Soon Queenslanders will have the chance to hear the world’s foremost philosopher when he comes to QPAC. He won’t be singing or dancing but Professor A.C. Grayling has a reputation for entertaining and dishing out some brain food in the process.
In late November he will give two public lectures in the Concert Hall at QPAC. It was going to be one lecture but the first sold out immediately so they have added another due to public demand. These talks will be presented in the Concert Hall in reverse mode with the audience seated on the stage for an intimate experience.
Public demand, for a philosopher? Yes, I know, strange, but also heartening that so many people want to listen to Prof Grayling, an esteemed British academic who is hugely popular at events focusing on our grey matter. His QPAC talks will traverse “love, death, grief, ageing, friendship and art in the quest to understand what matters”, according to the publicity blurb. That covers just about everything.
I was lucky enough to have a personal audience with this rock star intellectual, by telephone from London, prior to his forthcoming Brisbane visit, which is also a bit of a publicity tour for his new book, Philosophy and Life (Penguin/Viking; $35).
It was to be a Zoom call but I opted for phone because I didn’t want to be distracted and driven mad with jealousy throughout the interview by the fact that, at 74, Professor Grayling still has a famously lush head of hair. The beard is impressive too. These are not superficial observations, they are often mentioned in commentary and he has been described as “leonine” on more than one occasion.
So how does one start a conversation with this venerable thinker? I thought I would go in hard.
“So, Professor, I was at the ballet last night and I wondered – what is the point of all this when we are all going to die one day?”
Quick as a flash he came back with the answer that underpins his latest book.
“The important question for all of us is, how should we live,” Prof Grayling says. “That is the great Socratic question and it’s a really vital one for everyone to consider. And since the persuasiveness of religion has diminished in the last half century, more and more people are thinking for themselves.
“My aim is not to tell people how to live. People have to choose for themselves.” And think for themselves.
And he hopes his books help people do just that. He has written a lot about philosophy and his 2019 book The History of Philosophy is a magnificent broad-brush view of philosophers across the ages.
His latest book is a more practical guide to inculcating philosophy into daily life, making him a kind of secular Dalai Lama of the philosophy world, if you like.
As well as turning his attention to the question of how to live, the book also asks – what sort of person should I be? What values shall I live by? Prof Grayling explores with clarity and depth the ideas we can use in helping to answer these questions.
He has spent a lifetime thinking and writing about them and teaching at various universities in the UK. Prof Grayling (Anthony is his name but everyone knows him as A.C.) is currently Master of the New College of the Humanities in London and is a Supernumerary Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford, and was previously Professor of Philosophy at Birkbeck College, University of London.
He has written more than 30 books on philosophy and other subjects and is a former newspaper columnist who managed to get columns about philosophy into the mainstream media.
He says he used to “smuggle philosophical essays” into the popular press but says he never tried to lecture people.
“It shouldn’t be the business of a philosopher today to tell people what to think,” he insists. “It should be about telling people how to think.”
Prof Grayling has been to Australia many times, has visited Brisbane on several occasions and is a huge fan of our Cultural Precinct. He’s also something of a Wagner buff and is sorry his visit is a bit too early for Opera Australia’s The Ring Cycle at QPAC.
“I’ve been looking forward to coming back,” he says. “I find the people there well-travelled and well informed. Australians can be down on themselves sometimes but I find it a lively place and there’s always a lot of vigorous discussion. My brother lives in Sydney and when I first went there, I was bowled over by how tremendously alive the place is.”
As for answering my initial question, well, by reading his latest book I would probably find something in there, he suggests.
“It does rather cover everything,” he says. “But if you want to give yourself an answer read the last essay in Walter Pater’s essay collection, The Renaissance.”
So that’s my homework. Thanks Professor Grayling.
Philosophy and Life – An Evening with A.C. Grayling, Concert Hall, QPAC, November 27 and 28
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