By Charles Sarvan –
“‘Peace upon earth!‘ was said. We sing it … After two thousand years… We’ve got as far as poison-gas“ – From a quatrain by Thomas Hardy
John Gray has been Professor of Politics at Oxford, Harvard and Yale; and Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He has now given up these posts and turned to writing full time.
‘Silence‘, a slim volume of about two hundred pages, is a wide-ranging iconoclastic work, taking in its sights both religion and the secular. Gray rejects the Humanist idea that human beings are the site of some kind of unique value in the world. Secondly, the idea that history is a story of increasing rationality and human progress. (Secularists believing in progress, Gray claims, are only worshipping a “divinized“ version of themselves.) To secularists, belief in human progress towards humaneness has become the substitute for faith in religion. But belief in progress is a myth though, as with other myths, taken to be true. The French and Russian revolutions, the overthrow of the Shah of Iran and Saddam Hussein may have produced benefits for many people but increased freedom was not among them (pages 57-8). Liberal humanists believe that humanity advances to a better world in stages, slowly, in step-by-step increments: catastrophes are but a necessary part of human advance. But this philosophy, sometimes called meliorism, is utopian, argues Professor Gray. I am reminded of Walter Benjamin’s interpretation of the watercolour by Paul Klee titled ‘Angelus Novus‘: “The face of the Angel of History is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” (Fearing he would fall into the hands of the Nazis, Benjamin chose to commit suicide.)
Some governments, in the absence of actual and external danger, maintain collective solidarity by the creation of imagined internal enemies. An active persecution of this imagined internal threat (be it religious or secular) contributes to collective cohesion. Racists, though terribly demeaned, are terribly happy; self-satisfied though loathsome; so proud and yet so inhumane and despicable. They think they are scaling high mountains when in reality they are crawling in a swamp (see page 55).
However, there are decent societies. If I may cite an instance: when it seemed the Nazis would order all Danish Jews to wear the group-identifying Star of David, the King of Denmark, as a mark of protest and solidarity, is reputed to have worn a large star on his coat and ridden on horseback through the streets of Copenhagen. Though the story is apocryphal (the king did write in his personal diary: “If such a demand is made, we would best meet it by all wearing the Star of David”), the fact remains that, most remarkably, almost all of Denmark’s Jews were saved from extermination. Among other factors, this was thanks to the independence and decency of “ordinary“ Danish people. Basic common “decency“ is perhaps the most important criterion when evaluating a country, its people and culture – “culture“ in the general sense of the term denoting a way of life.
I am inclined to think Professor Gray is being deliberately provocative in this (pessimistic? realistic?) work, attempting to provoke not ill-temper but thought; to shake mental complacency and to bring about an examination of those premises we take to be axiomatic. His style is often aphoristic: I cite some of his statements, and leave the reader to encounter and grapple with his thoughts, arguments and conclusions.
Human beings are incurably prone to myth-making, and to believing in myths.
The modern myth that humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition.
Some modern myths are myths of religious salvation stated in secular terms.
Science has become a channel for myths, chief among them being the myth of salvation through science.
The myth of progress (in humaneness) is the chief consolation of modern humankind
The power of myth is to make meaning from the wreckage of meaning.
The obstacles to human fulfilment are not only in the world around us: we ourselves harbour impulses that sabotage fulfilment.
The suffering inflicted on minorities is an integral part of the happiness a government succeeds in manufacturing in the rest of the population (thereby ensuring its own popularity and continued power).
Human knowledge increases while human irrationality stays the same.
If you think human beings are freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake. (I am reminded of Erich Fromm’s classic, ‘Escape From Freedom‘.)
The choice is not between civilization and barbarism: barbarism is an in-eradicable part of civilization.
The idea that Jesus returned from the dead is not as contrary to reason as the idea that human beings will in future be different from what they have always been.
If belief in human rationality was a scientific theory, it would long since have been abandoned.
Human beings do not deal with conflicting beliefs and perceptions by testing them against facts: they reinterpret facts which challenge beliefs and attitudes. If I may cite an example, science has completely dismantled the concept of race and, allied to it, that of “blood“. Yet many subscribe to it, if not rationally then emotionally. “Anyone who continues to believe in race […] despite the now commonplace disclaimers of biologists and geneticists“ might as well also believe in Santa Claus and “that the earth stands still while the sun moves“: ‘Racecraft‘, Karen and Barbara Fields, 2014, p.113. The same work warns that “culture“ (and cultural difference) can be used to hide “biological race in polite language“.
The human mind has no built-in bias to tuth or rationality, and will continue to develop according to the imperatives of survival.
There is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top. There are simply multifarious animals, each with their own needs.
Evolution has no end-point, goal or direction.
An increase in knowledge does not mean an advance in civilization.
There can no progress: only an unending struggle with our own nature.
True resignation is to accept the fact of chaos, of perpetual unrest.
The method of modern science is to understand the natural world without invoking goals or purposes.
For those who cannot bear to live without belief, any belief is better than none.
Religion is a metaphoric response to unchanging human realities; above all, to the fact of death.
For all the agony that it expresses, the cross is not a tragic symbol. Tragedy there would have been if Jesus were to die defeated and for ever. Instead he returns from the dead and the world is redeemed. With their hope of progress, even modern anti-Christians remain the disciples of an anti-tragic (that is, Christian) faith.
Whereas silence is for animals other than human a natural state of rest, for the human animal silence is an escape from inner commotion.