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On Progress and Other Modern Myths

by John Gray

Pub Date: June 4th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-374-22917-7
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Another bucket of cold water splashed in the face of idealism by Gray (European Thought/London School of Economics; Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, 2007, etc.), this time focused on humankind’s stubbornly feral nature.

The author opens with series of stories about human atrocity, drawn from both fiction (Koestler, Conrad) and fact (Europe in the world wars), as if to shock readers into recognizing that the notion of human progress is bunk. “There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized,” he writes. “There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.” It’s a persuasive argument, though Gray doesn’t attack it with the rigor of a philosopher so much as with the breadth of a well-traveled literary scholar, drawing from John Ashbery and Sigmund Freud as much as Wittgenstein and Nietzsche. He connects the idea that mankind is progressively becoming more civilized with other long-lived religious myths (indeed, he describes it as largely a function of Christianity), but this is not another entry in the “angry atheist” literature, and he’s not interested in proofs for or against God. In recognizing that our lives are constructed on fictions, he writes, we acquire a degree of freedom not provided by baseless optimism. He points to the case of British author Llewelyn Powys, gravely ill for much of his adult life, who threw off his sexual and religious shackles and determined to live happily and free of delusions. Gray doesn’t bother with the moral complications of such hedonism; he seeks only to demolish moral certainties, not to reckon with their replacements. However cold his perspective, though, the author brings a liveliness to his prose, augmented by the top-shelf authors he quotes.

The world is all chaos, Gray wants us to know, but he has a good time delivering the message.