Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals


Granta Books 2002
ISBN 1 86207 512 3

“ I don’t believe in belief. If one aims simply to see, then beliefs – especially spiritual beliefs – are just an encumbrance. Best to have none, if you can manage it.”

- John Gray, from an interview with author Will Self, September 3, 2002.

John Gray is not a skeptic’s skeptic. He might even be too skeptical for even the die-hard burlap and ashes skeptics. For Gray, a professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, there is no real belief that can be grasped, no center that can, or even should, hold. The former Thacherite free-market proponent and later critic of that same New Right movement in Britain is most well known for his last book about the failures and follies of globalization, False Dawn. Now in Straw Dogs he seems to be attacking any sense of false hope, belief in human progress, religious or mystical salvation.
        When others would attempt to offer comforting views of modernity and human progress in these times of stress, sluggish markets, war and uncertainty, the British public intellectual and philosopher Gray attempts to lay bare the falsity, self-deception and optimism of starry-eyed pundits left, right, center and all points between. To him we are all too human, and in being human, we are all the more animal.
        But in doing this as he does in his latest work, Straw Dogs, it is hard to discern Gray’s intentions. For in laying out his clear and stoic vision of the world as it is and not what we would wish the world to be, Gray mainly uses the words of others to paint a portrait Hieronymus Bosch would smile at. It is an attempt at an atom bomb retaliatory strike at the last two-thousand years of (mainly) Western thought, at a total view of the world. But we must ask the question: Is there life after this holocaust?
        Many of those words of others happen to be the usual subjects for his treatise of selective natural selection. Aristotle gets a few pages, capitalism six or so, Christianity quite a few, a bellyful of Buddha, a healthy dose of Joseph Conrad, some Darwin, Descartes, Gibson, Heidegger, Homer, Jesus, Kant, Lovelock, Marx, Nietzche, Plato, Schopenhauer, E.O. Wilson, and all the way to Wittgenstein. Among the unusual, Gray muses on Joseph Brodsky, Bruce Chatwin, J.G. Ballard, Carthage (kind of you to remember us!), death, eugenics, genocide, gorillas, halobacteria, Robinson Jeffers (another once-mislabeled misanthrope), Esperanto, Maimonides, nanotechnology, the Pergouset cave paintings, S-and-M parlors, seals, Socrates, Taoism, virtual reality, the welfare state, all the way from Assyrians to Zarathustra. Quite ambitious for a book of only 200 pages (the final 45 or so are devoted to further readings and the index).
         The ambitious scope and wide range of disciplines touched upon reminds one of a similar text which came out in late 2001, Bjorn Lomborg’s The Skeptical Environmentalist. Not only are both books similar in attempting to cover so much ground in so few pages, they also rely mainly on bits and pieces cut and pasted from the ideas of others to construct something of a coherent ‘skeptical’ worldview or to knock those down a peg who have not lately been knocked. There really is not much new that has been added here, only old matter condensed into an easily accessible, easily read and easily regurgitated form. Whether this is a statement about these authors or about the publishing industry and what passes for works of philosophy … well, perhaps they both are true. At least Straw Dogs is much more intellectually stimulating than ninety percent of what passes through the bookbinder for public consumption these days. God forbid, if Gray were an American philosopher tackling the same material, it would have been called Human Non-progress for Dummies. Most likely it would have never made it to the printer in this country.
         The main problem with the book is that so much is covered in so little time. Whole books have been devoted to many of the subjects mentioned above. But then those books do not reach a large audience. In a way, Gray is doing a great service in providing a Cliff Notes version of modern thought.
         Other anti-reviews of this book have made comment about Gray’s misanthropic nature, have labeled him an anti-humanist, have compared him to a ‘drunken and smug smart aleck at a dinner party’ (a bit much, Ms. Guldberg), a defeatist, beyond even that fatal curse of nihilism (except if it is apocalyptic), ‘somewhere between Nostradamus, Pascal and the Unabomber (touché, Hargreaves!). On the other side he has been proclaimed a ‘visionary,’ a ‘man of our times,’ whatever those actually mean. It is often too early to tell if anyone is a visionary, just as much as it is to say someone is a defeatist nihilist.
         What is refreshing is that there are no sacred cows in the book. Anything is fair game – Christianity as well as Atheism; Post-Modernism and Eco-Utopianism; Science and Humanism. At times he seems to lean toward teachings of Taoism, until, that is, we hear him mutter ‘I don’t believe in belief.’ From interviews we find that Gray intended to ‘write (Straw Dogs) in a way that would be accessible to the average reader.’ This he achieves with astounding success. Whether Gray is unconsciously proposing a neo-anarchist philosophy, a brand-new-secondhand version of Stoicism, or if in complete awareness he is about to don steel-spiked wristbands and snap slack-jawed balcony dwellers out of their middle aged malaise is all very hard to say.
         Whatever will be will be, he might say (in perfect Graying tone). All we can possibly hope for is that he doesn’t slip into a Professor Timothy Leary phase. Then again, that might be fun, too.