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Book review

A. J. Ayer: A Life

by Ben Rogers

A. J. Ayer by Ben Rogers

A.J.Ayer, known as Freddie, was one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. I first met his best-known work “Language, Truth and Logic” as a young man, and I remember being deeply impressed at the time, both by the work itself and by the brief bio of the author on the flyleaf. (Incidentally, as far as I can tell the title of the work is not written with an “Oxford comma” before the ‘and’, even though he was at Oxford when he wrote it.)

Then a few months ago, I read another remarkable anecdote about Ayer, and on impulse bought this book. Having read it, I found that Ayer lead a life full to the brim – and not just with philosophy. From the 1950s onwards, he was a regular fixture of British intellectual life, with radio and television appearances, books, lectures and a broad and active social circle. He wasn’t just hanging out with intellectuals, either – he loved soccer, and having chosen Tottenham as his team in his youth, he was a regular at their home games for much of his life, becoming known to other fans as “the prof”.

He also married four times (to three different women), and had many affairs, and at least one child from those affairs. He clearly had a very charming way with women, and lived in open relationships with at least two of his wives, who themselves took lovers. During his marriage to Vanssa Lawson (former wife of Nigel Lawson, and mother to three children including Nigella, the well-known chef), he apparently remained entirely faithful.

Ayer’s life was certainly not quiet and conventional. However, it did start in a way that was very common at the time for his class in society, that is to say, he went to boarding school at seven, and didn’t have a good time. At thirteen he won a scholarship to Eton, where he was highly intelligent, and significantly bullied. Whether this was for his precocity, his Jewish heritage, or his militant atheism isn’t clear, but it clearly left a lifelong mark on him. From there he went to Christchurch College, Oxford, where again his atheism didn’t favour him with several of the tutors. One of them saw how he thought, and set him to read tWittgenstein’s “Tractatus”. This wasn’t widely known in the UK at the time, and after he had travelled to Vienna and met with others in the “Vienna Circle”, he became a convert to logical positivism as a core philosophy.

It was his publication of “Language, Truth and Logic” at the age of 24 that made his name. Later he came to repudiate much of what he’d written in it, but the book has had an enduring influence and has continued to sell in volume, up to the present day.

The book follows Ayer through WWII, where he joined the Welsh Guards before being recruited into the intelligence services. This work took him to the US, where he met Lauren Bacall and wrote for several newspapers, before returning to Europe and working alongside the French resistance, in London and then in Paris (his father was French-speaking, and he was bilingual). After the war he returns to academia, building the philosophy department in University College, London. The book shows how highly regarded he was by his students: there are numerous stories from them of how he took their ideas entirely seriously, and would often help find them jobs after they had graduated.

We see many facets of Freddie through the years. He loved to dance, he was charming, well-travelled, and although he was vain, it was said of him that “his vanity was part of his considerable charm”. We see his marriages, his love affairs, his active social life, with friendships far and wide – from authors like Graham Greene, George Orwell, and Iris Murdoch, to politicians like Roy Jenkins and Michael Foot (he was an active Labour supportor for much of his life).

He was also brave: both socially, standing up for unpopular beliefs and for his friends, and also physically. The anecdote which brought me to this book shows both his vanity and his bravery: at a party held in New York by fashion designer Fernando Sanchez, Ayer, by now aged 77, was chatting happily with a group of young women, when one rushed in to say her friend was being assaulted. Ayer went with her to a bedroom, and confronted Mike Tyson, who was harassing a very young Naomi Campbell. When Ayer demanded that Tyson stop, the boxer said: “Do you know who the fuck I am? I’m the heavyweight champion of the world,” to which Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham Professor of Logic. We are both pre-eminent in our field. I suggest that we talk about this like rational men”. Ayer and Tyson then began to talk, while Naomi Campbell slipped out to safety.

I very much enjoyed this book. Although I perhaps didn’t learn as much about Ayer’s philosophy as I thought I was going to, I learned a lot about the man, and his passion for life. He once said to a friend, as they walked by the river through Christchurch’s gardens, watching the young students enjoying themselves: “There is philosophy, and then there is all this!”.

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Book review

Breaking The Spell

Religion As A Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett

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This is an thorough and well-argued review from Daniel Dennett of the ways in which religions might have emerged as natural phenomena in early humans, and how the pressures of evolution on this new set of social constructs might have then produced many of the traits we see in today’s religions.

His argument adds important elements to a pure psychological view of religion, although it certainly starts there. In the early chapters, Dennett argues that humans have what he calls an “intentional stance”: that in order to best predict the world, we tend to think of things in the world as rational agents, and figure out the desires, and thus the actions, of that agent. This works brilliantly for other humans, and it works pretty well for the animals that early humans might need to hunt or escape. Thus it’s easy for us to see how we might extend the same logic to other things – the weather, diseases, and so forth. From this, we can see how we might have grown to attribute apparently random changes in (say) the weather to an unseen entity behind the weather itself, and to then see the changes in the weather as reflecting true intentions of that entity. If you want to get it to rain, therefore, it makes perfect sense to try and communicate with the entity behind it, and to get the entity to cause it to rain. We attribute “agency” to the weather, and it makes sense then to try and bargain with the agent.

(As I write this, we’re in lockdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and this desire to treat the disease as an entity with intentions, capricious or malignant though they might be, is very visible in the way many people talk about it.)

From here, Dennett grows the argument. Everything we value, or are fearful of, we value or fear for reasons. This view of the world gives us challenges in everyday living, which early folk religions enabled us to handle, psychologically. Once in the culture, these folk religions were susceptible to the same evolutionary pressures – this time at the level of “memes” that thrive or die out – as humans themselves, only many many times faster that physical evolution. Only the best variants of these beliefs will propagate – and “best” means most successful in meeting our deep psychological and physical needs.

As human societies grew, specialised intercessors to these agents emerged (“shamans”, he calls them for convenience). Dennett goes on to suggest that these shamans, and others, had time to become more reflective, and so from these early folk religions, organized religions began to emerge. Sometimes, the simple beliefs in the folk religions were bolstered or even entirely replaced by carefully crafted reasoning. At this point, it might have become necessary to put some of these religious views out of the reach of “gnawing skepticism”, as Dennett puts it. This leads to an interesting way of splitting the world:

“This winnowing has the effect of sequestering a special subset of cultural items behind the veil of systematic invulnerability to disproof – a pattern found just about everywhere in human societies. As many have urged, this division into the propositions that are designed to be immune to disconfirmation and all the rest looks like a hypothetical joint at which we could well carve nature. Right here, they suggest, is where (proto-)science and (proto-)religion part company”

Dennett rightly spends a fair while on this point. Is it right that we treat religion, by definition, as “systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation? … No religion lacks these effects, and anything that lacks them is not really a religion, however much it is like a religion in other regards.” Dennett rightly points out that this view wasn’t shared by the shamans themselves: if they saw they were losing their flock to the shaman down the road, they were quite prepared to take on new approaches and ideas – to evolve. So one of the important features that emerged as folk religion merged and became organized religions was this secrecy and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation.

Now we see Dennett broaden the view out from the leaders to the groups who also believed. He sees this as in many cases an entirely rational decision to join on the part of individuals, who would see benefits from being part of a group regardless of possible supernatural benefits from the gods themselves. There are also many possible psychological benefits in belief, but there is a darker side as well – tribalism in humans is very often reinforced by conflict, and the tendency of religions to spark conflicts and wars from prehistory to the modern day is terrifying. Of course it could be argued that they were being co-opted by pre-existing power structures, but none the less the features of very many religions do seem to be shaped, and often thrive, on conflict.

At this point, Dennett spends a while talking about “belief in belief”. This, he argues, is a very powerful force, in religions and elsewhere, and can completely transform them. For example, he points out that many feel it’s important to maintain the belief in democracy, regardless of its flaws. So we tend to play down the flaws and play up the benefits, and in doing so lose track of the logic which may (or may not) support the arguments for its value. Similarly with science – we may believe in science, we may believe that “e=mc2”, without knowing (or caring) how it is so. None the less, we believe! And, he argues, the same is true of religions. Even very devout followers may not share identical views on details of doctrine, and many lay believers will turn out to have quite different interpretations of major points. But it doesn’t matter – what matters is that they all share the belief in the importance of their beliefs.

Finally, Dennett looks at religions today. He starts to talk about whether religion is, all things considered, a good thing. Is religion good for people, he asks? There is definitely evidence that belonging to religious organisations can improve the morale, and hence the health, of participants. Believers would also argue that the meaning it gives their lives is immeasurably valuable. More specific experiments, for example on the benefits of “intercessory prayer”, give mixed results, and include at least one notorious case of academic fraud. Finally, almost all religious people see their religion as the foundation of their morality. On this point, Dennett comments

“I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – including those with no religious affiliation – represented about as they are in the general population … Indeed, the evidence to date support the hypothesis that atheists have the lowest divorce rates in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest.”

There is a lot I really liked about this book. The arguments are thorough, carefully constructed, and evidence is sought wherever possible. Some technical material is present in appedices, a couple of which I found useful I am, I should point out, not a religious believer of any creed, although I do think that there is a deep human need (which I feel) for the spiritual, and so I can’t comment on how a theist would have felt. I hope they would have been able to read the arguments through to the end, and Dennett I feel does a good job of presenting the best arguments on both sides.

There were a few irritations, for me at least. The very first chapter or two nearly caused me to give up, as Dennett spends an entirely unnecessary (for me) amount of time justifying the whole enterprise. He’s also very fond of italics to emphasise key words in his paragraphs, and sometimes this is perhaps too heavy handed. But it’s a forgiveable style. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five on final consideration.

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Book review

Our Mathematical Universe

My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality

by Max Tegmark

I found this a thoroughly entertaining account by Max Tegmark of some of the “big questions” of modern physics, with a particular slant towards cosmology – what is our universe composed of, how did it come into being, what might be its ultimate fate, that kind of thing. Initially I wasn’t sure about the very personal style in which it was written, but after a few chapters I began to like it. Tegmark has been at the forefront of a number of these discoveries, and there are lots of semi-autobiographical anecdotes in here: ultimately, the cheerful and enthusiastic style did win me over, and I found it definitely added to my enjoyment of the book.

I realised as I was reading this that I haven’t really read a popular science account of these topics for perhaps 20 years, so I was definitely behind the curve with regard to things like dark matter and dark energy, and their abundance in the universe (making up something like 20% and 70% of all the stuff out there, respectively). This was a great account of all these theories, working through the evidence in particular from the cosmic microwave background, which has yielded two different Nobel physics prizes.

Tegmark moves the reader through all this at the same time as he elucidates his view of how it all comes together with quantum mechanics. I was pleased here to see the increasing acceptance by physicists of Everett’s “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics, and how it’s taken over from the more historically popular Copenhagen interpretation, with its reliance on the horribly ill-defined “observer” causing a collapse of the quantum wave function. To the very limited degree that I’ve ever managed to get my head around quantum mechanics, it’s always seemed a complete fudge to say “these equations describe the universe as we know it to thirteen decimal places, but I don’t really like what they say about the nature of reality, so I’m just going to paper it over with this observer thing and then I’ll feel more comfortable”!

At this point, Tegmark starts to roll out the big guns of his theory. Not only are there multiple physically separate universes (because the initial expansion phase was so fast that light will never be able to travel from one to another), but also these universes will have different starting conditions. This provides an explanation as to why our universe is so “well tuned” for life – there are 30 or so physical constants whose values would only need to vary by a very small amount to have prevented life ever existing. Well that’s straightforward in this view- those other variations are just in other universes (inaccessible to our light cone). And quantum mechanics now says that physical reality also has other places where the alternate paths of quantum interactions are playing out – in some of these parallel worlds, Schrodinger’s famous cat is alive, in others it’s dead, and that’s all ok (unless perhaps you are the cat!)

Ultimately, Tegmark comes to argue that in fact these different worlds may not only have different starting conditions, but also entirely different laws. Not just (for example) different numbers of space or time dimensions, which is weird enough, but different kinds of physical existences. All our physical laws, he argues, are the result of mathematical symmetries – all the different kinds of particles (quarks, photons, etc) are predicted by symmetries in group theory, for example. Thus there will be other universes with other symmetries, based on other groups. An overwhelming number of these will be too simple to do anything very interesting, but some of them will be complex – perhaps complex enough to form other kinds of particles, and indeed other kinds of life, too strange to even imagine!

Since I recently read Group Theory and Physics, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I sympathised with Tegmark’s thesis here. It’s even reflected in science fiction in books like Distress, which again I read recently, and which is about how a “theory of everything” might decide which universe (which mathematical symmetries) we really live in. I’m obviously being swept up in a wave of theories and stories all about this – perhaps the cosmos really is trying to tell me something!?

Ultimately, these kinds of questions about the underlying nature of reality are profound, and perhaps even beyond our real knowing, but they’re great fun to think about, and Max Tegmark is exactly the sort of person who you’d want to be sat beside in the pub while you explored it all. This book is as close as I’m ever going to get to that, and I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity.

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Book review

The Daily Stoic

366 Meditations for Clarity, Effectiveness, and Serenity

by Ryan Holiday

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

There’s been a huge revival in the Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism in the past few years, and this book is a good example of what it yields. It’s a series of daily quotations from the great Stoic philosophers such as Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus. Each quotation is accompanied by a paragraph or two of discussion, underlining the key points. It’s well done, with readable and un-stuffy new translations of the originals, and the presentation is good.

I read this book at the average pace of the one meditation a day for which it was written, although I must admit I would sometimes loose track for a week or ten days, and then do some catching up. If one can hold a thought in one’s head, and follow through on it for the day, it’s hard to see the day not being the better for it. There’s a reason why these observations have lasted nearly two thousand years.

My qualms, such as I have them, are I suppose based on an underlying niggle of disquiet. Look at the philosophers quoted: Marcus Aurelius – very successful general, somewhat reluctant but well-regarded emperor; or Seneca – senator, playwright, adviser to the emperor Nero. These are powerful men, at the top of whatever power hierarchy was going. Is this a philosophy for the rich and powerful, enabling them to keep what they have with a clear conscious, thinking they could give it all up if they had to (although, mostly, they don’t…)? And all the while lecturing us that we, too, should be content with what we have? Sometimes it seems that way: on June 23rd we have Marcus Aurelius telling us:

You could enjoy this very moment all the things you are praying to reach by taking the long way around – if you’d stop depriving yourself of them

Epictetus, to be fair, was born a slave, and grew up crippled (and Seneca was exiled, and eventually forced to take his own life when accused of plotting against Nero). Although none of Epictetus’ writings survive directly, we do have several volumes of his discourses from his pupil, including a “best of…” compilation known as the Enchiridion. It is this work that perhaps is most responsible for the modern revival of Stoicism: James Stockdale, the vice presidential candidate of Ross Perot, was shot down in the Vietnam War and spent seven and a half years in captivity, which included torture and four years of solitary confinement. He had read the Enchiridion at college, and credits it with enabling him to survive this horrific ordeal in his book Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. There are a good few Epictetus quotes in The Daily Stoic; for January 19th, for example, we have Epictetus saying:

A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low, but in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish

Focus on what is in your control, as opposed to what is not. Good advice, however and wherever you are living.

In the end, it is to Epictetus’ quotations that I was perhaps most drawn. And he won’t care that I rounded my 3 1/2 star view of this book down to 3 stars, for the disquiet. “Not things, but opinions about things, trouble men”, he once wrote. Enough said.

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Book review

Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives

by David Eagleman

Sum by David Eagleman

This is a book of 40 short chapters, just a few pages each, each one an alternative story of what might happen after we die. In one, it turns out we are actually God’s organs, how she feels and knows and interacts with the world; in another, you find the afterlife is terribly bureaucratic and we have to queue for everything, because God put us in charge when he found himself increasingly overwhelmed by his creation.

So some of the stories are rather clever – my favourite is that we are organic supercomputers, created by small, slow, creatures to answer the big questions of life – only they are too dim to understand our responses to their questions. Others are neat enough, but left no imprint on me.

Overall, it’s a nicely done short book, with a very interesting idea and some definite bright spots: three and a half stars, rounded down to three as in the end I’m not sure enough of the stories stuck with me, in the end.

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Book review

Silence

by Erling Kagge

This was a short, interesting, exploration of the way we can find quiet in our lives, and the value of doing so. It takes the form of 33 very brief chapters, each only a few pages long, looking at silence from a different perspective. Nicely done, and the physical book itself is a beautiful publication, complete with beautiful photography and art of wild empty spaces. Three and a half stars, rounded down to three as I couldn’t feel it warranted four.

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Book review

The Bhagavad Gita: A Walkthrough for Westerners

by Jack Hawley

I very much enjoyed this version of the Bhagavad Gita, I have to say. It was, above all, readable, written as it is in modern English, This meant that (in contrast with some other translations of classics of world literature) I wanted to come back each time and read more. So bonus points to Jack Hawley, PhD, for accessibility.

The Bhagavad Gita is framed as a conversation between Arjuna, a warrior prince, and his charioteer, Krishna, who is the divine made into human form. It is described as

a universal love song sung by God to His friend, man. It can’t be confined by any creed. It is a statement of the truths at the core of what we all already believe

. I’m a secular person, with some experience of Buddhism, plus the benefits of an English school education on the bible, and I could clearly see the parallels with Buddhism, although those with Christianity as it’s usually currently interpreted were less clear. Perhaps with Bishop Berkeley and his more pan-psychism moments. I could take or leave the more Divine moments myself, but it’s entirely possible to read this as about the larger Self, rather than requiring an external divinity. It has a lot to say about how life should be lived, regardless of your beliefts. Clearly, for example, it’s a foundation text for Hinduism, and one can see how it inspired M.K.Gandhi throughout his life.

Although I’ve of course never read the original, Mr Hawley was clearly trying very hard to convey the nuances of the different meanings of the words of the original. He did this in prose which was always clear, and at times also quite beautiful. At a text that’s at least 2,000 years old, perhaps much older, it’s also astonishingly relevant to our modern world. Consider the following:

The downward spiral to one’s ruin consists of the following process: Brooding on worldly attractions develops attachments to them. From attachments to sense objects come selfish desires. Thwarted desires cause anger to erupt. From anger arises delusion. This causes confusion of the mind and makes one forget the lessons of experience.

. That’s more or less stock advice from many self-help books today.

I enjoyed reading this, I’ve highlighted lots of sections, and I’ll dip into it again. A good four stars.

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Book review

The Empty Space

by Peter Brook

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This slim book sets out to be an analysis of theatre, from one of the most significant directors of the second half of the 20th century. Actually, it’s not about that: it’s about life. Peter Brook analyses theatre performances into four categories, while acknowledging that any performance can flip from one to another category in a few words. It’s completely timeless, by the way – it was written 50 years ago, but could have been written last year.

The first is Deadly Theatre. Theatre as “tradition” and “heritage” and “because that’s just how it’s done”. This was brilliantly caricatured in the third series of the wonderful Blackadder, where two actors try each the befuddled Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie) to improve his public speaking, explaining to him how you need to thrust your groin forward, throw out your arms, and start every declamation with a loud “Aaaaaahhh!!!”. It means theatre as a caricature of itself, acting with an arch view of how acting “ought” to be. In life, I see this all the time: meetings held “because this is when we have this meeting”, corporate decisions guided only by the dead hand of expectation, dismal social conventions because that’s how it was done 20, 30, 50 years ago.

Then there is Holy Theatre. This is when, as Mr Brook puts it:

it could be called The Theatre of the Invisible-Made-Visible: the notion that the stage is a place where the invisible can appear has a deep hold on our thoughts.

It’s when we see theatre performed with beauty and with love (which) fires the spirit and gives them a reminder that daily drabness is not necessarily all. Life as it out to be lived, for the moment, or for the value we bring to others.

Next comes Rough Theatre. Theatre not necessarily performed in traditional venues, but less formal, truer perhaps to the original spirit, more energised by improvisation. It is contrasted with Holy Theatre in that the former tries to look at hidden motives, while the Rough looks at real events and actions that directly affect the viewer.

Finally comes Immediate Theatre. He describes this as theatre that “asserts itself in the present”, which I think means theatre that connects and reflects directly to what’s in our hearts at the moment. He certainly talks more of the interaction with the audience in this chapter, and how much they bring to the experience. Contemporary satirical comedy, with an emphasis on the current political and social climate, and heckling from the audience turning into part of the act, seems to fit in here. More formally, Mr Brooks talks about working with actors to see how the pacing of a speech from Shakespeare might sound in modern prose, and to use that phrasing to connect and convey feeling to the audience. It’s very much about directly engaging with the audience.

Although the boundary between these four isn’t always clear, it does seem to me that if you think of them as four overlapping circles*, rather than four squares with a clear division between them, then it does make a deal of sense. And, I think, this is a very interesting perspective to bring to the world of work, and of our lives. Experiences where advertising seeks to create false “deadly” aspirations, moments in nature that are “holy”, or when we find flow in a “rough” DIY task, or when our interactions with a child are “immediate”.

Four stars for powerful stuff.

(*OK, technically to get each one of four things to overlap with the other three, you need to think of it as four overlapping spheres in a pyramid, but people look at me oddly when I say things like that, and I think you all knew what I meant anyway)

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Book review

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

by Oliver Burkeman

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I bought this book as a present for my wife, who would have no shame in admitting that she can’t stand all the “positive thinking” malarkey. She read it, and didn’t really enjoy it, finding that it had many of the same messages for how to be happy but without the “positive” sticker on the front. So I was curious as to what lay within…

And once I’d read it, I could see her point. Many of the conclusions that Mr Burkeman comes to are, indeed, those that you might read elsewhere, but without the same spin: you would read elsewhere of the benefits of mindfulness, of Stoicism, of self-awareness in many websites and books.

The spin here, if there is one, is that you don’t have to do these things with any view that they are designed to be positive affirmations. You can just do them because they seem to work. Plus, you get to poke fun at the wilder elements of the “positivity” crowd, which Mr Burkeman does very effectively in is re-telling tales of huge conference centres with crowds chanting empty slogans about “winning” or whatever it happens to be.

So in the end I rather liked this book. From my personal point of view, I’m becoming increasingly wary of the whole move to Stoicism, as I think it may entrench particular points of view that I don’t subscribe to (in particular I fear it pushes people into accepting a bad status quo, rather than in pushing back against it).

On the other hand, I’m all-in on Mindfulness: there is clearly a bunch going on in our brains that isn’t directly accessible to us, and the identification of ourselves with our stream-of-consciousness self-talk seems like a great candidate for why so many of us are so upset, so much of the time. My cats don’t do that (or at least I don’t think they do…), and they are pretty content.

So anything that tries to break us out of this is a good thing. Plus, the book got me watching Youtube videos of Eckhart Tolle, and the guy is like Yoda, if Yoda were wearing clothes that escaped from the 1970s that his mother had knitted him, sitting and smiling and blinking and not saying much, but when he does saying wise things. How much do I love him!

Three and a half stars, rounded up to four because of the Tolle bits.

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Book review

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

by Tim Whitmarsh

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I learned three main things reading this very readable account: first, that there have always been atheists, with writers expressing various philosophical positions and arguments about atheism for all of Greek and Roman ancient history (even early Christianity having a place for it). Atheism was only ever one point on the spectrum of beliefs, but it was always around, and often attracted some high profile proponents.

Second, I found an eminently clear account of the major lines of philosophy running all the way through the ancient world. I hadn’t really seen this laid out like this before, and seeing it set against the historical political background was very helpful.

And finally, I found an interesting slant on the Stoics, which made me rather uncomfortable with the modern geek (not Greek!) revival of Stoicism as a philosophy for living your life today.

The first and the last of these are worth a bit more unpacking. The first is, of course, the main purpose of the book. Tim Whitmarsh gives us a scholarly and yet very readable account of the various threads of (non)belief in the ancient world, and how these were received by their contemporaries. He starts in about the seventh century BC, where the ancient Greek city states were enormously diverse, but didn’t seem to view organised religion in political terms, but rather “for personal communion with the divine”. It provided a vehicle for collective involvement in the community, but differences in belief were personal matters, so long as they didn’t impact the cohesion of the community. This view seems to have continued for hundreds of years – even the trial of Socrates in 399BC for (among other things) “failing to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges” was about this risk to social cohesion, rather than any atheistic leanings per se.

As we transition into the Roman era, after the Punic Wars and the final sacking of Carthage in 146BC, we still see religion and the gods viewed in the same way: the Roman emperors after Augustus (who died in 14AD) were viewed as gods, but just one amongst many. The ensuing two centuries of Pax Romana didn’t change this: not believing in the gods was acceptable, especially if you were prepared to keep the peace by making the odd minor contribution to the community in other ways. It was only with the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on his deathbed in 312AD that we would have seen a move towards a much sharper division into “true religio” versus “false superstitio”. With this came the assumption that “all humans are born with a natural sense of the divine but that some people have been led into misunderstanding by false teaching”.

For me, this Christian belief is reflected in Christianity’s much more prosyletizing approach to religion. The Greeks and Romans didn’t really do this, because their polytheism allowed them to incorporate the gods of peoples that they conquered. Indeed, the often produced tables of equivalences, and as long as you knew which of your gods mapped to which of theirs, you could continue to worship whichever you chose (or none at all), and everyone was happy. Not so with Christianity, which was much more all-or-nothing. It’s not until the arrival of the Enlightenment that atheism became a philosophical position that could be held in the Western world (and even then, you were wise to keep quiet about it in many cases!).

All of this is the main thrust of the book, and Mr Whitmarsh provides an excellent and readable account of all of this. Definitely worth the wear on your eyeballs of reading it all.

My other learning, as I said, was a realisation that the modern revival of Stoicism has a rather unpleasant (for me) set of philosophical beliefs embedded within it. I certainly agree that many of the main thrusts of Stoicism are helpful views to hold: be resilient against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by anticipating the worst, act according to your beliefs, and confine your actions and your judgement to your own sphere of influence, rather than wasting too much time judging others. All good and helpful, and much lauded today by everyone from Navy SEALs to Tim Ferriss.

But in Mr Whitmarsh’s contrast of Stoicism against the other philosophies that were around at the time I saw a different side: the side that says don’t fight against conventions and the prevailing political system, don’t push back against the hierarchy, just stay in your own small world. All very well if you are already at the top of the hierarchy (as Marcus Aurelius of “Meditations” fame of course was – extraordinarily wealthy, and in due course emperor himself). But not so good for anyone in, say, the bottom half. So I need to do more personal reading here, but for the moment, whilst I will read quotations from modern fans of Stoicism with a more jaundiced eye…