In his book John Gray is a demolisher, razing to the ground almost every idea which offers hope, whether it comes from science, religion, humanism or any other -ism. It’s not a long book. You can get through it in a couple of days: easily but not comfortably, unless you’ve already sacrificed all the sacred cows he might possibly want to slaughter on your behalf.
As you work your way through, you try to imagine the purpose of his bulldozing. As demolition contractor, he exposes the dysfunction of the brownfield site on which we have established our dwelling; gathers our garbage of indefensible ideas for disposal, grubs up the old foundations, detoxifies the soil down to the rocky substrate. Once he’s disposed of our cherished values and ideals, what will he want to build on these fresh fields, this tabula rasa? Will he simply leave it empty for a “Nature Reserve”? Not for long. Nature includes human nature, which doesn’t stop short of polluting and destroying on a massive scale. Ultimately, it’s the rest of Nature which will work out what to do with us, to protect itself. We are animals. We cannot change what we are. We cannot set the world to rights. The world sets us to rights.
His purpose, like many a reformer before him, many a philosopher, is to cleanse us from those unquestioned ideas which colour our perception of reality, but to which we cling, to ward off despair. Says Blake, in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:
If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
John Gray has done more in his book to cleanse those doors of perception than mescaline* could achieve. He does it through the brute force of rhetoric, a weapon he applies crudely, but never offensively. He’s never ad hominem. He doesn’t accuse us of being evil or stupid. We just can’t help it! The heretic Church of England priest Don Cupitt praises Straw Dogs thus:
Tough-minded and entertaining, this is popular philosophy at its best. The more you disagree with John Gray’s main line of argument, the more you will gain from him. Splendid!
Which is like saying that the more unfit you are, the more you will gain from the obstacle course forced on the military recruit. Let me now summarise the obstacles that he wishes us to surmount.
The idea of human progress is wishful thinking and unsubstantiated. There is progress in technology and science, but it’s a mixed blessing, because directed and exploited by a violent species homo sapiens, whom he sometimes calls “homo rapiens”, and whose nature has not changed, nor can change by its own efforts. Our nature is the product of evolution, not ours to change by act of will. In this, he’s a determinist. In short we are just another species, fruit of Evolution’s cornucopia of invention, no better than dogs, despite being Top Dog in our power to make every species extinct including our own, and to inflict serious damage on the planet short of making it barren for ever. He happily uses the epithet Gaia, referring to the self-correcting and regenerating power of Earth, as described by James Lovelock; a power which will happily destroy humanity before humanity has the chance to destroy all life. Earth is safe, but not Man. Hence the title of his book, as explained below:
Straw dogs were used as ceremonial objects in ancient China. Chapter 5 of the Tao Te Ching begins with the lines “Heaven and Earth are heartless / treating creatures like straw dogs”. Su Ch’e comments “Heaven and Earth are not partial. They do not kill living things out of cruelty or give them birth out of kindness. We do the same when we make straw dogs to use in sacrifices. We dress them up and put them on the altar, but not because we love them. And when the ceremony is over, we throw them into the street, but not because we hate them.” (From Wikipedia, quoting as source Red Pine’s 1996 book Lao-tzu’s Taoteching.)
Any hope we may have of improving human nature, of reaching what Teilhard de Chardin calls the Omega Point, or some other distant imagined Utopia where there is peace—where everyone feels all the time what you or I feel on a good day (which we think of as Heaven)—Gray tries to dash that hope. But “hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Or perhaps he has “scotch’d the Snake, not kill’d it”, the Snake being false hope. Or he has shown us how to prune it for ourselves, to cut through the thicket of cultural expectations. When he’s finished lashing out at everything that moves, we see what a half-hearted job the atheists have done. Their only aim in razing the brownfield temples of religion is to build their new temple—of humanist progress, based on a design already copyrighted by the Christians. They are mere freebooters. Without the idea of God, which they plundered from Christianity in order to deride it, they would have nothing to say. They don’t do a proper demolition at all. For they still embrace the ideas of Progress, Heaven on Earth, Man’s superiority to the other animals. Darwin said we are just like all life, all plants and animals: patterned by DNA, shaped by force of environment, nothing more. Yet the atheist freebooters are still fervent in their faith, still influenced by Judaeo-Christian myth:
Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
Their God is no longer the Hebrew God, but the God of the unholy trinity of Capitalism, Science and Technology, whose dominion has in fact proved a curse more toxic than the religion whence they sprang. Indeed, hints Gray, there’s a lineage linking the Old Testament, Plato, Christianity, capitalism, technology, science and atheism.
As I sped through my first reading of Gray’s book, I kept wondering what he would say in his last chapter. Surely you don’t clear so much land, with so much expenditure of precious effort, raising so much controversy as you go, without a plan for its subsequent development? I could not believe he was inspired by sheer nihilism. So let him speak for himself, in these extracts from the short final chapter, “As it is”:
In his novel Nostromo, Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.’
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. (Cf my last post and Susan’s comment in particular.)
Searching for a meaning in life may be a useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit. Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it.
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 simply to see?
* See Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception (1954)