Open-ended epistemological meditations, occasionally stumbling into platitudes.


A smattering of brief, mildly engaging essays for the lay reader on art, literature and culture.

Largely written for his weekly column in the London Times, these levelly composed, rather sketchy and miscellaneous pieces range over topics Grayling (Philosophy/Birbeck Coll., London) has glanced upon during academic research and many trips to the British Museum: Hitler as an art collector, the distressing trend away from classical studies, the relation between liberal-left sentiments and high culture, the understated achievements of Mesopotamia and the useful service genetics performs in destroying myths about race, among others. Many of the selections are subtly framed around a book review. In “Shakespeare’s Genius” (one of the few essays with some meat), Grayling expands on Harold Bloom’s point in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human that the Bard was “one of the founders of modern consciousness because he puts individuals (not types or tokens, as his fellow dramatists did) before us.” He ponders “the strange admixture of tenderness and sharpness” in “William Burroughs’ Last Journals,” wondering whether the Beat writer would have achieved higher status in the literary pantheon had he not been so wrecked by drugs. “Five Women Speaking French” looks anew at the achievements of Simone de Beauvoir, Louise d’Épinay, Madame du Deffand, Charlotte and Emily Brontë (in Belgium). The last two sections treat currents in history and science. In “The Bible as History,” Grayling discusses Thomas Thompson’s controversial thesis that “the Old Testament is not a record of Israel’s origins . . . but a later attempt to provide Israel with a heritage.” That sense of heritage helped Jews endure centuries of oppression that culminated with the horrors examined in “Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust.” Grayling ventures wherever his intellectual curiosity (or the academic wind) takes him and even deigns to join the controversy on alien abductions, sagely reminding us that “the spirit of rational inquiry is not reserved to science.”

Open-ended epistemological meditations, occasionally stumbling into platitudes.

Pub Date: July 15, 2005

ISBN: 0-297-64559-5

Page Count: 230

Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Trafalgar

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2005

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.


The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955

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