Liquid Love: on the frailty of human bonds
pounds 14.99, 162pp
pounds 14.99 (plus pounds 2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122
What is Good? The search for the best way to live
A C Grayling
Weidenfeld & Nicolson
pounds 18.99, 241pp
pounds 16.99 (plus pounds 2.25 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122
SO WHAT is love? What is goodness? Does anyone have any bigger questions? From these two titles, no one could accuse the British intelligentsia of aiming low. Yet the comparison between these two writers - their mental styles, their biographical provenance, their emotional investments - is at least as interesting as the contingent answers they provide to these ultimate questions.
From the sweeping locks and unapologetic cravat displayed on his author shot to his equanimious performances on shows like Start the Week, A C Grayling is the kind of philosopher the British are happy to tolerate: calm, clear-spoken, accessibly logical, and never shy of a comfortingly authoritative soundbite. This latest book is perfectly synchronous with his public image: a steady restatement of humanism against religion, Enlightenment against mysticism, the profane against the sacred. In a world heaving in a sea of contending spiritualities, one can imagine the good ship Grayling (fellow of St Anne's, Oxford, thank Aristotle) as a safe berth for anxious readers, charting a steady return journey towards the solid ground of Western civilisation.
Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, proceeds from a somewhat different perspective on the glories of the West. Living in Leeds, born in Poland (and still an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Warsaw), Bauman made his name as the author of one of the most stunning indictments of modernity and the Enlightenment ever written, Modernity and the Holocaust. Its detailed and moving claim - that it was the very rationality of the Nazi bureaucracy, its ability to shield its operatives from the raw humanity of genocide through systems, which materially enabled the Holocaust - still resonates strongly in social theory.
Bauman is reclusive, rarely stepping up to a platform in the media spectacle, although he is certainly prodigious and productive. The beautiful cover to this latest book - a heart carved into a beach, about to be swept away by a blue, advancing tide - promises relief from his generally gloomy (though always energetic) verdicts on modern and postmodern life. But Liquid Love is almost the most despairing of all his books.
At least Bauman, though almost twice the age of Grayling, is attempting to apply his intellect to the here-and-now: a world of mobile phones, Big Brother, immigration crises, soap-opera catharses, relationship columns. In this communication cauldron, our perennial experience of love is made "liquid"; that is, less permanent and transforming than ever.
What immediately grates about Grayling, in contrast, is the wilful fogeyism of his cultural markers. Abstract individuals are invariably "he", and "Western mankind" strides across the pages like an unreconstructed, aftershave- wreathed colossus. Is it that difficult to felicitate your prose so that the other half of humanity can be implicitly included?
Grayling's Hellenism is almost breathtakingly sanguine: "the discussion of the good life it contains", he tells us, "is not only the source of all ethical enquiry in Western history since, but is a market for the best such thinking which that tradition has produced". …