Limits of reason: in William Blake's Newton, the great man shows his blindness to the natural world around him. Image: Bettman/Corbis
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John Gray: “Humanity is a figment of the imagination”

If you cannot conceive of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? 

The Quest for a Moral Compass: a Global History of Ethics
Kenan Malik
Atlantic Books, 400pp, £25

Histories of morality are rarely written in order to inform the reader. When the Victorian rationalist W E H Lecky produced his immensely popular History of European Morals (1869), his goal was to infuse the book’s readers with a sense of the advancing power of human reason. Lecky’s was a story of improvement – the occasionally stumbling but unfailingly heroic advance of rational inquiry against the stultifying authority of custom and the determined opposition of religion. Anything that did not fit in with this edifying tale was mentioned only in passing as a minor detour in the onward march of humankind, or else was ignored.

It’s an ironic commentary on our faith in intellectual progress that 150 years later Kenan Malik should present what is not much more than an expanded version of Lecky’s rationalist fairy tale. Malik doesn’t mention Lecky, and may not have read him, but something very like Lecky’s story shapes his account of the development of moral thinking. Describing the modern movement that for him embodies the advance of humankind, Malik repeats a liturgy we have heard incanted innumerable times: “In the Enlightenment, the intellectual wind of change that blew through Europe in the 18th century, the humanist sensibility that had emerged in the Renaissance found full flower.”

You would never know, from reading Malik’s account, that the Renaissance was a time when belief in magic thrived at the highest levels of the state, with Elizabeth I regularly consulting spirit-seers. You would have no idea that Kepler (a prototypical Renaissance figure Malik doesn’t discuss) was as devoted to horoscope-making as he was to astronomy, or that Machiavelli (another archetypal Renaissance figure who doesn’t even appear in the book’s index) posed fundamental questions about the role of ethics in politics.

Nor would you realise that Immanuel Kant (whom Malik, in a lengthy and reverential discussion, celebrates as having “revolutionised moral thinking”) described Jews as “a nation of cheaters”; that Voltaire was an ardent adherent of the pre-Adamite theory of human origins, according to which Jews and “negroes” were relics of an inferior pre-human species; that “Darwin’s bulldog” T H Huxley, praised by Malik for his criticisms of evolutionary ethics, developed a detailed classification of racial types; or that the German rationalist, biologist and virulent critic of religion Ernst Haeckel (another vastly influential thinker who is not discussed) defended theories of eugenics and racial inequality that helped shape a pattern of thinking in which Nazi crimes could be claimed to have a basis in science.

The Quest for a Moral Compass is a rationalist history of ethics in which all of the repugnant and troubling elements of rationalism have been airbrushed, Soviet-style, from the record. To be sure, the absence from the book of the sleazy side of rationalism may come in part from mere ignorance. In any event, it’s clear that Malik prefers not to know. From one angle this may be the normal dishonesty of an evangelising ideologue: Malik has a world-view to promote, and he’s not going to let awkward facts get in his way. From another perspective, The Quest for a Moral Compass is a testament to the perplexities of secular faith. Like Lecky, Malik writes in order to prop up a belief in moral progress. The difference is that while the Victorian sage appears to have had few doubts regarding the creed he was promoting, Malik often seems as anxious to persuade himself as to persuade his readers.

In common with generations of rationalist writers, Malik begins the history of moral thought with the Greeks. A more reflective writer might have asked whether these ancient thinkers had the same conception of morality as we do. After all, it’s incontestable that the idea of morality we have today – a set of principles or laws aiming to protect a uniquely precious type of human value – derives from monotheism. Nothing like this can be found among the polytheistic Greeks, who when they talked of ethics meant the art of life, including aesthetics and politics as well as what we think of as prudence or self-interest. In fact, in the sense that we understand the term, the ancient Greeks did not have a “morality” at all. Starting with the Greeks creates a problem if you want to present the history of morality as a single, continuing story – and one that ends in some version of the modern secular assertion of universal human values. Greek ethics weren’t meant to be universal, and they can’t be wrenched apart from the metaphysical framework accepted by the most influential Greek philosophers.

Aristotle may have talked of the good life for human beings, but he never meant to include most of humankind. Women and “barbarians” (non-Greeks) were excluded, while slaves achieved the good life by being instruments of their masters. This wasn’t just prejudice on Aristotle’s part: it reflected the metaphysics that underpinned his ethics. “Aristotle was a different kind of philosopher to those that had gone before,” Malik writes. “There was in him none of the poetical, speculative or mystical.” This is, at best, a half-truth. Aristotle may have valued careful observation, but his view of the world as a whole was far from empirical; everything that existed had a purpose and a function in a cosmic hierarchy of value. At the top was the “unmoved Mover”, a godlike entity that devoted itself to perpetual contemplation. It was this mystical vision, more than any kind of empirical investigation, which supported Aristotle’s belief that human beings are rational animals. If the good life for human beings – or a few favoured specimens among them – consisted in contemplation, it was because such a life connected them with something of supreme value beyond the human world.

In contrast to the loving attention he lavishes on the ancient Greeks, Malik’s account of monotheism is largely hostile. When he gets round to discussing the contribution of Judaism in the fourth chapter, he focuses on Deuteronomy, “an angry work” that advocates “the brutal suppression of those who worship other gods, and, indeed, the slaughter of other ethnic groups”. He notes the existence of other biblical injunctions urging “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”; but he says little about Job’s questioning of divine justice – a contribution to moral thinking more profound, to my mind, than anything in Greek philosophy. When he considers the birth of Christianity, he tells us that there was “little new” in the teachings of Jesus; any positive elements in Christianity are owed to Augustine, who for all his faults was “the last classical philosopher”. When he turns to Islam, the story is the same: he praises the religion mainly for preserving “the rationalist spirit that had been first carried by the Greeks” and for transmitting that spirit to Europe.

Malik is keen to stress the global reach of his account, and rightly points out that what today are considered “western values” would have been unrecognisable to canonical western thinkers of the past. Yet when he discusses the Hindu Vedas and the Buddha, Confucius and Taoism, it is as stages on the way to a higher form of moral consciousness that the modern west exemplifies. Buddhism is not bad as far as it goes, we learn, but lacks the world-transforming sense of agency of modern thinking. Taoism may have one or two points to its credit, but it suggests that unexamined lives may be worth living – a sacrilegious idea, for devout rationalists such as Malik. Other non-western traditions receive similarly patronising treatment. Presented in a style that is at times reminiscent of 1930s agitprop – one of the book’s central chapters is entitled “The Revolutionary Spirit and the Reactionary Soul” – what Malik gives us is not a history of moral thinking, with its many divergences and deep discontinuities, but a self-admiring fable.

In writing the history of morality in this way, Malik shows the formative influence of his own history as a one-time Trotskyist activist. The Socialist Workers Party and the Revolutionary Communist Party (for which he stood as a parliamentary candidate in 1987 and 1992) may be as thoroughly defunct, in terms of political influence, as the now-proverbial dead parrot. But it wasn’t the tens of millions of casualties Trotskyism incurred in faraway countries where revolution was serious business rather than an adolescent hobby that led Malik to move on from the beliefs of his youth. Instead, what produced the shift seems to have been a parochial intra-left debate about multiculturalism, which he opposed not because it involves compromising liberal freedoms, but because it tainted the purity of the revolutionary enterprise. Malik clings to a view of history, and humanity, that is essentially Marxian; yet he does so without being able to draw on any of the metaphysical and religious traditions that made Marx’s thinking such a powerful system of ideas. The result is a view of morality that is not so much erroneous – though Malik’s account contains numerous rudimentary mistakes – as basically incoherent.

The depth of his confusion is clear in his garbled discussion of the objectivity of values. He accepts that values change over time; as he says, this is the theme of his book. But such changes aren’t arbitrary, he declares: “There is a certain logic to historical change.” Now it is true that historical developments can have a kind of inherent rationality, in which one situation emerges from another in a series of intelligible steps. However, unless you think of history in teleological terms, as a story that may not be inevitable in its outcome but that has a built-in goal or purpose of some desirable kind, there is no reason to think this process need be in any way benign. As can be seen in the emerging catastrophe in Ukraine, where spiralling conflict on the ground is leading to another ruinous war, events may well have a certain logic; but it is logic of a kind that has nothing to do with ethics.

At this point, Malik will splutter that neither he nor Marx ever believed that history is governed by inexorable laws. It is human agency that shapes events, he will insist: as he puts it in the book’s final sentence, “The choice is ours.” Yet who are “we”, precisely? Marx was able to draw on an understanding of humanity as a kind of universal subject engaged in a struggle for freedom and redemption from the past, which he inherited from Judaism and Christianity. Nothing like this can be found among Malik’s beloved Greeks, who viewed history as a succession of natural cycles that had no overall meaning. In the absence of Marx’s Judaeo-Christian conception of humanity and history, or some other religious/metaphysical underpinning, “we” means whatever anyone wants it to mean.

If you strip away religion and metaphysics and think of the human species in strictly naturalistic terms, you will see that “humanity” – the universal subject, together with Marx, that Malik inherits from monotheism – is a figment of the imagination. “Science cannot determine values,” Malik writes, “because one cannot determine what is right and wrong without already having constructed a moral framework within which to evaluate the data.” True enough; but if you cannot call on any conception of humanity from an area of knowledge outside science, what reason could there be for thinking that one and only one system of values is peculiarly human? Or for thinking of history as a process in which these values are gradually unfolding?

Marx was able to assert that some values were quintessentially human, even as he denied that there was any constant human nature, because he believed history had an internal logic that was somehow inherently good. Without that comforting conviction – which Marx borrowed illicitly from religion – Malik’s universal values are left hanging in empty space. Once you have really given up monotheism, you have to say goodbye to the idea that human values can be universal or objective in the sense that rationalists such as Malik want to believe. You are left with the existing human animal, with its many different histories and perpetually warring moralities.

Malik’s inability to accept this inescapable truth gives his constant invocation of “humanity” a kind of comic poignancy. Here below, on the conflict-ridden earth, human beings are raucously diverse and often savagely divided in their values, and vanishingly few of them have any interest in Malik’s inchoate post-Marxian visions. But somewhere in the heavens, far above the stale air of the Trotskyist meeting room, floats universal humankind – a serene, Cheshire-cat-like being, more nebulous and chimerical than the gods of the past, but seemingly still capable of casting a glimmer of meaning into the lives of disoriented ex-members of extinct revolutionary sects.

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book, “The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths”, is published by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage