The Challenge of Things: Thinking Through Troubled Times
A C Grayling
2015, pp 320, Rs 499
We may have missed reading several editorials in newspapers at some point or the other and sometimes for a long stretch of time. A C Grayling’s latest book The Challenge of Things — Thinking Through Troubled Times provides an encapsulation of all those editorials, comment page articles we may have missed reading at some point or the other, and a whole lot of essays on broad themes that influence and impact our lives all the time.
The Challenge of Things is a collection of Grayling’s essays that focuses on recent newsy subjects as well as larger generic issues that have been relevant for many years now.
These essays are Grayling’s contributions in recent years to publications such as Prospect magazine, The Guardian, Observer, Times, New Statesman and New York Review of Books among others.
In his introduction to this book, Grayling says, “Every generation needs to attempt an interpretation of the time it lives in.” And that’s because every age thinks its own time is one of special difficulty, he says.
This is Grayling’s latest in this Things series, the others being —The Meaning of Things, The Reason of Things, The Mystery of Things, The Heart of Things and The Form of Things.
At first glance the book may appear to focus on war and the perils of war. But the author dwells on a wide range of subjects. The essays chosen for this book are slotted in two clear sections — the first half of the book is on ‘Destructions and Deconstructions’, and the second half ‘Constructions and Creations’.
Subjects as varied as climate change, killing of Osama Bin Laden, ethics of drones, China, opium, guns, religion and education, irredentism, new puritanism and global financial crisis feature in the Destructions and Deconstructions segment of the book.
Grayling’s reasoning in these essays is coherent, and the language, adequately straightforward. For instance, in his essay on irredentism, he says one reason for the messy situation over state boundaries is demographic fluidity as people move in “tidal fashion” pushed by conflicts or climate change.
Many of his arguments are absolutely logical and yet you wonder why the world “stands on its head in most things”. In his argument on banning guns, Grayling says their manufacture and sale should be a human rights abuse.
On religion, he says children should be taught about religion as a sociological and historical fact and left to make up their own minds about the merits, something that every rational person is wont to do.
He also argues in favour of the presence of atheist political leaders in governance. Though a simplistic argument, Grayling believes that atheist leaders will be more skeptical about inculcating sectarian beliefs in children.
Climate change, he says, has evoked huge discussions on the problems and remedies. Grayling is of the view that change in habits at the individual level will contribute, though seemingly tiny but not nugatory.
“The practicalities of individual green awareness come down to one thing — restraint. That is not a comfortable term used to the high-octane lifestyle that consumes at a fast rate and measures success by rating the size of house, number of cars and foreign holidays,” he says.
Constructions and Creations, the second segment of Grayling’s book, looks at topics as expansive and diverse as science and democracy, free speech, Greek philosopher Socrates, historian and philosopher Thucydides, French philosopher Montaigne, sleep, success, retirement, happiness, teachers and optimism.
Here he approaches the subjects in a more philosophical way.
The book concludes with his essay on ‘Making the World a Better Place’ in which Grayling lays emphasis on getting serious about the place of women in all societies.
A large section of women are not only illiterate but have also been completely excluded from public sphere. He points to an example in Africa where with just two years of elementary education for girls reduces birthrate, improves child mortality and enables women to have access to medical care and other benefits.
There is no genuine equality between men and women including in the US and Europe. Women in developed countries may have more access to participation in public and economic life but continue to remain a minority in the upper reaches of science, education and public life, he says.
The very fact that the book dwells on current topics and issues lends an ephemeral quality to it, making it conducive for the reader to read and pass on.