My Key Highlights from A.C. Grayling's “The Meaning of Things”


9 min read

What Is This Book About

A collection of short essays, philosophically exploring the most common topics of our life, such as what it really means to be ambitious, what is death, whether lying is bad, and if hope a virtue or evil, etc.

While this little book doesn’t provide all the answers to the most prominent world’s questions, it does give an overview of the key ideas about the topics that we frequently don’t have strong opinions about and/or don’t spend too much time to explore deeply to reach our own conclusions.

📌 My Highlights

On Moralising…

A moraliser is a person who seeks to impose upon others his view of how they should live and behave. Everyone is entitled to a view about what counts as acceptable behaviour, and everyone is entitled to put it forward as eloquently and forcefully as he can. But moralisers go much further.

Their true motives are that they are afraid of attitudes and practices more relaxed than they can allow themselves to be – their timidity, their religious anxieties, their fear that they might themselves be, say, homosexual or libidinous, and a host of personal motives besides, drive them to stop the rest of the world thinking, seeing, or doing what they are afraid to think, see or do themselves.

On Tolerance…

Helen Keller said that “the highest result of education is tolerance”, and she was right; one can be confident that in most cases the unbiased reasonings of an informed mind will come out in favour of what is good and true.

Fear begets intolerance, and intolerance begets fear: the cycle is a vicious one.

What underlies tolerance is the recognition that there is plenty of room in the world for alternatives to coexist and that if one is offended by what others do, it is because one has let it get under one’s skin.

On Frankness…

To speak frankly is to reveal what one really thinks, to tell the truth exactly as one sees it, and to do so whatever the consequences. When people are not frank they are being careful, or dishonest, or tactful – and often all three.

Many find that dishonesty and tact are far more useful for getting on in life than frankness.

Tact is an expression of concern for others’ needs and sensitivities, and is an important instrument in helping people negotiate the unpredictable complexities of relationships.

There is an arena where frankness is almost invariably a good thing: in the evolution of friendship. The point at which friends can drop their reserve and reveal themselves to each other is the point at which their relationship advances to a higher level.

On Delusion…

Delusion is a vivid false belief, often felt by its victim to be threatening or exciting, and often associated with psychotic states. Normally sane people can suffer delusions when caught up in group hysteria, which explains crowd violence and mass witnessing of miracles. Demagogues like Hitler have always appreciated the advantage of bringing people together in large numbers, as it's easier to influence and motivate others by nonrational means.

On Happiness…

But it is knowledge and progress that causes happiness is a side-effect; they both should be our life's goal, and the happiness we reach is a sign that they are being reached.

The point is that to have one’s autonomy of mind, to be aware of the world, and to make one’s own choices, is far better than being passively happy at the expense of these things. That is why we – or most of us anyway – object to easy routes to happiness, such as taking it in a chemical form.

On Nationalism….

Most of us value the culture which shaped our development and gave us our sense of personal and group identity.

But the nationalist persuades us that the existence of other groups and cultures somehow puts these things at risk and that the only way to protect them is to see ourselves as members of a distinct collective, defined by ethnicity, geography, or sameness of language or religion, and to build a wall around ourselves to keep out ‘foreigners’. It is not enough that the others are viewed as others but we have to see them as a threat – at the very least to ‘our way of life’, perhaps to our jobs, even to our children.

Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars. And one should not confuse culture and nationality: there is no country on earth which is not home to more than one different but usually coexisting culture. Cultural heritage is not the same thing as national identity.

On Racism…

In human terms, DNA analysis dismantles the idea of race completely. ‘Race has no basic biological reality’, says Professor Jonathan Marks of Yale University; ‘the human species simply doesn’t come packaged that way.’ Rather, race is a social, cultural and political concept based on superficial appearances and historical conditions, largely those arising from encounters with other people as Europe developed a global reach with the slavery and colonialism that followed.

On Christianity…

Religious morality is not merely irrelevant, it is anti-moral. The great moral questions of the present age are those about human rights, war, poverty, the vast disparities between rich and poor, the fact that somewhere in the third world a child dies every two and a half seconds because of starvation or remediable diseases. The churches’ obsessions over pre-marital sex and whether divorced couples can remarry in church appear contemptible in the light of this mountain of human suffering and need.

But religion is not only anti-moral, it can often be immoral. Elsewhere in the world, religious fundamentalists and fanatics incarcerate women, mutilate genitals, amputate hands, murder, bomb and terrorise in the name of their faiths.

On Capitalism…

Defenders of globalised market capitalism put their faith in two things: the capacity of markets to remedy the worst iniquities they cause, and the ‘technical fix’ by which future technological innovation will solve problems created by current technology and industry.

Critics point out that the market exists so that those who control resources can reap profits, which is their single goal. In leaving the world prey to impersonal forces of supply and demand, the market ignores the effect on the many who merely serve its interests without sharing its rewards. To achieve social justice we need economics that puts human interests at the centre. Such an economy would embody principles affirming environmental and cultural protection, economic justice for individuals and people, and regulation of the activities of multinational corporations.

Sociological orthodoxy says that consumerism is oppression; skilful marketing people have manipulated us, says this orthodoxy, into a state of passive victimhood, endlessly and aimlessly consuming ever-increasing amounts at the behest of an advertising industry which creates false desires in us by making us believe that to purchase an object is to purchase happiness

The orthodoxy seems to imply that if only advertisers would leave people alone, they would all begin reading Wittgenstein and listening to Mahler. The fact is, they would not. They want things; they want stuff; they want to buy and to own. And that the laws of supply and demand suggest, it is the consumers who lead, while the producers and advertisers scamper after them, supplying the consolations and salvations that brand names and the joys of ownership provide.

Owning them gives us meaning. The language of brands, products and services is the shared language of our community. Logos and advertisements are the cultural emblems of our time, signposts that help us navigate our world and evaluate what we meet in it. Both the language and the images offer what religion once did – a common structure.

On Reason…

On one view, reason is the armament of ideas, the weapon employed in conflicts between viewpoints. This suggests that in some sense reason is an absolute which, rightly used, can settle disputes and guide us to the truth.

But the reason has always had enemies. One is religion, which claims that revelation from outside the world conveys truths undiscoverable by human enquiry within it. Another is relativism, the view that different truths, different views, and different ways of thinking, are all equally valid and that there is no authoritative standpoint from which they can be adjudicated.

It might be true that human experience is now more fragmented and beset by ironies than it once was, thereby undermining confidence. But still, say the champions of reason, reason remains by far the best guide in the search for knowledge, so despite its failings and limitations we must cling to it.

On Ambition…

Worthy ambition, in short, is responsible ambition, because it is prepared to pay the costs of attainment. Mere ambition wants to leap high without effort and looks for easy ladders.

The difference is well illustrated by the contrast – between the person who says he wishes to be a writer and the person who says he wishes to write. The former desires to be pointed out at cocktail parties, the latter is prepared for the long, solitary hours at a desk; the former desires a status, the latter a process; the former desires to be, the latter to do.

On Reading…

To read is to enter other points of view; it is to be an invisible observer of circumstances which might never be realised in one’s own life; it is to meet people and situations exceeding in kind and number the possibilities open to individual experience. As a result, reading not only promotes self-understanding, it equips one with insights into needs, interests and desires that one might never share but which motivate others, in this way enabling one to understand, and tolerate, and even to sympathise with, other people’s concerns. As an extension of how this informs one’s behaviour towards others, it is also the basis for civil community and the brotherhood of man.

On Memory…

Even genuine memories can be notoriously unreliable; no good court of law accepts the uncorroborated recollection of a witness as conclusive. Support from the memory of someone else might help, but only to a limited degree; for memory is subjective, and as the police know to their frustration, two witnesses to the same event can give very different accounts of it. Memories can change, adding and losing details, distorting out of shape under the pressure of time.

Although memory is an unreliable source of knowledge about the past, its role both in intelligence and self-identity is unquestionable. Intelligence crucially involves memory; the inability to make use of acquired information and experience is a severe limitation on the performance of mental and practical tasks alike.

Similarly, memory is crucial to self-identity; when a person suffers memory loss, one of the most distressing concomitants is the loss of the sense of self. In some views, what makes a person the same person through life is the accumulating set of memories he carries with him. When these are lost, he ceases to be that person and becomes someone else, new and as yet unformed.

On Leadership…

Both Aristotle and Cicero believed that no one could be a good leader who had not first learned to obey.

There are broadly two schools of thought about leadership. One has it that a leader should lead, the other that a leader should follow.

It is true that, in general, people are only too pleased to be led. Because of weakness, ignorance and laziness – laziness above all – most would rather leave it to others to make decisions. Seneca observed that what makes people unhappy is not being given orders, but being made to do things against their will.

Some say that a leader who is kind, considerate and prepared to lead by example, will be most cheerfully and loyally followed. But it is equally true that ‘the leader mixing with the vulgar host/is in the common mass of matter lost’. This suggests that a fine balance is needed between the degree of distance and condescension a leader should observe.

On Family…

There is nothing traditional about the ‘traditional family’. The paradigm is a legally married adult male-female couple with two children in a three-bedroom semi. This ‘nuclear family’ is a product of the industrial age, and no older than the nineteenth century. In all societies beforehand, and in most non-Western societies now, families are larger and more diffuse groups, typically embracing more than two generations, in which child-care is as often carried out by relatives as parents who, because they are of economically active age, tend to be out at work all day.

The majority of nuclear families fail: 40% end in divorce, and one can only guess at the soul-stunting compromises and struggles that the rest survive.

People need a company to share burdens and pleasures, to give solace and enjoy intimacy, to receive and express love, and to nurture the next generation. The nuclear family is far from being the only or best way such relationships can flourish; and in the variety of alternative arrangements – gay couples, single or multiple-parent families, extended households – ‘family values’ are not always or even often to the point.

✍ Memorable Quotes

‘’A life well lived is one which has goals, and integrity, which is chosen and directed by the one who lives it, to the fullest extent possible to a human agent caught in the webs of society and history.’’

“The ‘considered life’ is a life enriched by thinking about things that matter – values, aims, society, the characteristics vicissitudes of the human condition, desiderata both personal and public, the enemies of human flourishing, and the meanings of life.’’

‘’A person who does not think about life is like a stranger mapless in a foreign land; for one such, lost and without directions, any turning in the road is as good as any other, and if it takes him somewhere worthwhile it will have done so by the merest chance.’’