So what is love? What is goodness? Does anyone have any bigger questions? From these two titles, no one could accuse the British intelligentsia of aiming low. Yet the comparison between these two writers - their mental styles, their biographical provenance, their emotional investments - is at least as interesting as the contingent answers they provide to these ultimate questions.
From the sweeping locks and unapologetic cravat displayed on his author shot to his equanimious performances on shows like Start the Week, A C Grayling is the kind of philosopher the British are happy to tolerate: calm, clear-spoken, accessibly logical, and never shy of a comfortingly authoritative soundbite. This latest book is perfectly synchronous with his public image: a steady restatement of humanism against religion, Enlightenment against mysticism, the profane against the sacred. In a world heaving in a sea of contending spiritualities, one can imagine the good ship Grayling (fellow of St Anne's, Oxford, thank Aristotle) as a safe berth for anxious readers, charting a steady return journey towards the solid ground of Western civilisation.
Zygmunt Bauman, on the other hand, proceeds from a somewhat different perspective on the glories of the West. Living in Leeds, born in Poland (and still an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Warsaw), Bauman made his name as the author of one of the most stunning indictments of modernity and the Enlightenment ever written, Modernity and the Holocaust. Its detailed and moving claim - that it was the very rationality of the Nazi bureaucracy, its ability to shield its operatives from the raw humanity of genocide through systems, which materially enabled the Holocaust - still resonates strongly in social theory.
Bauman is reclusive, rarely stepping up to a platform in the media spectacle, although he is certainly prodigious and productive. The beautiful cover to this latest book - a heart carved into a beach, about to be swept away by a blue, advancing tide - promises relief from his generally gloomy (though always energetic) verdicts on modern and postmodern life. But Liquid Love is almost the most despairing of all his books.
At least Bauman, though almost twice the age of Grayling, is attempting to apply his intellect to the here-and-now: a world of mobile phones, Big Brother, immigration crises, soap-opera catharses, relationship columns. In this communication cauldron, our perennial experience of love is made "liquid"; that is, less permanent and transforming than ever.
What immediately grates about Grayling, in contrast, is the wilful fogeyism of his cultural markers. Abstract individuals are invariably "he", and "Western mankind" strides across the pages like an unreconstructed, aftershave-wreathed colossus. Is it that difficult to felicitate your prose so that the other half of humanity can be implicitly included?
Grayling's Hellenism is almost breathtakingly sanguine: "the discussion of the good life it contains", he tells us, "is not only the source of all ethical enquiry in Western history since, but is a market for the best such thinking which that tradition has produced". As usual with this kind of humanist scholarship, we are given injunctions "not to romanticise the classical Greek world" - given its permanent militarism, its reliance on slave labour, its exclusion of women from full citizenship. "Still, a number of outstanding individuals among enfranchised Greeks thought and felt in ways which were strikingly original ... not least on questions of the good life and the good society".
Yet if the first humanists - their eyes trained on the works of "man" rather than cowering beneath the optic of the Gods - rested on the most inhuman degradation, why do their supporters forever downgrade the contradiction? Humanism may begin in defiance of the transcendental, but it proceeds on the basis of turning some humans into a necessarily productive (and disposable) sub-class. Isn't this the real continuity and potentiality of rationalist humanism, whose terminus Bauman would locate at the gates of Auschwitz?
In fact, Bauman's entire argument with modernity is anticipated by a strange passage about "the Statues of Daedalus" in Aristotle's Politics. Aristotle imagines a condition where "masters would not need slaves" -when "each (inanimate) instrument could do its own work ... as if a shuttle should weave of itself" (1253b). In short, the Greeks knew that their "arts of living" could only be fully humane when technological ingenuity would create enough material bounty that "managers would not need subordinates".
We may be closer than ever to this condition of humane post-scarcity: but as Bauman has incessantly reminded us, this plenitude requires maximum self-consciousness. More of us may be able to exercise more choices in our lives than at any point in human history, through the medium of our technologically fluid and productive societies; but this demands a higher ethical content than ever before, not a diminution. By these same informational means, we can choose both to connect with others in ever-more ramifying ways: Bauman's notion of a "liquid love" that seeks regular transcendence. Or we can chose to exclude others ever more thoroughly: the divisions and ghettoisations of a network society.
Grayling's caricature of contemporary spirituality as "heteronomous" (humans limited by God) rather than "autonomous" (humans enabled with each other) is about as useful as an offshore gunboat in terms of the crisis of meaning and value that globalisation has engendered. Whereas Bauman, an ever-more reluctant sociologist, turns almost mournfully to complex theologians like Logstrup and Levinas. He almost incants these sources, seeking to give his readers some anchor of reciprocity beneath the chaos of their texting, shopping, mutating lives.
It's possible to charge both Bauman or Grayling with setting themselves far too grandiose a scholarly task. But only one writer here truly emancipates the reader by knowing that these questions were only worth posing well - not answering correctly.
Pat Kane's 'The Play Ethic' will be published next year by MacmillanReuse content