John Gray's The Soul of the Marionette: An Enquiry into Human Freedom is a collection of essays that knock the idols of modernity off their perches, one by one, like coconuts at a shy. Pity the person who had to organise this series of salvos into anything approaching a blurb. Attacking everything from Gnosticism to hubris, barbarity to myopia, the golden-tongued Gray writes more like a sizzling undergrad than a professor.
And that's because he actually has something to say. While the press may focus on external threats to Western civilization, such as Islamic extremism, Gray prefers to turn his gaze inwards. This is a book about the roads not taken at each of the important civilizational junctions; about the values not emphasised; about the illusions not indulged; about the knowledge refused a public audience.
On the face of it, Gnosticism hardly sounds like a promising starting line for any book that's attempting to address Modernity's flaws. On the one hand it seems perversely Christian to many who'd prefer to go further back in time and, on the other, it gets short shrift from its main Christian interlocutors: Church historians, who write it off as an odd potlatch of mystery cults, Semitic folklore, Platonism and Christian misunderstandings.
What a surprise, therefore, to discover that it's a movement that is key to understanding the West. In fact, according to Gray, the West is essentially crypto-Gnostic due to the belief, driving the engine rooms of its culture, that it can rise to a "state of conscious innocence... [whereby] freedom is achieved by storming the heavens in an act of metaphysical violence". A vision that, according to Gray, it believes will be realised via science, which will somehow enable the mind to escape the limitations that shape its natural condition.
Gray writes all this off as Faustian chutzpah and repeats his countercultural admiration for the faiths, peoples and civilizations that admit frailty, finitude, violence, absurdity etc. into their systems. "Aware of evil", he writes, "traditional believers know it cannot be expelled from the world by human action". They have noticed the fatal flaw in Western dreams: any higher species must be created by actually existing human beings.
Elsewhere, still mordantly torching shibboleths, Gray employs Leopardi to debunk the teleology of progress, arguing that progress removes illusions; when illusions are removed Man is "denatured"; and every "denatured people is barbarous". He also shares the Italian poet's brilliant insight that "the human mind may decay as human knowledge advances", a bifurcation rarely acknowledged today.
Perhaps the most unusual chapter in the book, which gets to the crux of it all, is that on Hobbes. The English thinker underpins much of modern thought - an ideology with its axis balanced on the notion of the social contract - and Gray bravely dismisses the Royalist, usually considered as the quintessential realist, as "quixotic". The belief that
"humans respond to the threat of violent death by seeking peace" is utter nonsense according to Gray, who refuses to believe such a rational transaction can be responsible for exorcising the demons of nature.
Instead, all that happens is the game changes. "There are many kinds of lethal force that do not lead to immediate death", he writes ominously. Today, violent impulses are sublimated; what we call the long peace is really a new kind of war. Mental health becomes the sacrificial lamb in a society that has resolved to make itself into a kind of machine: a Blakean, malefic thing that with each great leap leaves another part of society (and with it, all that is truly human) obsolescent. If the Industrial Revolution created a lumpenproletariat, today's society is creating a lumpenbourgeoisie. And it may only be a matter of time before the elite becomes irrelevant too.
And even if it does not, "how could a society in which the majority has no productive role possibly be sustainable?" Gray asks. He writes "sustainable" but even if it were, perhaps more pertinently - how could it be morally right? Yet moralism is lost in the circus, the joke Debord described as the "spectacle", which possesses four mutually reinforcing features:
"incessant technological renewal; integration of state and economy; unanswerable lies; and eternal present"
But it's a circus with prison walls for a perimeter. Here the eternal present is perpetually observed and monitored thanks to the nature of electronic traces every transaction, social or otherwise, leaves. Technology has been raised to a plinth of omnipresence and its omnipresence suggests and implies omniscience. And it's no secret that the impression of omniscience has been the model of social control par excellence from the Panopticon onwards.
What led us down the garden path? To reduce Gray's answer to simplicity, it's the Greek tragedian's answer: hubris. Pride has converted a number of follies into conventional wisdom. For example, first, the idea that we are the authors of our own destiny. If we are authors of our lives it is only in retrospect. Second, the idea that science represents a marvellous key to a messianic plane, when really it's a useful method for understanding a little corner of the universe that happens not to be utterly chaotic. Third, the fact that vainly we anthropomorphise evolution, pretending it has an attachment to what are essentially the early Enlightenment values of self-awareness, rationality etc. when in actual fact, its workings are barely distinguishable from unadulterated power. And finally, the idea that our civilization is rational, it is built upon reason not faith, but what could be more mystical than the "equation of the true and the good".
Marcus Aurelius was more clued up. Instead of believing in a God that guaranteed victory to the faithful, or in the metaphysical inevitability of the success of civilization over barbarism, or in a history replete with meaning, the Roman Emperor rallied his troops on the bread of hope alone: a far more honest endeavour. Today, we consider this a counsel of despair; in the ancient world it was considered a sign of health and clarity of mind.