[K]nowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.
The set up for the interview is inadvertently funny:
[Gray] sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.
I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature.
Um. Apparently, for at least a couple of hours, both JP O’Malley (the interviewer) and John Gray managed to contain their “primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts” and be civil with one another.
In a review of Gray’s new book, here’s Richard Holloway’s sharply perceptive take:
Gray believes that humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease. Here, he both commends and condemns the religious approach to the problem. He commends it because, unlike the optimistic humanism of the new atheists, it understands the incurable sickness of the human soul and has been rich in stories that express it. Where he departs from religion is in its myth of supernatural rescue and salvation. Realistic in its assessment of the human condition as fallen and self-obsessed, Christianity pulls a metaphysical rabbit out of the hat by promising that, while we are unable to save ourselves, there is one who will rescue us from the bondage of our own nature and deliver us into a state of eternal bliss.
But what are the alternatives here? I see just a couple of possibilities:
- Gray’s position (atheist pessimism). Christianity is right about humanity (it is fallen), right about the folly of secular sunniness concerning the future absent God, but wrong that there really is a supernatural deus ex machina that will ever come down from the rafters and save us. Like the title of the old television show, we are “lost in space.”
- Religious optimism. We are not lost in space. God has always been present in history and will save us.
- Atheist optimism I. People are basically good when they have knowledge and are free from religion and poverty, and science and technology are driving us to ever greater degrees of secularism, prosperity, and happiness. Gray can go fuck himself.
- Atheist optimism II. People in the main are bad and stupid, but science and technology will bring us to ever greater happiness and sanity anyway. Gray is worth reading, but his conclusions do not properly take into account where the best and brightest are leading us.
- Agnostic pessimism. I waver concerning Gray’s theses and am basically depressed to contemplate them. I hope God exists, but I seriously doubt it.
- Agnostic optimism. I waver concerning Gray’s theses but continue to move (skeptically) toward the hazy lights I sometimes think I detect in the distance.
If this is all that is being served up at the Existentialist Diner, I guess I’ll (reluctantly) order a plate of agnostic optimism (with perhaps a side of atheist optimism I as well). But neither seems especially nutritious or satisfying.
Whence the source of Gray’s persistent pessimism? Holloway traces it to his writing of a book on the philosopher Isaiah Berlin in 1995:
[Gray’s book on Berlin conveys] a sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition. Gray writes that the first implication of Berlin’s perspective is a rejection of any idea of a perfect society or a perfect human life. Its second implication is that a developed morality cannot have a settled hierarchical structure that solves our dilemmas by telling us how to act. In political and moral life, we are engaged in endless trade-offs between conflicting goods and evils and there is no infallible system against which we can measure these values against each other. That is why we often arrive at situations in which more deliberation will take us no further and we have no choice but to act.
In other words, we’re all Antigone. The more I think about it, the more I think that Gray is right. He is aptly named.
But what is our sickness, exactly? According to Holloway’s reading of Gray, it is not that we are broken jars, cracked between our rational and animal selves. At least a few other animals, after all, have to some degree “rationality” (they try to stay alive, possess awareness, have fleeting thoughts, and communicate with one another). Rather, Gray “claims that the cause of our sickness lies not in our animal nature but in our attempts to deny it. In Straw Dogs, he identified this as the cardinal error of Christianity but he pointed out that the original mistake was made by Plato, one of Christianity’s early predecessors.”
For Gray, the source of this fall is in writing and books. Here’s Gray in his own words (as quoted by Holloway):
From its humble beginnings as a means of stocktaking and tallying debts, writing gave humans the power to preserve their thoughts and experiences from time. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality. The development of writing has enabled them to construct philosophies in which they no longer belong in the natural world.
And it is neither the theist nor the atheist, but the creative writer, who gives us the true lowdown concerning our situation. Here’s Holloway one last time:
Gray’s new book is filled with poetry and the meditations of creative thinkers. Margaret Drabble said of [poet] Philip Larkin that he reconciles us to our ills by the scrupulous way in which he notices them. That is what all great art does, including myth: it inscribes our confusions and longings in forms we can all identify with.
For me, Gray’s combining of philosophy with insights from literature recalls the philosopher Stanley Cavell, who wrote (for example) the following:
Since melodramas together with tragedy classically tell stories of revenge, philosophical skepticism will in turn be readable as such a story.
Put another way, our metaphysical longing for final answers and contact with the ultimate truth (as Michelangelo’s Adam reaches for, but does not touch, the finger of God), being persistently frustrated, turns into resentments, which are then served by physical revenge or the revenge of the intellect. Cavell’s example is logical positivism, a quest for true statements that shaves off all the ambiguities in language.
But whether it is the atheist exorcising every available ambiguity through the methods of logical positivism, science, and critical thinking, or the religionist doing the same via appeals to The Book, authority, and apologetics, both are on a mission to rid the cosmos of doubt. This, for Cavell, amounts to folly (because we all start our reasoning with axioms that we cannot prove). Thus the more certain we declare ourselves to be, the more we show ourselves to be deluded and divorced from our actual reality. This seems to me a version of Gray’s argument as well, and why both he and Cavell turn to literature for support. It is in literature that our impasses, confusions, dilemmas, dissatisfactions, and subsequent resentments are dramatized. And since they cannot be solved in any ultimate manner, that’s really all we can do: enact them (and reenact them).
So who, exactly, is plucking out their eyes here, Oedipus? The confident atheist, the confident theist, or the agonizing agnostic?