A conversation with A C Grayling is a bit like rifling through an enormous filing cabinet that just happens to contain one of the world’s greatest minds.
The renowned British philosopher and author is in town to launch the festival’s first “literary cruise” by hosting a talk entitled What Is Literature?
That question seems like a good place to start our conversation.
“Literature is one of the central and most important things in the life of any thoughtful person, because it’s what gives us the opportunity to peer into many other kinds of lives and human possibilities,” he answers.
So reading made-up stories about made-up people does have worth after all. But, hold on – does any of it matter, anyway? Isn’t existentialism just an evolutionary trick to fend off boredom and depression?
“Living creatively and with a goal, with a sense of what’s important, and privileging what you give your time and energy to – one can’t really write that down as a trick one plays to get through life,” says Grayling.
Perhaps – but what about others? Why should I give to charity?
“It would be very, very hard to live what one would describe as a happy, content and satisfied life knowing that there are other people who are struggling to get clean water every day,” he says.
True. But aren’t we, as a society, getting meaner? Hasn’t the world grown considerably less just and fair since September 11 and the financial crisis?
“It certainly has – and you’re right to link them,” he says. “There’s growing inequalities within and between societies in our world.”
He also points the finger at globalisation. So when would be a better time to live?
“If I could take my dentist with me, I wouldn’t mind living in the 18th century,” says the 66-year-old professor. “But I would not like to live anywhere but the West, at no other time than now, if I was a woman. And that in itself is evidence we have made great progress through history. I am an optimist.”
So things are going to get better, after all? Is this all just a blip?
“We are generally becoming more moral, more law-abiding, more rational and more reflective,” he says.
“There’s every reason for being quite optimistic about [the] future of humanity – and I’m very keen that the stem-cell researchers get their skates on a bit, so that I can be alive in 200 or 300 years to see it.”
• A C Grayling hosts What Is Literature?, aboard Bateaux Dubai cruising Dubai Creek, tonight from 7.30pm; Dh495 (including meal and drinks). On Saturday at 10am he will host Progress in Troubled Times: Learning from The Age of Genius at Novo Cinemas, Dubai Festival City; Dh70