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My (Mild) Obsession with Professor A.C.Grayling

We don’t have a word in English for “the opposite person to oneself”. People sometimes say “nemesis” in this context, but this really means the agent of one’s unpleasant destiny who may or may not be like oneself. Thus, by extension, it can mean in sport a “bogey team” or a curiously unbeatable opponent. I am concerned with the idea of a person who has the opposite characteristics to oneself. Spotting such a person can be useful and spiritually rewarding: it helps you understand who you are. And in the absence of such a word I am going to offer one, though it is the same as the name for a fish species. An opposite person is a “grayling” because mine is Professor A.C. Grayling CBE.

At a superficial level we have noticeable similarities. We are both part of the “bulge” generation, born in the 1940s though I am a couple of years older than him. We both studied and taught philosophy. In fact his D.Phil. supervisors were, apparently, Sir Peter Strawson and Sir Alfred (“Freddy”) Ayer. The former was my undergraduate tutor in philosophical logic and I often talked to the latter not least because he preferred talking about football to talking about philosophy.

But these are very superficial connections compared to the chasms that lie between us. We can start with origins: he was born in what was then Northern Rhodesia and brought up in Nyasaland whereas I was born in the same house in West Hartlepool where my mother had been born which was five miles from where my wife was born; my most exotic connection was a grandmother from Worcestershire. When I was four we moved to Lancashire and until the age of seventeen I rarely set foot out of that greatest of counties.

Then there’s his success. He has a CBE for heaven’s sake and has founded his own university! He’s written thirty books and people talk about him a lot – some of them like him and some don’t. I’m not saying I’m a failure – nobody who has as much fun as I do could claim that – just a not-success. Apart from my large and rather wonderful family, the achievements I’m proud of are objectively rather trivial, but they are symbols and symptoms of a life. The trophies in my study were acquired in twelve different sports and were acquired over sixty four years; there can’t be many who can beat that stat per se. I captained the same cricket team for thirty years. And in 1991-92 I attended fourteen Burnley away games in the Fourth Division mostly accompanied by three sons and a junior brother-in-law. We went to a lot of pubs, but also some cathedrals and we heard a great deal of bad language. Moreover every ticket and every last drop of beer was paid for by Ladbroke’s because, after a very bad start, I put a wadge of money on at 16/1and we won the divisional title. I’m prepared to bet that Prof. Grayling has never been to fourteen away games in the Fourth Division.

Town and country is another difference. It would appear from the available facts that Prof. Grayling has chosen to spend most of his life in London and Oxford, his rural exploits limited to the Hay Book Festival. I have always considered that, for a person of my tastes and propensities, the quality of life in London is absurdly low and I have also formed the opinion that the proportion of toxic and pathetic humans (and some both) to be found there is far higher than I am used to or prepared to tolerate. As for Oxford, I did like it as an undergraduate because the inhabitants of my college (University) were predominantly gentlemen. But then as a postgraduate I had a vision of the future because I went to Nuffield College: gentlemen banished, the place run by the kind of earnest and ambitious swots who have now taken over the universities (and most of the world).

Work is perhaps the most profound of differences. My wife’s proud boast (“He’s never done a day’s work in his life”) raises important semantic questions, but it is true that I enjoyed and controlled almost everything I did and never spent a day in ways determined merely by the dread necessity of earning bread. By comparison it is clear from both what he says and from his output in various fields that A.C. spends his life working if you include his expressions of opinion in what he imagines is the public interest. By strange coincidence it was his supervisor, Sir Peter Strawson, who advised me that I would never need to do more than five hours work a day, forty weeks a year. It was, I must add, a very strict definition of work – it had to be something productive – attending meetings didn’t count. Did he also give this advice to A.C.? I retired from academic life seventeen years ago at the age of fifty seven. A.C. soldiers on yet.

And then there’s politics. Ten years ago one might not have thought this was an enormous difference; it’s not as if he’s a devoted socialist and I’m a free marketeer. But then along came Brexit, the tip of an iceberg below which lurk differences compared with which the French revolutionary notions of “left” and “right” seem trivial. He is very, very unhappy about Brexit. frankly, he’s made a bit of a fool of himself, denying the validity of the referendum, predicting social collapse and our re-entry into the EU within five years and even calling opponents of the EU “vermin”. For my part, I did used to be in favour of a certain amount of “European integration”, but then the whole thing was taken over by people who actually did believe in an “ever closer union” of more than two dozen countries which seemed to me the daftest idea to be taken seriously for some time.

But the real difference is not about what we believe but the passion – or venom – with which we believe it. As it happens on the night of June 23rd 2016 (the day of the referendum) I was attending what I think was the biggest dinner event I’ve ever attended, over a thousand people at an awards ceremony in a Park Lane hotel. I spoke to a very wide variety of people and none of them mentioned the referendum. I think this was because they were mainly interested in whether they’d won an award, but they were also assuming that “Remain” would win. I didn’t actually know the result until the following day when the brother-in-law with whom I was staying mentioned it at breakfast. I swear that if “Remain” had won, as expected, you wouldn’t have heard another peep out of me on the subject. I do not expect government policies to conform to my will nor social arrangements to be the ones I would choose. (Put broadly, life would be a great deal less soppy if I were in charge.)

So I don’t expect people to agree with me at all and very few of my friends and relatives agree with me about very much. A.C., on the other hand, is appalled by people who disagree with him and seems to expect governments to implement his will. His constant articles and twitterings express loathing and indignation about our current government. (For Heaven’s sake, it’s only a government and you can have a good time under almost any government – I even had a couple of good times in the USSR in its later years.) This curious mental condition of his occurs, of course, because he is a spokesman for the current nearest thing to a ruling class: professional/intellectual/managerial, though I have taken to referring to them as the “chattergerial” classes whose ideology can be best understood by reading the Guardian or the New York Times. This ideology purports to be liberal, but it isn’t and democratic, which it isn’t either and egalitarian, but it only uses the concept of equality to justify the enormous privileges of the chattergerial classes through ideas such as “meritocracy” and “equality of opportunity”. But it is definitely internationalist. It doesn’t need me to point out that these people live their lives in “bubbles” and “echo chambers” and when they find out, by means of a referendum, that they are not so much a ruling class as they were assuming their anger and bewilderment is a sight to see. I am tempted to say that A.C. is so perfect an ideologist for this class that if he didn’t exist I would have to invent him.

Sitting as a vast substratum below all this contemporary trivia is the difference between our views of the history of ideas and religion which is cosmic in scale. A.C. regards himself as a rationalist and a humanist, a creature of the Enlightenment. What he – and many others – fail to see because it is incompatible with their ideology is that there were two separate Enlightenments, which we can call the early and late versions or the sceptical and humanist versions. The earlier is best defined by David Hume’s statement that if we find a book with propositions in it which are not based on logic or observation then we should consign that book to the flames “for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion”. We may include Voltaire, Adam Smith and Jeremy Bentham in this version of the Enlightenment. But the persistent and politically influential version of the Enlightenment is the humanist version which simply revives the sophistry and illusion previously promulgated by religion. After all, God in man-shape and man in God-shape are essentially the same. Equality and human rights are no more justifiable by Hume’s criteria than the divinity of Christ or the immortality of the soul. And once you are preaching to the converted you can talk just as much nonsense as any medieval theologian. Could there be a sillier opening four lines than those with which Rousseau starts The Social Contract, “Man is born free . .; . “? And could there be an intellectual debate more like medieval theology than contemporary political philosophy, both discourses applying limitless sophistry to the supposed demonstration of prescribed orthodox conclusions.

It is not as if humanism is less vicious or pernicious than its predecessors. You strangle the last aristocrat with the guts of the last priest and the trouble really starts: blink and the Reign of Terror is upon you. Does anyone really believe that human beings have behaved better since 1789 than they did before? And why I’m saying all this is to demonstrate the rather obvious truth that the likes of A.C. Grayling, who imagine themselves to be free of religion, are priest-like ideologues. The most obvious example of this is his religiose devotion to the EU. The Roman Catholic church has proved over two thousand years that it is a financially and sexually corrupt organisation given to much cruelty and tyranny whenever it possesses power. But there are still about a billion people on the planet who regard it as the embodiment of virtue and a source of spiritual wisdom. In much the same way in its short life the EU has shown itself to be inept and corrupt, the destroyer of political accountability and commercial vigour. But there are those who believe in it, who have to believe in something bigger than an England with Boris Johnson as head of government. A.C. Grayling was once a professional philosopher of no great originality, but some seriousness and he’s now a ranting ideologue putting his faith in places where no rational person should put faith. But I’m grateful to him for defining and exemplifying everything I aspire not to be.

(Two editors read this uncommissioned piece; both said they liked it but neither was prepared to publish it.)

Lincoln Allison September 2021