John Gray (philosopher)

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John Gray, 2015

John Nicholas Gray (born 17 April 1948) is an English political philosopher with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.


  • To affirm that humans thrive in many different ways is not to deny that there are universal human values. Nor is it to reject the claim that there should be universal human rights. It is to deny that universal values can only be fully realized in a universal regime. Human rights can be respected in a variety of regimes, liberal and otherwise. Universal human rights are not an ideal constitution for a single regime throughout the world, but a set of minimum standards for peaceful coexistence among regimes that will always remain different.
    • Two Faces of Liberalism (New Press, 2000, ISBN 0-745-62259-3. 168 pages), ch. 1: Liberal Toleration (p. 21)
  • What I liked was Thatcherism's Bolshevik aspect, which was to shake up the whole of Britain quite fundamentally, and if you read what I wrote in those years I think you might agree that in taking the view that I did then — that this was necessary and desirable — I never subscribed to the main delusion of the Thatcherites, which was that you could change everything and everything would remain the same. If what you wanted was a very anarchic, globalised, polyglot, mixed-up society in which most of the structures which had somehow been renewed from the Edwardian period to the Sixties were destroyed, then Thatcherism was what would do the job.
    • Quoted in Will Self, "John Gray: Forget everything you know," The Independent (2002-09-03)
  • The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run.
    • "Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary," from Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004)
  • Terror is not now, if it ever was, something that comes to us from outside. It is a part of the society in which we live. Both liberals and neoconservatives believe terrorism can be dealt with by removing its causes. The truth is less reassuring. Al-Qaeda has mutated into a decentralised, often locally based type of apocalyptic terrorism and, in this new guise, seems to be acquiring a formidable momentum.
  • Liberals tend to regard being subjects of the Queen as an insult to their dignity. But at least the archaic structures by which we are ruled do not force us to define ourselves by blood, soil or faith, and we are protected from the poisonous politics of identity.
  • While the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments.

    Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale.

  • The whole world is in some ways better than it's ever been in the past. And, indeed, I think for many people the meaning of their lives really depends on that belief. If you strip out that belief in progress, if you start thinking of the world in the way in which the ancient pre-Christian Europeans did, or the Buddhists and the Hindus or the Taoists of China do, many people think that's a kind of despair. I don't know how many times I've been told "If I thought that, John, I wouldn't get up in the morning" and "If I agreed with you, John, that history had no pattern of that kind, I wouldn't get up in the morning." I said, "Well, stay in bed a bit longer, you might find a better reason for getting up."
  • Their minds befogged by fashionable nonsense about globalisation, western leaders believe liberal democracy is spreading unstoppably. The reality is continuing political diversity. Republics, empires, liberal and illiberal democracies, and a wide variety of authoritarian regimes will be with us for the foreseeable future. Globalisation is nothing more than the industrialisation of the planet, and increasing resource nationalism is an integral part of the process. (So is accelerating climate change, but that's another story.) As industrialisation spreads, countries that control natural resources use these resources to advance their strategic objectives.
  • The US — its bankrupt mortgage institutions nationalised and its gigantic war machine effectively funded by foreign borrowing — is in steep decline. With its financial system in the worst mess since the 1930s, the west's ability to shape events is dwindling by the day. Sermonising about "law-based international relations" is laughable after Iraq, and at bottom not much more than nostalgia for a vanished hegemony.
    • "Folly of the progressive fairytale," The Observer (2008-09-08)
  • The true goal of the bourgeois life, in other words, is not self-enactment, but diversion. Most people need the organised distraction of work (if they can find it). Idleness - the life of the playboy who doesn't answer the phone - is simply too demanding.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002)


Granta Books, 2003, ISBN 1-862-07596-4. 246 pages.

  • Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its destiny. This is faith, not science. We do not speak of a time when whales or gorillas will be masters of their destinies. Why then humans?
    • The Human: Science versus Humanism (p. 3)
  • If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day.
    • The Human: Science versus Humanism (p. 3-4)
  • The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.
    • The Human: Disseminated Primatemaia (p. 7)
  • The human population growth that has taken place over the past few hundred years resembles nothing so much as the spikes that occur in the numbers of rabbits, house mice and plague rats. Like them, it can only be short-lived.
    • The Human: Disseminated Primatemaia (p. 9)
  • Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags.
    • The Human: Why Humanity Will Never Master Technology (p. 14)
  • Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider's web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: 'We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.'
    • The Human: Green Humanism (p. 16)
  • The mass of mankind is ruled not by its intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment.
    • The Human: Green Humanism (p. 17)
  • Religious fundamentalists see themselves as having remedies for the maladies of the modern world. In reality they are symptoms of the disease they pretend to cure. They hope to recover the unreflective faith of traditional cultures, but this is a peculiarly modern fantasy. We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives. A view of the world is not something that can be conjured up as and when we please.
    • The Human: Against fundamentalism ― religious and scientific (p. 18)
  • Scientific fundamentalists claim that science is the disinterested pursuit of truth. But representing science in this way is to disregard the human needs science serves. Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress. If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up. The political projects of the twentieth century have failed, or achieved much less than they promised. At the same time, progress in science is a daily experience, confirmed whenever we buy a new electronic gadget, or take a new drug. Science gives us a sense of progress that ethical and political life cannot.
    • The Human: Against fundamentalism ― Religious and Scientific (p. 18-9)
  • Again, science has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians to Lovelock.) In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.
    • The Human: Against Fundamentalism - Religious and Scientific (p. 19)
  • According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted.
    • The Human: Science's Irrational Origins (p. 22)
  • Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth - and so be free. But if Darwin's theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth.
    • The Human: Truth and consequences (p. 26)
  • In any case, only someone miraculously innocent of history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with one another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of heretics? If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p. 26-7)
  • A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise.
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p. 27)
  • Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin.
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p. 28)
  • Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness.
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p. 28)
  • ...the idea of Gaia is anticipated most clearly in a line from the Tao Te Ching, the oldest Taoist scripture. In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: 'Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.' If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of the Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.
    • The Human: Straw Dogs (p. 33-4)
  • As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs. In Kant's time the creed of conventional people was Christian, now it is humanist. Nor are these two faiths so different from one another.

    Over the past 200 years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith. It has not given up Christianity's cardinal error — the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.

    • The Deception: At the Masked Ball (p. 37)
  • Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind.
    • The Deception: At the Masked Ball (p. 38)
  • Like most philosophers, Kant worked to shore up the conventional beliefs of his time. Schopenhauer did the opposite. Accepting the arguments of Hume and Kant that the world is unknowable, he concluded that both the world and the individual subject that imagines it knows it are maya, dreamlike constructions with no basis in reality. ... Schopenhauer accepted the sceptical side of Kant's philosophy and turned it against him. Kant demonstrated that we are trapped in the world of phenomena and cannot know things in themselves. Schopenhauer went one step further and observed that we ourselves belong in the world of appearances. Unlike Kant, Schopenhauer was ready to follow his thoughts wherever they led. Kant argued that unless we accept that we are autonomous, freely choosing selves we cannot make sense of our moral experience. Schopenhauer responded that our actual experience is not of freely choosing the way we live but of being driven along by our bodily needs - by fear, hunger and, above all, sex.
  • Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it. They shape a view of it that helps us in our struggles. Among the imaginary constructions created by the intellect working in the service of the will, perhaps the most delusive is the view it gives us of ourselves - as continuing, unified individuals.
  • Nietzsche was an inveterately religious thinker, whose incessant attacks on Christian beliefs and values attest to the fact that he could never shake them off.
  • Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself. Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.
  • Postmodernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility — the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact, the postmodern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, postmodernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are in effect claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.
    • The Deception: Postmodernism (p. 54-55)
  • Philosophers have always tried to show that we are not like other animals, sniffing their way uncertainly through the world. Yet after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals do for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow.
    • The Deception: Animal Faith (p. 55)
  • It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its 'combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty' it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato's philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist - he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese thought has been nominalist - it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts. Plato's legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters - the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of its murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet.
    • The Deception: Plato and the alphabet (p. 57-8)
  • The unalterable character with which Schopenhauer and sometimes Conrad believed all humans are born may not exist; but we cannot help looking within ourselves to account for what we do. All we find are fragments, like memories of a novel we once read.
    • The Deception: Lord Jim's Jump (p. 68)
  • Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see ourselves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.
    • The Deception: The Ultimate Dream (p. 79)
  • We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?
    • The Deception: The Ultimate Dream (p. 81)
  • It is sometimes asked why Western observers were so slow in recognising the truth about the Soviet Union. The reason is not that it was hard to come by. It was clear from hundreds of books by emigre survivors - and from statements by the Soviets themselves. But the facts were too uncomfortable for Western observers to admit. For the sake of their peace of mind they had to deny what they knew or suspected to be true. Like the Tasmanian aboriginals who could not see the tall ships that brought their end, these bien-pensants could not bring themselves to see that the pursuit of progress had ended in mass murder. ... What makes the twentieth century special is not the fact that it is littered with massacres. It is the scale of its killings and the fact that they were premeditated for the sake of vast projects of world improvement.
    • The Vices of Morality: The unsanctity of human life (p. 95-6)
  • Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degree.... Justice is an artefact of custom. Where customs are unsettled its dictates soon become dated. Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashion in hats.
    • The Vices of Morality: Justice and Fashion (p. 102-3)
  • Freud taught that for any human being kindness or cruelty, having a sense of justice or lacking it, depend on the accidents of childhood. We all know this to be true, but it goes against much of what we say we believe. We cannot give up the pretence that being good is something anyone can achieve. If we did, we would have to admit that, like beauty and intelligence, goodness is a gift of fortune. We would have to accept that, in the parts of our lives where we are most attached to it, freedom of the will is an illusion.
  • Caring about your self as it will be in the future is no more reasonable than caring about the self you are now.
    • The Vices of Morality: A weakness for prudence (p. 105)
  • In the Greek world in which Homer's songs were sung, it was taken for granted that everyone's life is ruled by fate and chance. For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune. Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision. He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man. So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible. Beyond the goods of human life - health, beauty, pleasure, friendship, life itself - there was a Good that surpassed them all. In Plato, this became the idea of the Form of the Good, the mystical fusion of all values into a harmonious spiritual whole - an idea later absorbed into the Christian conception of God. But the idea that ethics is concerned with a kind of value that is beyond contingency, that can somehow prevail over any kind of loss or misfortune, came from Socrates. It was he who invented 'morality'.
    • The Vices of Morality: Socrates, the inventor of morality (p. 106)
  • Moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction. Despite this, a philosopher has yet to write a great novel. The fact should not be surprising. In philosophy the truth about human life is of no interest.
    • The Vices of Morality: Immoral Amorality (p. 109)
  • We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak - these are chance, not choice. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships. The life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.
    • The Vices of Morality: The fetish of choice (p. 109-110)
  • In Taoist thought, the good life comes spontaneously; but spontaneity is far from simply acting on the impulses that occur to us. In Western traditions such as Romanticism, spontaneity is linked with subjectivity. In Taoism it means acting dispassionately, on the basis of an objective view of the situation at hand. The common man cannot see things objectively, because his mind is clouded by anxiety about achieving his goals. Seeing clearly means not projecting our goals into the world; acting spontaneously means acting according to the needs of the situation. Western moralists will ask what is the purpose of such action, but for Taoists the good life has no purpose. It is like swimming in a whirlpool, responding to the currents as they come and go. 'I enter with the inflow, and emerge with the outflow, follow the Way of the water, and do not impose my selfishness upon it. This is how I stay afloat in it,' says the Chuang-Tzu. In this view, ethics is simply a practical skill, like fishing or swimming. The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do. It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind.
    • The Vices of Morality: Animal virtues (p. 113)
  • Autonomy means acting on reasons I have chosen; but the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing. We are far more like machines and wild animals than we imagine. But we cannot attain the amoral selflessness of wild animals, or the choiceless automatism of machines. Perhaps we can learn to live more lightly, less burdened by morality. We cannot return to a purely spontaneous existence. If humans differ from other animals, it is partly in the conflicts of their instincts. They crave security, but they are easily bored; they are peace-loving animals, but they have an itch for violence; they are drawn to thinking, but at the same time they hate and fear the unsettlement thinking brings. There is no way of life in which all these needs can be satisfied. Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures.
    • The Vices of Morality: Animal virtues (p. 115-6)
  • Today, for the mass of humanity, science and technology embody 'miracle, mystery, and authority'. Science promises that the most ancient human fantasies will at last be realized. Sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles. But to think that science can transform the human lot is to believe in magic. Time retorts to the illusions of humanism with the reality: frail, deranged, undelivered humanity. Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war.
    • The unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish (p. 123)
  • The truth that Dostoevsky puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor is that humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tell us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so.
    • The Unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish (p. 123)
  • The needs that are met by tyrants are as real as those to which freedom answers; sometimes they are more urgent. Tyrants promise security - and release from the tedium of everyday existence. To be sure, this is only a confused fantasy. The drab truth of tyranny is a life spent in waiting. But the perennial romance of tyranny comes from its promising its subjects a life more interesting than any they can contrive for themselves.
    • The Unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish (p. 124)
  • Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians' god is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.
    • The Unsaved: Atheism, the Last Consequence of Christianity (p.126)
  • Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it.
    • Atheism, the last consequence of Christianity (p. 127)
  • The practical effects of the Marxian-Federovian cult of technology were ruinous. Inspired by a materialist philosophy, the Soviet Union inflicted more far-reaching and lasting damage on the material environment than any regime in history. Green earth became desert, and pollution rose to life-threatening levels. No advantage to mankind was gained by the Soviet destruction of nature. Soviet citizens lived no longer than people in other countries - many of them a good deal less.
    • The Unsaved: Nikolai Federov, Bolshevism and the Technological Pursuit of Immortality (p. 138)
  • The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation — Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness — the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.
    • The Unsaved: Artificial Paradises (p. 141)
  • Jesus promised the resurrection of the body, not an afterlife as a disembodied consciousness. Despite this, the followers of Jesus have always disparaged the flesh. Their belief that humans are marked off from the rest of creation by having an immortal soul has led them to disown the fate they share with other animals. They cannot reconcile their attachment to the body with their hope of immortality. When the two come into conflict it is always the flesh that is left behind.
  • Anyone who truly wants to escape human solipsism should not seek out empty places. Instead of fleeing to the desert, where they will be thrown back into their own thoughts, they will do better to seek the company of other animals. A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.
    • The Unsaved: The Mirror of Solitude (p. 150-1)
  • Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition. Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world's religions. The growth of knowledge is real and - barring a worldwide catastrophe - it is now irreversible. Improvements in government and society are no less real, but they are temporary. Not only can they be lost, they are sure to be. History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss. The advance of knowledge deludes us into thinking we are different from other animals, but our history shows that we are not.
  • ...we are approaching a time when, in Moravec's words, 'almost all humans work to amuse other humans.' In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which - though it is busier than ever before - secretly suspects that it is useless. Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone.
    • Non-Progress: An Irony of History (p. 160)
  • Today the doses of madness that keep us sane are supplied by new technologies. Anyone online has a limitless supply of virtual sex and violence. But what will happen when we run out of new vices? How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell? At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when 'morality' is marketed as a new brand of transgression.
    • Non-Progress: A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun (p. 165-6)
  • Marx imagined the end of scarcity would bring the end of history. He could not bring himself to see that a world without scarcity had already been achieved - in the prehistoric societies that he and Engels lumped together as 'primitive communism'. Hunter-gatherers were less burdened by labour than the majority of mankind at any later stage, but their sparse communities were completely dependent on the Earth's bounty. Natural catastrophe could wipe them out at any time. Marx could not accept the constraint that was the price of the hunter-gatherers' freedom. Instead, animated by the faith that humans are destined to master the Earth, he insisted that freedom from labour could be achieved without any restraints on their desires. This was only the Brethren of the Free Spirit's apocalyptic fantasy returning as an Enlightenment utopia.
    • Non-Progress: Twentieth-century anti-capitalists, THE Phalanstery and The Medieval Brethren of The Spirit (p. 167-8)
  • In evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by-product of the media.
    • Non-Progress: A Theory of Consciousness (p. 171)
  • Theories of modernisation are cod-scientific projections of Enlightenment values. They tell us nothing about the future. But they do help us to understand the present. They show the lingering power of the Christian faith that history is a moral drama, a tale of progress or redemption, in which - despite everything we know of it - morality rules the world.
    • Non-Progress: The myth of modernisation (p. 174)
  • A 'postmodern' organisation serving 'premodern' values, Al Qaeda has planted a question mark over the very idea of what it means to be modern.
    • Non-Progress: Al Qaeda (p. 176)
  • A far smaller proportion of the population is in jail in Japan than in any Western country - around a twentieth of that in the United States. Evidently the Japanese have yet to embrace Western values.
    • Non-Progress: 'Western Values' (p.180)
  • A high-tech Green utopia, in which a few humans live happily in balance with the rest of life, is scientifically feasible; but it is humanly unimaginable. If anything like it ever comes about, it will not be through the will of homo rapiens.
    • Non-Progress: Yet another utopia (p. 184)
  • As machines slip from human control they will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings, whose inner life is no more limited by conscious thought than ours. Not only will they think and have emotions. They will develop the errors and illusions that go with self-awareness.
    • Non-Progress: The soul in tha machine (p. 187)
  • Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.
    • As it is: The consolation of action (p. 193)
  • Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.
    • As it is: The consolation of action (p. 194)
  • Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labours, it is only in order to return to them. In thinking so highly of work we are aberrant. Few other cultures have ever done so. For nearly all of history and all prehistory, work was an indignity.
    • As It Is: Sisyphus's Progress (p. 195)
  • For the ancients, unending labour was the mark of a slave. The labours of Sisyphus are a punishment. In working for progress we submit to a labour no less servile.
    • As It Is: Sisyphus's Progress (p. 196)
  • Gamblers wager for the sake of playing. Among those who fish for pleasure, the best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most. The point of playing is that the play has no point.
    • As It Is: Playing With Fate (p. 196)
  • Through fasting, concentration and prayer, mystics shut out the shifting world of the senses in order to reach a timeless reality. Quite often they find what they seek - but it is only a shadow play, an arabesque of their own anxieties, projected onto an inner screen. They end as they began, stuck fast in the personal time of memory and regret.
    • As It Is: Turning Back (p. 198)
  • In modern times, the immortal longings of the mystics are expressed in a cult of incessant activity. Infinite progress . . . infinite tedium. What could be more dreary than the perfection of mankind? The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality given a techno-futurist twist. Sanity is not found here, nor in the moth-eaten eternities of the mystics. Other animals do not pine for a deathless life. They are already in it. Even a caged tiger passes its life half out of time. Humans cannot enter that never-ending moment. They can find a respite from time when - like Odysseus, who refused Calypso's offer of everlasting life on an enchanted island so he could return to his beloved home - they no longer dream of immortality.
    • As It Is: Turning Back (p. 198)
  • Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?
    • As It Is: Simply To See (p.199)

A Modest Proposal (2003)


"A Modest Proposal," New Statesman (2003-02-17). This is a spoof article, subtitled "A Modest Proposal For Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracies From Being Abused, and For Recognising Their Benefit to The Public. By John Gray (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)."

  • The belief that torture is always wrong is a prejudice inherited from an obsolete philosophy. We need to shed the belief that human rights are violated when a terrorist is tortured. As Rawls and others have shown, basic freedoms must form a coherent whole. Self-evidently, there can be no right to attack basic human rights. Therefore, once the proper legal procedures are in place, torturing terrorists cannot violate their rights. In fact, in a truly liberal society, terrorists have an inalienable right to be tortured.

    This is what demonstrates the moral superiority of liberal societies over others, past and present. Other societies have degraded terrorists by subjecting them to lawless and unaccountable power. In the new world that is taking shape, terrorists, although they themselves degrade human rights by practising terrorism, will be afforded the full dignity of due legal process, even while being tortured.

  • Human rights are not just cultural or legal constructions, as fashionable western relativists are fond of claiming. They are universal values. To deny the benefits of the new regime of rights to other cultures is to patronise them in a way that is reminiscent of the colonial era. If the new regime on torture is good enough for the US, who can say that it is not good for everyone?
  • If we are to put interrogators to work in defence of liberal values, their role in the community must receive proper recognition. They will require intensive counselling to overcome the inevitable traumas that this difficult work involves. They must be enabled to see themselves as dedicated workers in the cause of progress. Psychotherapy must be available to help them avoid the negative self-image from which some torturers have suffered in the past.

Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007)


Penguin, 2008, ISBN: 0141025980

  • In thinking of history in this [progressive & eschatological] way Islam shares common ground with Christianity and with the secular creeds of the modern West. It is misleading to represent Islam and ‘the West’ as forming civilisations that have nothing in common. Christianity and Islam are integral parts of western monotheism, and as such they share a view of history that marks them off from the rest of the world. Both are militant faiths that seek to convert all humankind. Other religions have been implicated in twentieth-century violence—the state cult of Shintō in Japan during the militarist period and Hindu nationalism in contemporary India, for example. But only Christianity and Islam have engendered movements that are committed to the systematic use of force to achieve universal goals.
    • Enlightenment and Terror in the Twentieth Century: Terror and the Western Tradition
  • Contemporary liberals think of rights as universal human attributes that can be respected anywhere, but here they show a characteristic disregard of history. Current understandings of human rights developed along with the modern nation-state. It was the nation-state that emancipated individuals from the communal ties of medieval times and created freedom as it has come to be known in the modern world. This was not done without enormous conflict and severe costs. Large-scale violence was an integral feature of the process. If the US became a modern nation only after a civil war, France did so only after the Napoleonic wars and Germany after two world wars and the Cold War. In Africa and the Balkans the struggle for nationhood has run in parallel with ethnic cleansing, while the welding of China into a nation that is underway today involves the suppression of Muslim minorities and something not far from genocide in Tibet.
    • Armed Missionaries: Missionary Liberalism, Liberal Imperialism (pp. 238-9)
  • Hobbes’s understanding of the dangers of anarchy resonates powerfully today. Liberal thinkers still see the unchecked power of the state as the chief danger to human freedom. Hobbes knew better: freedom’s worst enemy is anarchy, which is at its most destructive when it is a battleground of rival faiths. The sectarian death squads roaming Baghdad show that fundamentalism is itself a type of anarchy in which each prophet claims divine authority to rule. In well-governed societies, the power of faith is curbed. The state and the churches temper the claims of revelation and enforce peace. Where this kind is impossible, tyranny is better than being ruled by warring prophets. Hobbes is a more reliable guide to the present than the liberal thinkers who followed. Yet his view of human beings was too simple, and overly rationalistic. Assuming that humans dread violent death more than anything, he left out the most intractable sources of conflict. It is not always because human beings act irrationally that they fail to achieve peace. Sometimes it is because they do not want peace. They may want the victory of the One True Faith – whether a traditional religion or a secular successor such as communism, democracy or universal human rights. Or – like the young people who joined far-Left terrorist groups in the 1970s, another generation of which is now joining Islamist networks – they may find in war a purpose that is lacking in peace. Nothing is more human than the readiness to kill and die in order to secure a meaning in life.
    • Post-Apocalypse: After Secularism (pp. 262-3)
  • While it is much preferable to anarchy, government cannot abolish the evils of the human condition. At any time the state is only one of the forces that shape human behaviour, and its power is never absolute. At present, fundamentalist religion and organized crime, ethnic-national allegiances and market forces all have the ability to elude the control of government, sometimes to overthrow or capture it. States are at the mercy of events as much as any other human institution, and over the longer course of history all of them fail. As Spinoza recognized, there is no reason to think the cycle of order and anarchy will ever end. Secular thinkers find this view of human affairs dispiriting, and most have retreated to some version of the Christian view in which history is a narrative of redemption. The most common of these narratives are theories of progress, in which the growth of knowledge enables humanity to advance and improve its condition. Actually, humanity cannot advance or retreat, for humanity cannot act: there is no collective entity with intentions or purposes, only ephemeral struggling animals each with its own passions and illusions. The growth of scientific knowledge cannot alter this fact. Believers in progress – whether social democrats or neo-conservatives, Marxists, anarchists or technocratic Positivists – think of ethics and politics as being like science, with each step forward enabling further advances in future. Improvement in society is cumulative, they believe, so that the elimination of one evil can be followed by the removal of others in an open-ended process. But human affairs show no sign of being additive in this way: what is gained can always be lost, sometimes –as with the return of torture as an accepted technique in war and government – in the blink of an eye. Human knowledge tends to increase, but humans do not become any more civilized as a result. They remain prone to every kind of barbarism, and while the growth of knowledge allows them to improve their material conditions, it also increases the savagery of their conflicts.
    • Post-Apocalypse: After Secularism (pp. 264-5)
  • Darwinist thinkers such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett are militant opponents of Christianity. Yet their atheism and humanism are versions of Christian concepts. As a defender of Darwinism, Dawkins is committed to the view that humans are like other animal species in being ‘gene machines’ ruled by the laws of natural selection. He asserts nevertheless that humans, uniquely, can defy these natural laws: ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.’ In affirming human uniqueness in this way, Dawkins relies on a Christian world-view.
    • Post-Apocalypse: After Secularism (pp. 265-6)
  • Talk of secularism is meaningful when it refers to the weakness of traditional religious belief or the lack of power of churches and other religious bodies. That is what is meant when we say Britain is a more secular country than the United States, and in this sense secularism is an achievable condition. But if it means a type of society in which religion is absent, secularism is a kind of contradiction, for it is defined by what it excludes. Post-Christian secular societies are formed by the beliefs they reject, whereas a society that had truly left Christianity behind would lack the concepts that shaped secular thought.
    • Post-Apocalypse: After Secularism (pp. 267-8)

The Atheist Delusion (2008)


"The atheist delusion," The Guardian (March 15, 2008)

  • The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed.
  • Might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan "Religion is poison," would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies.
  • Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

    Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.

  • Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century.
  • Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.

A shattering moment in America's fall from power (2008)


"A shattering moment in America's fall from power," The Observer (2008-09-28)

  • Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its over-stretched military commitments. Now, with federal finances critically dependent on continuing large inflows of foreign capital, it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America's economic future.
  • The populist rant about greedy banks that is being loudly ventilated in Congress is a distraction from the true causes of the crisis. The dire condition of America's financial markets is the result of American banks operating in a free-for-all environment that these same American legislators created. It is America's political class that, by embracing the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation, has responsibility for the present mess.
  • The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology. In American and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is underway is the predictable upshot.

Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings (2009)

  • In the world as we find it, even the barest requirements of a life worth living cannot all be always met in full. Toppling a tyranny may trigger civil war. Protecting a broad range of liberal freedoms may result in the regime that guarantees them being short lived. At the same time, supporting a strong state as a bulwark against anarchy may worsen the abuse of power. Wise policy can temper these conflicts. It cannot hope to overcome them.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.28)
  • It is because human needs are contradictory that no human life can be perfect. That does not mean that human life is imperfect. It means that the idea of perfection has no meaning.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.29)
  • There is no more consensus on what justice means than there is on the character of the good. If anything, there is less. Among the virtues, justice is one of the most shaped by convention. For that reason it is among the most changeable.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.34)
  • Like other human freedoms, the freedoms embodied in market institutions are justified inasmuch as they meet human needs. Insofar as they fail to do this they can reasonably be altered. This is true not only of the rights that are involved in market institutions. It is true of all human rights.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.36)
  • The idea of a law of progress, or of an all but irresistible tendency to general improvement, is then merely a superstition, one of the tents of the modernist pseudo-religion of humanism. Even if such a law or tendency existed and were demonstrable, the liberal faith in progress would for Santayana be pernicious. For it leads to a corrupt habit of mind in which things are valued, not for their present excellence or perfection, but instrumentally, as leading to something better; and it insinuates into thought and feeling a sort of historical theodicy, in which past evil is justified as a means to present or future good. The idea of progress embodies a kind of time-worship (to adopt an expression used by Wyndham Lewis) in which the particularities of our world are seen and valued, not in themselves, but for what they might perhaps become, thereby leaving us destitute of the sense of the present and, at the same time, of the perspective of eternity.
  • The idea of politics as a conservation in which the collision of opinions is moderated and accommodated, in which what is sought is not truth but peace, has been almost entirely lost, and supplanted by a legalist paradigm in which all political claims and conflicts are modelled in the jargon of rights.
  • In the life of the academic mind, the owl of Minerva seldom flies as early as the dusk.
    • 'Definition of the Political Thought of Tlön' (p.91)
  • The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia - a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.
  • The evil of totalitarianism is not only that it fails to protect specific liberties but that it extinguishes the very possibility of freedom.
  • Against the many Russian thinkers influenced by Hegel who believed that history was governed by universal laws to which one could only submit, Turgenev upheld the freedom of different societies to pursue different paths of development and of individuals to pursue, even in opposition to powerful historical forces, their own goals and values. Here Turgenev endorsed the celebrated dictum of Alexander Herzen, with whom he disagreed on other matters: that history has no libretto. Human history is a realm of contingency and unpredictability, in which each generation faces conflicts that have no ideal solution.
  • The belief in unity that has fuelled so many utopian dreams is an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable that ends in repression. Berlin suggests we renounce this venerable faith, and learn how to live with intractable conflict.
  • When closed societies collapse but fail to make the transition to openness the reason need not be that they languish in anarchy or suffer a return to dictatorship. It may be that they adopt an illiberal form of democracy. Along with the liberal democratic tradition that goes back to Locke and the English civil war there is a tradition, originating in the French Revolution and formulated theoretically by Rousseau, which understands democracy as the expression of popular will. The elective theocracy that is emerging in much of post-Saddam Iraq is a democratic polity in the latter sense, as is the current regime in Iran; so is the Hamas government in Palestine... To be sure, these regimes often lack freedom of information and expression and legal limitations on government power, which are essential features of democracy in the liberal tradition. In these respects they are closed societies, but they are not dictatorships. It is often forgotten that democracy, defined chiefly by elections and the exercise of power in the name of the majority, can be as repressive of individual freedom and minority rights as dictatorship - sometimes more so.

The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death (2011)


Penguin, 2012, ISBN 0141041889. 288 pages.

  • Much in the study of the paranormal was what we would now call pseudo-science. But the line between science and pseudo-science is smudged and shifting; where it lies seems clear only in retrospect. There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith.
    • Foreword: Two Attempts to Cheat Death (p. 5)
  • An old fairy tale has it that science began with the rejection of superstition. In fact it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific inquiry. Ancient and medieval thinkers believed the world could be understood by applying first principles. Modern science begins when observation and experiment come first, and the results are accepted even when what they show seems to be impossible.
    • Foreword: Two Attempts to Cheat Death (pp. 5-6)
  • Contrary to the cartoon history of ideas that prevails today, Darwinism’s threat to religion did not come principally from challenging the biblical account of creation. Until a few centuries ago the Genesis story was known to be a myth – a poetic way of rendering truths that would otherwise be inaccessible. At the beginning of the Christian religion, Augustine warned against the dangers of literalism. The Jewish scholars who preceded him always viewed the Genesis story as a metaphor for truths that could not be accessed in any other way. It was only with the rise of modern science that the Genesis myth came to be misunderstood as an explanatory theory. Yet Darwinism was still a major threat to religion, for it confronted Victorians with the prospect of their final mortality. Darwin forced them to ask why their lives should not end like those of other animals, in nothingness. If this was so, how could human existence have meaning? How could human values be maintained if human personality was destroyed at death?
    • Cross-correspondences (pp. 21-22)
  • The heterodox current in Judaism led by Jesus seems to have had no notion of an immortal soul, created by God and then infused into the body: immortality meant being raised from the dead in the body one had in life, then living for ever in a world without decay or corruption. In the Christian religion invented by Paul and Augustine, which was strongly influenced by Plato, immortality meant something quite different – a life out of time, enjoyed by the ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ of the departed. How this Platonic immortality could preserve anything like the persons that once lived was not made clear.
    • Cross-correspondences (pp. 32-3)
  • The basis of the [scientific] method is a belief in natural uniformity – if two events are regularly connected in our observations we can conclude that they obey a universal law. But this is not a conclusion we reach by observation. No amount of evidence can demonstrate the existence of laws of nature, since new experience can always overturn them. Science rests on the belief that the future will be like the past; but that belief is rationally groundless. This is not a new line of thinking. David Hume argued that the expectation that the future will be like the past, which is the basis of induction, is a matter of habit. Hume wanted to show that since miracles transgress known laws of nature it was unreasonable to accept reports of them, in the Bible or anywhere else. But his arguments against induction showed that the laws of nature could not in fact be known, so events that seemed impossible could happen at any time. The upshot was that faith in miracles returned by the back door of sceptical doubt.
    • Cross-correspondences (p. 68)
  • From a Darwinian point of view, human beliefs are adaptations to our part of the world. No doubt much of what we believe must be roughly accurate, or else we would not have survived. But the beliefs we have evolved might latch on to the world only enough to help us stumble our way through it, and then only for the time being. Human belief-systems could be useful illusions, appearing and disappearing as they prove to be more or less advantageous in the random walk of natural selection. Might not evolution be one of these illusions? Scientific naturalism is the theory that human beliefs are evolutionary adaptations whose survival has nothing to do with their truth. But in that case scientific naturalism is self-defeating, since on its own premises scientific theories cannot be known to be true.
    • Cross-correspondences (p. 69)
  • The basis of science is the empirical method, which uses the senses to build up a picture of the world; but science tells us that our senses have evolved to help us get by, not to show us the world as it is. Science is only a systematic examination of our impressions, and in the end all each of us has left are our own sensations ... The end-result of the empirical method, then, is that each individual is left alone with their own experiences. We can escape this solitude, Balfour suggested, only if we accept that there is a divine mind.
    • Cross-correspondences (p. 69-70)
  • The irony of scientific progress is that in solving human problems it creates problems that are not humanly soluble. Science has given humans a kind of power over the natural world achieved by no other animal. It has not given humans the ability to remodel the planet according to their wishes. The Earth is not a clock that can be wound up and stopped at will. A living system, the planet will surely rebalance itself. It will do so, however, without any regard for humans.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 212)
  • If our universe is one of many, unlike others in containing observers like ourselves, there is no need to posit a designer. Most universes will be too chaotic to allow the emergence of life or mind. In that case, the fact that humans exist in this universe needs no special explanation
    • Sweet Morality (p. 222)
  • For a consistent naturalist science can only be a refinement of animal exploration, a practice humans have devised for finding their way in the bit of the universe in which they have so far survived. Instead of thinking of science as a law-seeking activity, we can think of it as a tool humans use to cope with a world they will never understand.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 224)
  • Though it is often assumed that naturalism must be hostile to religion, the opposite is true. Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwinian science – why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value?
    • Sweet Morality (p. 224)
  • Evangelical atheists preach the need for a scientific view of things, but a settled view does not go with scientific method. If we know anything it is that most of the theories that prevail at any one time are false. Scientific theories are not components of a world-view but tools we use to tinker with the world.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 224)
  • Religion is not a primitive type of scientific theorizing, any more than science is a superior kind of belief-system. Just as rationalists have misunderstood myths as proto-versions of scientific theories, they have made the mistake of believing that scientific theories can be literally true. Both are systems of symbols, metaphors for a reality that cannot be rendered in literal terms. Every spiritual quest concludes in silence, and science also comes to a stop, if by another route. As George Santayana has written, ‘a really naked spirit cannot assume that the world is thoroughly intelligible. There may be surds, there may be hard facts, there may be dark abysses before which intelligence must be silent for fear of going mad.’ Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our inquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 226-7)
  • Before Christianity suicide was not in any way troubling. Our lives were our own, and when we tired of them we were at liberty to end them. One might think that as Christianity has declined, this freedom would be reclaimed. Instead secular creeds have sprung up, in which each person’s life belongs to everyone else. To hand back the gift of life because it does not please is still condemned as a kind of blasphemy, though the offended deity is now humanity instead of God.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 231-2)
  • Cheating ageing by a low-calorie diet, uploading one’s mind into a super-computer, migrating into outer space … Longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 235)
  • Instead of enabling humans to improve their lot, science degrades the natural environment in which humans must live. Instead of enabling death to be overcome, it produces ever more powerful technologies of mass destruction. None of this is the fault of science; what it shows is that science is not sorcery. The growth of knowledge enlarges what humans can do. It cannot reprieve them from being what they are.
    • Sweet Morality (p. 235)

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013)


Penguin, 2014, ISBN 024195391X. 240 pages.

  • For those who live inside a myth, it seems a self-evident fact. Human progress is a fact of this kind. If you accept it you have a place in the grand march of humanity. Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere. ‘Humanity’ is a fiction composed from billions of individuals for each of whom life is singular and final. But the myth of progress is extremely potent. When it loses its power those who have lived by it are – as Conrad put it, describing Kayerts and Carlier – ‘like those lifelong prisoners who, liberated after many years, do not know what use to make of their freedoms’. When faith in the future is taken from them, so is the image they have of themselves. If they then opt for death, it is because without that faith they can no longer make sense of living.
    • An Old Chaos: The Call of Progress (pp. 6-7)
  • As Malaparte saw it, Naples was a pagan city with an ancient sense of time. Christianity taught those who were converted to it to think of history as the unfolding of a single plot – a moral drama of sin and redemption. In the ancient world there was no such plot – only a multitude of stories that were forever being repeated. Inhabiting that ancient world, the Neapolitans did not expect any fundamental alteration in human affairs. Not having accepted the Christian story of redemption, they had not been seduced by the myth of progress. Never having believed civilization to be permanent, they were not surprised when it foundered.
    • An Old Chaos: Frozen Horses and Deserts of Brick (p. 22)
  • There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.
    • An Old Chaos: Frozen Horses and Deserts of Brick (p. 25)
  • Progress in civilization seems possible only in interludes when history is idling.
    • An Old Chaos: The Emperor's Tomb (p. 35)
  • Contrary to generations of western progressives, it was not Russian backwardness or mistakes in applying Marxian theory that produced the society that Lyons observed. Similar regimes came into being wherever the communist project was attempted. Lenin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Ceausescu’s Romania and many more were variants of a single dictatorial model. From being a movement aiming for universal freedom, communism turned into a system of universal despotism. That is the logic of utopia. If 1984 is such a powerful myth, one reason is that it captures this truth. Yet there is a flaw in Orwell’s story, which emerges in his picture of the all-powerful interrogator. The dystopia of perpetual power is a fantasy, and so is O’Brien. Soviet torturers were sweating functionaries living in constant fear. Like their victims, they knew that they were resources that would be used up in the service of power. There was no inner-party elite safe from the contingencies of history.
    • An Old Chaos: Two Times Two Equals Five (p. 52)
  • Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence. By acting on these impulses and releasing them in their subjects tyrants give people a kind of happiness, which as individuals they may be incapable of achieving.
    • An Old Chaos: What a Tyrant Can Do For You (p. 57)
  • Ichthyophils imagine that human beings want a life in which they can make their own choices. But what if they can be fulfilled only by a life in which they follow each other? The majority who obey the fashion of the day may be acting on a secret awareness that they lack the potential for a truly individual existence. Liberalism – the ichthyophil variety, at any rate – teaches that everyone yearns to be free. Herzen’s experience of the abortive European revolutions of 1848 led him to doubt that this was so. It was because of his disillusionment that he criticized Mill so sharply. But if it is true that Mill was deluded in thinking that everyone loves freedom, it may also be true that without this illusion there would be still less freedom in the world. The charm of a liberal way of life is that it enables most people to renounce their freedom unknowingly.
    • An Old Chaos: Ichthyophils and Liberals (p. 62)
  • If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas. Whatever they are called, torture and slavery are universal evils; but these evils cannot be consigned to the past like redundant theories in science. They return under different names: torture as enhanced interrogation techniques, slavery as human trafficking. Any reduction in universal evils is an advance in civilization. But, unlike scientific knowledge, the restraints of civilized life cannot be stored on a computer disc. They are habits of behaviour, which once broken are hard to mend. Civilization is natural for humans, but so is barbarism.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (p. 75)
  • The evidence of science and history is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion. Since it requires a miraculous breach in the order of things, the idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the notion that human beings will in future be different from how they have always been.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (p. 75)
  • Humanists today, who claim to take a wholly secular view of things, scoff at mysticism and religion. But the unique status of humans is hard to defend, and even to understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence. In a strictly naturalistic view – one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm – there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (p. 77)
  • The most important feature of natural selection is that it is a process of drift. Evolution has no end-point or direction, so if the development of society is an evolutionary process it is one that is going nowhere.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (p. 78)
  • As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves. If we know more than before, it means only that we have greater scope to enact our fantasies. But – as the Genesis myth also teaches – there is no way we can rid ourselves of what we know. If we try to regain a state of innocence, the result can only be a worse madness. The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our own nature.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (pp. 79-80)
  • Human knowledge increases, while human irrationality stays the same. Scientific inquiry may be an embodiment of reason, but what such inquiry demonstrates is that humans are not rational animals. The fact that humanists refuse to accept the demonstration only confirms its truth.
    • An Old Chaos: Humanism and Flying Saucers (p. 81)
  • Through all of history and pre-history it has been accepted that there is something wrong with the human animal. Health may be the natural condition of other species, but in humans it is sickness that is normal. To be chronically unwell is part of what it means to be human. It is no accident that every culture has its own versions of therapy. Tribal shamans and modern psychotherapists answer the same needs and practise the same trade.
    • Beyond the Last Thought: Freud's cigars and the long way round to Nirvana (p. 84)
  • Echoing the Christian faith in free will, humanists hold that human beings are – or may someday become – free to choose their lives. They forget that the self that does the choosing has not itself been chosen.
    • Beyond the Last Thought: Freud's cigars and the long way round to Nirvana (p. 86)
  • Science is not distinguished from myth by science being literally true and myth only a type of poetic analogy. While their aims are different, both are composed of symbols we use to deal with a slippery world.
    • Beyond the Last Thought: Freud's cigars and the long way round to Nirvana (p. 96)

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom (2015)


Penguin, 2014, ISBN 1-846-14449-3. 240 pages.

  • In ancient Europe, Stoics asserted that a slave could be freer than a master who suffers from self-division. In China, Daoists imagined a type of sage who responded to the flow of events without weighing alternatives. Disciples of monotheistic faiths have believed something similar: freedom, they say, is obeying God’s will. What those who follow these traditions want most is not any kind of freedom of choice. Instead, what they long for is freedom from choice.
    • The Faith of Puppets: The Freedom of the Marionette (p. 6-7)
  • In a traditional reading eating the apple was the original sin; but, as Gnostics understood the story, the two primordial humans were right to eat the apple. The God that commanded them not to do so was not the true God but only a demiurge, a tyrannical underling exulting in its power, while the serpent came to free them from slavery. True, when they ate the apple Adam and Eve fell from grace. This was indeed the Fall of Man – a fall into the dim world of everyday consciousness. But the Fall need not be final. Having eaten its fill from the Tree of Knowledge, humankind can then rise into a state of conscious innocence. When this happens, Herr C. declares, it will be ‘the final chapter in the history of the world'.
    • The Faith of Puppets: The Freedom of the Marionette (p. 8)
  • Many people today hold to a Gnostic view of things without realizing the fact. Believing that human beings can be fully understood in the terms of scientific materialism, they reject any idea of free will. But they cannot give up hope of being masters of their destiny. So they have come to believe that science will somehow enable the human mind to escape the limitations that shape its natural condition. Throughout much of the world, and particularly in western countries, the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion.
    • The Faith of Puppets: The Freedom of the Marionette (p. 9)
  • The idea of evil as it appears in modern secular thought is an inheritance from Christianity. To be sure, rationalists have repudiated the idea; but it is not long before they find they cannot do without it. What has been understood as evil in the past, they insist, is error – a product of ignorance that human beings can overcome. Here they are repeating a Zoroastrian theme, which was absorbed into later versions of monotheism: the belief that ‘as the “lord of creation” man is at the forefront of the contest between the powers of Truth and Untruth.’ But how to account for the fact that humankind is deaf to the voice of reason? At this point rationalists invoke sinister interests – wicked priests, profiteers from superstition, malignant enemies of enlightenment, secular incarnations of the forces of evil. As so often is the case, secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. Modern rationalists reject the idea of evil while being obsessed by it. Seeing themselves as embattled warriors in a struggle against darkness, it has not occurred to them to ask why humankind is so fond of the dark. They are left with the same problem of evil that faces religion. The difference is that religious believers know they face an insoluble difficulty, while secular believers do not. Aware of the evil in themselves, traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action. Lacking this saving insight, secular believers dream of creating a higher species. They have not noticed the fatal flaw in their schemes: any such species will be created by actually existing human beings.
    • The Faith of Puppets: The Faith of Puppets (p. 18-9)
  • In Kleist’s essay humans are caught between the graceful automatism of the puppet and the conscious freedom of a god. The jerky, stuttering quality of their actions comes from their feeling that they must determine the course of their lives. Other animals live without having to choose their path through life. Whatever uncertainty they may feel sniffing their way through the world is not a permanent condition; once they reach a place of safety, they are at rest. In contrast, human life is spent anxiously deciding how to live.
    • The Faith of Puppets: Leopardi and the Souls of Machines (p.25-6)
  • In Leopardi’s view, the universal claims of Christianity were a licence for universal savagery. Because it is directed to all of humanity, the Christian religion is usually praised, even by its critics, as an advance on Judaism. Leopardi – like Freud a hundred years later – did not share this view. The crimes of medieval Christendom were worse than those of antiquity, he believed, precisely because they could be defended as applying universal principles: the villainy introduced into the world by Christianity was ‘entirely new and more terrible … more horrible and more barbarous than that of antiquity’. Modern rationalism renews the central error of Christianity – the claim to have revealed the good life for all of humankind. Leopardi described the secular creeds that emerged in modern times as expressions of ‘half-philosophy’, a type of thinking with many of the defects of religion. What Leopardi called ‘the barbarism of reason’ – the project of remaking the world on a more rational model – was the militant evangelism of Christianity in a more dangerous form. Events have confirmed Leopardi’s diagnosis. As Christianity has waned, the intolerance it bequeathed to the world has only grown more destructive. From imperialism through communism and incessant wars launched to promote democracy and human rights, the most barbarous forms of violence have been promoted as means to a higher civilization.
    • The Faith of Puppets: Leopardi and the Souls of Machines (p.32-3)
  • For Leopardi evil is integral to the way the world works; but when he talks of evil he does not mean any kind of malign agency of the sort that Gnostics imagined. Evil is the suffering that is built into the scheme of things. ‘What hope is there when evil is ordinary?’ he asks. ‘I mean, in an order where evil is necessary?’ These rhetorical questions show why Leopardi had no interest in projects of revolution and reform. No type of human action – least of all the harlequinade of politics – could fundamentally alter a world in which evil was ordinary.
    • The Faith of Puppets: Leopardi and the Souls of Machines (p.35-6)
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view in which salvation is played out in history. In Christian myth human events follow a design known only to God; the history of humankind is an ongoing story of redemption. This is an idea that informs virtually all of western thought – not least when it is intensely hostile to religion. From Christianity onwards, human salvation would be understood (at least in the west) as involving movement through time. All modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation – whether through revolutionary change or incremental improvement – are garbled versions of this Christian narrative, itself a garbled version of the original message of Jesus.
  • Rather than trying to escape violence, human beings more often become habituated to it. History abounds with long conflicts – the Thirty Years’ War in early seventeenth-century Europe, the Time of Troubles in Russia, twentieth-century guerrilla conflicts – in which continuous slaughter has been accepted as normal. Famously adaptable, the human animal quickly learns to live with violence and soon comes to find satisfaction in it.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: Roof Gardens, Feathers and Human Sacrifice (p. 80)
  • Humans kill one another – and in some cases themselves – for many reasons, but none is more human than the attempt to make sense of their lives. More than the loss of life, they fear loss of meaning.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: Roof Gardens, Feathers and Human Sacrifice (p. 87)
  • Today those who peer into the future want only relief from anxiety. Unable to face the prospect that the cycles of war will continue, they are desperate to find a pattern of improvement in history. It is only natural that believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt, should turn to the sorcery of numbers. Happily there are some who are ready to assist them. Just as the Elizabethan magus transcribed tables shown to him by angels, the modern scientific scryer deciphers numerical auguries of angels hidden in ourselves.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: Dark mirrors, Hidden Angels and an Algorithmic Prayer-Wheel (p. 99)
  • Near-ubiquitous technological monitoring is a consequence of the decline of cohesive societies that has occurred alongside the rising demand for individual freedom.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: An Iron Mountain and a Shifting Spectacle (p. 121)
  • With new technologies of surveillance, economies of scale overcome problems of cost. Since all their electronic communications can be accessed, it is no longer necessary to segregate the inmates from one another. As there is no outside world, escape becomes unimaginable. Technological progress has brought into being a system of surveillance more far-reaching than any Bentham could have conceived. Enclosing the entire population in a virtual Panopticon might seem the ultimate invasion of freedom. But universal confinement need not be experienced as a privation. If they know nothing else, most are likely to accept it as normal. If the technology through which surveillance operates also provides continuous entertainment, they may soon find any other way of living intolerable.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: A Universal Panopticon (p. 125)
  • The belief that there is some hidden cabal directing the course of events is a type of anthropomorphism – a way of finding agency in the entropy of history.
    • In the Puppet Theatre: Puppetry, Conspiracy and Ouija Boards (p. 133)
  • Human beings act, certainly. But none of them knows why they act as they do. There is a scattering of facts, which can be known and reported. Beyond these facts are the stories that are told. Human beings may behave like puppets, but no one is pulling the strings.
    • In The Puppet Theatre: Puppetry, Conspiracy and Ouija Boards (p. 136)
  • Nothing carries so much authority today as science, but there is actually no such thing as ‘the scientific world-view’. Science is a method of inquiry, not a view of the world. Knowledge is growing at accelerating speed; but no advance in science will tell us whether materialism is true or false, or whether humans possess free will. The belief that the world is composed of matter is metaphysical speculation, not a testable theory. Science may succeed in explaining events in terms of causes and effects. In some accounts it may be able to formulate laws of nature. But what does it mean for something to cause something else and what is a law of nature? These are questions for philosophy or religion, not for science.
    • Freedom for Über-Marionettes: What Science Won't Tell You (p. 149)
  • How we come to have the world-views we do is an interesting question. No doubt reason plays a part, but human needs for meaning and purpose are usually more important. At times personal taste may be what decides the issue. There is nothing to say that, when all the work of reason is done, only one view of the world will remain. There may be many that fit everything that can be known. In that case you might as well choose the view of the world you find most interesting or beautiful. Adopting a world-view is more like selecting a painting to furnish a room than testing a scientific theory. The test is how it fits with your life.
    • Freedom for Über-Marionettes: What Science Won't Tell You (p. 150)
  • The idea that consciousness is a mystery is a prejudice inherited from monotheism. The early seventeenth-century French philosopher René Descartes believed that animals other than humans are insensate machines. Obviously, this was a restatement in rationalist terms of the Christian belief that only humans have souls. Even if mind and matter were categorically distinct, that would not mean humans alone have minds. It was reported that in order to test his theories, Descartes used to throw animals out of the window and observe their reactions. Looking at behaviour of this kind, one might reasonably conclude that humans are the senseless machines.
    • Freedom for Über-Marionettes: What Science Won't Tell You (p. 151)

The Friedrich Hayek I knew, and what he got right - and wrong (2015)


"The Friedrich Hayek I knew, and what he got right - and wrong" (30 July 2015)

  • No doubt markets transmit information in the way that Hayek claimed. But what reason is there to believe that – unlike any other social institution – they have a built-in capacity to correct their mistakes? History hardly supports the supposition. Moods of irrational exuberance and panic can, and often do, swamp the price-discovery functions of markets.
  • Hayek’s blind spot with regard to politics was clear in the early 1980s when the first Thatcher government, in an attempt to reduce inflation and bring the public finances closer to a balanced budget, was raising interest rates and cutting public spending. As he had done during the 1930s, Hayek attacked these policies as not being severe enough. It would be better, he told me in a conversation we had around this time, if Thatcher imposed a more drastic contraction on the economy so that the wage-setting power of the trade unions could be broken. He appeared unfazed by unemployment, which was already higher (more than three million people) than at any time since the 1930s, and would rise much further if his recommendations were accepted.
  • Hayek may still have lessons to teach us. The policies he recommended during the Great Depression may have been badly flawed but his insight that prosperity cannot be restored by unending expansion of debt may have some value at a time when the limits of “Keynesian” quantitative easing are becoming clear. It is in any case far from obvious that Keynes would have supported a continuation of QE once a disastrous collapse had been averted. “Keynesianism” is a confection of Keynes’s more mechanical disciples, not an indication of how this mercurially brilliant mind would have responded to our present dilemmas. Again, Hayek’s claim that nothing can be done to mitigate the impact of free markets on social cohesion was dangerously misguided. But he was right to point out that capitalism cannot be remodelled to fit some conception of an ideally fair distribution of resources. Whether any kind of social democracy can be reconciled with the anarchic energies of global markets is an open question.
  • Hayek watched the interwar collapse with horror, as Keynes did, and shared many of Keynes’s liberal values. What he failed to understand is that these values cannot be renewed by applying any formula or doctrine, or by trying to construct an ideal liberal regime in which freedom is insulated from the contingencies of politics.

Quotes about Gray

  • The first survey of my work which not only fully understands but is able to carry on my ideas beyond the point at which I left off.
    • Friedrich Hayek, on first edition (1984) of Gray's Hayek on Liberty, on back cover of Hayek on Liberty
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