Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Old Wine in New Wineskins

As the French say, “plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.”  There was never a truer word spoken.  A similar saying with a biblical provenance states that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  We only repackage old truths in new clothing.  We only change the wrapping on the gift.  Use whatever metaphor you wish and we have the same basic truth.

This is essentially John Gray’s argument in the wee book mentioned in the previous post.  His foreword is succinct and very much to the point.  In it he paints his argument very clearly indeed.  the bones of which are:

1.  Humankind has always vastly over-rated its own importance in the scheme of things.  I thoroughly agree.  In his acknowledgements, immediately prior to the foreword, he states: “In this book I have tried to present a view of things in which humans are not central.” (Straw Dogs, Granta Books, 2002, ix)  Indeed, we are creatures of this world and we all share a common heritage and a common gene pool, not alone with all other animals but with all other vegetable life.  We may be thinking animals, but we are essentially animals. How we differentiate ourselves from our animal brothers and sisters is stuff for another post.  However, I use brothers and sisters with conviction, and recall that the famous Saint Francis of Assisi called even the inanimate elements his brothers and sisters.  Birth, growth, ageing, sickness and death are hallmarks of all animals.

2. In the foreword to the paperback edition Gray states: “Straw Dogs is an attack on the unthinking beliefs of thinking people.” (xi)  His argument is basic.  Traditionally, so-called revealed religions preached the hope of eternal salvation.  This hope of eternal salvation is, of course, a myth.  However, there is also a scientific equivalent of this myth, viz., the myth of progress.  In other words, Religion preaches salvation, science preaches indefinite progress.  They are both equally myths and superstitions.  If believers in Religion were totally bewitched by unprovable doctrines, we can argue in a parallel fashion that secular believers lie in the grip of equally unprovable “unexamined dogmas.”  Continual or indefinite or linear progress is one such “unexamined dogma.”  I have argued this before in these pages.

3. In typically paradoxical language, which underlines the essential contradictory nature of humanity, Gray avers that “[t]he irony of evangelical Darwinism is that it uses science to support a view of humanity that comes from religion.” (It uses evolution to support the freedom of choice – this last being a concept that emerges from revealed religious sources).  He also goes on to state that “the Christian origins of secular humanism are rarely understood.” (ibid., xii)  For Gray, Humanism is quite simply the Religion of Humanity.  All that we have done is cut out the idea of God and replaced it with Man (I use this term in its generic sense, needless to say.)  Gray’s words are very clear:

Humanism is not a science, but a religion – the post-Christian faith that humans can make a better world than any in which they have so far lived… The idea of progress is a secular version of the Christian belief in providence.  That is why among the ancient pagans it was unknown. (ibid., xiii)

4. Another point Gray makes is wonderful and one I had not thought of before (this again is another reason why I love Gray), namely that the growth of knowledge in science is accumulative while human life as a whole is anything but so.  Human beings have to learn things over and over again from generation to generation.  Every human being starts off from scratch in his/her own knowledge of self and the world.  Every generation practically repeats the mistakes of the past.  Has not history taught us this sad tale so well.  After all has not every generation witnessed yet another inevitable bloodletting. While science increases human powers – cars, airplanes, ships, spacecraft etc –unfortunately “it magnifies the flaws of human nature.” (ibid., xiii)  Again think of wars, terrorism etc.

5.  Gray couples two unlikely sources, or on second thoughts perhaps a little less unlikely, namely ancient Greek philosophy and the Eastern philosophy of meditation.  This coupling I think is brilliant and unique.  He argues that for both these groups the aim of life was “to see the world rightly.” (ibid., xiv)  On the other hand the aim of modern human beings  is to change the world.  Change at all costs, it seems, becomes the over-riding concern.  Change is good.  But is it so in all cases we rightly ask with Gray?  How far has progress brought us?  Is unquestioned progress per se good?

6.  Then he finishes his introductory remarks with a verbal flourish that appeals to me: “…at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias.” (ibid., xiv)  He also regales us  with his rather sceptical, but I fear all too true, view that: “[p]olitical action has come to be a surrogate for salvation,” and that

Humans cannot save the world, but this is no reason for despair.  It does not need saving.  Happily, humans will never live in a world of their own making. (ibid., xv)

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of muddy tracks in the Phoenix Park, February 2009.

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