Farrar, Straus & Giroux, May, 2015
Reviewed by Randy Rosenthal
Dostoevsky wrote that the “best definition of man is a being that goes on two legs and is ungrateful,” but perhaps the best explanation of man belongs to the British philosopher John Gray: “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.” It’s an observation indicating that we may be smart, but we’re not wise. We’re productive, but often for ill purpose. We’re more destructive than we are creative. By saying that we gain knowledge without actually learning, Gray puts his finger on the fundamental paradox of human psychology.
Considered one of today’s preeminent philosophers, Gray is the author of many books that upset everything modern humankind believes about itself. Since the publication of Straw Dogs turned him into an intellectual celebrity in 2003, the main thrust of his work has been to falsify the belief that lies at the heart of western philosophy: the idea of progress. The belief that humanity is gradually marching toward a higher civilization. That things are always getting better, and whatever achievements we make are permanent. A belief in progress is found in any Western ideology, political or economic, no matter how different they appear to be. Communism, Capitalism, Liberalism, Christianity, and Islam all share the belief that if we follow a certain path, we will establish a utopian society at the end of the road. Yet Gray says that progress is a myth.
His argument initially seems counter-intuitive. There’s the daily onslaught of technological progress, and we have a robot roaming around Mars, taking photos and sending them back to earth—through space. In terms of social progress, there’s the abolition of slavery, the establishment of civil rights, universal suffrage, and other benchmarks of the civilizing process. It is unlikely that our society would turn back on these achievements. We have banks to protect our money, and markets where we can buy our pre-butchered, pre-packaged meat. There are policemen to keep order, judges to sentence those who break the law, and prisons to put them in. With such institutions, society can function relatively smoothly. We’d like to think we’ve come a long way from the Cro-Magnon caveman.
But there are always burps in history, times when civilization breaks down. Instances of hyperinflation, those fascinating times when money dies and respectable individuals turn to thievery and prostitution. Or during war, when a city has been at siege, and humans turn to cannibalism. Of course we’ll first eat the wallpaper and the leather of our shoes, but eventually we can’t help but see a corpse as meat. In The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, Gray writes about Naples during World War Two when such cannibalism occurred, but we can think of St. Petersburg during the same war, or the Argentine soccer team whose plane crashed in the Andes. When the veil of civilization disappears, morality goes out the window. We do what we will to survive. The savage is always lurking close beneath the civilized surface of our minds, and we easily drop our self-image as moral beings if it suits our staying alive.
These are things we don’t necessarily want to hear. But in his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom, Gray further exposes the fundamental assumptions and myths that lie at the heart of Western thought, ethics, and politics. Counter-intuitive and challenging as usual, Gray opens with the idea that our consciousness actually restricts our freedom. We like to think that we are free because we are conscious, and that the more conscious we are, the more free we become. Not so, says Gray.
There are many kinds of freedom, but freedom is “above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind.” Yet consciousness creates inner conflict and anxiety, because we have to choose how to live. It is our very awareness of the need to make choices that limits our freedom: “True freedom is not found in freedom of choice but freedom from choice.” From this perspective, other animals can be considered to have greater freedom than humans, because they live without having to choose their path through life—animals simply are, without needing to decide how to be. Similarly, it could be argued that a puppet has more freedom than the person pulling its strings, because it is free from the need to make choices. And from the perspective of scientific materialism, “human beings are marionettes: puppets on genetic strings, which by an accident of evolution have become self-aware.” Despite sounding boldly secular and modern, this understanding actually derives from the mystical religion of Gnosticism.
The basic idea of Gnosticism is that creation was botched. Rather than an omnipotent and benevolent God, Gnostics believe that an evil, lesser deity created our material world, which is an illusionary reality. Since this demiurge is either malign or incompetent, it is not to be worshipped but rather considered “a blunderer, negligent or forgetful of the world it had fashioned, and possibly senile, mad or long dead”—a view which seems most fitting of the harsh and unjust reality in which humans live. Gnostics believe that human beings are “trapped in a dark cosmos” and “are kept in submission by a trance-like ignorance of our true situation.” Therefore a Gnostic refuses to submit to the order of the world, because it is a manifestation of evil, and instead aims to escape slavery by eradicating ignorance through knowledge, or gnosis. To be free, humans must revolt against natural law, and then transcend it. There is no Original Sin, because “in Gnosticism, evil and ignorance are one and the same; when gnosis is attained, evil vanishes.” Mankind’s Fall is not permanent; we have to eat more from the Tree of Knowledge. Then we, too, can become a demigod. While such terminology sounds archaic, Gray argues that this Gnostic faith—that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can posses—has become the predominant religion throughout much of the world, particularly in Western countries.
Gnosticism is usually associated with early Christianity, but there are strains of the tradition nearly everywhere we look, not only in Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Mithraism, and Platonism, but also in modern scientific materialism and secular humanism, robotics and techno-futurism. Gray also finds Gnostic ideas in the writings of Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz, Gustav Meyrink, Borges, Leopardi, Poe, Mary Shelley, and Phillip K. Dick. The legend of the Golem, Frankenstein’s monster, and artificial intelligence are all dreams arising from a Gnostic way of viewing the world. Yet whatever creations humans make are bound to be as flawed as their creators. Moreover, not only do we lose control over our creations, we are actually at the mercy of them. (Just think of the iPhone!) For Gnostics, there is no higher purpose in creation other than fulfillment of matter’s aimless creative energy, and so any creation will be without moral direction.
This leaves human beings in a world completely devoid of meaning—a world in which progress can only be a myth. Any belief in political solutions—such as foreign intervention to establish a world based on the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, democracy, and human rights—can only be considered “magical thinking.” Even conspiracy theories that aim to expose a hidden cabal secretly directing the course of events are also a vain attempt to give human drama meaning and make the world appear rational. For if there were puppet-masters pulling the strings, then there would be at least a few people that understand why things happen the way they do. But unfortunately that’s not the case.
In a section of The Soul of the Marionette that is profoundly disturbing in its exposure of the raw reality of human nature, Gray debunks the ideas of Thomas Hobbes by looking at the blood-soaked culture of the Aztecs. In Leviathan, Hobbes argues that human beings want to avoid a violent death more than anything else, and so will give up their freedom in exchange for security. This Social Contract is based on the assumption that humans are rational and make decisions according to reason; that out of a fear of death, humankind can choose to renounce violence and a build a lasting peace. Rather than rely on assumptions and wishful thinking, however, Gray’s strength is that he always turns to human experience; as he writes, “it may be more useful to look at what actually happened.” When we do, we find that humans often act irrationally, and that our behavior is rarely motivated by reason.
When compared to Aztec society, usually perceived as horrifically savage in its prevalent use of human sacrifice and slaughter, Hobbes’s idea appears naïve. The Aztecs knew that it was impossible to eradicate violence within themselves, and so they instead chose to sanctify it. Senseless violence is inherent in a world of chaos, and ritual human sacrifice was a way of creating meaning. Unlike the mass killing movements of the Twentieth Century, the Aztec’s violence was not committed with the aim of creating a better world, a higher human being, or universal peace, but rather to unveil the deepest truth of our existence by revealing our naked savagery. Despite our desire for peace, “the human animal quickly learns to live with violence and soon comes to find satisfaction from it.” Experience says this is who we are, and to think otherwise is to find comfort in a delusion. The Aztecs knew that “civilization and barbarism are not different kinds of society. They are found—intertwined—wherever human beings come together.” This statement echoes another Gray wrote in The Silence of Animals: “There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.” It is precisely this illusion of division that prevents us from being free.
Unlike marionettes, humans do have a certain amount of freedom, even though we’re not sure how to use it. We act, but we don’t know why; understanding of our behavior only comes in retrospect. “Human beings may behave like puppets,” Gray writes, “but no one is pulling the strings.” In other words, we are only slaves to our own mind. Therefore, the only possible freedom is an inner freedom. The freedom from our mental habit patterns, assumptions, judgments, opinions, and illusions. The freedom that doesn’t come with knowledge, but with the relinquishing of it. The freedom from the desire to be free. The freedom just to be.