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And this is the kind of thing we should say to one another by the fireside in winter-time, as we lie on soft couches, after a good meal, sipping sweet wines and crunching chickpeas: ‘Of what land are you, and how old are you, good Sir? And how old were you when the Mede appeared?’ Xenophanes, 6th century BC Greek refugee As the year 2015 and with it, my 75th birthday, came into view, and as I watched chunks of the world seemingly descend into Malthusian turmoil, even barbarism in places, I needed hope. I decided to seek it in the lives of the philosophers, artists and scientists I had admired for so long. I found that for some of them, the challenge to be confronted had been almost continuous. That group included Socrates, Darwin and Pasternak. For a few others, such as Boethius and Beethoven, darkness fell early. For some of the remainder, such as Seneca, the great Stoic statesman of the Roman Empire, the end arrived reasonably late, but it did so suddenly and brutally. Bertrand Russell sought refuge from depression during the First World War in work and by throwing himself into public affairs. In writing this book, however, I feel that I owe the reader an explanation, for except in the case of Omar Khayyām and, possibly, Bertrand Russell, I cannot pronounce with any authority on the sages I have chosen to discuss. Perhaps how the idea of the book came about will excuse my boldness. The genesis of it lies in two events six years apart. The earlier spur occurred in the late spring of 2003, when my wife and I were taking a short holiday abroad. After an intense bout of activity which had sometimes meant my giving 30 or even more interviews a day to broadcasters all over the world on the American-led invasion of Iraq, I needed a rest, and so we flew to the Mani region of Greece, that ancient, well- trodden land of the southern Peloponnese. But even there, I could not be quite idle. The editor of the Literary Review in London had asked me to assess a new book by the philosopher A. C. Grayling and so I had thrown that book into the holiday luggage. The extent to which I fell under the spell of What is Good : The search for the best way to live  may perhaps be gleamed from the opening paragraph of my review which appeared in the August edition of the magazine: How appropriate that I should be reading this survey of ideas about ‘the good life’ here in Greece, where the everyday philosophising of homo sapiens was first raised to the level of formal discussion in academies and given the name of philosophy. Furthermore, as you watch the local people with their relaxed lifestyles, you cannot help but wonder on the qualities of the ideal life yourself. In the hot afternoons, under the canopies of vines and mulberry trees, young people whisper their own versions of eternal truths to each other over glasses of beer and Kalamata olives (favourites of Herodotus), before going for a long splash in the clear waters, while their elders take a snooze on a shaded balcony or play backgammon (a Persian borrowing) in the alleyways. The notes I made for the review, which remain lodged in the review copy, include a couple of questions: Is it possible to have a reasonably good life in the face of misfortune, loss or poor health, and is living a modestly good life justifiable if the society around one is threatened by disaster? For ‘the good life’ has meant much more to good men than ‘A flask of wine, a book of verse, and thou’. Those two questions have always preoccupied me, right from my early schooldays in a remote corner of Kurdish western Iran (coincidentally, wherefrom Xenophanes’s Medes had hailed). In recent years, the latter question concerning society has grown to haunt and torment me, often causing me sleepless nights, and I know that I am not alone in such a predicament. Far from it. There must be hundreds of millions of us watching our rudderless world drifting towards great new calamities. Our increasing numbers put unprecedented pressure on the globe’s fragile eco- system, and, closer to home, our most advanced, liberal societies become less liberal to protect themselves against terrorists, within and without. It is easy to despair. Under such circumstances, we may ask whether it is permissible morally to seek a reasonably fulfilled personal life? The answer has to be ‘Yes’, and that, in fact, we have a duty to pursue fulfilled lives. If we do not do so, if we do not have functional private lives, how could we act in our public persona to combat those threats? The question that arises next is: What kind of life could we permit ourselves under the new circumstances of scarcity of resources. It could certainly not be one of rampant consumerism. The second spur came in 2009, when BBC Radio 4 asked me to write and present an episode of a philosophical/spiritual programme that is broadcast on Sunday mornings. The series is called Something Understood and has, under my old colleague in the World Service of the BBC, Sir Mark Tully, become almost cult listening to early risers. But Mark needs a rest every now and then and hence the temporary need for second-bests. They asked what subject I wished to address and, as my episode was going to be broadcast in October, I chose to indulge in the metaphor of the fading light to speak of the peace of mind that can be the fortune of most people in the autumn of their lives. I had entered my 70th year by then and so, with the aid of an anthology of poems and songs, the programme reflected merely my own state of mind as I looked back on an eventful journey in a turbulent world. It has to be said that the programme, which I subtitled The Consolations of Autumn, did not quite achieve the effect intended. I wished it to lift the mood of the older listener and lessen the fright of the younger as they contemplated their own autumns. But some listeners, including a professor of international relations, wrote to say that it had made them cry. I had made them think of the glory of their youths, they said, and reminded them of the loss of their loved ones. Looking back, this was perhaps inevitable.     Despite my trying to be a rabble- rouser, I had had to be realistic to be credible, and you cannot fool people into believing that they can ignore completely the moaning and creaking of their ageing limbs in later life. The most that can be achieved in the last third of our lives is aptly described by Wordsworth: Though nothing can bring back the hour Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower; We will grieve not, rather find, Strength in what remains behind. But what remains behind can still be worthy of celebration, both to the individual and to his society. In fact, according to evolutionary psychologists, it explains the longevity of us humans. The greater wisdom that has come to the old shields society from the rushed judgements of its younger members. At the level of the individual, too, the old sympathise more, condemn less, sparing them some of the stress to which the young are subject. In the words of one of the heroes of this book, the great philosopher and humanist Bertrand Russell, with whom I had the honour of a little correspondence a few years after my arrival in Britain in 1959, an individual human life ought to be like a river: … small at first, narrowly contained  within its banks, rushing passionately past boulders and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly and, in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea and painlessly lose their individual being. Furthermore, we live far longer lives now, and remain healthier in our last decades. In 1982, for example, there were 2560 centenarians in England and Wales. Thirty years later in 2012, their number had more than quadrupled to 12,320. Such startling changes in demographics almost never occurred before modern times. Perhaps I should tell a personal story here to illustrate the point. In my  Sussex village in southern England, I formed a deep bond of friendship with a neighbour by the name of Frank Bishop. He and I had seemingly little in common. He was a retired builder who did not really enjoy leaving the village, except for occasional flights to his seaside apartment in Minorca. I, on the other hand, had been brought up far away and nowadays raised hats each week with Nobel laureates at my club in Pall Mall, was a habitué of the National Theatre and dined regularly at the House of Lords – was in fact on a committee there with former cabinet ministers and archbishops of Canterbury. But we found that planning what vegetables to grow in the next season or inspecting his hatchling chicks in the incubator he kept in his bedroom brought us together as if we were two young boys. Frank’s stooping, but always cheerful, figure was an inspiration to many in the village and he took pride in the quality of his former work. As we walked to the shops, or on occasion drove to our nearest town for a meal, he would point to a handsome house here or there. ‘We done it’, he would say, with a broad  smile. He was aware, too, that he was lucky to be alive. He had served as a gunner in the freezing rear turrets of Wellington bombers in World War II and had mourned many of his young comrades who did not return. This idyll continued till April 2011, when, one day, I put together a tray of fresh bread and cheeses with half a bottle of wine to take over to his house to share with him for lunch. I also wanted to tell him that we planned a dinner for him and his companion, Anne, to celebrate his coming 90th birthday. But I could not find him in the house and gave up, assuming that he had gone to the chicken enclosure at the bottom of his three-acre garden to collect the morning’s eggs. Several hours late, when I went over again and he would not answer my calls, I found him dead in one of the rooms. Now, Frank would normally have died a dozen years earlier. He had had a heart attack and doctors had inserted a simple pace-maker in his chest. As a result, he had a full life as an individual and brought great happiness to his children and grandchildren, as well as to his friends. Indeed, the legacy of his good life continues. Anne and his son Roger and his family have all become good friends of ours and I do not mind admitting that when I go for an occasional visit to his grave in the village cemetery, where he is buried beside his parents and siblings, I talk to him. I tell him, for example, how our fig trees are performing, or of the health of his bees which continue to give us a wonderful harvest of golden honey each year. The fact alone, that Frank’s long and fulfilled life is no longer a rarity, is one good reason to be grateful for the scientific, social and political progress that some parts of the world have achieved in recent times. Most of us can look forward to several more decades of active life, when the great majority of even the most recent of our ancestors could not. The examples of sages I have chosen to illustrate the debate about the good life from the early classical times to the present are almost exclusively secular freethinkers. This is for the obvious reason that men of strong faith – at least in those faiths that are centred on a personal creator – are not particularly preoccupied by life as we know it. They are lucky. They believe, as my own late father did, that a better life awaits them after death. Furthermore, had I chosen any men and women who were primarily motivated by their creeds, even secular creeds such as communism, the result would have been of less interest to the average citizen of the liberal societies of the West today, precisely the kind of people who might come across this book. Our age is one of widespread doubt, so much so that the churches have reformed some of their core doctrines – such as Creation - not to appear at odds with the findings of scientists, especially geologists, biologists, physicists and astronomers. The examples I have chosen were also, more or less, involved in the public affairs of their communities. Hedonists are deeply alien to the innate social nature of the great bulk of humanity and, for that reason, they usually sink into obscurity when their parasitic lives come to an end, leaving them not to be missed even by their relatives. One reason why I spent years researching the life of Omar Khayyām, the eleventh century poet, scientist and deeply serious thinker, was to rescue him from the undeserved reputation that a selective – though wonderful – translation of his tavern poems had acquired for him here in the West. The same reasoning explains my inclusion of Epicurus among my luminaries here. He has had his image distorted even more radically than has poor  Khayyām. It may well be asked what possible benefit could we derive in this scientific age from ‘the wisdom’ of ancient men whose thinking could be described as leaping in the dark. Without any doubt, some of that ‘wisdom’ would cause laughter among today’s primary school children. Some, such as the great Socrates, seeing the contradictory claims of their  ‘natural philosophy’ colleagues, denounced science as useless to the serious problem of living, while others, such as Epicurus, made new claims of their own regarding the natural world. But it remains true that they were among the greatest minds who have ever walked upon the surface of this wonderful planet of ours and they were brilliant observers of human behaviour. Their ethics have thus volumes to teach us, and their valiant efforts to keep themselves and those around them sane in the face of general ignorance, war and pestilence can still inspire us. That is why I have chosen them. We can make allowances for their believing, for example, that the sun was a hot rock the size of mainland Greece, while benefiting from their thinking regarding the good life. I have given the middle section of the book over to an anthology of poems to console us for loss, and to remind us that great good can still lie ahead. Poems can convey, even if indirectly, a philosophy of life in miniature, with the additional attraction of invoking beauty, love, longing, etc, to speak to our hearts. The rational half of our brains is only half of our story. The other part, the sentimental half, needs to be nurtured just as fully to make what remains of our tenure of consciousness worthwhile. In the poets, in the best of the poets, cold, reasoned philosophy combines with passionate love to take us closer to the sense of the divine that most of us have now lost. I have arranged this selection of distilled wisdom according to their theme for easier navigation in future returns to them. Part three of the book is a brief meditation on the possessions, mental and physical, that enable me to live what I believe to be a fortunate existence. It is not an extravagant list. In the affluent societies of the industrialised world, most people can afford a variance of it to satisfy their own particular needs and preferences. What is not in doubt is that for us to have peace of mind and enjoy our later years requires a certain minimum standard of material comfort, companionship, culture and entertainment, as well as, of course, a reasonably good health. The good life has never, in the opinion of the wisest sages, been about hair shirts and penance. Finally, in an appendix, I have included a series of autobiographical talks, originally entitled Kurd’s Eye View that BBC Radio 4 asked me to broadcast in 1998. I should normally have been reluctant to speak about myself. I am particularly so now, now that I am older and no-longer enamoured of praise and fame. But the talks are largely about public affairs and about a rare and unexpected journey from a remote agricultural backwater to the heart of London, arguably the most influential city in all history. When the talks were first broadcast, the newspapers assessed them generously, and so they may be of amusement to readers today. Furthermore, they shed a little light on the man who has put the selection together. It is always useful to know from where the teller of a particular story hails. In this case, he hails from ancient Media.