Are We ‘Exceptionally Rapacious Primates’?


Here are two tracts for the times, the first by a political theorist, the second by a historian, which could not differ more substantially in motive, aim, and subject matter; yet the authors tell oddly similar stories. Both ask us to recognize that the commercial democracies of the West are not the repositories of freedom we have long supposed them to be. The authors agree that we are swayed by a mass delusion, and that the name of the delusion is progress. We will swallow any invention, consider and rationalize any injustice, on the pretext of improved convenience and the conquest of our environment. Technological man is mastering nature in the process of destroying it, and widening the disparities of rich and poor while blurring the lines between them. We are made to think better of ourselves all the while, and that is the trouble.

John Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette, offers a survey of mystical, utopian, and theological fantasies covering several centuries, which exhibit (sometimes satirically) the human aspiration to rise above animal nature. Gray takes much of his evidence from the natural sciences and the literature of the ancients and the moderns: subjects remote from his own considerable competence in economics and politics. Concerns that were conspicuous in Gray’s early work—with the individualist ethics of John Stuart Mill, the free-market conservatism of Friedrich Hayek, and the pluralist liberalism of Isaiah Berlin—grew less pronounced in the late 1990s, and both his tone and focus changed decisively after 2001. Gray’s later books amount to a prognosis of the financial, political, and environmental catastrophe of the West and an inquiry into its causes. Two earlier prophecies by Gray, Straw Dogs (2002) and The Silence of Animals (2013), are precursors of The Soul of the Marionette.

In all of these books, he presents his views implicitly, through a neutral recitation of the insights of wisdom-writers. He approaches his authorities with great deference. Among novelists, the touchstones include Joseph Conrad, T.F. Powys, J.G. Ballard, and Philip K. Dick; among philosophers, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and the latter-day Nietzschean E.M. Cioran; among the canonical political theorists, Hobbes. An antitherapeutic version of Freud is also congenial to Gray’s image of man as a fantasy-haunted being that hungers after illusion. For testimony against the uniqueness of human life, he has cited the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson; and for analysis of the totalitarian implications of modern technology, the theorist of “the society of the spectacle” Guy Debord. One could go on with this list. Gray is an unpredictable and omnivorous reader; and to a large extent his recent books comprise an anthology of quotations and paraphrases, augmented by minimal commentary.

Gray has been called an anti-humanist. A characteristic passage of Straw Dogs will show the temper of the prose that could provoke such a description:

Homo sapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth…

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