Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon is a writer, broadcaster and journalist. He began his professional life as a priest in the Church of England. He is the author of After Atheism: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life, The Philosophy of Friendship, What Not To Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments, and Business: the Key Concepts. He also writes regularly for the Guardian, The Philosophers' Magazine, TLS, Financial Times and New Statesman, alongside a range of business titles, including Management Today. He also broadcasts, notably on BBC Radio 4's In Our Time.

Late last year I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
I usually have a few books on the go at one time - some read for fun, some very thoroughly, some more lightly. At the moment, my 'for fun' book is Moondust by Andrew Smith, about the author's attempts to track down and engage the nine remaining astronauts who walked on the moon. All have fascinating if not strange stories to tell. The book is also great for situating Apollo in its cultural period. And it was 30 years ago that someone last walked on the moon!

A more thorough read is James Davidson's The Greeks and Greek Love, his reappraisal of what scholars have thought about homosexuality in ancient Greece. The standard text has for a long time been Kenneth Dover's Greek Homosexuality which makes a lot of the difference between an erastes and eromenos - the lover who is the active partner, and the younger beloved who was more passive; which is to say that Greek homosexuality was substantially different from modern gay love. Davidson wants to challenge that by showing how modern attitudes towards homosexuality have coloured the interpretation of the Greeks, and by looking at the full range of evidence. 'Tis a big book, but one that will be important for anyone interested in Greek ideas about love. I've already discovered new angles on Plato's dialogues in it.

Then I just reread Huxley's Brave New World - chasing up some quotes on his 'perfect' drug soma for a book I'm writing on Wellbeing, and getting completely absorbed by the whole thing. It is astonishingly prescient, not in details but in mood. The character of the hedonistic, risk-averse, a-spiritual society he describes seems not far off from ours. As the Controller explains: 'People were ready to have even their appetites controlled then. Anything for the quiet life. We've gone on controlling ever since.'

If you want a seriously intellectual pursuit, I've also been reading Heidegger, and trying to decide whether he was right about Plato (in brief, that Plato concealed the presocratic's appreciation of being, which Heidegger believed he was revealing for the first time since). I've some way to go on this one yet! But my feeling is that Heidegger was wrong because he got Plato wrong (nothing unusual in that amongst modern philosophers who treat him as a Platonist - which is like treating Marx as a Marxist or Jesus as a Christian). Heidegger read Plato through Aristotle (the latter being nearly always wrong about other philosophers), and didn't seriously understand Plato's style which, to recall Heraclitus, was to show.
Vernon's new book, scheduled for release in March 2008, is 42: Deep Thought on Life. His Teach Yourself Humanism is due out in summer, and he is working on Wellbeing, which will be one of a new series of philosophy books called The Art of Living, which he is also editing.

Read a sample chapter from After Atheism and a sample chapter from The Philosophy of Friendship.

Visit Mark Vernon's website and blog.

The Page 99 Test: Science, Religion and the Meaning of Life.

--Marshal Zeringue