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A meaningful life with A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling is known for his powerful and thought-provoking philosophies on modern life. He speaks with Dumbo Feather’s Berry Liberman about finding meaning and joy in a world full of struggle.

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This issue of Dumbo Feather is on a meaningful life. One of the things I wanted to ask you is what brings you meaning and joy? Given you often reflect on these big things. I’m living with cognitive dissonance all the time – beautifully expressed in that phrase about wanting to save the world and savour the world. I live in a quiet pocket of the world at the bottom of the world, but I’m aware of the wicked problems that we face. So I’m curious what brings you meaning and joy. 

I should tell you that you anticipate by one year the publication of my next book. It’s a big, ambitious book, called Philosophy and Life, which is about this great question. Lives worth living and the meaning of life. If you think about the following extraordinary fact that in the Renaissance, when people were allowed again after the hegemony of the church to think about things like science and medicine and mathematics and astronomy and history, the latest research available to them was the literature of classical antiquity, 1000, 1500 years before. That was the latest that they had. Now an even more striking thought is this. Until about 50 years ago, in the second half of the 20th century when people thought about ethics, which is about the character and morals, our duties and relationships, they fundamentally assumed that the religions had the last say. But with the vanishing of faith and faith commitments and a more secular world, especially in the developed economies, we’ve seen coming back into interest the Stoics and the Epicureans, the moral philosophers of the ancient world.  

It is as if they are the very latest non-religious thinking about ethics and morality. That is why you’re seeing so many little books about how to be a Stoic, and how to benefit from reading Marcus Aurelius. Many of these new discussions are unsatisfactory – they’re thin, they’re shallow. There’s no meat in it, no real discussion of things that matter. I’ll give you one example. We say we should be stoic, or we should be strong. Who are we? Am I a black lesbian woman without a job? No! So when I use the word we, who am I including? How does our different experience and circumstance, our position in life, in time, in society, how does that affect us? How can we think about these issues in ways that will speak to the core human essentials, given the great turmoil of differences that swamp us?  

The shallow questions versus the deeper and richer explorations – that’s something that you’ve spent your life doing. What would you advise someone if they wished to live a richer and deeper question? Where to start? 

The place to start is to realise that everybody has a philosophy of life, but most people don’t know they have one. The one that they don’t know they have, they have acquired unconsciously from society, parents, schools, teachers and so on. So the first step is for people to say, “What am I doing? Why am I living this way? What am I hoping for? What are my goals, what are my values?” And then they may find out that that’s fine. They love it. They’re a magazine editor, they’re enjoying their life. They’re battling with interesting problems. You asked what gives meaning. Well, the answer is the struggle to create meaning. That’s what gives meaning. The search for it. It’s the journey, not the arrival. That old cliché, but it’s deeply true. It’s a process, but the process itself is the valuable thing.  

The book, which I’ve just read, begins with the frame of the law of self-interest, which you call Grayling’s Law. I’ve been thinking about that so much and referencing it since I read it. I know it’s an old idea but the way that you frame it is succinct. Before we get there, how do you hold this big moment that we’re living in with that almost excitable enquiry? How can we enjoy the journey, not the destination, when we’re in a moment of urgency? 

The whole history of humanity so far as we know it, taking us back to about the third or fourth millennium BC, has been a history of continual difficulties, striving, struggle. And many episodes where a few steps of advance have been followed by collapse and a few steps back. There’ve been several dark ages in human history – we’ve seen these things again and again. If you have a historical sense it puts things into context. For us living now these are bad times. Look at the situation in my country, in the United Kingdom. The country has just collapsed, it is riddled with all sorts of problems. You think to yourself, How can this have happened to us? And then you look back at history and you see it’s happened any number of times.  

If we think that we can enter into a phase of peace and tranquility and stability and everything works fine, we’re deluding ourselves. Because to live in society is to be engaged in a continual negotiation, a continual set of seeking compromises. Any society is a collection of minorities and individuals, and they’re constantly abrading one another, having to negotiate. Life is movement and struggle and difficulty and negotiation. That’s the fact of it. And once one’s accepted that and stopped hoping that things will just calm down and stay the same – because to calm down and stay the same is to start slipping back – once you’ve accepted that, you recognise that life is the effort. And then one can embrace it and say, “Okay. Let’s see if we can’t make some things better. If I can keep my principles. If I can not give in.” Then your life does begin to have some solid sense of meaning. 

This is an edited excerpt of an interview between A.C. Grayling and Berry Liberman featured in issue 70 of Dumbo Feather. An edited version of the conversation is also available on the Dumbo Feather podcast. 

A.C. Grayling will deliver his keynote lecture Technology, Climate, Justice and Rights: Can We Get the Whole World to Agree on Any of Them? on Thursday 15 September. This event is delivered in partnership with Dumbo Feather. Tickets are available now.

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