitled The story of the Struggles for Liberty and Rights That Made the Modern West. In it, Grayling traces the progress – and, yes, he makes it quite clear his that view of history is a progressive one – toward the increase of value of liberty as an ideal. Grayling’s concept of liberty, by the way, is not that the rich and powerful are free to do what they like as trumpeted by one end of the political spectrum, but a human rights-based approach which emphasises liberty for all.
Grayling begins with Torquemada and the Spanish Inquisition, which tortured and burned people deemed doctrinally incorrect by the Roman Catholic Church. But this wasn’t all done away with by the reformation. A century later, we meet John Calvin, a protestant, who also tortured and burned people who wouldn’t sign up to his dour brand of Christianity. (As an aside, Calvin, like the communists in the early 20th, reserved their harshest treatment for people who believed something very close to their ideology. Remember what happened to Trotsky?)
Locke and Hobbes are discussed under the Enlightenment (“Freeing the Mind” as Grayling titles his chapter), and the link drawn from them to the US constitution over a century later. In the next chapter, he explores the gradual erosion of absolutist monarchism, or rather its abrupt and bloody end in the case of France.
Grayling goes on to discuss “Slaves, Women and Workers”, as part of his wider view on the rise of human rights. He traces the idealisation of liberty through the 19th and 20th centuries and concludes with a mordant look at the state of civil liberties in the US and the UK in the 21st century. Perhaps, he muses, the pendulum of personal liberty has swung to an extreme and has started swinging back toward totalitarianism and control.
I found Towards the Light fascinating and depressing at the same time. As a work of history, it’s very interesting. As a polemic, it raises a real concern – how can we, our generation, whose liberty has quite literally ben purchased by the agonising deaths of so many of our forebears, allow it all to slip away?