Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The heresies of John Gray

In a recent essay the British philosopher John Gray writes, about the new series brought out by Atlantic Books, "Books that shook the world":
Drawing up a list of books that have changed the world is a tricky business. We see in the past what engages us in the present, and many books that were once hugely influential are now almost forgotten. In the history of ideas as in history as a whole, our view of the past is prone to a kind of optical illusion in which we mistake what is closest to us for the dominant feature of the landscape. There is a powerful tendency to imagine that if a book has disappeared from view then it can never have had much of an impact. In fact, many books that once shook the world are today unread.
And, going on to consider the first set of titles in this series, on works by Plato, Marx, Paine, Darwin and on the Qur'an, he concludes:
The return of religion as a pivotal factor in politics and war is one of the defining features of the age, and it is time Paine, Marx and other secular prophets were gently shelved in the stacks. The writings of these Enlightenment savants have stirred events for a very brief period in history, now clearly coming to an end. Against this background it is good to have Bruce Lawrence's admirably balanced and informative volume on the Qur'an, and to look forward to Karen Armstrong's volume on the Bible appearing in the Atlantic series next spring. A few great books of science have altered history, as have some works of clairvoyant speculation, such as Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. But the books that have most formed the past, and which are sure also to shape the future, are the central texts of the world religions. Future volumes in the series must surely include Confucius's Analects and the Tao Te Ching, the Bhagavadgita and the Buddha's Fire Sermon - texts that have never ceased to shake the world and, as far as anyone can tell, always will.
This is an extreme claim - the "secular prophets" still have a great deal to say to us, and probably always will. And one hopes there is - or at least there should be - room enough within the worldviews of most people for both the great religious and the great secular works. This essay is an example of what I feel when I read the work of Gray - I never feel in total agreement with him, and I certainly feel a great deal more hopeful than him, but I am always curious to hear what he has to say. For some years now his essays and reviews in the New Statesman have been attracting a wide audience, and some of those pieces are available in a book with a characteristically provocative title, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions.

Reading Gray is like taking a bitter pill with no water to wash it down - he is a relentless skeptic, though never a nihilist. None of the thought systems in which most people find some kind of positive meaning - whether religion, the humanist belief in progress and in a better world, free-market economics or of communism, left-wing or conservative politics, rationalism - are of much use to him, perhaps because he has done time in many of these camps. One writer has described him as a "postideological pilgrim", and that may be a good way of seeing him. His work is full of sobering thoughts and curious formulations that pinch sharply.

For example, from Heresies, "In science progress is a fact, in ethics and politics it is a superstition.[…] The human animal may yearn for peace and freedom, but it is no less fond of war and tyranny. No scientific advance can alter the contradictions of human needs. On the contrary, they can only be intensified as science increases human power." Or, "To think that democratic values will ever be universally accepted is a basic error.[…] Today, as in all previous times, regimes are legitimate to the exent that they meet vital human needs - needs such as security from violence, economic subsistence and protection of cherished ways of life."

Some have read such observations as arguments for political passivity, although Gray's intention perhaps is only to be a cautionary voice - among the inevitable things about human nature that he is always pointing out is surely its need to embrace what he thinks of illusions. Gray is not even prepared to accept that what we think of as the self is a stable, understandable entity. In a piece on Peter Watson's Ideas: a history from fire to Freud, he writes:
[Watson] concludes with some interesting thoughts on the failure of scientific research to find anything resembling the human self, as understood in western traditions. He asks whether the very idea of an "inner self" may not be misconceived, and concludes: "Looking 'in', we have found nothing - nothing stable anyway, nothing enduring, nothing we can all agree upon, nothing conclusive - because there is nothing to find."

This conclusion is also mine, but it was anticipated more than 2,000 years ago in the Buddhist doctrine of anatman, or no-soul. The thoroughgoing rejection of any idea of the soul was one of the ideas through which Buddhism distinguished itself from orthodox Vedic traditions, which also viewed personal identity as an illusion but affirmed an impersonal world soul: an idea that Buddhists have always rejected. For them, human beings are like other natural processes, in that they are devoid of substance and have no inherent identity.

The view of the human subject suggested by recent scientific research seems less strange when one notes how closely it resembles this ancient Buddhist view. Modern science seems to be replicating an account of the insubstantiality of the person that has been central to other intellectual traditions for millennia.
Gray's talents are exhibited best in his book reviews, an archive of which is available on the website of the New Statesman. As a sampler of his work one might read his pieces on Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence ("...while freedom may be a universal value, it is far from being an overriding human need. Humans want freedom but they also fear it, and in times of insecurity they tend to retreat into closed, hostile groups. Reason can help us understand this process, but it cannot be reasoned away."), on Terry McDermott's book on the 9/11 hijackers ("For these men, becoming jihadists - not in the sense in which jihad refers to the believer's struggle for his own soul, but rather that in which it enjoins incessant struggle against unbelievers - resolved a chronic existential crisis. From being drifters, they became warriors." This is also the sense advanced by the good early section of Kiran Nagarkar's God's Little Soldier, in my opinion the only valuable portion of that book.), and on Francis Fukuyama's State Building ("In State Building, Fukuyama approaches weak states as soluble problems in institutional engineering.[…]Legal and educational systems are not pieces of machinery that can be programmed to deliver results approved by international banks or development agencies. They are human practices shaped by diverse ethical and religious beliefs. One large reason why the attempt to re-engineer the world's economies on the model of the Anglo-Saxon free market is bound to fail is that economic life is not a system of rational exchange that can be installed anywhere. It is a tissue of meaning that grows locally. The same is true of law and education - and of the state.") There are many things here worth thinking about.

And here are two other essays by Gray: "The Global Delusion", on three recent books on globalisation, and "Will Humanity Be Left Home Alone?". An account of Gray's life and work can be found here in this piece by Andrew Brown, and a long interview with him posted by Jonathan Derbyshire here. A critique of Gray's thought can be found in this piece by Danny Postel, "Gray's Anatomy".

1 comment:

VV said...

A very good post. But does it bother you that you are not in agreement with JG? If we agreed even substantially with him, would we require him?

JG's biggest strength has been his ability to abandon his old ideas and take a fresh look. From the Thatcher to False Dawn is quite a journey ... he continues to search.
And provoke us out of cosy established positions.