George Santayana, a thinker of insight and subtlety these days much neglected , summed up Russell's predilections perfectly: "His radical solutions were rendered vain by the conventionality of his problems. His outlook was universal, but his presuppositions were insular. Along with countless others, Russell fell victim to the belief that the solution to the world's problems would be found in increasing internationalism, socialism, the withering away of religion and the continuing advancement of science.
This is, in effect, a version of his godfather's "religion of humanity"-the secular humanist creed imbibed by Mill from the French positivist thinker Auguste Comte, which aimed to replace the traditional faiths of the West with a belief in human progress. At times Russell was seized by despair, doubting the capacity of human beings to realize the glorious prospect ahead of them. What he never doubted was the faith he had in common with the rest of the progressive intelligentsia: if only humankind could bring itself to be reasonable, the future would be so much better than the past.
Grayling takes up this same mantle with fervor and conviction.
A prolific author who seldom lets a year pass without producing one or more volumes, he is a man who also offers enlightened instruction to bewildered humanity. In the decade before the turn of the millennium, Grayling delivered himself of ten books, including one on Russell. Formidable as this list may be, it is by no means exhaustive. As well as several volumes of technical philosophy, Grayling published still more, one of which was a biographical study, Descartes: The Life and Times of a Genius , perhaps his most interesting and original work.
And now we have Ideas that Matter , Grayling's third attempt to guide the perplexed through the quandaries of the twenty-first century. The effect is one of wearisome repetition, and one wonders what Grayling imagines he has achieved by the exercise.
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All of these volumes preach the same sermon: history is a record of crime, oppression and superstition; but salvation is at hand through rational inquiry, the gift of the Greeks that was lost in the Dark Ages and rediscovered in the Enlightenment. Repeating this as Grayling does, over and over again, suggests that he believes the lesson has still not been understood, and throughout his extensive corpus of polemical writings he has the manner of a querulous teacher hammering rudimentary lessons into the heads of refractory schoolchildren.
For Grayling, it seems, few if any of the difficulties of ethics and politics are insoluble. Receive regular news and offers from the London Review Bookshop. You asked, again and again and again , and we listened: now you can buy official London Review of Books and London Review Bookshop products online, shipped anywhere in the world. Our much loved keyboard reference mousemat is back in stock!
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