Reviewed: The Silence of Animals by John Gray

John Gray’s reckoning with our divided nature.

John Gray's early book on Isiah Berlin was seminal
John Gray's early book on Isiah Berlin was seminal. Photograph: Getty Images

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths
John Gray
Allen Lane, 240pp, £18.99

The first book by John Gray I read was his study of the thought of Isaiah Berlin, published in 1995. Reading it had a profound effect on my thinking about morality but I suspect that writing it had an even more profound effect on Gray and may have been a significant turning point in his philosophy.

Gray is one of the most controversial writers in Britain today. He has legions of ad - mirers and not a few detractors, but it is the complexion of his detractors that tells us most about him. Though he despises the lazy assumptions behind the labels we pin on each other, he would probably let the label “atheist” be fixed to his lapel if he had to make a choice; but he is an atheist who despises the evangelical zeal of the “new atheism” and has sympathy for the old religion it is trying to supplant. I’ll come back to that later in this review but let me return for a moment to Berlin and his influence on Gray.

What I got from Gray’s book on Berlin was a sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition. Gray writes that the first implication of Berlin’s perspective is a rejection of any idea of a perfect society or a perfect human life. Its second implication is that a developed morality cannot have a settled hierarchical structure that solves our dilemmas by telling us how to act. In political and moral life, we are engaged in endless trade-offs between conflicting goods and evils and there is no infallible system against which we can measure these values against each other. That is why we often arrive at situations in which more deliberation will take us no further and we have no choice but to act.

As Denis Healey reminded us, though we never reach conclusions in politics we have to make decisions. The way I like to describe this approach to life is as a kind of flowing improvisation or existential jazz in which we constantly adapt to new circumstances in order to keep the music going. It is possible to understand the operations of natural evolution in this way and Gray believes that other animals are better performers than we are because they don’t get stuck on fixed scripts the way we do.

If Berlin’s insight into the irreconcilable ambitions of humanity helped to form Gray’s philosophy and make him one of the most probing and unclassifiable political scientists of our time, the other turn in his thinking was an increasing respect for non-human animals – a shift heralded in his great book of 2002, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. This new book is best understood as a sequel to that earlier work.

The central issue in both books is the struggle the human animal has with its hybrid nature. Quoting the founder of psychoanalysis, Gray writes that without surrendering the resolute nature of his atheism, Freud reformulated one of the central insights of religion, which is that: “Humans are cracked vessels . . . Along with every serious philosophy and religion, Freud accepted that humans are sickly animals. Where he was original was in also accepting that the human sickness has no cure.”

While religion views humans as special creations endowed by God with freedom of will –unlike the other animals that are driven by the impersonal force of instinct – the modern way of explaining the divided nature of human beings is to see it as a struggle between their evolved, rational consciousness and the turbulent residue of their animal past. Though different, both interpretations offer a not dissimilar diagnosis of our disease: the pull of our animal nature against our distinctive rationality.

Gray reverses that diagnosis and claims that the cause of our sickness lies not in our animal nature but in our attempts to deny it. In Straw Dogs, he identified this as the cardinal error of Christianity but he pointed out that the original mistake was made by Plato, one of Christianity’s early predecessors. He went on to suggest that Plato and Christianity were merely the instruments of a force that had captured humans centuries before when they invented writing.

Gray argues that it is not consciousness or language that distinguishes us from other animals. They are conscious, too, and they communicate with each other in subtle and complex ways that we are only just beginning to understand. No, the invention of writing was humanity’s real fall and the beginning of the knowledge of good and evil:

From its humble beginnings as a means of stocktaking and tallying debts, writing gave humans the power to preserve their thoughts and experiences from time. At the same time it has allowed them to invent a world of abstract entities and mistake them for reality. The development of writing has enabled them to construct philosophies in which they  no longer belong in the natural world.

That, according to Gray, was the beginning of all our woe. We invented abstractions that destroyed our peace by persuading us that we do not belong to this world. The great monotheistic religions were the original instruments of this illusion but he believes that the atheist secularism that claims to be supplanting them has fallen for the same illusion. This is where we come to the core of his attack on secular humanism.

Our capacity for language has prompted us to create myths that express the riddle of our existence. Myths are works of art and, like all true art, they are their own meaning. While myth cannot rescue us from our predicament, it does transubstantiate it into language – and that is a huge achieve -ment. I agree with Gray that language is our greatest danger because its hypnotic abstractions can drive us mad but I also believe it is our greatest invention because through it we can have communion with other troubled souls.

Artists are better at creating this than theologians and philosophers, which is why it is no accident that Gray’s new book is filled with poetry and the meditations of creative thinkers. Margaret Drabble said of Philip Larkin that he reconciles us to our ills by the scrupulous way in which he notices them. That is what all great art does, including myth: it inscribes our confusions and longings in forms we can all identify with. Like a great novelist, it presents the human condition before us and we say, “Yes, that is it; that is the way we are; that is our condition.” And we are strengthened to endure our sorrows more bravely or to enjoy our pleasures more gratefully.

Religion claims to do more than this. It turns honest fictions into dishonest facts and thereby renders them unusable by those of us who value them as art, not as science. Yet an interesting shift in the use of religion is happening in our time. Some of us have decided neither to abandon religion nor to allow its clerical interpreters to dictate its meaning to us. We are talking about stories here and humanity lives and dies by its stories.

The atheist Gray wants us to reclaim the stories we have told ourselves and to understand their true nature. What angers him is that today’s secularists refuse to acknowledge that they also live by their myths. The secular myth he most despises is the idea of progress and the belief that by purging ourselves of religion and committing ourselves to optimistic rationality, we will rescue ourselves from tragedy. Gray thinks this humanistic eschatology is more dangerous than its religious counterpart:

In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves. If we know more than before, it means only that we have greater scope to enact our madness. But – as the Genesis myth also teaches – there is no way we can rid ourselves of what we know . . . The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our nature.

Gray believes that humanity’s obsessive search for a cure for its own ills is its most dangerous disease. Here, he both commends and condemns the religious approach to the problem. He commends it because, unlike the optimistic humanism of the new atheists, it understands the incurable sickness of the human soul and has been rich in stories that express it. Where he departs from religion is in its myth of supernatural rescue and salvation. Realistic in its assessment of the human condition as fallen and self-obsessed, Christianity pulls a metaphysical rabbit out of the hat by promising that, while we are unable to save ourselves, there is one who will rescue us from the bondage of our own nature and deliver us into a state of eternal bliss.

While Gray believes that life can be lived well without such metaphysical comfort, the gentle side of him has sympathy for those who find consolation in these myths of final redemption. The real illusion that Gray is trying to overthrow, in both Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, is what philosophers call “teleology”, which is the belief that there is a purpose to life that can be discovered by thought or mediated by revelation. In our determined pursuit of both religious and secular versions of this grand illusion, we have tortured and destroyed each other in unimaginable numbers throughout our history.

In the cause of our version of the purpose of life, we have destroyed the actual lives of countless human beings – 60 million in the Soviet Union alone between 1917 and 1959. Purpose and progress are killing us, writes Gray; why can’t we, like the other animals, just settle for life as it is?

Yet in this book, a new note has entered his writing. To his prophetic contempt for those who destroy others in the name of their theories has been added a lyrical new theme he calls “godless mysticism”, through which he calls us to an attitude of contem - plative gratitude for the only life we will ever have.

He writes: “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”

Though there are lots of poems in this book, an important one is missing: Norman MacCaig’s “A Man I Agreed With”. I’m sure John Gray would like it.

He knew better than to admire a chair and say What does it mean?

He loved everything that accepted the unfailing hospitality of his five senses. He would say Hello, caterpillar or So long, Loch Fewin.

He wanted to know how they came to be what they are: But he never insulted them by saying Caterpillar, Loch Fewin, what do you mean?

In this respect he was like God, though he was godless – He knew the difference between What does it mean to me? and What does it mean?

That’s why he said, half smiling, Of course, God, like me, is an atheist.

Richard Holloway’s most recent book is “Leaving Alexandria: a Memoir of Faith and Doubt” (Canongate, £17.99)