“Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people.”
— John Gray
We like to think that the tide of history is an inexorable march from barbarity to civilization, with humans “progressing” from one stage to the next through a gradual process of enlightenment. Modern humanists like Steven Pinker argue forcefully for this method of thinking.
But is this really so? Is this reality?
One of the leading challengers to that type of thinking has been the English writer and philosopher John Gray, the idiosyncratic author of books like Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, The Soul of the Marionette, and The Silence of Animals.
To Gray, the concept of “progress” is closer to an illusion, or worse a delusion of the modern age. Civilization is not a permanent state of being, but something which can quickly recede during a time of stress.
He outlines his basic idea in a foreword to Straw Dogs:
Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people. Today, liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world's religions.
Outside of science, progress is simply a myth. In some readers of Straw Dogs this observation seems to have produced a moral panic. Surely, they ask, no one can question the central article of faith of liberal societies? Without it, will we not despair? Like trembling Victorians terrified of losing their faith, these humanists cling to the moth-eaten brocade of progressive hope. Today religious believers are more free-thinking. Driven to the margins of a culture in which science claims authority over all of human knowledge, they have had to cultivate a capacity for doubt. In contrast, secular believers — held fast by the conventional wisdom of the time — are in the grip of unexamined dogmas.
And what, pray tell, are those dogmas? They are numerous, but the central one must be that the human march of science and technology creates good for the world. Gray's not as sure: He sees science and technology as magnifying humanity “warts and all”.
Our tools allow us to go to the Moon but also murder each other with great alacrity. They have no morality attached to them.
In science, the growth of knowledge is cumulative. But human life as a whole is not a cumulative activity; what is gained in one generation may be lost in the next. In science, knowledge is an unmixed god; in ethics and politics it is bad as well as good. Science increases human power — and magnifies the flaws in human nature. It enables us to live longer and have higher living standards than in the past. At the same time it allows us to wreak destruction — on each other and the Earth — on a larger scale than ever before.
The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together—if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly. The same truth is found in Greek myth. The punishment of Prometheus, chained to a rock for stealing fire from the gods, was not unjust.
Gray has a fairly heretical view of technology itself, pointing out that no one really controls its development or use; making humanity as a group closer to subjects than masters. Technology is both a giver of good and an ongoing source of tragedy, because it is used by fallible human beings.
Those who ignore the destructive potential of future technologies can do so only because they ignore history. Pogroms are as old as Christendom; but without railways, the telegraph and poison gas there could have been no Holocaust. There have always been tyrannies; but without modern means of transport and communication, Stalin and Mao could not have built their gulags. Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.
There is a deeper reason why “humanity” will never control technology. Technology is not something that humankind can control. It as an event that has befallen the world.
Once a technology enters human life — whether it be fire, the wheel, the automobile, radio, television, or the internet — it changes it in ways we can never fully understand.
Nothing is more commonplace than to lament that moral progress has failed to keep pace with scientific knowledge. If only we were more intelligent and more moral, we could use technology only for benign ends. The fault is not in our tools, we say, but in ourselves.
In one sense this is true. Technical progress leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.
This reminds one of Garrett Hardin‘s idea that no system, however technically advanced, can be flawless because the human being at the center of it will always be fallible. (Our technologies, after all, are geared around our needs.) Even if we create technologies that “don't need us” — we are still fallible creators.
Gray's real problem with the idea of moral progress, technical progress, and scientific progress are they, even were they real, would be unending. In the modern conception of the world, unlike the ancient past where everything was seen as cyclical, growth has no natural stop-point. It's just an infinite path to the heavens. This manifests itself in our constant disdain for idleness.
Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labours, it is only in order to return to them.
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.
Among Christians, only Protestants have ever believed that work smacks of salvation; the work and prayer of medieval Christendom were interspersed with festivals. The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature. The pygmies of the African rainforests — now nearly extinct — work only to meet the needs of the day, and spend most of their lives idling.
Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to delivery humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau of achievement is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.
Gray then goes on to compare our ideas of progress to Sisyphus forever pushing the bolder up the mountain.
He's an interesting thinker, Gray. In all of his works, though he certainly raises issue with our current modes of liberal progressive thought and is certainly not a religious man, one only finds hints of a “better” worldview being proposed. One is never sure if he even believes in “better”.
The closest thing to advice comes from the conclusion to his book The Silence of Animals. What is the point of life if not progress? Simply to see. Simply to be human. To contemplate. We must deal with human life the way we always have.
Godless contemplation is a more radical and transient condition: a temporary respite from the all-too-human world, with nothing particular in mind. In most traditions the life of contemplation promises redemption from being human: in Christianity, the end of tragedy and a glimpse of the divine comedy; in Jeffers's pantheism, the obliteration of the self in an ecstatic unity. Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being.
There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.
In the end, reading Gray is a good way to challenge yourself; to think about the world in a different way, and to examine your dogmas. Even the most cherished one of all.