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  The Choice of Hercules : Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century
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   Author  Topic: The Choice of Hercules : Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century  (Read 888 times)

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The Choice of Hercules : Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century
« on: 2009-01-04 17:56:36 »
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[Blunderov] I might, sadly, never read this book but this review contains some nice observations which I hope the honorables here assembled might enjoy together with me - this despite Nicholas Lezard's apparently somewhat tepid feelings about Grayling's skepticism towards the Judeo-Christian legacy.


The Choice of Hercules : Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century
by AC Grayling
Phoenix, 7.99 

Nicholas Lezard's paperback choice

Nicholas Lezard The Guardian, Saturday 27 December 2008

Well, what state are you in now? Was your Christmas spent in an orgy of excess like a true Epicurean, or did you just sit round a photo of a turkey and reminisce about the good days?

The catch in that last sentence was "true Epicurean". Thanks to some efficiently nasty Christian propaganda, the term "Epicurean" has come to mean gluttony and hedonism, when really what it stood for was the well-lived life which meant moderation in all things (including, as AC Grayling reminds us in this book, moderation, so that one could, in fact, have the occasional blow-out).

The choice of Hercules refers to the ancient parable (Grayling calls it a "Renaissance trope" but it goes back to Xenophon) whereby the demi-god is approached by two women, one representing the path of duty, the other that of pleasure (or vice), and asked to make a choice between the two. Hercules chooses duty, of course; but Grayling uses the story as the starting point for a series of essays on what constitutes the good life, and whether or not both pleasure and duty have something to teach us.

In a sense, he fudges the issue. He has written a number of similar books with titles such as The Meaning of Things and What is Good?, and one has the suspicion that much of what he says here could have gone into those others. I am not sure, for instance, what the ethics of euthanasia have to do with the choice between pleasure and duty. And also much of what he says is - by his own admission - stating the obvious. Take his chapter on drugs: as he makes quite clear, prohibition has created the very problems it was intended to solve. In fact, the Conservative agenda applied to almost any aspect of society is itself pretty much the chief engine of the evils it seeks to abolish, and the sooner we adopt a more progressive and enlightened approach to various social ills or cruces the better. But this is for some a hard lesson to learn, [Bl. (My emphasis)] and so Grayling is obliged to put down his thoughts clearly and simply, as if he were talking to someone who may well be reasonable but is not necessarily terribly quick on the uptake.

This has its problems. His chapter on sex is so simplistic, so full of British common sense (advocating open marriages as an alternative to hypocrisy and deceit, for example), and so unreflective of the whole can of worms that you wonder whether he's ever read Freud (one reference to him in the book: a glancing one about cocaine). Both Grayling and Slavojek teach at Birkbeck College. What do they find to say to each other in the canteen?

This is, then, very much in the tradition of English empiricism. There is no hocus-pocus, nothing metaphysical here. The Judaeo-Christian tradition and its legacy is something to be shrugged off or questioned at every turn. Christianity is "an oriental superstition" which interrupted the continuing legacy of the Greek philosophers, and he takes Justinian's suppression of Plato's and Aristotle's academies in 529 AD particularly hard.

But on the whole, this is an admirably sensible book, sometimes stirringly written. It approaches the grand philosophical theme of the best way of living well in a fashion which is designed to be comprehensible to anyone. (The only jargon you get is the odd Latin tag, which add class and are translated and explained.) Matters are set out clearly and carefully and if you find yourself in argument with any of his statements, then that is fine: freedom of thought is something he is particularly fond of. The back cover suggests that booksellers stock it in the philosophy section, but it would be perhaps more useful in the self-help section, where it might serve the desperate, seeking for answers, rather better than most of the meretricious garbage out there.
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