Reading this collection of short essays, originally published in newspapers and magazines, what strikes one first is that Grayling is a master of prose. Though his writing is sometimes marked by conscious stylistic tics, such as putting words like 'merely' and 'therefore' at the end of a clause, his sentences are invariably well-turned, and his paragraphs glide past like elegant yachts animated by the breeze of a capacious intellect.

Thus those who find the writing of Bernard Williams too densely layered in anticipatory parentheticals may appreciate Grayling's lucid five-page summary of his philosophy. This account, one of around 80 articles, is not very representative of the essays – most are freewheeling reflections with titles like 'Friendship', 'Ancestors', and 'Conversation' – but it provides a useful starting point. Williams, who can be included with Bertrand Russell among Grayling's heroes (though he might not use that word), believed there was no objective, universal morality for us to seek out and prove, but he also argued that integrity and truthfulness could still be principles to help us navigate a modern, Godless world.

In the spirit of the first part of this worldview, Grayling's essays on topics such as monogamy (it's unnatural) can be regarded as arguments fundamentally no more supportable than their contraries, and the measure of the book might be given by a summary of his disposition and attitudes: urbane, liberal, atheist; in favour of empirical reason and the West, and against everything bundled into the category of ignorance and superstition, including all forms of religion and mysticism (Jung, and Freud with him, is dispatched in two pages). Take it or leave it, according to preference.

But, Grayling writes, it is the compensating notion of truthfulness preserved by Williams that 'gives hope that a workable way of living for the good can still be found', one in which individuals can still hold a great many perceptions in common. Truthfulness here involves Sincerity and Accuracy, both of which are essential, and it underlies another essay, 'Opinion'. Here Grayling observes that opinions are not all equally defensible, and he draws a distinction between demagogues, who value only the ability to influence, and orators, who believe they are expressing what is right.

If we grant Grayling's own sincerity then it remains only to judge him in the other dimensions – that is, whether his opinions are well supported, and whether he is accurate. The answer to the first question is No, at least in this volume. This is not surprising given the brevity of the essays, and it is implicitly acknowledged in the introduction, where Grayling describes the book as a collection of 'nods and winks', intended mainly to prompt reflection.

This disclaimer, however, seems at odds with his frequent certainty. Instead, those sharing Grayling's outlook will be pleased at the eloquent expression of their own opinions, while those who disagree will generally not find enough meat to challenge them. Where he is less conclusive, for example, on the subject of war, he resorts to bromides about swords and ploughshares with which everyone could agree.

In the dimension of accuracy, Grayling also falls short – though perhaps this too is unsurprising considering the impressive range of topics on which he writes. Continuing with his essay on 'Opinion', he presents a picture of government and the press as being on opposite sides, with the power of the latter sometimes exercised irresponsibly. This is all very well in a narrow frame, but it will strike critical scholars of the media as obscuring more important questions. When he writes that reportage should be clearly separated from opinion, there is no evidence that he has thought about the forces that determine what is established truth, or the selection of what is reported.

Such is Grayling's own uncritical embrace of media 'facts' that, when it comes to the Middle East, he refers to Israelis 'building a fence around their country' – a description so obsequious in observing the requirement to portray the West Bank Wall as a defensive structure that it demands a redefinition of the word 'around'. Accuracy here would mean describing a wall not around Israel but around Palestinians, and most of it not on the 1967 border but within the West Bank, annexing occupied territory. But such accuracy would entail recognition of the true power relation, making it more difficult to sustain the fiction of two equal sides. So instead the Wall must be merely misguided: 'futile', a gesture of 'desperation', a 'tragedy' for both sides. Grayling even stoops to repeating that tired phrase of US envoys, 'painful concessions'. If a writer is content to rehash in finer words the shallowest reports of the mass media – to imbibe, whether deferentially or unconsciously, the prevailing notions of what is moderate, and then hasten to be moderate himself – then what ways remain to him to convince readers that he has any insight of his own?

The contrast between this kind of worthy waffling and Grayling's more assertive approach to religion and personal morality is noteworthy. On the one hand, he can muse equivocally in abstract terms on the possible admissability of preventive or pre-emptive war, while on the other he can bestow exclamatory approval on the idea of gods cremating themselves to liberate mankind from the bane of religion. Yet it is in the latter sphere that many people would consider there is more reason for tolerance, while the former, for all its contentiousness, is to a greater degree amenable to informed analysis based not only on consistency with widely accepted principles but with objective facts – indeed, it is one where it is irresponsible to disregard them, let alone to perpetuate insidious misperceptions (to which, after all, much of the contentiousness is due). Why then the inversion in Grayling: the timid retreat from reality and judgement on the one hand, the brave sallying forth to defeat God on the other? Perhaps because a chauvinistic atheism can today still buy a kind of controversy useful to the image of a fearless thinker, but without the need for any actual boldness or originality.

This book is certainly not devoid of value: Grayling writes interestingly on many essentially harmless historical subjects, and his dozen brief biographies are perhaps the best of his essays. However, The Heart of Things is a disappointing book, and this disappointment is not principally attributable to the limitations of its short essay structure. What is disappointing is that its author, a philosopher, does not live up to his profession.

Book review © 2009 Michael Breen