The book is strongest in its quieter sections - as when AC Grayling examines the true meaning of friendship, or considers the nature of suffering, Hephzibah Anderson writes.
The Choice of Hercules: Pleasure, Duty and the Good Life in the 21st Century
Good news just in: duty and pleasure need not be mutually exclusive. So says bestselling philosophy professor and media boffin AC Grayling in his latest book, a lively disquisition on how best to tackle the ethical dilemmas that confront us on a daily basis. Grayling builds his thesis around the myth of Hercules, son of Zeus. The Grecian strongman started out as "an anarchy of brawn and appetite conjoined"; in his youth, he murdered his music teacher. As punishment, his stepfather sent him off to work as a cowherd in the countryside. There he was approached by two women, one slender, handsome and dressed in a simple white robe, the other flashy and curvaceous. They represented duty and pleasure respectively, and each set about trying to win Hercules round to her way of life. He chose duty, for which his reward was eternal fame.
Ever since Socrates' pupil Xenophon inscribed his classic version of this morality tale, it has become a well-worn morality tale (it proved especially popular in Renaissance Europe). Over the centuries, the myth has attracted poets, painters and composers, among them Poussin and Reubens, Handel and Bach. It has also been given some political spins - America's founders wanted it represented on their nation's coins, and French revolutionaries hoped to build a giant statue of Hercules in the middle of Paris.
As Grayling sees it, the story turns upon a false dichotomy. A truly good life, he observes, involves both duty and pleasure. To fully understand this, we must first redefine the two terms for ourselves. Though conventional morality bids us think of pleasure as ruin and duty as arduous toil, Grayling (with some help from Aristotle, John Stuart Mill and others) argues that the reality is far more nuanced: virtue can be a joy in itself, and overindulgence is often unpleasant.
In the book's second and third sections, Grayling broadens his focus from the individual to the collective life. "Good lives cannot be the best they can be unless lived in an appropriate social and political setting," he says, setting the stage for a series of polemics on a range of ethical questions facing contemporary society, including warfare, pornography and drug use. The author is clearly an undaunted liberal of a certain stripe: he argues in favour of doctor-assisted euthanasia, for example, while scorning monogamy.
Grayling is also a secular humanist of downright evangelical zeal. Unfortunately, his frequent jibes at religion - Christianity in particular - strike a petty note. Several of his passages on religion lack the clarity and grace for which he is renowned, and make the book feel a little too much like duty in the standard sense of the term. The book is strongest in its quieter sections - as when Grayling examines the true meaning of friendship, or considers the nature of suffering. His tolerance for human frailty provides encouragement, and frequent reminders that the average human lifespan is less than 1,000 months long inject his message with urgency. We may be destined to fail in our pursuit of a life that is good, but that doesn't excuse us from trying, he concludes.
Early on, he reminds us that "the best education is found in responsive reading and discussion." Whether or not you agree with Grayling, his book is sure to elicit a rigorous response, making it a worthwhile departure point in any quest for goodness.