“If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience. Science and technology are cumulative, whereas ethics and politics deal with recurring dilemmas.” 75
Gray continues his critique of humanism, expanding on the arguments he makes in The Soul of the Marionette and Straw Dogs. Gray argues that material and scientific progress do not cause ethical or moral progress, that humans by their nature are unsatisfied, and that consciousness—the ceaseless chatter within our heads—is the primary burden of humans. It’s a burden that animals, in their silent inner lives, do not have to carry. Humans cannot escape this burden, and the effort of struggling against it is in fact the cause of even greater suffering.
I still feel that Straw Dogs is the most interesting of his books on the topic, though this book was highly enjoyable, provocative, dense with ideas and allusions, and poetic. Any of three would serve as a good introduction to his thoughts on humanism. After reading all these three books, which are really more like chapters of the same book, I’m still not sure how I feel about his arguments, and what they might entail for humans. I am sure that his writing is engaging, and his ideas are worth considering.
Ideas per Page1: 7/10, High
Related Books: The Soul of the Marionette and Straw Dogs, by John Gray
Recommend to Others: Yes, but read Straw Dogs first.
Reread Personally: reread Straw Dogs or other Gray books first.
8 “Faith in progress is a late survival of early Christianity, originating in the message of Jesus, a dissident Jewish prophet who announced the end of time. For the ancient Egyptians as for the ancient Greeks, there was nothing new under the sun. Human history belongs in the cycles of the natural world. The same is true in Hinduism and Buddhism, Daoism and Shinto, and the older parts of the Hebrew Bible. By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs, Christianity – the religion that St Paul invented from Jesus’ life and sayings – founded the modern world.”
73 “Instead, they interpreted the failure of doomsday to arrive as evidence that by waiting and praying throughout the night they had succeeded in preventing it. The confounding of all their expectations only led them to cling more tightly to their faith, and they went on to proselytize for their beliefs all the more fervently.”
76 “In the most general terms, humanism is the idea that the human animal is the site of some kind of unique value in the world.”
80 They [humanists] exalt nature, while insisting that humankind – an accident of nature – can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Plainly absurd, this nonsense gives meaning to the lives of people who believe they have left all myths behind.”
85 “Over the past century, partly as a side-effect of Freud’s work, the normal conflicts of the mind have come to be seen as ailments that can be remedied. For Freud, on the other hand, it is the hope of a life without conflict that ails us. 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.”
86 “Echoing the Christian faith in free will, humanists hold that human beings are – or may someday become – free to choose their lives. They forget that the self that does the choosing has not itself been chosen.”
90 “Instead Freud suggested a way of life based on accepting perpetual unrest. Resignation did not mean shrinking the self to the point where it could live without being thwarted by fate. It meant fortifying the self that human beings could assert themselves against fate.”
105 “how can anyone believe in something they know is not true? … Yet a life based on fictions cannot be impossible, since we live such a life every day. We may not choose the fictions by which we live, or not consciously. Our lives turn on fictions all the same.”
108 “Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom – possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. … this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves.”
108 “For Freud the pursuit of happiness is a distraction from living. It would be better to aim for something different – a type of life in which you do not need a fantasy of satisfaction in order to find being human an interesting and worthwhile experience.”
109 “For Freud there was no true self to be found.”
111 “The idea of self-realization is one of the most destructive of modern fictions. It suggests you can flourish in only one sort of life, or a small number of similar lives, when in fact everybody can thrive in a large variety of ways. … Spending your days writing an obituary of a person you might have been seems an odd way to live.”
David Hume, Selected Writings “…language is by its very nature a communal thing: that is, it expresses never the exact thing but a compromise – that which is common to you, me and everybody.”
144 “You are not an atheist if you deny what theists affirm. You are an atheist if you have no use for the concepts and doctrines of theism.”
146 “…what could not be spoken was more important than anything that could be put into words.”
162 “Whereas silence is for other animals a natural state of rest, for human silence is an escape from inner commotion. By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright. Humans seek silence because they seek redemption from themselves, other animals live in silence because they do not need redeeming.”
166 “For those that cannot bear to live without belief, any faith is better than none. This is the appeal of fundamentalism, which promises to banish the lack of meaning by an act of will.”
182 “Rather than perturbing him, the discovery that there was nothing beneath the surface of things made him all the more determined to enjoy life.”
205 “Mixing a Greek idea of reason as giving access to timeless truths with a Christian view of salvation in history has not produced anything like a coherent synthesis; but the resulting humanism – secular and religious – has formed the central western tradition.”
207 “The willful opening of the mind to the senses is a prelude to events that cannot be made to happen.”
1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.