The disconsolations of philosophy

The Silence of Animals (On Progress and Other Modern Myths)*
by John Gray.

The British Humanist Association and the National Secular Society and the Ethical Society and other august institutions and individuals are engaged in an intellectual battle against religion. They seek to undermine religious authority, question the metaphysics of spirituality and re-establish the human at the centre of the world and the author of its value system. They pit modern reason against the superstitious and the archaic. But hold on, now John Gray arrives from the future in his latest book The Silence of Animals, before their battle is won, and tries to overthrow them from an exalted position they have not quite yet attained.

Gray’s position can be stated thus: humanists’ belief in progress via a rational world view is a superstition based on the wrong truth about the human animal.

• Outside of science progress is simply a myth. Science and technology are cumulative and capable of making progress, but ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas. For example torture and slavery are universal evils that cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. Barbarism is a recurring disease of our civilisation, a mistake that will for ever be remade. Whilst human knowledge increases, human irrationality stays the same and human history belongs to the cycles of the natural world.

• Religion recognises the imperfection of humans and has faith in their salvation through God. But if God does not exist, humans cannot be saved through him. Humanism rejects the religious view of the imperfectability of humans but retains faith in salvation, by progress through reason. But the human animal is a cracked vessel and flawed humans harbour impulses that sabotage their own fulfilment (as Freud has shown). If humans are imperfect and irrational (reason being only intermittently achievable) then humankind cannot progress to perfection through reason.

• History then is no more than a cycle, a series of absurdities, wonders, tragedies, exhilarations and crimes. ‘Humanity’ is a narrative composed from billions of individuals, for each of whom life is singular and final. There is no goal of history and the modern myth of progress is a myth of salvation in secular terms. The story the modern world tells itself is that belief in progress is at odds with religion when, in fact, faith in progress is a latent survival of Christianity.

• The myth of progress is so potent because humans cannot endure life if it does not contain significance, and the myth of progress casts a glimmer of meaning – it lifts the spirits as it numbs the brain. Instead humans, if they wish to live honestly and with authenticity, must deny the myth of progress, understand that all humans are flawed, and have the courage to stare the future in the face without hope of salvation.

So far so intellectually exhilarating, so far so Straw Dogs**.

In the first part of his book Gray argues that both Christianity and humanism are part of the same heroic effort of humankind to deny its own contingency. But if life is contingent and humans are not to be masters of their own destiny and must accept chaos as final then what is to be done? Put another way, if consolation is impossible how is life to be endured? In the face of blind and amoral fate what is a wise person to do? As Freud has shown, the normal conflicts of mind have no cure and the obstacles to human fulfilment include humans sabotaging themselves. Love, creativity, hate and destruction are some of our warring impulses (and indeed our impulses are at war with the demands of conscience); in this way the conscious mind does not shape human life. Contentment is to be found not in victory of one impulse over another but the peace of mind through which all can be accepted; that is not in harmonizing the conflict but living with it. This is the ethic of a Stoic out of season that sees resignation as a virtue; the important thing is the stance we adopt toward fate. It is not an ethic of submission, according to Gray, but a fortification of the self so that humans can assert themselves against fate; an active fatalism. He is Diogenes making his vow of poverty and staying in his barrel to read his favourite pessimists, such as Schopenhauer, Conrad and Freud.

We can be liberated from confinement in a world without meaning by the idea that all human thought is composed of fictions, says Gray in the middle section of the book, and he examines a number of twentieth century radical nominalists (as he calls them) including Borges, Beckett, T.E. Hulme, Freud, J.G. Ballard and Hans Valinger. In a world humans cannot understand they equip themselves with symbols and create imaginary worlds, an infinity of analogues that gives humans a feeling of power over chaos. These, Gray says, are not eternal archetypal myths but transitory fictions that fade on the air like music. This section relies heavily on quotes from other authors and is his least successful. It can read like a series of summaries of Gray’s favourite writers, or snapshots of texts he happened to be reading at the time of writing. His analysis of the relation of language to reality is superficial and unconvincing and needs much more intellectual spade work. To some extent it is a result of his repetitive and elliptical style (appropriate in a book that denies progress is possible). The prose is Nietzschean aphorism rather than systemic argument, and all the better for that. But his demolition of the myth of progress (in part one) is much more successful than his exploration of other myths created by language.

He ends the book by considering silence and contemplation. Humans he says are terrified of silence because it forces them to confront the nothingness and meaninglessness of existence. The noisy perpetual life of action is, for Gray, a futile denial of contingency and a pursuit of phantoms. Contemplation is promoted instead and, as Gray has it, is an activity that aims neither to change the world, nor even understand it, but merely to let it be in a resolute refusal of distractions and the wilful opening of the mind to the senses. So in the end we come full circle and view the life of a religious mystic as a form of perfection in a secular world, but a Godless mysticism that cannot dissolve inner conflict but offers mere being. There is no ascent of man or redemption from being human, but no redemption is needed.

But even if we agree that reaching for human perfection is dangerous modern arrogance and deluded forgetting, can we not humbly seek to ameliorate injustice when it crosses our path? Human institutions develop even if human beings do not. Can’t the building of political stability reduce the risk of barbarism? Personal indifference to the future may help individuals survive the cold blast of the amoral universe, but faith in the future propels us to fight for justice. To make small things better is not the same as thinking big things can be perfect.

Edward Bindloss

*Allen Lane 2013
** Straw Dogs, Granta, John Gray 2002


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