John N. Gray

John N. Gray (born 17 April 1948) is a British political philosopher and author.

SourcedEdit

  • To affirm that humans thrive in many different ways is not to deny that there are universal human values. Nor is it to reject the claim that there should be universal human rights. It is to deny that universal values can only be fully realized in a universal regime. Human rights can be respected in a variety of regimes, liberal and otherwise. Universal human rights are not an ideal constitution for a single regime throughout the world, but a set of minimum standards for peaceful coexistence among regimes that will always remain different.
    • Two Faces of Liberalism (New Press, 2000, ISBN 0-745-62259-3. 168 pages), ch. 1: Liberal Toleration (p. 21)
  • What I liked was Thatcherism's Bolshevik aspect, which was to shake up the whole of Britain quite fundamentally, and if you read what I wrote in those years I think you might agree that in taking the view that I did then — that this was necessary and desirable — I never subscribed to the main delusion of the Thatcherites, which was that you could change everything and everything would remain the same. If what you wanted was a very anarchic, globalised, polyglot, mixed-up society in which most of the structures which had somehow been renewed from the Edwardian period to the Sixties were destroyed, then Thatcherism was what would do the job.
    • Quoted in Will Self, "John Gray: Forget everything you know," The Independent (2002-09-03)
  • The belief that torture is always wrong is a prejudice inherited from an obsolete philosophy. We need to shed the belief that human rights are violated when a terrorist is tortured. As Rawls and others have shown, basic freedoms must form a coherent whole. Self-evidently, there can be no right to attack basic human rights. Therefore, once the proper legal procedures are in place, torturing terrorists cannot violate their rights. In fact, in a truly liberal society, terrorists have an inalienable right to be tortured.

    This is what demonstrates the moral superiority of liberal societies over others, past and present. Other societies have degraded terrorists by subjecting them to lawless and unaccountable power. In the new world that is taking shape, terrorists, although they themselves degrade human rights by practising terrorism, will be afforded the full dignity of due legal process, even while being tortured.

    • "A Modest Proposal," New Statesman (2003-02-17). This is a spoof article, subtitled "A Modest Proposal For Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracies From Being Abused, and For Recognising Their Benefit to The Public. By John Gray (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)."
  • Human rights are not just cultural or legal constructions, as fashionable western relativists are fond of claiming. They are universal values. To deny the benefits of the new regime of rights to other cultures is to patronise them in a way that is reminiscent of the colonial era. If the new regime on torture is good enough for the US, who can say that it is not good for everyone?
  • If we are to put interrogators to work in defence of liberal values, their role in the community must receive proper recognition. They will require intensive counselling to overcome the inevitable traumas that this difficult work involves. They must be enabled to see themselves as dedicated workers in the cause of progress. Psychotherapy must be available to help them avoid the negative self-image from which some torturers have suffered in the past.
  • The core of the belief in progress is that human values and goals converge in parallel with our increasing knowledge. The twentieth century shows the contrary. Human beings use the power of scientific knowledge to assert and defend the values and goals they already have. New technologies can be used to alleviate suffering and enhance freedom. They can, and will, also be used to wage war and strengthen tyranny. Science made possible the technologies that powered the industrial revolution. In the twentieth century, these technologies were used to implement state terror and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Ethics and politics do not advance in line with the growth of knowledge — not even in the long run.
    • "Joseph Conrad, Our Contemporary," from Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004)
  • Terror is not now, if it ever was, something that comes to us from outside. It is a part of the society in which we live. Both liberals and neoconservatives believe terrorism can be dealt with by removing its causes. The truth is less reassuring. Al-Qaeda has mutated into a decentralised, often locally based type of apocalyptic terrorism and, in this new guise, seems to be acquiring a formidable momentum.
  • Liberals tend to regard being subjects of the Queen as an insult to their dignity. But at least the archaic structures by which we are ruled do not force us to define ourselves by blood, soil or faith, and we are protected from the poisonous politics of identity.
  • While the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments.

    Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale.

  • The mass political movements of the 20th century were vehicles for myths inherited from religion, and it is no accident that religion is reviving now that these movements have collapsed.
  • Might there not be a connection between the attempt to eradicate religion and the loss of freedom? It is unlikely that Mao, who launched his assault on the people and culture of Tibet with the slogan "Religion is poison," would have agreed that his atheist world-view had no bearing on his policies.
    • "The atheist delusion," The Guardian (2008-03-15)
  • Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

    Belief in progress is a relic of the Christian view of history as a universal narrative, and an intellectually rigorous atheism would start by questioning it.

    • "The atheist delusion," The Guardian (2008-03-15)
  • Ridden with conflicts and lacking the industrial base of communism and nazism, Islamism is nowhere near a danger of the magnitude of those that were faced down in the 20th century.
    • "The atheist delusion," The Guardian (2008-03-15)
  • Not everything in religion is precious or deserving of reverence. There is an inheritance of anthropocentrism, the ugly fantasy that the Earth exists to serve humans, which most secular humanists share. There is the claim of religious authorities, also made by atheist regimes, to decide how people can express their sexuality, control their fertility and end their lives, which should be rejected categorically. Nobody should be allowed to curtail freedom in these ways, and no religion has the right to break the peace.
    • "The atheist delusion," The Guardian (2008-03-15)
  • The whole world is in some ways better than it's ever been in the past. And, indeed, I think for many people the meaning of their lives really depends on that belief. If you strip out that belief in progress, if you start thinking of the world in the way in which the ancient pre-Christian Europeans did, or the Buddhists and the Hindus or the Taoists of China do, many people think that's a kind of despair. I don't know how many times I've been told "If I thought that, John, I wouldn't get up in the morning" and "If I agreed with you, John, that history had no pattern of that kind, I wouldn't get up in the morning." I said, "Well, stay in bed a bit longer, you might find a better reason for getting up."
  • Their minds befogged by fashionable nonsense about globalisation, western leaders believe liberal democracy is spreading unstoppably. The reality is continuing political diversity. Republics, empires, liberal and illiberal democracies, and a wide variety of authoritarian regimes will be with us for the foreseeable future. Globalisation is nothing more than the industrialisation of the planet, and increasing resource nationalism is an integral part of the process. (So is accelerating climate change, but that's another story.) As industrialisation spreads, countries that control natural resources use these resources to advance their strategic objectives.
  • The US — its bankrupt mortgage institutions nationalised and its gigantic war machine effectively funded by foreign borrowing — is in steep decline. With its financial system in the worst mess since the 1930s, the west's ability to shape events is dwindling by the day. Sermonising about "law-based international relations" is laughable after Iraq, and at bottom not much more than nostalgia for a vanished hegemony.
    • "Folly of the progressive fairytale," The Observer (2008-09-08)
  • Throughout the years in which the US was punishing countries that departed from fiscal prudence, it was borrowing on a colossal scale to finance tax cuts and fund its over-stretched military commitments. Now, with federal finances critically dependent on continuing large inflows of foreign capital, it will be the countries that spurned the American model of capitalism that will shape America's economic future.
  • The populist rant about greedy banks that is being loudly ventilated in Congress is a distraction from the true causes of the crisis. The dire condition of America's financial markets is the result of American banks operating in a free-for-all environment that these same American legislators created. It is America's political class that, by embracing the dangerously simplistic ideology of deregulation, has responsibility for the present mess.
    • "A shattering moment in America's fall from power," The Observer (2008-09-28)
  • The irony of the post-Cold War period is that the fall of communism was followed by the rise of another utopian ideology. In American and Britain, and to a lesser extent other Western countries, a type of market fundamentalism became the guiding philosophy. The collapse of American power that is underway is the predictable upshot.
    • "A shattering moment in America's fall from power," The Observer (2008-09-28)
  • The true goal of the bourgeois life, in other words, is not self-enactment, but diversion. Most people need the organised distraction of work (if they can find it). Idleness - the life of the playboy who doesn't answer the phone - is simply too demanding.

Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002)Edit

Granta Books, 2003, ISBN 1-862-07596-4. 246 pages.

  • If Darwin's discovery had been made in a Taoist or Shinto, Hindu or animist culture it would very likely have become just one more strand in its intertwining mythologies. In these faiths humans and other animals are kin. By contrast, arising among Christians who set humans beyond all other living things, it triggered a bitter controversy that rages on to this day.
    • The Human: Science versus Humanism (p. 3-4)
  • The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.
    • The Human: Disseminated Primatemaia (p. 7)
  • 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.
    • The Human: Why Humanity Will Never Master Technology (p. 12)
  • Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The Internet is as natural as a spider's web.
    • The Human: Green Humanism (p. 16)
  • The mass of mankind is ruled not by its intermittent moral sensations, still less by self-interest, but by the needs of the moment.
    • The Human: Green Humanism (p. 17)
  • Again, silence has the power to silence heretics. Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers. (Think how orthodox medicine reacted to Freud, and orthodox Darwinians to Lovelock.) In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview.
    • The Human: Against Fundamentalism - Religious and Scientific (p. 19)
  • According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted.
    • The Human: Science's Irrational Origins (p. 22)
  • In any case, only someone miraculously innocent of history could believe that competition among ideas could result in the triumph of truth. Certainly ideas compete with one another, but the winners are normally those with power and human folly on their side. When the medieval Church exterminated the Cathars, did Catholic memes prevail over the memes of heretics? If the Final Solution had been carried to a conclusion, would that have demonstrated the inferiority of Hebrew memes?
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p. 26-7)
  • A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise.
    • The Human: Truth and Consequences (p.27)
  • ...the idea of Gaia is anticipated most clearly in a line from the Tao Te Ching, the oldest Taoist scripture. In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as offerings to the gods. During the ritual they were treated with the utmost reverence. When it was over and they were no longer needed they were trampled on and tossed aside: 'Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs.' If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of the Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.
    • The Human: Straw Dogs (p. 33-4)
  • As commonly practised, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs. In Kant's time the creed of conventional people was Christian, now it is humanist. Nor are these two faiths so different from one another.

    Over the past 200 years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith. It has not given up Christianity's cardinal error — the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.

    • The Deception: At the Masked Ball (p. 37)
  • Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God for an irrational faith in mankind.
    • The Deception: At the Masked Ball (p. 38)
  • Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it.
  • Nietzsche was an inveterately religious thinker, whose incessant attacks on Christian beliefs and values attest to the fact that he could never shake them off.
  • Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.
  • Postmodernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility — the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact, the postmodern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, postmodernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are in effect claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.
    • The Deception: Postmodernism (p. 54-55)
  • Philosophers have always tried to show that we are not like other animals, sniffing their way uncertainly through the world. Yet after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals do for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow.
    • The Deception: Animal Faith (p.55)
  • The unalterable character with which Schopenhauer and sometimes Conrad believed all humans are born may not exist; but we cannot help looking within ourselves to account for what we do. All we find are fragments, like memories of a novel we once read.
    • The Deception: Lord Jim's Jump (p. 68)
  • Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see ourselves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.
    • The Deception: The Ultimate Dream (p. 79)
  • We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?
    • The Deception: The Ultimate Dream (p. 81)
  • Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degree.... Justice is an artefact of custom. Where customs are unsettled its dictates soon become dated. Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashion in hats.
    • The Vices of Morality: Justice and Fashion (p. 102-3)
  • Moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction. Despite this, a philosopher has yet to write a great novel. The fact should not be surprising. In philosophy the truth about human life is of no interest.
    • The Vices of Morality: Immoral Amorality (p. 109)
  • The truth that Dostoevsky puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor is that humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tell us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so.
    • The Unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish (p. 123)
  • The needs that are met by tyrants are as real as those to which freedom answers; sometimes they are more urgent. Tyrants promise security - and release from the tedium of everyday existence. To be sure, this is only a confused fantasy. The drab truth of tyranny is a life spent in waiting. But the perennial romance of tyranny comes from its promising its subjects a life more interesting than any they can contrive for themselves.
    • The Unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish (p. 124)
  • Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians' god is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.
    • The Unsaved: Atheism, the Last Consequence of Christianity (p.126)
  • The most pitiless warriors against drugs have always been militant progressives. In China, the most savage attack on drug use occurred when the country was convulsed by a modern western doctrine of universal emancipation — Maoism. It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness — the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.
    • The Unsaved: Artificial Paradises (p. 141)
  • In the early nineteenth century, Thomas de Quincey wrote that a quarter of human misery was toothache. He may well have been right. Anaesthetic dentistry is an unmixed blessing. So are clean water and flush toilets. Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.
  • ...we are approaching a time when, in Moravec's words, 'almost all humans work to amuse other humans.' In rich countries, that time has already arrived. The old industries have been exported to the developing world. At home, new occupations have evolved, replacing those of the industrial era. Many of them satisfy needs that in the past were repressed or disguised. A thriving economy of psychotherapists, designer religions and spiritual boutiques has sprung up. Beyond that, there is an enormous grey economy of illegal industries supplying drugs and sex. The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which - though it is busier than ever before - secretly suspects that it is useless. Industrialisation created the working class. Now it has made the working class obsolete. Unless it is cut short by ecological collapse, it will eventually do the same to nearly everyone.
    • Non-Progress: An Irony of History (p. 160)
  • Today the doses of madness that keep us sane are supplied by new technologies. Anyone online has a limitless supply of virtual sex and violence. But what will happen when we run out of new vices? How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell? At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when 'morality' is marketed as a new brand of transgression.
    • Non-Progress: A Billion Balconies Facing the Sun (p. 165-6)
  • In evolutionary prehistory, consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by-product of the media.
    • Non-Progress: A Theory of Consciousness (p. 171)
  • A 'postmodern' organisation serving 'premodern' values, Al Qaeda has planted a question mark over the very idea of what it means to be modern.
    • Non-Progress: Al Qaeda (p. 176)
  • A far smaller proportion of the population is in jail in Japan than in any Western country - around a twentieth of that in the United States. Evidently the Japanese have yet to embrace Western values.
    • Non-Progress: 'Western Values' (p.180)
  • 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.
    • As It Is: Sisyphus's Progress (p. 195)
  • Gamblers wager for the sake of playing. Among those who fish for pleasure, the best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most. The point of playing is that the play has no point.
    • As It Is: Playing With Fate (p. 196)
  • In modern times, the immortal longings of the mystics are expressed in a cult of incessant activity. Infinite progress . . . infinite tedium. What could be more dreary than the perfection of mankind? The idea of progress is only the longing for immortality given a techno-futurist twist. Sanity is not found here, nor in the moth-eaten eternities of the mystics. Other animals do not pine for a deathless life. They are already in it. Even a caged tiger passes its life half out of time. Humans cannot enter that never-ending moment. They can find a respite from time when - like Odysseus, who refused Calypso's offer of everlasting life on an enchanted island so he could return to his beloved home - they no longer dream of immortality.
    • As It Is: Turning Back (p. 198)
  • Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?
    • As It Is: Simply To See (p.199)

Gray's Anatomy: Selected Writings (2009)Edit

  • In the world as we find it, even the barest requirements of a life worth living cannot all be always met in full. Toppling a tyranny may trigger civil war. Protecting a broad range of liberal freedoms may result in the regime that guarantees them being short lived. At the same time, supporting a strong state as a bulwark against anarchy may worsen the abuse of power. Wise policy can temper these conflicts. It cannot hope to overcome them.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.28)
  • It is because human needs are contradictory that no human life can be perfect. That does not mean that human life is imperfect. It means that the idea of perfection has no meaning.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.29)
  • There is no more consensus on what justice means than there is on the character of the good. If anything, there is less. Among the virtues, justice is one of the most shaped by convention. For that reason it is among the most changeable.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.34)
  • Like other human freedoms, the freedoms embodied in market institutions are justified inasmuch as they meet human needs. Insofar as they fail to do this they can reasonably be altered. This is true not only of the rights that are involved in market institutions. It is true of all human rights.
    • 'Modus Vivendi' (p.36)
  • The idea of a law of progress, or of an all but irresistible tendency to general improvement, is then merely a superstition, one of the tents of the modernist pseudo-religion of humanism. Even if such a law or tendency existed and were demonstrable, the liberal faith in progress would for Santayana be pernicious. For it leads to a corrupt habit of mind in which things are valued, not for their present excellence or perfection, but instrumentally, as leading to something better; and it insinuates into thought and feeling a sort of historical theodicy, in which past evil is justified as a means to present or future good. The idea of progress embodies a kind of time-worship (to adopt an expression used by Wyndham Lewis) in which the particularities of our world are seen and valued, not in themselves, but for what they might perhaps become, thereby leaving us destitute of the sense of the present and, at the same time, of the perspective of eternity.
  • The idea of politics as a conservation in which the collision of opinions is moderated and accommodated, in which what is sought is not truth but peace, has been almost entirely lost, and supplanted by a legalist paradigm in which all political claims and conflicts are modelled in the jargon of rights.
  • In the life of the academic mind, the owl of Minerva seldom flies as early as the dusk.
    • 'Definition of the Political Thought of Tlön' (p.91)
  • The repression of liberty that took place in the countries in which Communist regimes were established cannot be adequately explained as a product of backwardness, or of errors in the application of Marxian theory. It was the result of a resolute attempt to realize an Enlightenment utopia - a condition of society in which no serious form of conflict any longer exists.
  • The evil of totalitarianism is not only that it fails to protect specific liberties but that it extinguishes the very possibility of freedom.
  • Against the many Russian thinkers influenced by Hegel who believed that history was governed by universal laws to which one could only submit, Turgenev upheld the freedom of different societies to pursue different paths of development and of individuals to pursue, even in opposition to powerful historical forces, their own goals and values. Here Turgenev endorsed the celebrated dictum of Alexander Herzen, with whom he disagreed on other matters: that history has no libretto. Human history is a realm of contingency and unpredictability, in which each generation faces conflicts that have no ideal solution.
  • The belief in unity that has fuelled so many utopian dreams is an effort to reconcile the irreconcilable that ends in repression. Berlin suggests we renounce this venerable faith, and learn how to live with intractable conflict.
  • When closed societies collapse but fail to make the transition to openness the reason need not be that they languish in anarchy or suffer a return to dictatorship. It may be that they adopt an illiberal form of democracy. Along with the liberal democratic tradition that goes back to Locke and the English civil war there is a tradition, originating in the French Revolution and formulated theoretically by Rousseau, which understands democracy as the expression of popular will. The elective theocracy that is emerging in much of post-Saddam Iraq is a democratic polity in the latter sense, as is the current regime in Iran; so is the Hamas government in Palestine... To be sure, these regimes often lack freedom of information and expression and legal limitations on government power, which are essential features of democracy in the liberal tradition. In these respects they are closed societies, but they are not dictatorships. It is often forgotten that democracy, defined chiefly by elections and the exercise of power in the name of the majority, can be as repressive of individual freedom and minority rights as dictatorship - sometimes more so.

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Last modified on 13 April 2014, at 12:53