Humanity going nowhere, claims top philosopher
In a controversial new book, John Gray argues that the human race should accept its animal nature, and stop striving for an idealised vision of the future. Is progress a dangerous myth?
The word ‘philosophy’ means love of wisdom. For thousands of years, thinkers have searched tirelessly for meaning in the world, reading, observing and debating in pursuit of some kind of truth.
John Gray has devoted his life to this kind of contemplation. But after years of thought and study in the world’s greatest philosophical institutions, he has come to an alarming conclusion.
In his new book, The Silence of Animals, Gray rejects the idea that life has meaning or that society is progressing to a better state; such beliefs, he says, are myths, which bring nothing but misery to the human race.
Gray picks a fight with a vast range of ideas. By denying that humanity is created by God, bound by clear morals or destined for eternal afterlife, he rubbishes most of the world’s major religions.
But the new book also disputes established, secular approaches to understand our world and our interpretation of history.
From Ancient Greece to the Enlightenment, philosophers, scientists, academics and intellectuals have praised the rational methods of analysis and investigation as a distinguishing feature of humanity. By following this path we uncover truths about life and make the world wiser, free ourselves of the limits of our natural state, and improve how we live. This, Gray says, is a mistake. In reality, human nature is deeply animalistic – our attempts to build an ideal society using reason have ended in doubt and disaster.
He illustrates the idea with depressing examples. Modern technology may make life more comfortable, but it is also destroying the environment and disrupting communities. Ideologies like communism, formulated by rational idealistic minds, have been used to justify genocide and war. History is not a story of progress but of suffering and complexity: ‘humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills,’ Gray says, ‘is its most dangerous disease.’
Is there an alternative? Yes, says Gray: accepting that ‘there is nothing of substance’ in the world, and that we are not progressing toward an ideal society of truth and justice. Instead of searching for a deeper truth or striving for an ideal society, we must accept our imperfect selves and embrace our bleak and ambiguous world.
Going to the dogs?
What a pessimistic outlook, some say. Has Gray forgotten that we now live longer than ever before? That education is widely available, and women are nearing equality with men? Human progress is very real: we must continue striving toward a better society and more fulfilled lives for everyone.
Of course we have improved in some ways, Gray’s supporters reply. But only when we stop dreaming of an idealised future, or an exalted image of rational humanity, can we make the most of what we actually are.
The Silence of Animals by John Gray is published by Allen Lane in 2013.
- Do you find the idea that life might be ‘meaningless’ terrifying, or liberating?
- Has the course of human history been a story of progress?
- In groups, discuss why society how society has improved in the last 100 years. Create a display showing the differences between 1913 and today.
- John Gray strongly objects to hardline atheists like Richard Dawkins, who he says replace christianity with another, equally misleading, ideology. Do some research and explain this movement.
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Q & A
- If there’s no meaning in life, then why bother with anything?
- When a critic posed that question, John Gray flipped it around. Perhaps more of us should stay in bed all day, he said. Taking time to contemplate and think about the world may be just as useful as rushing around trying to change it.
- What does that mean?
- Gray’s book is full of poetic meditations on the tragedy of life: if existence is meaningless, he says, we should accept, observe and reflect upon this fact. The author calls this ‘godless mysticism’. ‘All it offers,’ he says, ‘is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.’
- John Gray
- Regarded as one of Britain’s greatest living philosophers, John Gray has taught at the London School of Economics and held a prestigious professorship at Oxford University. He has published several books, the most famous of which, Straw Dogs, tackles the controversial theme of human similarities with animals.
- The Age of Enlightenment was a period of intellectual history in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was a time of great scientific advancement, when philosophers, writers and scientists sought to reform society on the basis of rationality and reason by promoting debate, furthering scientific investigation. Important figures from the period include Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau, and the movement influenced political developments including the French Revolution.
- Interpretation of history
- Some historians and philosophers regard history as progressing toward a goal, or following a narrative: moving, for example, toward greater democracy or freedom. A linear view of history that thinks humanity will eventually reach a certain point may be called ‘teleology’.