The demolition man

Why are so many people drawn to the restless scepticism of philosopher John Gray? Julian Baggini reviews ‘The Silence of Animals’

John Gray in London, 2009

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray, Allen Lane, RRP£18.99, 240 pages

A little over a decade ago, John Gray secured his status as one of Britain’s leading public intellectuals with his anti-humanist polemic Straw Dogs. Gray dismissed the central tenets of the optimistic, secular carriers of the Enlightenment torch as baseless articles of faith, no more free of myth than the religions they were meant to supersede. Humans were nothing special, just animals like all the others; social and moral progress did not inevitably follow from scientific and technological advances; and the self was neither free nor rational but yet another illusion.

Gray arrived at this Gospel by a tortuous route. The son of a Tyneside shipyard joiner, he won a scholarship to read philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford, where he began to pick away at the liberalism of his teacher and later friend, Isaiah Berlin. Initially of the left, he became a Thatcherite before there was such a thing as Thatcherism, then a Blairite before Blairism. He was consistent only in his penetrating scepticism, which allowed him to see the flaws in the projects of the day and stay one step ahead of the zeitgeist. By the new millennium, Gray’s scepticism had developed to the point where there was nowhere left for him to occupy on the political spectrum.

Straw Dogs was hailed as the work of a prophet by an intelligentsia that always loves a Jeremiah. Critics dismissed Gray as a pessimist but the years that followed appeared to vindicate him. The Twin Towers of New York would have been falling as Gray was writing, and he incorporated a page and a half in which he noted that the hijackers had “destroyed an entire view of the world”. Post 9/11 it was no longer possible to believe that liberal, secular values were inevitably in the ascendency and peace would be the result. Then, six years after the publication of Straw Dogs, the world economy collapsed and the longest recession of modern times followed.

The world has changed but The Silence of Animals suggests Gray sees no need to change with it. It is as though he has decided to demonstrate the myth of progress by refusing to make any himself, not so much saying “I told you so” as “Let me tell you again.” The book reads like Straw Dogs rewritten from scratch, this time drawing on more extended literary and historical examples, his punchy aphorisms punctuating rather than dominating the text.

For those familiar with Straw Dogs, the sense of déjà vu will be too powerful at times. Not only are all the central ideas and arguments the same, he even repeats several metaphors and citations, such as Schopenhauer’s quip that sex “knows how to slip its love-notes and ringlets even into ministerial portfolios and philosophical manuscripts”.

If something is worth saying it is often worth saying at least twice but Gray’s redux fails to take account of what has happened between each iteration. The enthusiasm with which Straw Dogs was received always belied Gray’s reputation as an iconoclast, and now more than ever he is not the voice of one crying in the wilderness but one leading an increasingly vast and vocal crowd.

For instance, he says “now that the boom is over the demand for a return to growth is ubiquitous and insistent”, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed the ubiquitous and insistent calls for a zero-growth economy, backed by claims that peak oil and overpopulation mean decline is inevitable anyway. As for faith in progress, that seems to have been consigned to history. To take just two recent surveys: in the UK, 64 per cent believe it is unlikely that today’s youth will have a better life than their parents, and only 16 per cent of American adults believe today’s children will be better off than the generation before them.

The arguments have lost their urgency but retain their weaknesses. As in Straw Dogs, there is too much black and white and too few shades of Gray. Most obviously, he talks of “faith in progress” and the idea that “the future can still be better” interchangeably, as though they amounted to the same thing. But, of course, they are not. You do not have to believe tomorrow must be better than today to try to make it so. Sartre recognised this half a century ago, when he argued that “one need not hope in order to undertake one’s work”. Abandoning the comforting delusion that good will inevitably prevail is a condition for honest work towards progress, not an obstacle to it.

Gray’s fiercest critics have made this point time and again. AC Grayling, for example, wrote that “trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect”. Gray makes a brief attempt to show that such “meliorism” is just utopianism in disguise, saying that “gradual progress is often impossible”. Referring to the period after the first world war, for instance, he claims that “in those circumstances gradual improvement was just another utopian dream”. But the key words in these claims are “often” and “in those circumstances”. The clear-sighted Sartrean would accept those caveats in an instant and ask why we shouldn’t, nonetheless, try to make things better when there is some chance of success. On this, The Silence of Animals is silent.

Gray also revisits the claim of Straw Dogs that myth is not the preserve of religion and superstition but is the modus operandi of all human thinking. “Science is not distinguished from myth by science being literally true and myth only a type of poetic analogy,” he writes. “While their aims are different, both are composed of symbols we use to deal with a slippery world.” Here he exhibits his other habitual weakness of overstating similarities and thereby obscuring differences. The “myths” of science are very different from the myths of ancient Greece, which in turn are not the same as those of Christianity or Judaism. Indeed, Gray acknowledges as much when he says: “If belief in human rationality were a scientific theory it would long since have been falsified and abandoned.” Science has the power to disprove hypotheses but no one has ever abandoned a scientific conjecture on the basis of Homer.

Gray’s tendency to reduce complex issues to bold polarities is especially frustrating because it unnecessarily detracts from his many valuable insights. For instance, there is a profound truth in his claim that liberalism “teaches that everyone yearns to be free” but that “the charm of a liberal way of life is that it enables most people to renounce their freedom unknowingly”. He often captures an important idea in a single crystalline sentence, such as: “It is only lately that the pursuit of distraction has been embraced as the meaning of life.” He is even capable of recasting his own old ideas so as to make them sound vivid and fresh: “The idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.”

Most frustratingly of all, Gray has repeatedly skirted the question of what follows from his arguments in practice. What is left standing after the myths of progress, goodness, rationality and self have been swept away? Gray concluded Straw Dogs with the suggestion of an answer, in the form of question: “Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” In The Silence of Animals, Gray expands on this somewhat, writing: “If the human mind can ever be released from myth it is not through science, still less through philosophy, but in moments of contemplation.” Contemplation, he says, is “an activity that aims not to change the world or to understand it, but simply to let it be.”

This is, perhaps, the aspect of Gray’s thought that is most overlooked. Although he is seen primarily as a political and social critic, at heart Gray’s message is a spiritual one: work on the world is useless, work on the self is not. Where he differs from traditional spiritual thinkers is that he does not see this as the route to any kind of salvation. “There is no redemption from being human,” he says. “But no redemption is needed.” This echoes a thought in Straw Dogs: “Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it.”

It is perhaps this sense of release that explains why so many have been drawn to his seemingly bleak worldview. “An anxious attachment to belief is the chief weakness of the western mind,” says Gray. What he offers as a cure for this anxiety is the exhilaration of being freed from the need to believe in anything. The project of making our own lives or the state of the world better is a struggle, marked by at least as many failures as successes, and at best terminating in death. To be told we ought to give up the fight can lead not to despair but blessed relief.

But does Gray really think all projects of improvement are futile? Because his critique is entirely negative, it is easy to assume he does. However, he never goes so far as to explicitly endorse nihilism and, if actions speak louder than words, Gray is as much on the side of peace, prosperity, the use of reason and the rule of law as the liberal, humanist fools he mocks. This is, after all, a man who is civilised, courteous, quotes great writers approvingly and constantly engages in rational dialogue. He appears to have much more in common with the people he attacks than he is prepared to admit, to the world or himself.

If, however, he really does believe all meliorative work is pointless, it would be good to hear the case for why we should embrace contemplation rather than hedonism or even suicide. Gray clearly does have some conception of where value lies, no matter how modest his conception of the good human life may be.

Gray has given us a lot to think about, and has done so provocatively and eloquently. But The Silence of Animals suggests he needs to push his own thinking too. The work of demolition is done and there is little to be gained from continuing to swing the wrecking ball over the ruins. Gray needs to say more about how civilised westerners should live, at least as individuals if not as a society, once we have given up the most egregious myths and illusions of western civilisation.

Julian Baggini is author of ‘The Ego Trick’ (Granta)

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