Brow Beat

A.C. Grayling’s Top 5 Non-Religious Books on Living a Good Life

In creating TheGood Book , British philosophy professor A.C. Grayling sifted through morethan a thousand historical texts, by authors ranging from Abulfazi to Zhuxi, andwove them into a single, freestanding volume. This literary collage billed as”a book of wisdom and insight for life” mimics the traditional Bible in itsstructure (there’s a chapter titled “Genesis” and one full of “Parables,” forexample), but its content is entirely secular. 

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The Good Book contains no footnotes, sosourcing its thousands of uncredited quotations and paraphrases requires muchpainstaking Googling, as Mark Oppenheimer noted inthe New York Times this weekend. Buthere, Professor Grayling singles out five titles that, in their various ways, provideuseful perspectives “on how to live a satisfying and morally good life.”

Aristotle, TheNichomachean Ethics , c. 322 B.C.E.

Do not beput off by the forbidding name: Nichomachus was Aristotle’s son, and heprepared this wonderful book for wider dissemination after his father’sdeath. It is the greatest classic of ethical writing in the Western tradition,a work of powerful thought and fine sentiment, and should be required readingfor anyone who can read.

Edward Gibbon, TheDecline and Fall of the Roman Empire , 1776-1789

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Although thewhole of this gripping and majestic work is too much for most peoplein our hasty and hurried age, the (in)famous and important chapters 15 and 16 are an instructive read, for whose sake the whole is worth having. But thewhole is worth having, too, for its salutary lessons regarding the fate of agreat power, warning inheritors of its mantle what the future can hold.

J. S. Mill, OnLiberty , 1869

Thisessay-length book is one of the pillars of contemporary civilization alucid account of what liberty truly is, and why it matters. Mill argues thatthe autonomy of the individual is the necessary condition for good andwell-lived lives; respecting the autonomy of others is the necessary conditionof morality.

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Robin Lane Fox, TheUnauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible , 1993

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It took manyhands over a long period to make the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, by processesof editing, textual interweaving, interpolation, rewriting, and periphrasis.Lane Fox explores the history of the Bible’s origins in constructivelydeconstructive fashion, giving us yet more reason to look with critical eye atthe cultural heritage it has fostered. His book teaches us how to evaluate the”holy books” that purport to tell us how to live good lives.

Richard Dawkins, TheGreatest Show on Earth , 2009

What couldbe a greater show than the story of life on this planet, evolving into myriadsof intriguing, exotic, amazing forms over billions of years since thefirst minute organisms emerged from organic soup? Dawkins knows his stuff andwrites superbly about it, giving a compelling biography of the descent oflife through the eons. By understanding our place in the natural order, we canbetter understand what is good for human beings. Those who only know one sideof Dawkins should experience the scientist and lover of nature for themselves.

Five supplementaries:

Cicero, OnFriendship
David Hume, AnEnquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals
William Hazlitt, Selected Writings
Thomas Mann, TheMagic Mountain
Albert Camus, TheMyth of Sisyphus

Photograph of A.C. Grayling by Mykel Nicolaou/Rex Features. 

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