Straw Dogs by John Gray, 2002 (Second Review)

In humans, as in insect colonies, perception and action go on as if there were a self that directs them, when in fact none exists.  pp. 73

Amazon Link

This is the second review I’ve written of this book (first review).  On the first reading, I focused more on the book’s primary argument: technological and scientific progress are real, but ethical/moral progress is an illusion.  The knowledge and tools humanity has gained persist and accumulate over time, but human nature hasn’t changed, and our new powers simply give us new means to settle old scores.

During the second reading I focused on another current that runs through the book: free will doesn’t exist.  Gray draws on Eastern thought in support of this claim.  The West views the self as pivotal: through our efforts we improve, we civilize the world, we progress.  The Eastern view sees humans as another part of the ecosystem, created and constrained by the background we inhabit.  History is cyclical, with floods balancing droughts, and good and bad stretches replacing one another.  Processes unfold without an individual author—the system itself is the author.

Even after a second read, I’m surprised by how many ideas are fit into this relatively small book, and in a smooth and natural manner.  It’s interesting to consider how lack of self connects to the notion of progress.  I think that is very creative connection, and a useful one.  I feel that the book was just as exciting on the second reading, and I will plan to read it again.

Ideas per Page:1 9/10 (high)

Related Books: The Silence of Animals, Al Qaeda and What it Means to be Modern both by John Gray; Waking Up by Sam Harris; Incognito by David Eagleman

Recommend to Others: Yes

Reread Personally:  Yes, but read some of the books mentioned in this one first

Quotes:

37 As commonly practiced, philosophy is the attempt to find good reasons for conventional beliefs.

61 Very often we are at our most skillful when we are least self-aware.

104 We cannot give up the pretense that being good is something anyone can achieve.  If we did, we would have to admit that, like beauty and intelligence, goodness is a fight of fortune.  We would have to accept that, in the part of our lives where we are most attached to it, freedom of the will is an illusion.  We would have to own up to what we all deny—that being good is good luck.

109-110 we are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply.  Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.

114 Animals in the wild know how to live; they do not need to think or choose.

114 For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving.  For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures.  The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.

126 For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice.  For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.

150 Fernando Pessona writes:

Only if you don’t know what flower, stones, and

rivers are

Can you talk about their feelings.

To talk about the soul of flowers, stones, and rivers,

Is to talk about yourself, your delusions.

Thank God stones are just stones,

And rivers just rivers,

And flowers just flowers.


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.

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