Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 11

Chapter 4 is entitled simply “The Unsaved.”  Mirroring Gray’s penchant for paradox, one might be tempted to re-title the chapter “Saved by being Unsaved.”  Once again he divides his chapter into subsections – this time 16 in all.  Gray also has the edifying habit of beginning each chapter with a relevant and incisive quotation.  The one he chooses I shall quote in full.  It is by Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the famous Romanian philosopher and essayist and I shall quote it here in full:

The certitude that there is no salvation is a form of salvation.  Starting from here one might organise our (sic) own life as well as construct a philosophy of history: the insoluble as solution, as the only way out.  (Quoted op.cit., 117)

Section 1: Saviours:

Indeed, I agree with Gray, religions have abounded with saviours and gurus who set themselves up as having the answer or the key to life, or at least to living.  The notion of “Messiah” was important in Judaism as it long believed that a saviour or liberator or “anointed one” of God would come to liberate them.  Christianity was a Jewish sect quite simply and that sect saw Jesus as being “the anointed” of God and their liberator or saviour.  It is hard to disagree with Gray that it was St Paul of Tarsus who was essentially the founder of the religion called Christianity, not Jesus of Nazareth.

Gray then sings his old refrain, and I must admit I personally like it that we are essentially “deluded animals” who think we are free and conscious beings. (See ibid., 120)  He argues that humankind finds his delusions of freedom and consciousness quite a weight to carry (my terms and interpretation here) and therefore seeks to be “saved” by various forms of religion: e.g., (i) the great religions themselves from Judaism and its offspring in Christianity and Islam to Hinduism and Buddhism and all the legions of other religious sects, (ii) all those political systems whether of the Right or the Left and then finally (iii) Science and all its various incarnations in various Humanisms.  Once again, in keeping with Gray’s thesis, we can call all of these masks at the masquerade of life.  All of these various forms of religion have sought to be humankind’s deliverer.

Section 2:  The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish:

Like Gray I have long loved the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821 – 1881) since 1976 when first introduced to his writing by Rev. Fr. Patrick Carmody,  M.A., M.Phil., a brilliant and inspiring philosopher who taught us at college.  I especially loved the book The Brothers Karamazov for its depth of analysis of both the human mind and of the human soul.  I was also long enthralled by Ivan Karamazov’s parable poem of The Grand Inquisitor in the same novel.  In that section of Dostoyevsky’s novel the Grand Inquisitor of Spain meets the returned Christ and argues with him that humankind have no need of the “freedom” or “salvation” he preached, rather, they could not bear the fact that they were free – freedom was too much an onus on their shoulders.  Therefore, the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that they (The Holy Roman Catholic Church) had to amend his teachings so that they could give human beings what they really wanted, that is:

We have corrected Thy work and have founded it on miracle, mystery and authority.  And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that brought them such suffering was, at lat, lifted from their hearts.  (Quoted, ibid.,  122)

Gray commends D.H. Lawrence’s later interpretation of this scene from The Brothers Karamazov because the famous author of Sons and Lovers rightly said “mankind demands, and will always demand, miracle mystery and authority… and today, man gets his sense of the miraculous from science and machinery, radio, airplanes, vast ships … Dostoyevsky’s diagnosis of human nature is simple and unanswerable…” (D.H.Lawrence, quoted ibid.,  122-123). Gray, with Dostoyevsky and D.H. Lawrence, sings again the refrain that humankind has never sought freedom and never will because we simply cannot bear it.  Even tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Mugabe and all their ilk get into power and keep it for however long because they promise the masses relief from the tedium of everyday existence.

I also agree wholeheartedly with Gray that the so-called “Saviours” and “Gurus” and all those who purvey what they conceive to be the “truth” to the masses of humanity are really power-brokers.  Therefore, I will finish this post with the provoking words of our author himself:

Science can advance human knowledge, it cannot make humanity cherish the truth.  ,  Like the Christians of former times, scientists are caught up in the web of power; they struggle for survival and success; their view of the world is a patchwork of conventional beliefs.  Science cannot bring ‘miracle, mystery and authority’ to humankind, if only because – like those who served the Church in the past – its servants are all too human.  (Ibid., 125.)

Another one of man's best friends from the Animal Kingdom, taken June, 2008.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 10

Section 6: Justice and Fashion: 

Gray uses a rather strange heading here.  The point he’s making, however, is quite serious.  He suggests that justice is a matter of fashion.  For instance, 100 years ago gay sex was viewed as wrong, whereas today it is acceptable.  One might add that some 200 years or so ago slavery was acceptable, while today it is adjudged a crime.  Although outlawed in nearly all countries, forms of slavery still exist in some parts of the world today.  Gray argues that fashions have changed.  I prefer to interpret the huge change in morality differently by saying that our awareness or sense of what’s right and right has evolved.  Morality is not some abstraction or abstract truth out (up/down) there written on stone slabs.  Rather our moral code and our moral sense have evolved.  Gray suggests that morality is somewhat whimsical and is merely based on what’s in fashion or out of fashion at a given time in history.  I’m not at one at all with Gray’s sentiments here, and I feel he has reduced justice to a whimsy of humankind which to me seems very reductionist indeed.  However, I agree with his view that morality or ethics can never be set in stone – they do evolve.  But they are not just a mere question of fashion.

Section 7: This section is only three sentences long.  It contains a very sweeping statement or generality which no one could possibly prove.  As such it does not deserve comment.

Section 8: Psychoanalysis and Moral Luck

If we turn out to be “good” human beings then we are merely lucky, argues Gray.  This, he avers, is the upshot of the Freudian analysis.  Being either a good or a bad person is totally a matter of chance, and has nothing to do with our choices.  There is probably some truth here, but once again Gray offers little evidence for his contentions.

Section 9: Morality as an Aphrodisiac:

Here he talks about the sense of Catholic guilt which, say Graham Green had, that is, the sense of guilt being pleasurable. I’m not so sure I get what he means.  And even if I did, what point is he making?  Maybe I’m just dim?

Section 10: A Weakness for Prudence:

Philosophers from Socrates onwards have asked the question why should we be moral.  Gray questions whether this is a good question at all.  He suggests that we should ask a more important question – Why should we be prudent?  Why should we care what becomes of us in the future?  Here is a flavour of Gray’s scepticism:

Caring about yourself as it will be in the future is no more reasonable than caring about your self as you are now.  Less so, if your future self is less worth caring about.  (Ibid., 105)

Section 11:  Socrates, Inventor of Morality:  

Gray starts by looking at the old Greek world during which Homer lived (c. the end of the 9th or the beginning of the 8th century B.C.E.).  At that time, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life was ruled by fate and chance.  There was no ethics or morality as we know them today.  At that time ethics was about virtues such as courage and wisdom – how one behaved against the odds.  Let me quote our philosopher in full, as his argument is quite strong:

For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune.  Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision.  He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man.  So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible.  Beyond the goods of human life … there was a Good which surpassed them all.  In Plato, this became the idea of the Form of the Good, the mystical union of all values into a harmonious spiritual whole – an idea later absorbed in to the Christian conception of God.  (Ibid., 106)

On morality, Gray informs us that, while we might like to think of it as a set of laws or rules that everyone must obey, it is in fact a set of “prejudices, which we inherit partly from Christianity and partly from classical Greek philosophy.” (Ibid., 107) It is simply a pretence that morality wins out in the end.

Section 12:  Immoral Morality:

Again we have a gripping, if paradoxical, title.  I suppose what our man means is that any code of morality is merely a mask for man’s base instincts. Gray gives the following examples: (i) Machiavelli’s The Prince argues that anyone who seeks to be honourable in the struggle for power will come to grief.  What’s needed is boldness and dissimulation (deception in which one conceals the truth.) (ii) Prosperity is driven by vice.  He argues that this fact was the central thesis of Bernard de Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees.  Indeed, now that we are deep within a worldwide recession, if not depression, we are learning to our cost that previous and much present prosperity has been caused by humankind’s greed, vanity, envy, cruelty and resentment.  How obviously true this is!

The good life flourishes only because there is a bad life there, the moral life because there is an immoral life too.  A rigorous sense of justice may even drive out sympathy, and courage often goes hand in hand with a certain recklessness.  In short, “moral philosophy is very largely a branch of fiction.”  (Ibid.,109)

Section 13: The Fetish of Choice:

For us modern human beings the good life is none other the the very life we choose to live.  Again, Gray returns to the pre-Socratic Greeks where the common human being was seen as living a life guided only by chance and the fates.  In that scenario, the human animal had little or no choice.  His/her future was written in the stars, or in whatever substance might be adjudged to have prophetic qualities.  Gray takes up the story: “We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part authors of the events that mark us most deeply.” (Ibid., 109)  In a poetic flourish he informs us that “[t]he life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.” (Ibid., 110)

Section 14: Animal Virtues: 

Here Gray returns to one of his favourite words, that is, “animal.”  In this book he keeps re-iterating the phrase “human animal” and I quite like it, because that is what we each are, and let us never forget that.  I love animals myself and have long held the view that animals have their own personalities – in a loose sense, that is, but let us remember that the concept of “personality,” even when applied to us humans, is also very loose indeed itself.  Let’s not get too cocky or too full of hubris!

Gray argues, again rather provokingly but so interestingly, that our animal brothers and sisters have their very own “animal virtues.”  For instance, dolphins display curiosity and bravery, and I remember reading somewhere that it is very good for humans with depression and other mental orders to swim in their company as it improves their mental well-being.  Gray quotes Nietzsche who argued that all animals, humans included, seek food and avoid enemies and that this is the very basis of animal morality. (See ibid., 111)

He argues that ethics or morals was for the Taoists simply a practical skill which one got better at as one practised.  It had nothing to do with right or wrong or ought to, and he argues that we must reacquaint ourselves with this old practical view:

The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do.  It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind.  (Ibid., 113)

Later, he avers that for those who accept morality as binding, the Good Life means a perpetual striving after what is right.  On the other hand, for Taoists the Good Life means living effortlessly.  Then he becomes more and more provocative and tells us that the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing.  Hence, it is a deception to say that we make choices.  We are, he avers, far more like wild animals than we imagine.  Then, he comments that

Perhaps we can learn to live  more lightly, less burdened by morality.  We cannot return to a purely spontaneous existence… Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures.  (Ibid., 116)

Our animal friends. Above the picture of a deer I took with my mobile phone in St Mary's hospital in the last year.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 9

Section 5: The Death of Tragedy:

Tragedy has had a long history and has always been, and indeed continues to be, of great cultural significance.  Who has not heard of Shakespeare?  Even my own mother, who left school when she was 15 in 1932 had studied Julius Caesar (not ranked as a tragedy but as a history play, I hasten to add) among other plays of the Bard of Avon.  I studied Richard II for my Intermediate Certificate, Hamlet for my Leaving and Macbeth, King Lear and Othello later at college, all tragedies written between 1601 and 1608.  Then we also studied Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, and Othello which could all be considered love tragedies.  At times I was lucky enough to attend performances of some of these tragedies as well as reading them all for my literature courses.  I really loved those plays, the Elizabethan language, the beautiful words, the iambic pentameter - a line made up of five pairs of short/long, or unstressed/stressed, syllables.  But the greatest thrill, of course, was and still is, the effect that language has on the emotions of the hearer/viewer – how the language carries the very tragedy in it as well as do the actions on the stage.

Then, of course, our teachers and lecturers defined tragedy for us in the classical sense. At school they told us of the Greek origins;but mostly they confined themselves to Shakespearean tragedy alone. What were we told about the nature of tragedy at school?  Well, I remember one erudite teacher speaking of the development of drama/tragedy from religious celebrations in Ancient Greece and later in the medieval mystery, morality and miracle plays. We were never informed of the fact that the classical Greek and Roman tragedy was largely forgotten in Western Europe from the Middle Ages to the beginning of 16th century, that is, at the time when these latter plays were being performed.  Probably our teachers did not know these facts. Not much was said outside this fact of its provenance.  We only learned of the Ancient Greek tragedians like Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus in college some years later.  

Other facts that we learned about the nature of tragedy were (i) that it involved a great person of serious character or dignity who experiences a reversal in fortune – a fall from grace as it were, (ii) that this tragic hero possessed a tragic flaw or character flaw which led to this inevitable fall and that we, as readers or audience could experience what our teacher, Mr. Bartholomew Doyle, M.A. called “catharsis” or a an emotional cleaning or purging.  In this regard we were healed through our experience of these emotions – in response, of course, to the suffering of the characters in the drama.  Now, all of this above, is straight from the classical text of Aristotle called the Poetics.  From recent reading I have found out that Aristotle did not mean innate or intrinsic “flaws” in the hero but rather a “mistake” (or “mistakes”: the Greek word “hamartia” means mistake not “flaw”) made by the main character.

Gray begins this section with a discussion of Hegel’s notion of what tragedy is.  I recall from long ago Hegel’s dialectical approach both to history and epistemology by way of thesis, antithesis and then synthesis. He was to apply this somewhat restricting formula to his theory of tragedy. Hegel saw tragedy as the collision or conflict of right with right.  There are weighty arguments or deep and bitter feelings of right on either of the two sides in the drama.  But, here again, Gray rightly points out that morality has absolutely nothing to do with tragedy.

Gray on Tragedy:

Tragedy is born of myth, not of morality.  It had its birth with the ancient Greek gods – on Mount Olympus.  The likes of Icarus and Prometheus are tragic heroes – the first who flew too close to the sun, thereby perishing, and the second a Titan, known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it us mortals for our use.  Both were punished for their mistakes (harmartia)

Tragedy has nothing to do with morality.  It has much more to do with mortality – again my conclusion and words, not Gray’s.  He says that it has more to do with “fatalism” and the “fates” rather than morality.  I guess we are saying the same thing in different ways here.  For the likes of Homer and Euripides and for all the other Greek tragedians he argues that

tragedy came from the encounter of the human will with fate.  Socrates destroyed that archaic view of things.  Reason enabled us to avoid disaster, or else it showed that disaster does not matter.  This is what Nietzsche meant when he wrote that Socrates caused the ‘death of tragedy.’ (Ibid., 98)

I owe Gray a lot here because he has allowed me to bring my philosophical and literary studies together in a beautiful unity through Nietzsche’s angle on tragedy.  Gray continues, and I am carried along with the flow of his sweeping and poetic prose – if that isn’t a contradiction? :

The pith of tragedy is not the collision of right with right.  There is tragedy when humans refuse to circumstances that neither courage nor intelligence can remedy.  Tragedy befalls those who have wagered against the odds.  (ibid., 99)

Christianity does not, Gray argues and I am wont to agree with him, offer any tragic interpretation of life’s events, that is, its sufferings, quite simply because it offers the ultimate or final carrot of afterlife – Heaven and Hell and even Purgatory for those who hold with the three dogmas.  Hence, for Christians life is not a tragedy – rather it is a “divine comedy” as Dante put it, as there is after all an afterlife in which all tears will be wiped away.  Nor indeed, if I may flesh out Gray’s words more, is there a sense of the tragic in the Humanist creed because, after all, they look forward to infinite or continued linear progress where more and more will have the chance of a happy life.  In the mean time what are we poor human animals to do?  Quite simply, Gray argues, that we must learn, believe it or not, to thrive in our own misfortune by going to such tragedies which will help us to purge our emotions.  In this way we will be “ennobled by extremes of suffering.”

Gray continues this section by giving an account of a Russian author who spent many long years in the gulags in Russia under different regimes.  The author he quotes is Varlam Shalamov of whom I have never heard before.  Information about this man’s life is immaterial because the point the great man made was that in such places like gulags morality does indeed cease to exist.  The concentration camp survivors of the Nazi empire of evil teach us as much.

So what are we to glean from this rather depressing section?  Well, I suppose the implications are that we are mere human animals who are fated to die because that is the way we are hardwired in our very genes.  The fact that we dream up illusions and myths, which are at the very heart of all cultures, is a marvellous creative activity and possibly, or even probably, a good one insofar as they help us not to grow too depressed at our inevitable destiny.  Let me finish we a few sobering words from Gray:

At its worst human life is not tragic but unmeaning.  The soul is broken, but life lingers on.  As the will fails, the mask of tragedy falls aside.  What remains is only suffering…. We are wise to hold to a semblance of tragedy; the truth unveiled would only blind us.  (Ibid., 101)

The above is indeed very bleak, but most definitely true.  Such thoughts are a diet for the mentally fit and sound; for those who have made a deeper journey.  However, many of us need much more even than the semblance of tragedy.  There are many of us who need, yes deeply need, the semblances also of all the different religions in their many colourful masks and even the semblances of the many humanisms from agnostic to atheistic forms of the same.  It is, in short, a question, in the final analysis of how much suffering the human spirit can take.  How far can a creature go before he or she or it (I’m referring here to our animal brothers and sisters) break under the strain of the indifference of the universe to our so brief existence?

Once again I ahve uploaded a picture I took in The Burren, Co. Clare, in June 2008. The persistence of life is for me encountered by the strength and endurance of these plants which push up through the limestone ground of West Clare.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 8

Chapter three of Straw Dogs is called The Vices of Morality and it is subdivided into fourteen sections.

Section 1: Porcelain and the price of Life:

Gray begins this chapter with a brief account of Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz. It’s hero or anti-hero Kaspar Utz is a compulsive porcelain collector and silent rebel. Permitted to leave Czechoslovakia each year, he always returns since he cannot take his collection with him. For Kaspar Utz is as much a prisoner of the porcelain as he is of the Communist state.  Gray believes that what marks Utz out from the common run of humankind is his amorality.  Once again he cuts to the point as regards morality by stating:

if… you are honest with yourself, you will find that morality plays a far smaller part in your life than you have been taught that it should.  (Ibid., 88)

Moral philosophy has always been an exercise in make-believe, less realistic in its picture of human life than the average bourgeois novel. (Ibid., 89)

Then he quotes the interesting and harrowing story of the concentration camp inmate, Roman Frister, who allowed another inmate to be executed in his stead. Frister had been raped by a camp guard who took his cap knowing that his victim would be shot the following morning for being without one.  In that way his crime would go undiscovered. He stole another inmate’s cap and thereby avoided execution, while the poor other fellow was shot instead. Gray’s commentary on this sad but all too realistic tale is:

Morality is supposed to be universal and categorical.  But the lesson of Roman Frister’s story is that it is a convenience, to be relied upon only in normal times.  (Ibid., 90)

Section 2: Morality as Superstition:

Morality, Gray informs us, is firmly rooted in the superstition endemic in religion and Western morality can be traced back to the Ten Commandments.  The idea that these laws apply to everyone is a superstition.


Section 3: The Unsanctity of Human Life:

Again a rather gripping title. Gray under this head discusses the matter of slaughter,murder and genocide from our cave ancestors down to today.  On page 91 he cites the total genocide of the indigenous Tasmanians – all brought about, needless to say, by God-fearing Christians.  On the Shoah, Gray observes:

It was not the numbers killed in the Holocaust that make it a crime without parallel.  It was its goal of eradicating an entire culture.  Hitler planned a Museum of Jewish Culture, to be sited in Prague – a Museum of an Extinct People.  (Ibid., 93)

Then, should we need reminding, Gray informs us that between the years 1917 and 1959 over 60 million people were killed in the Soviet Union.  These murders were not concealed: they were public policy.  In Russia, the pursuit of progress had ended in mass murder.  Progress and mass murder run in tandem.


Section 4: Conscience:

Under this heading Gray recounts several examples of racist executions in Georgia, U.S.A. in 1899.  Parents, he tells, sent notes to teachers to excuse their children so they could be present at the executions.  Postcards were sent and even photographs taken to record the entertainment.

The flora of The Burren, Co Clare yet again, June 2008.

The Hubris of Humankind 7

Section: Mr Nobody:

With this heading I am reminded of the famous song of The Beatles from the 1960s called Nowhere Man. The opening lyrics of this famous song, written by the late John Lennon, are:

He's a real nowhere Man, Sitting in his Nowhere Land, Making all his nowhere plans for nobody.

Doesn't have a point of view, Knows not where he's going to, Isn't he a bit like you and me? Nowhere Man, please listen, You don't know what you're missin', Nowhere Man, the world is at your command.

Gray contends in this section that we are all literally nobodies. This I found a hard section to take on board, that is, to reflect on the fact that I, and you, the reader, if there is a reader of this post, are literally nobodies and don’t really count at all. Whatever John Lennon had in mind for his “nowhere Man” or who he thought him to be or whether he believed we were all such, but the last line quoted above seems to suggest that he felt that his nowhere man could transform himself. Gray returns to discuss that first great empiricist, the Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711 – 1776) and a more contemporary novelist and philosopher Goronwy Rees (1909-1979), whom I have never heard of before in my life. On checking him up on Google I find that he was a Welsh journalist, academic and writer. He was educated at the University of Oxford and had been briefly port of the Cambridge Five spy ring. Anyway, Mr Rees’ activities are immaterial to our discussion here. One of his books was called A Bundle of Sensations: Sketches in Autobiography (1960) and, on checking the bibliography, I see it is this book that Gray quotes from. When Rees looked at himself, or rather looked into his heart, he found no more than a succession of disjointed episodes. He questioned all his life the idea of a personal identity. Indeed Rees quotes Hume liberally in this book. I’m presuming that our man had studied philosophy at Oxford. Gray quotes Rees quoting the following from Hume:

Setting aside some metaphysicians…I may venture to affirm of the rest of mankind that they are nothing but a collection of perceptions which succeed each other with inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement. (Quoted ibid., 75)

Rees’s daughter, we are informed, confirmed his account of himself as “Mr Nobody, a man without qualities, a person without a sense of “self.” (See ibid., 75) In short, Gray, argues, rehearsing the old Humean empiricist position, that we are no more than bundles of sensations which appear to be hardwired for the illusion of self.

Section: The Ultimate Dream:

Here Gray disabuses our minds of the Buddhist dream, i.e., that awake from our dreams and illusions by cultivating a practice or habit of awareness which will sever our links with (i) our evolutionary past and (ii) with our clinging to the things of the mind and (iii) our clinging to the things of the world. Once again Gray dismisses all of this rather sweepingly: “This is only another doctrine of salvation, subtler than that of the Christians, but no different from Christianity in its goal of leaving our animal inheritance behind.” (Ibid., 79)

Gray goes on to argue quite cogently that we cannot rid ourselves of our animal kinship or evolution – my terms:

The lesson of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science is that we are descendents of a long lineage, only a fraction of which is human. (Ibid., 79)

Then Gray explicates the difference between Buddhism and Taoism. Buddhists maintain that they can awaken out of dreaming that life is, while Taoists say that we can never awaken from the dream that is life, we only awaken to dream more lucidly. Chuang-Tzu (a Taoist text similar to Lao Tzu) admits no idea of salvation: “There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self.” (Ibid., 81)

Section 15: The Experiment:

What is philosophy at all? Gray considers it to be that which encourages us to a “clarity of thinking.” (Ibid., 82) For ancient philosophers the aim of philosophy was “peace of mind” – for Socrates, it was a way of life, a way of being in the world. Contemporary aims for philosophers, argues Gray, might be in asking such questions as: What illusions can we give up? What are the ones we will never shake off? We will, he argues, renounce the hope of a life without illusion:

Henceforth our aim will be to identify our invincible illusions. Which untruths might we be rid of, and which can we not do without? That is the question, that is the experiment. (Ibid., 83)

Above I have uploaded a photo I took of some flora in The Burren Co. Clare in June 2008

The Hubris of Humankind 6

Here, once again I’m continuing with my commentary on Straw Dogs.  When I am really fascinated with a book I read it several times.  That I have done with this book, and like Will Self, I find myself making notes, as I am doing in these blog entries.  Obviously, my points are no mere summary as they contain my interpretation and impression of John Gray’s thoughts.

Section 7: Animal Faith:

This is the shortest section of the book and contains a mere two sentences.  I shan’t write them here.  Buy the book and read them.

Section 8: Plato and the Alphabet:

The whole tenor of Gray’s thoughts is that human beings have vastly over-estimated their own importance and that our cultures conspire to keep the myth going.  He points out that all creatures have their own languages and that what separates humankind from their animal brothers and sisters is the fact that they can write their communications down.

Sumer and indeed ancient Egypt had their pictograms and hieroglyphics which were, in effect, “metaphors of sensuous realities,”  that is, things one could feel, see and touch – actual things and events of the workaday world.  However, the development of “phonetic writing” led us off into the realm of ideas and thoughts of a very abstract variety. (See op.cit., 56)  Plato and all other philosophers and authors who followed him needed this phonetic writing to communicate their ideas because a world of “bodiless forms” could not be shown in pictograms.  Interestingly, while classic Chinese script is not purely ideographic, it still did not encourage abstract thinking of the Platonic variety.  Now Gray gives what I consider a clear exposition of the Realist versus Nominalist positions in philosophy, and for the present writer this clarification is important.  I’ll quote Gray directly here for clarity:

Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist – he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities.  In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese thought has been nominalist – it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world.  As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts.  (Ibid., 57)

Then Gray underlines the fact that Europe owes much of its “murderous” history to fights over various ideologies sparked off by ideas of what the Good or the Beautiful or the True should be or not be, depending on the whim of the Emperor, the King or Queen or the dictator or whatever. 

Section 9:  Against the cult of Personality:

Here Gray questions the very reality of “personhood” or “personality.”  These are mere human constructs he adds – again my words.  He gives the following as a working definition of person accepted by the generality of humankind: “A person is someone who believes that she authors her own life through her choices.” (ibid., 58)  Nothing could be further from the truth as history illustrates.  Again being a person “is not the essence of humanity, only – as the word’s history suggests – one of its masks.  Persons are only humans who have donned the mask that has been handed down in Europe over the past few generations, and taken it for their face.” (ibid., 58-59) Riveting and revolutionary stuff, no?  Good food for thoughts indeed!

Section 10: The Poverty of Consciousness

Again we have vastly overrated the power of consciousness and Gray points out that it “counts for less in the scheme of things than we have been taught” (Ibid 59) by the likes of Plato (with his reality being essentially that of Ideas and abstractions) and later by Descartes (knowledge presupposes conscious awareness).  While Gray, strangely enough, does not allude to Freud in this section, one can feel his shadow cast firmly over the very text.  With Freud and others we can say that the human being knows more than he or she is aware of.  We learn so much subliminally and through our unconscious as opposed to conscious and aware mind.

Plato believes that ultimate reality is spiritual while Descartes saw humans as thinking beings – his famous dictum being, “cogito, ergo sum.”  For him, animals were mere machines.  Try telling that to any animal lover, or even any very matter of fact human and you’ll get a strange reaction indeed.

Gray does concede that where “other animals differ from humans is in lacking a sensation of selfhood.” (ibid., 61)  Once again he describes this difference as being as much a handicap as a benefit.    Self-awareness is overrated and he points out that a brilliant pianist or conductor or sculptor or even, come to think of it, any motorist on his/her way to work may not be aware of their movements as they go about these activities.

Section 11:  Lord Jim’s Jump:

In this section Gray is extremely provocative indeed, and questions the very existence of “free will.”  We experience ourselves as beings who make decisions and choices on a daily basis – such is my experience and your experience for the greater part of our lives.  This morning I had to return home from work as I have succumbed to a violent stomach bug.  I certainly had no real choice in the matter – my body told me in no uncertain terms by voiding my stomach in both directions.  I certainly was not totally free in my actions this morning.  I’m not so sure I go along with Gray’s arguments, though they are indeed cogent.  I cannot say I’m totally convinced as I need to give his thoughts deeper reflection.  After all, I, like all of my fellow citizens, have been brought up on a diet of “free will” and “self-consciousness” as being at the very heart of what a human really is.

Gray recalls Lord Jim’s jump for us, that is that central scene from Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Lord Jim where our hero is the first mate on the ship called the Patna which hits a submerged rock.  The ship is holed and the crew believe that sinking is imminent.  There are 800 Muslim passengers on board who are on their way to Mecca, and there is only a lifeboat for the crew.  Jim is the last to jump, and after a pause does so.  However, the Patna is unharmed and Jim has to face the disgrace of a public inquiry alone as the Captain has fled.  Let me return to Gray’s succinct prose:

Lord Jim’s life is overshadowed by a question he cannot answer.  Did he jump?  Or was he pushed by event?  The idea that we are authors of our actions is required by ‘morality.’  If Jim is to be held accountable for his jump, he must have been able to act otherwise than he did.  That is what free will means – if it means anything.  Did Jim do what he really did freely?  How can he – or anyone else – ever know?  (ibid., 65)

Gray is of the opinion that he did not act freely and gives arguments for his view by saying that we are ourselves “products of chance and necessity.”  He goes on to outline scientific argumentation which proves that there is “the half-second delay” between the electrical impulse that initiates the action and the conscious decision to act.  We have actually acted before our thought processes have begun at all. (See ibid., 66)

Interestingly, Gray points out that Conrad had read much of Schopenhauer’s philosophical works. Why are we not surprised?  

Section 12: Our Virtual Selves:

At last Gray brings Freud into his narrative and agrees with his conclusions that much of the life of the mind goes on in the absence of consciousness.  He also accepts the Freudian contention that by bringing repressed memories into conscious awareness helps heal many of our neurotic disturbances – again my terms, not Gray’s.  He continues to press home his point that we have over-valued thinking (and consequently free will) in our everyday world:

We think of our actions as the end-results of our thoughts.  Yet much the greater part of everyone’s life goes on without thinking.  The sense of conscious agency may be an artefact of conflicts among our impulses. (Ibid., 70)

I was also struck by Gray’s alignment of Buddhist thought and recent scientific findings that “cognitive science and  ancient Buddhist teachings are at one in viewing this ordinary sense of self as illusive.  Both view selfhood in humans as a highly complex and fragmentary thing.”  (Ibid., 70)  There is no central homunculus or inner person or centre or inner self, no central actor or controller at all.  Modern science and ancient Buddhism helps us to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of trying to find that illusive central control.  Provocative thoughts, to say the least.  I’m still thinking and still wondering.  John Gray, you have done it again.  You are provoking me to deeper thought.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took of one of our fellow creatures on this clod of earth - Clare, June 2008.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Hubris of Humankind 5

Section 4: Heidegger’s Humanism:

Heidegger, like Nietzsche before him, was an unbeliever or atheist who could not give up Christian hopes.  According to Gray, and one is wont to believe him, carried along with the author’s enthusiasm and logic, that Heidegger’s terminology is merely new terms for old beliefs.  Once again, Heidegger believes in humankind’s special place in the scheme of things and describes us humans as the makers of the worlds we inhabit.  However, animals, he says, are “world-poor.” (quoted op.cit., 48)

Heidegger loved the term “Being” and Gray argues that this is a term that replaces “God” in the old scheme of things.  He uses this term to re-affirm humankind’s special position in the universe.  Heidegger used the terms “throwness” (Dasein), “uncanniness” (Unheimlichkeit) and “guilt” (Schuld) to describe the human being’s existence in the world.  Gray says that these are merely a reworking of old Christian terms and I should imagine they correspond to the following Christian terms/tenets such as “created”, “humankind has to struggle and toil to survive” as a consequence of “sin” respectively.

For Heidegger humans are the site in which Being is disclosed, and Gray argues that Heidegger took much of this from the mystics Eckardt and Silesius who argued that God needs man just as much as man needs God. Whatever about the finer points of Heideggerian thought, the effect is the same, namely old wine in new wineskins, the old belief of humanity’s special place in creation in different philosophical or existential terms.  Humans are the only animals with the power to disclose Being.  Once again I love Gray’s power of language:

This is only the old anthropocentric conceit, rendered anew in the idiom of a secular Gnostic. (Ibid., 50)

I cannot claim to understand all that Gray writes about Heidegger, but the above encapsulates the tenor of his thought and is enough for our purposes here.  Also that Heidegger was an out and out Nazi is undeniable and that it influenced his later thought unquestionable.

Section 5:  Conversing with Lions:

This section treats of Wittgenstein from the angle of one of his saying’s.  That dictum was: “If a lion could talk we could not understand him.” (Quoted ibid., 52)  Gray criticises this as being extreme human prejudice and he quotes a conservationist who also questions Wittgenstein’s belief on this matter.  Gray argues that the likes of Heidegger and Wittgenstein maintained that the world itself was simply a construction of human thought.  As Gray so succinctly puts it: “In all these philosophies, the world acquires a significance from the fact that humans have appeared in it.  In fact, until humans arrive, there is hardly a world at all.” (Ibid., 53)  Then Gray says that these philosophers were really Idealists like Plato, because they believed that there is nothing that is independent of the mindIdealism, in short, is the belief that only humans exist.

Section 6: Postmodernism:

In sum, Gray argues as he neatly puts it, that “Postmodernism is just the latest fad in anthropocentrism.” (Ibid., 55)  Postmodernists maintain that truth is relative.  They actually deny that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs:

In fact the postmodern denial of the 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 effectively claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.  (ibid., 55)

Above a picture of Martin Heidegger, famous German philosopher and Nazi sympathiser.

The Hubris of Humankind 4

Chapter 2 of John Gray’s book is divided into 15 subsections.

Section 1: At The Masked Ball

In popular psychology we read about all the different masks we wear as we go about our daily business, e.g., that of parent, teacher, bus driver, patient, student or whatever, and, indeed, we change those masks many times per day.  Sometimes we may even wear “a face to meet the faces that we meet” as T.S. Eliot puts it in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Often we are pretending to be what or who we are not, e.g., the sophisticated and knowledgeable one, the stiff upper-lipped one who does not bend under any pressure or whatever.  Our masks are legion as we portray all the different sub-personalities that reside even within the one person we are.  In this section Gray argues that when one unmasks the Christian or the Humanist one finds that underneath both masks lies the human animal in its essential nature with its belief of mythical proportions, namely that “humans are radically different from other animals.” (Op. cit., 37)

The real task of philosophy, Gray argues is to unmask all the various pretenders at the masked ball.  he even argues that “philosophy’s greatest unmaskers have ended up as figures in the masquerade.” (Ibid., 37)  A real unmasking reveals nothing short of “our animal face,”  and this is the goal of true philosophy and the truth which Humanism must face up to.  Humanists have given up irrational belief in God and replaced it with an equally irrational belief in Humanity.

Section 2: Schopenhauer’s Crux 

Gray sings Schopenhauer's praises to such an extent that one wishes immediately to go out and buy his books and steep oneself in the old misanthrope. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788 – 1860) was a German philosopher known for his atheistic pessimism and philosophical clarity.  He was an eccentric recluse who did not suffer fools gladly.  Such writers as Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Leo Tolstoy and Thomas Mann were deeply influenced by his thought.  He was a reactionary liberal to give his politics a modern title and he was mostly inimical, if not hostile, to romanticism and revolution in all their guises.  In modern psychological terms one would call him a neurotic – he slept with loaded pistols beside his bed.  He never let his barber shave his neck just in case he might let the razor slip and cut the jugular.  For nearly thirty years he followed the same daily routine in the city where he lived – Frankfurt.  He had a hatred of noise and even threw a neighbour down the stairs for disturbing his peace. (I wonder was he Asperger’s?)

Gray picks Schopenhauer out for special study because he claims the philosophy of this eccentric misanthrope is highly inimical both to Christianity and its unmasked son or daughter Humanism:

But the upshot of Schopenhauer’s criticism of Kant is that the Enlightenment was only a secular version of Christianity’s central mistake.  (Ibid., 41)

Schopenhauer argued that our individuality or sense of self is an illusion.  That he spent time seeking or running after that illusion, seems not to have dawned on him.  I was also surprised to learn that our man had read a lot in Eastern religions and philosophy, in Hinduism and Buddhism mainly, and that with them he shared a central belief that “individual selfhood is an illusion.” (Ibid., 43)

Section 3: Nietzsche’s Optimism:

Here Gray gives a rich and uniquely personal understanding of that very conflicted human being (or human animal if we are to take Gray at his word) – Nietzsche or Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche (1844 – 1900).  Sex for Schopenhauer was the only real goal of humankind: “Sex is the ultimate goal of nearly all human effort” and Gray argues that the old misanthrope believed that the sexual urges of mankind cared “nothing for individual well-being or personal autonomy.” (ibid., 43). History itself was in fact meaningless apart from the animal urge in us to survive as long as we can.  Nietzsche was initially attracted to the work of Schopenhauer but was to abandon it soon enough and to stand most of the older philosopher’s thought on its head, apart from his interest in sex, which Nietzsche shared with the old man.  Some scholars argue that Nietzsche was a homosexual [for example, Joachim Kohler argues cogently in his magisterial Zarathustra’s Secret ( Yale University Press, 2002) that Nietzsche’s suppressed homosexuality generated a hatred of Christianity and conventional morality.]  Nietzsche criticised the Schopenhauer’s pessimism and especially his view of history as pessimismGray points out that Christianity has a wonderfully mythic view of history (my words not Gray’s, that is, my interpretation of Gray’s thoughts).  History for Christians has a meaning, that is, it is the history of salvation and the eventual goal of history is redemption of all creation, the acme point of which is humanity.  Needless to say Humanists also have a mythic belief that history is meaningful, that is, that it is a linear representation of inevitable progressGray rejects vehemently both these misrepresentations of history.  Indeed, he rejects history and any philosophy of it because as human animals we are part of the cycles of nature, no more and no less.  In so being we can never stand outside nature whatsoever.

I agree with Gray that Nietzsche was a complex and very conflicted creature.  He was obsessed with religion while denying it with great vehemence all of his life.  Once again (like Carl Gustave Jung and many others) he came from a long line of Lutheran clergymen.  Psychologically he simply could not escape his past, which often results in trying to deny or reject it.  Gray points out that Nietzsche was a small inoffensive man with exquisite manners and was extremely polite, so much so that he was called “the little saint.”  Ironic indeed, then, that Nietzsche was one of the most famous atheists who spent much of his works in philosophy in trying to deny the existence of this God.  In short he was besotted and obsessed by that which he sought to deny.  Indeed, so conflicted was Nietzsche that while he criticized and rejected Schopenhauer’s proposal that pity was an essential virtue for human beings to possess as it taught us to be compassionate and altruistic, he himself was to exemplify in his very being a deep capacity for pity.  So much so that I have long had in my memory, since first reading it many years ago, the famous incident where Nietzsche threw his arms around the neck of an working horse which was being whipped callously by its master in the streets of Turin.  From then on Nietzsche was to succumb to the madness in which he was to die some years later.

In his later writings, Nietzsche was to insist that pity was not the supreme virtue but rather a sign of utter weakness.  He was to become besotted with this idea of weakness that he proposed the turning to the very strength of the human Will.  Life was, indeed, cruel but it was better to glorify the Will than to deny it or to succumb to the espousal of weakness in pity.  To that extent, he proposed a return to all that was essential in the ancient Greek god Dionysus.  This was the god of excess and bounty which could even at times be most cruel. Nietzsche invented the ridiculous figure of the Superman to give his understanding of history some meaning.  If anything Superman in Nietzschean atheism or Nietzschean humanism is no more than another masked animal like the Christ figure at the masquerade of life.

Above I have uploaded a picture I took earlier this evening of the dust jacket of my copy of Joachim Kohler's Zarathustra's Secret.