This Wednesday, at 9pm, a rare event is taking place: the BBC is showing a TV programme about philosophy. Yes, a philosophy TV programme! Rarer than a blue moon or a Scottish Labour MP. Classicist Bettany Hughes (that’s her on the left) presents a three-part show on BBC 4 called Genius of the Ancient World. The programmes explore the ideas of Socrates, Buddha and Confucius, and how these three ‘axial age’ thinkers challenged the dogma of their times and (it is argued) moved towards rationalism, coming up with fascinating answers to that perennially interesting ethical question: how should we live?
It’s rare for the BBC to have a TV show on philosophy, or even a mention of philosophy in one of its arts or history programmes. Why is this? And does the BBC’s religion and ethics department, which produced this programme, have a naturalistic bias (by which I mean it tends to favour rationalist / naturalist / atheist philosophies and view-points)? I asked Aaqil Ahmed, head of religion and ethics at the BBC.
This is the first series on philosophy for years, or so it seems. How hard is it to get philosophy programmes commissioned? Why are there so few philosophy programmes on TV?
It’s a fair question if you say is this specifically about philosophy and not a hybrid of many genres and subjects. There are many big thoughts that get pondered on television as well as moral and ethical debate but it’s been a while since there was something specific that shouted very loudly that this is a series about philosophers. It wasn’t a hard sell as the stories are so good because as long as the subject area and presentation of it feels like it will engage with a wide enough audience then the idea will get commissioned. The point of connecting these three minds to a particular collective moment in time and making the assertion that their philosophies in some way still affect us today was what made it stand out. The addition of Bettany Hughes and the track record of the team behind it in making similar high quality programming for BBC Four was a further factor as was the Open University’s support for the series.
If there so few programmes on philosophy it’s probably more down to the fact that finding an engaging vehicle and unique selling point has been harder for other ideas.
Why did you want to make this programme?
These are key characters who are globally recognised as having an impact on how we approach various notions of community, virtue and the self. And the fact that they all live in a similar time frame will be fascinating for many of our viewers.
An engaging series on them will both be of interest today to our audience who are aware of their impact but don’t necessarily know a great deal, but also tomorrow as part of learning journeys that our audiences can go on to help with religious literacy.
The programme description describes Socrates and the Buddha as naturalists moving humans beyond supernaturalism. Is that true?
The series shows how the three philosophers played their part in a wider shift towards a more rationalist approach to the big questions of human existence. However, we see that they were still very much men of their time and didn’t deny the existence of Gods and spirits.
This line from the Socrates episode kind of sums up this balancing act: “Socrates didn’t deny the existence of the Gods, but his emphasis on the capacity of humans to shape their own destiny, could be seen as challenging their traditional authority.”
We learn that The Buddha also harnessed the power of the human mind, to examine his experiences, to work out, for himself, a solution to the human condition. But his understanding of the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, that humankind was trying to escape from, still included the possibility of re-birth in the form of a God.
We explore the notion of a higher, more comprehensive ‘human good’ that seemed to interest all three philosophers: something to be worked out, through our own reflexive, analytical capabilities, without recourse to metaphysical speculation, or blind faith; and in terms of personal morality – comprehensive answers to what constitutes a good person and a good life, in this world, is what they come back to.
In the series we look at how Confucius was unwilling to talk about the spirits of the dead in any length. But he still seems to have accepted their existence. He says, in relation to a question from one of his students, about ancestor worship: “You are still not able to do your duty to the living, how can you do your duty to the ghosts and spirits.” He adds: “You do not understand life, how can you understand death”.
We examine how their beliefs seem to have been a question of emphasis, and priority. Socrates, Confucius and the Buddha were all ‘religious’ to a degree. But what fascinated them far more was a systematic understanding of what humans could achieve on their own. This did often mean challenging and transcending pre-existing conventions, traditions and values, but not necessarily replacing them.
In general, it seems to me the BBC’s religion and ethics department has a naturalistic bias and is wary of supernaturalistic explanations and beliefs. So even if you make a series on pilgrimages or the history of Christianity for example, you get agnostics or atheists to present them, like Simon Reeves. Why is that?
I don’t agree with that, this series and many of our other documentaries are shown in prime time and we want to work with prime time talent. All the usual factors apply to the selection of on-screen talent such as knowledge, appeal and time slot suitability. Over the last few years that has included historians such as Dairmaid McCullough, Simon Sebag Montifiore and Bettany Hughes; journalists such as Simon Reeve, Rageh Omar and Anita Anand; academics and theologians such as Robert Beckford, Peter Owen Jones and Francesca Stavrakapolou; writers such as Melvyn Bragg and Myriam Francois Cerrah and talent such as Fern Britton, Nicky Campbell, Meera Syal, Mark Dowd and Ann Widdicombe. It’s a fairly eclectic group and some are religious and some not, but all of them have been and are key talent for the BBC’s factual religion and ethics output.
So there you go – not sure he answered the last question entirely, or what naturalist versus supernaturalist beliefs have to do with ‘prime time talent’. Are atheists more prime time than theists?
Anyway, there’s still plenty of philosophy on BBC radio 4, it just hasn’t found much of a place yet on TV. That’s probably as much the fault of philosophers as the BBC – philosophers have lost the art of public communication, and academic philosophy lacks giants of the stature and celebrity of, say, Bertrand Russell. TV is also very much a visual medium, and it’s hard to bring ideas to life visually – it needs a decent budget, imagination, and a creative and ambitious producer. Perhaps young philosophers like me need to think of other ways to get their ideas out there, like YouTube channels, Udamy courses, or crowd-funded documentaries. In the meantime, this sounds like a good series, and proof that people are still interested in philosophers’ answer to the question: how to live?