The Good Book: A Secular Bible

A. C. Grayling

The Good Book: A Secular Bible
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The Good Book: A Secular Bible

A. C. Grayling

Designed to be read as narrative and also to be dipped into for inspiration, encouragement and consolation, The Good Book offers a thoughtful, non-religious alternative to the many people who do not follow one of the world’s great religions. Instead, going back to traditions older than Christianity, and far richer and more various, including the non-theistic philosophical and literary schools of the great civilisations of both West and East, from the Greek philosophy of classical antiquity and its contemporaneous Confucian, Mencian and Mohist schools in China, down through classical Rome, the flourishing of Indian and Arab worlds, the European Renaissance and Enlightenment, the worldwide scientific discoveries of the 19th and 20th centuries to the present, Grayling collects, edits, rearranges and organises the collective secular wisdom of the world in one highly readable volume. Contents: Genesis Proverbs Histories Songs Wisdom Acts The Lawgiver Lamentations Concord Consolations Sages The Good Parables

Review

In The Good Book, readers will find creation myths, unpronounceable names, and instructions on ‘how to live’ in chapters titled Genesis, Acts, and Proverbs. Antiquated language scrolls down in twin columns ordered by book, chapter, and verse. The accuracy of the history is dubious, the tone is instructive, and the sources go mostly without citation. The Good Book has, therefore, everything you could expect from the Bible – except God.

A.C. Grayling, philosopher and all-around grey eminence, brings together poems, the greatest hits of Western thought, and significant chunks of Herodotus into a secular, humanist version of the Bible. Like most Christian Bibles, this handsome book looks great broadcasting virtue from a prominent place on the bookshelf. Even more, Grayling does a service to the entire discussion between atheists and the religious by avoiding argument and staying positive. He offers a reassuring example of a rich moral system without a deity or singular Truth, a simple lesson grandly taught.

In nearly 600 pages, The Good Book does even more to commend itself. It is, like Grayling, highly polished, impressively thorough, and mostly civil. The book of Proverb*s pulls a clever rhetorical trick by including so much conflicting advice that it turns into an argument for making up one’s own mind. The concluding echo of the Ten Commandments – *harm no others, be informed, and at least, sincerely try - beat the originals for everyday usefulness and contemporary applications.

These are all great reasons for The Good Book to exist, but there are perhaps fewer in favor of reading it. Though Grayling has freely mixed ancient writings with nuggets of his own, most of the content is already available elsewhere and often for free, annotated, and with useful context. The anachronistic language lends the appropriate gravitas, but it isn’t likely to bring the ideas more accessibly to a larger audience. Like the Bible, Grayling compiled an impressive hodgepodge that lacks narrative and doesn’t pass a train ride very well.

And there are dangers to the Bible-making enterprise in the first place. In attempting to bring together the most instructive and iconic texts not under copyright, Grayling echoes his predecessors. This is a book made by a man, anthologising mostly men, whose longest chapter outlines the triumph of the Democratic West over Despotic East, facts that persist despite the book’s generally benign and liberal tone.

Necessity and examples of lives well lived have always been better tools of evangelism than tomes - believers are as likely to be converted by The Good Book as atheists would be by reading the entire King James Bible. Without an index, the book falls just short of functional as a Secular Humanist Desk Reference or Notable Quotables. Those already thinking for themselves have most likely already constructed temples of texts, music, movies, performances, and politics, many of them by women or great thinkers who lived in recent memory. As a result, for all that it does well, The Good Book may be a book without a congregation, most notable as a stately joke on the absurdity of attempting to curate the world’s knowledge between two covers.

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