Gray's Anatomy by John GrayGray's Anatomy by John Gray

Gray's Anatomy

byJohn Gray

Paperback | July 7, 2009

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The essential thoughts of today’s most provocative philosopher.

Why is the human reason to blame for the worst crimes of the twentieth century?
Why is progress a pernicious myth?
Why is contemporary atheism just a hangover from Christian faith?

John Gray, author of Straw Dogs and Black Mass, is one of the most original and iconoclastic thinkers of our time. In this pugnacious and brilliant collection of essays from across his career, he smashes through humanity’s most cherished beliefs to overturn our view of the world and our place in it.

From Gray’s Anatomy:
“If humans are different from other animals, it is chiefly in being governed by myths, which are not creations of the will but creatures of the imagination.”

“All prevailing philosophies embody the fiction that human life can be altered at will. Better aim for the impossible, they say, than submit to fate. Invariably, the result is a cult of human self-assertion that soon ends in farce.”
John Gray is Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics. From 1998 to 2007 he was Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He is the acclaimed author of Black Mass: How Religion Led the World into Crisis, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, and False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitali...
Title:Gray's AnatomyFormat:PaperbackDimensions:496 pages, 8.5 × 5.5 × 1.3 inPublished:July 7, 2009Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385667884

ISBN - 13:9780385667883


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IntroductionThe law of chaos is the law of ideas,Of improvisations and seasons of belief.Wallace Stevens, ‘Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas’The world changed out of all recognition during the period in which the writings that are collected here were written. When the earliest of them appeared, over thirty years ago, the international scene was shaped by a struggle between two power blocs — a geopolitical freeze that was mirrored in the realm of ideas. Europe was divided along the boundaries established during the Second WorldWar, Russia was a Communist state and China ruled by Mao. The recent wave of globalization had hardly begun. The rise of Asia was yet to come, and America was by far the most powerful country. In Britain Labour was negotiating a bailout from national bankruptcy with the International Monetary Fund, and Margaret Thatcher was leader of the Opposition. The political classes took it as given that some version of the post-war consensus on the mixed economy would remain in place, while the intelligentsia were occupied in languid disputes over the varieties of Marxism.Behind this shadow play there were beliefs no one doubted. Liberal democracy was spreading inexorably; the advance of science would enable the affluence of some countries to be enjoyed by all; religion was in irreversible retreat. The path might not be straight or easy, but humanity was moving towards a common destination. Nothing could stand in the way of a future in which ‘Western liberal values’ were accepted everywhere.Not much more than thirty years later all these certainties have melted away. The Soviet state has ceased to exist and Europe has been reunified; but Russia has not adopted liberal democracy. In the years after his death in 1976 China shook off Mao’s inheritance and adopted a type of capitalism — without accepting any Western model of government or society. The advance of globalization continued, with the result that America has lost its central position. The US is in steep decline, its system of finance capitalism in a condition of collapse and its vast military machine effectively paid for by Chinese funding of the federal deficit. All mainstream parties in democratic countries converged on a free-market model at just the moment in history when that model definitively ceased to be viable. With the world’s financial system facing a crisis deeper than any since the 1930s, the advancing states are now authoritarian regimes. The bipolar world has not been followed by one ruled by ‘the last superpower’. Instead we have a world that nobody rules.The growth of knowledge has continued and accelerated. At the same time economic expansion has come up against finite resources, with peaking energy supplies and accelerating climate change threatening industrial growth. Rival claims on scarce resources are inflaming wars around the world, and these resource wars are intertwined with wars of faith. Far from fading away religion is once again at the heart of human conflict.If the global scene at the start of the twenty-first century is different from any that was commonly anticipated, this was only to be expected. A weakness for uplifting illusions has shaped opinion throughout this period. No doubt intolerance of reality is innate in the human mind. Every age has a hallucinatory image of itself, which persists until it is dispelled by events. Secular thinkers imagined they had left religion behind, when in truth they had only exchanged religion for a humanist faith in progress that was further from reality. There is nothing wrong in taking refuge in a comforting fantasy. Why deny rationalists the consolations of faith — however childish their faith may be? The pretence of reason is part of the human comedy. But the decline of religion that occurred in the twentieth century was accompanied by the rise of faith-based politics, a continuation of religion by other means that has proved as destructive as religion at its worst.Lenin’s embalmed body and the saviour-cult orchestrated around Hitler are examples of the twentieth-century sanctification of power. Nazism and Communism were political religions, each with its ersatz shrines and rituals. The Nazi paradise was confined to a small section of the species, with the rest consigned to slavery or extermination, while that of the Bolsheviks was open to everyone — apart from those marked down for liquidation as remnants of the past, such as peasants and bourgeois intellectuals. In both cases terror was part of the programme from the start. Humans are violent animals; there is nothing new in their fondness for killing. The peculiar flavour of modern mass murder comes from the fact that it has so often been committed with the aim of creating a new world.It is important to understand that faith-based violence has not been limited to totalitarian regimes. Starting with the French Jacobins, it has been a pervasive feature of modern democracy. It is not only revolutionaries that have turned politics into a crusade. Liberal humanists who say they aim for gradual improvement have done the same. Like the utopian projects of the far left and right, the liberal ideal of a world of self-governing democracies has spilt blood on a colossal scale.Even in Britain — supposedly the home of a sceptical, pragmatic approach to government — politics has been understood in terms that derive from religion. The Thatcher experiment is an example. I cannot count the number of times people have asked why I ‘stopped believing’ in Thatcherism. The assumption is that there was once a body of thought that could be described as ‘Thatcherism’ — something I never encountered as a participant observer at the time. More to the point, the question assumes that politics is like religion — some parts of Western Christianity, at any rate — in requiring belief in a creed or doctrine. My view was quite different. Politics is the art of devising temporary remedies for recurring evils — a series of expedients, not a project of salvation. Thatcher was one of these expedients.The Thatcher era began as a response to local difficulties, only to end by producing another political religion. To be sure, true believers gathered around Thatcher from the start. The right-wing think-tanks of London of the early 1970s were littered with former Communists and Trotskyites who had lost their belief in Marxism but not the need for a political faith. The trend was exemplified in figures such as Sir Alfred Sherman — a founder of the Centre for Policy Studies and an early adviser of Thatcher whose faith in the free market followed the same doctrinaire footsteps as the faith in central planning he had as a Communist in the 1930s. For Sherman and others like him the triumph of the free market was pre-ordained.In the context of the Cold War these enthusiasts had their uses. Their doctrinal turn of mind offered clues to Soviet thinking, in which ideology was surprisingly persistent. The USSR contained fewer convinced Marxists than the average Western university. Even so Soviet perceptions of the world were heavily filtered by Leninist ideas, and ex-Communists who shared this framework were better guides to the Soviet mind than Western specialists. None of the Sovietologists grasped the illegitimacy of the Soviet system, or suspected it might suddenly implode. When the dissident writer Andrei Amalrik, author of Will the Soviet Union Survive until 1984? (1970), raised the prospect of its collapse his analysis was written off as wildly unrealistic. Yet he was closer to reality than the Western experts who were declaring the USSR unshakable right upto the moment when it collapsed.As an anti-Communist I shared Amalrik’s belief that the Soviet state was not a permanent fixture. During the Cold War, respectable opinion viewed anti-Communism as a grubby and at times shady business, and there are many who still see it that way. I am unrepentant. The defeat of Communism was as worthwhile a goal as the destruction of Nazism. The predominant Western view of the Soviet system was a mix of progressive wishful thinking and cultural prejudice. Western opinion attributed the totalitarian character of the system to Stalin, and then to Russian traditions of tyranny. Lenin — the system’s true architect, and a faithful disciple of Marx — was absolved of responsibility. The fact that Soviet repression was from the beginning on a scale not dreamt of in the Russia of the tsars was never admitted. This was not a position confined to the far left. It was maintained throughout the intelligentsia, for whom the only permissible criticism of the Soviet system was that it was not authentically Marxian.Western Marxism was the subject of the piece originally published in 1989 in the Royal Society of Philosophy journal Philosophy that is reprinted as Chapter 15 of the present volume. The Marxist linguist whose study of the labour theory of meaning the piece analyses is an invention, not a real figure. Revai’s account of the primitive accumulation and expropriation of meaning, of surplus meaning and the atom of meaning, the ergoneme, are also invented. These absurd notions were meant to mimic the mumbo-jumbo of Western Marxism, but the parody escaped many readers. (Amusingly, Richard Dawkins has long promoted a rather similar theory of the basic unit of meaning — the meme — and not as a joke.) Among the many people who commented on the piece to me, only one — the late Isaiah Berlin — immediately recognized it as a spoof. When I disclosed that the review was a fiction — as the title of the piece indicated — I was not believed. It is true the fiction contained some elements of fact. Stalin did publish a pamphlet on linguistics in which he considered the position of deaf mutes, concluding that they lack anything that might be called a language. It is also true — though this fact is not mentioned in the piece — that during the purges members of deaf-mute associations were arrested and shot, or sent to the Gulag, after being found guilty of engaging in anti-Soviet conspiracies through the use of sign language. Events such as these are too far-fetched to be included in a spoof.Anti-Communism had the merit of being a response to actual conditions. Obviously, it was not free markets that brought Communism down. Nationalism and religion in the Baltic States, Poland and Afghanistan, along with Reagan’s technically flawed but politically effective Star Wars programme, destroyed the Soviet state. Equally, though the fact eluded most people at the time, a period of profound upheaval was bound to follow. As I wrote in October 1989, commenting on Francis Fukuyama’s announcement of the end of history in the neo-conservative journal National Interest in August of that year:Ours is an era in which political ideology, liberal as much as Marxist, has a rapidly dwindling leverage on events, and more ancient, more primordial forces, nationalist and religious, and soon, perhaps, Malthusian, are contesting with each other . . . If the Soviet Union does indeed fall apart, that beneficent catastrophe will not inaugurate a new era of post-historical harmony, but instead a return to the classical terrain of history, a terrain of great-power rivalries, secret diplomacies, and irredentist claims and wars.Inevitably, given the prevailing view of things, this diagnosis — which can be found here in Chapter 16 — was seen as doom-mongering. In a delicious inversion, the observation that history was continuing its course was dismissed as apocalyptic. The truly apocalyptic notion that history had ended was embraced as realism.It was only after the fall of Thatcher that ‘Thatcherism’ appeared on the scene. In the early days one of her close advisers used to refer to her as ‘the reality principle in skirts’. Up to a point it was an apt description. Thatcher confronted the collapse of post-war British corporatism and imposed a new settlement on the country that would last a generation. Yet her initial programme was not devised in any right-wing academy of fine ideas. It was a succession of improvisations, whose aims were not much different from those that Labour had tried and failed to achieve in the late 1970s. Her first goal was curbing union power, with the defeat of inflation a close second.Both were feasible objectives, and were in fact achieved. The semi-imaginary Britain Thatcher wanted to restore — a country of unshackled markets and conservative values — was further away than ever. Free markets overturn established ways of doing things, including traditional moralities. The revolution in the economy Thatcher wanted did take place, but the country it produced had no resemblance to the chintzy replica of 1950s Britain she had envisioned. Old hierarchies were dissolved, along with the monoculture of post-war Britain. Conservatism ceased to exist as a coherent political project, and the Conservative Party was forced to make peace with the society that, contrary to her intentions, Thatcher had helped bring into being. The pleasantly ironic upshot of her experiment was the liberal Britain that exists today — a country more diverse and more tolerant than in the past, if in some ways also more fragmented.If Thatcher made Britain in some ways more liberal it was as an unintended consequence of pursuing other ends. The doctrinaires who invented ‘Thatcherism’ — the word, incidentally, was a coinage of the left — believed that free markets could be installed, throughout the world, by conscious design. Like Thatcher herself, they misread the fall of Communism. Certainly it was a major advance. In the authoritarian state established by Putin Russians are freer and living standards are higher than at any time in the history of the Soviet Union. That is why Putin is probably the most popular Russian leader since the last tsars. At the same time, however, the fall of Communism was also a defeat for the West.Lenin and the Bolsheviks aimed to realize Marx’s utopian project, while turning Russia into a modernWestern state along the way. The neo-liberals who came to power under Yeltsin opted for a type of market Leninism rather than for central planning, but they toowanted to modernize Russia onWestern lines. Central planning was replaced, but not by the free market. A new type of command economy controlled by a shifting coalition of oligarchs and the intelligence services emerged instead. Putin’s Russia is not a regime committed to global expansion; it has abandoned the militant political religion that underpinned the former Soviet Union. Instead it is reasserting its claims over what it considers its historic sphere of influence, while using the energy resources it controls to promote its strategic interests. In geopolitical terms Russia is once again what it has been for most of its history, a Eurasian empire warily positioned between East and West.The end of the Cold War was followed by a period of triumphal delusion, with the victorious powers acting as missionaries for their own version of political religion — a belief in democracy as a universal panacea. It was not the first time something like this had happened. A similar response underpinned the ill-fated European settlement that was put in place after the First World War. Woodrow Wilson welcomed the collapse of the Habsburg Empire as leading the way to a Europe of self-governing nations. What followed was an era of xenophobia, ethnic cleansing and ultimately genocide.Many circumstances led to disaster in inter-war Europe, but the savage logic of national self-determination was an integral part of the process. Enabling rulers to be held accountable and changed without violence, democratic government has definite advantages. But democracy does not always expand freedom, or even prevent atrocities. For the minority populations of Eastern and Central Europe the ramshackle empire of the Habsburgs was a protector. Joseph Roth, one of the most perceptive inter-war European writers, observed that it had come to be believed that ‘every individual must now be a member of a particular race or nation’ — in other words, a member of a groupdefined by the exclusion of others. A Jew from the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, Roth viewed the spread of ideas of national self-determination with foreboding. If the Habsburg monarchy collapsed, he feared, the result would be a type of modern barbarism. Mocked as a reactionary, he foresaw Europe’s future with a clarity possessed by none of his progressive contemporaries.The highly civilized Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the brutal despotism of Saddam Hussein have very little in common. Saddam’s Iraq was a modern state, modelled on the Stalinist Soviet Union, while the Habsburg monarchy was a pre-modern survival. Saddam ruled with a degree of violence unimaginable in Habsburg Europe. But when these very different regimes were overthrown the results were not dissimilar. Replacing a secular dictatorship in Iraq with Islamist democracy has left women and gays, religious minorities and even the Shia majority at risk as never before. Outside the Kurdish Zone where a separate state has been set up, Iraqis are less free than at any point in the country’s history.Another debacle is under way in Afghanistan. The current Afghan war has been described as unwinnable and yet too important to lose. Certainly it cannot be won, if only because it has no achievable objectives. Here it resembles some earlier exercises in imperialism. When they expanded into Africa, Asia and Latin America, European colonists claimed to be advancing the cause of civilization. The process was in fact extremely violent, and at times overtly genocidal. In South-west Africa (present-day Namibia) at the start of the twentieth century, somewhere between half and three-quarters of the Herero people were exterminated under German colonial rule. The methods used included forced labour, starvation, mass poisoning and shooting, and death by disease while incarcerated in concentration camps (where captured Hereros also perished while being subjected to medical experiments designed to prove their racial inferiority). For these colonists subjugated peoples were expendable resources — if they ceased to be useful, they were destroyed. But imperialism of this kind was not only an exercise in predatory barbarism. Quite often it was also absurd.In Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, the subject of the essay that appears as Chapter 25, Marlow recounts how the French, who ‘had one of their wars going on thereabouts’, anchored a warshipoff the African coast. The ship was shelling the bush:In the empty immensity of earth, sky, and water, there she was, incomprehensible, firing into a continent. Pop, would go one of the six-inch guns; a small flame would dart and vanish, a little white smoke would disappear, a tiny projectile would give a feeble screech — and nothing happened. Nothing could happen. There was a touch of insanity in the proceedings, a sense of lugubrious drollery in the sight . . .Afghanistan is being shelled from planes and helicopters whose firepower far exceeds that of the French warship. Many civilian casualties will be inflicted and the war will go on, but otherwise nothing will happen. Nothing can happen.Promoting freedom by force is not so much impractical as nonsensical. Liberal fundamentalists believe freedom can be packaged into a system of rights that can be delivered anywhere in the world, but as the history of the West demonstrates, there is more to freedom, and for that matter to civilization, than a regime of rights. A society can be civilized without recognizing rights, while one based on rights may be tainted with barbarism. Austria—Hungary abolished torture in 1776 as the result of an edict by Maria Theresa, an absolute monarch. More than two hundred years later, the leader of the world’s preeminent liberal democracy licensed the practice as part of a worldwide crusade to defend human rights. At the same time habeas corpus — a defence against arbitrary power dating back to medieval times — was indefinitely suspended. In effect the US has undergone a regime shift in which constitutional restraints on executive power that were in force during much of its history no longer apply. With a new president in charge the old regime may be restored, but there can be no guarantee. Regimes come and go.The renormalization of torture illustrates a theme running throughout the pieces collected here. Progress in science and technology is a fact, whereas progress in ethics and politics is a fiction. There are universal human goods and evils; the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century was a genuine gain. But advance in civilization is not like the growth of knowledge, which is cumulative and irreversible. Old evils return, usually with new names. What we see as unalterable features of civilized life vanish in the blink of an eye.When ‘Torture: a modest proposal’, reprinted as Chapter 21 of the present volume, was first published in the New Statesman on 17 February 2003, a few weeks before the invasion of Iraq, many readers viewed it as an exercise in satire without much topical bite. Not all of the readers noticed it was a satire. Despite appearing under the title ‘A Modest Proposal for Preventing Torturers in Liberal Democracy from Being Abused, and for Recognizing their Benefit to the Public (with Apologies to Jonathan Swift)’ and featuring a photo-shop portrait of me wearing a Swift-like hairpiece, readers telephoned the magazine to cancel their subscription.At the time I was struck by the loss of cultural memory these calls revealed. Whatever the merits of my own effort, Swift’s Modest Proposal — suggesting that Irish families suffering from poverty could improve their condition by selling off their children to be eaten by the rich — was once the most celebrated satire in the English language. The indignant calls to the magazine suggested this was no longer the case. The argument that a universal right to be tortured should be enforced, with states that refuse to recognize it being subject to regime change, failed to arouse their suspicions. The proposal that torturers need counselling to overcome the psychological traumas that go with their profession sparked no sense of absurdity. Months and years later I continued to receive protests taking me to task for my indecent suggestions.By that time reality had overtaken satire. The abuses of Abu Ghraib had been committed, exposed, denied, condemned and forgotten — consigned to the memory hole where awkward facts disappear in Orwell’s 1984. The techniques used to torture Iraqi detainees — sexual assault, simulated electrocution and attacks by dogs, among others — were no longer employed, as far as anyone could tell, in American centres of confinement. Redefined as stressful interrogation techniques, water-boarding and sensory deprivation were adopted as the methods of choice. An administration lauded by neo-conservatives for its stand against moral relativism ditched a moral prohibition that only a few years ago was regarded as absolute. Torture was taken up as a weapon in the fight for human rights, and the liberal torturer became a defining figure of the age.My modest proposal was written in the belief that when Iraq was invaded torture would be used. The French had used it in Algeria and the Soviets in Afghanistan, in each case on a vast scale. It was on the cards that the Americans, who were fighting a similar neo-colonial war in Iraq, would also use it. The idea that torture might be needed in the ‘war on terror’ was in the air. Professor Alan Dershowitz, the distinguished Harvard civil libertarian, had already presented his elegantly reasoned arguments for ‘torture warrants’. Tony Blair — an exceptionally talented politician with the priceless gift of never doubting his own sincerity — sold the Iraq war as the beginning of a liberal world order in which military intervention would be used to enforce human rights. For many liberals it was an easy sell. Toppling Saddam was part of the war against tyranny, a chapter in the story of human emancipation. If torture aids the noble cause of progress, how can any enlightened person fail to support it?The ironies here are many layered. The result of a long campaign begun over two hundred years ago by Montesquieu and Voltaire, the prohibition of torture is one of the genuine achievements of the Enlightenment. Yet today partisans of Enlightenment values defend torture as part of the global struggle to defend Enlightenment values against Islamist fundamentalism. Militant liberal interventionists and belligerent neo-conservatives have been prepared to relax the prohibition on the ground that it may be necessary for the continuation of progress.There are precedents for this position. A previous generation of Enlightenment militants was also ready to use torture as a means to progress. Lenin and Trotsky made the methodical use of terror the basis of Soviet power. Lenin’s ‘Hanging Order’ of December 1918 instructed that capital punishment — which Kerensky’s Provisional Government had abolished — be used on peasants who resisted grain requisitioning, specifying that the hangings take place in full public view. Trotsky defended shooting hostages in the Russian civil war, dismissing criticism as ‘Quaker—vegetarian chatter’. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky ever questioned the legitimacy of torture, which the Soviet regime used routinely from the time it came to power. For these progressives torturewas an essential weapon in the cause of humanity.Neo-cons and liberals of the militant tendency who defend the practice of torture are continuing an authentic Enlightenment tradition. Lenin was not mistaken in seeing himself as continuing a European revolutionary project. Soviet Russia and Maoist China were Enlightenment regimes in which progress and terror marched side by side. Even the Nazis were able to invoke a nineteenth-century Enlightenment tradition of ‘scientific racism’ to rationalize their crimes.Of course the Enlightenment was a highly contradictory movement. It contained thinkers such as Spinoza, who despite his faith in reason knew that humans would always live by illusions; sceptics such as David Hume, for whom history was the working out of chance events; Schopenhauer, who used the work of Kant — the supreme Enlightenment philosopher — to argue that history is a kind of dream; and Freud — the greatest twentieth-century Enlightenment thinker — who showed that humans could only ever be partially sane. But it was the Enlightenment belief in progress that had mass appeal, and here religion comes back into the picture. Like much else in secular thought the idea of progress is a legacy of Christianity.Most of the religions that have ever existed lack the idea of salvation. In animism, which is the primordial religion, humans are part of the natural world; they do not need deliverance from it. Even among salvation religions there are many visions of what salvation involves. Pre-Christian Europe contained cults such as the Orphics, who saw it as release from the burden of transmigration — a view also found among Hindus and Buddhists. For Manicheans and Gnostics, it meant emancipation from the material universe.The belief that salvation is a type of historical event is an innovation, most likely originating around three thousand years ago with the Persian prophet Zoroaster. The belief that history is a battle between good and evil that good can win derives from Zoroastrian traditions. So does the belief, which is unknown in ancient Hebrew thought, in an approaching end-time. For Jesus, the heterodox Jewish prophet from whose teachings Paul invented the Christian religion, salvation meant a new world created by God in a final battle with evil. Despite Augustine’s attempt to defuse this millenarian myth it persisted into medieval times, helping make the Middle Ages an era of constant warfare. In modern times the belief that God could defeat evil was translated into secular terms, and became a strand in the Enlightenment. Substitute for God a divinized humanity, and you have the myth that lies behind radical secular politics from the Jacobins onwards.The impact of this vision went far beyond revolutionary movements. It also produced meliorism — the faith in gradual improvement of liberal humanists, who although they deny any belief in a single, world-transforming event still believe that the world can be remade by humanaction. Until some time around the second half of the eighteenth century no one believed ‘humanity’ could fashion the future.Whenthis belief began to spread it was not, as secular humanists like to think, a departure from Christian religion. The Enlightenment was hostile to Christianity, but a Christian framework still shaped the view of history adopted by most Enlightenment thinkers. Ancient Greek and Roman humanists, such as the hedonist philosopher Epicurus and his disciple Lucretius, rejected the religions of their time (without denying the existence of the gods); but their goal was to achieve tranquillity by withdrawing from the world, not to change it. They had no dreams of universal human emancipation. The world-transforming hopes of modern humanism derive not from these ancient thinkers but from Christianity, with its promise that salvation is open to all.There have been times when belief in progress has been a civilizing force. Before it is anything else civilization is the restraint of violence, and it was the belief in progress that inspired the Enlightenment thinkers who began the campaign for a ban on torture. But it was also belief in progress that fuelled many of the crimes of Communism and colonialism, and which energized the liberal struggle for self-determination that helped release ethnic savagery in inter-war Europe. Another version of the progressive faith licenses torture in the ‘war on terror’. In its belief that violence can renew society Islamism is a prototypical modernist movement; it is not by accident that Islamists so often use ideas lifted from Lenin. Yet Islamism is not a threat of the order of Communism or Nazism, and there is no reason why it cannot be contained.What is worth defending in liberal societies is not their belief in progress. As I argue in the first of the pieces collected here, originally published in my book Two Faces of Liberalism (2000), it is the practice of toleration — in other words, the attempt to achieve a civilized modus vivendi between different ways of life. The trouble with modus vivendi is that it demands a stoical commitment that may be lacking. Faced with the long haul of civilization there will be many who find barbarism more exciting.At present the most powerful decivilizing force is resource war, which is ultimately a by-product of human population growth. The perennially unpopular Thomas Malthus is featured in the earliest of these essays, ‘John Stuart Mill and the idea of progress’, published in 1976 and appearing here as Chapter 2, while a Malthusian argument also features in ‘An agenda for Green conservatism’ (1993), reprinted here as Chapter 24. As Mill argued, it is only when human numbers are controlled that progress in science can be matched by lasting improvement in human affairs. A society in which scientific advance is used to enhance the quality of life rather than increase production or population could be more humanly fulfilling than any that exists today.Since the essay on Green conservatism was written environmentalism has moved from the fringes of politics on to the centre ground in many countries. In Britain Green ideas have been part of the reinvention of the Conservative Party. But population control remains a taboo, and the stationary-state economy I advocated a decade and a half ago seems to me now just another utopia. As the American paleo-anthropologist and poet Loren Eiseley noted in 1969: ‘Basically man’s planetary virulence can be ascribed to just one thing: a rapid ascent, particularly during the last three centuries, of an energy ladder so great that the line on the chart representing it would be almost vertical.’ Human expansion over the past few centuries is a byproduct of fossil fuels. Now these fuels are running out or are too dirty to use safely, and the energy-intensive civilization that enabled the spike in human numbers is no longer viable. A low-energy society using high-tech devices such as nuclear fusion and the artificial synthesis of food is theoretically possible, but humans have overshot the planet’s capacity to support them. Whatever is done now cannot alter that fact.A global resource war is already under way. The first Gulf conflict of 1990—91 was an oil war and nothing else. The conflict in Iraq is also in part an energy war, with the US and its allies, Iraq’s several communities and Iran scrambling to secure control of the country’s oil. So too are conflicts in post-Soviet regions such as the Caucasus and Central Asia. Again, water wars are brewing in many parts of the world. Behind the incessant rant about democracy and rights it is resource wars that are shaping the future.A pervasive and probably incurable unreality permeates contemporary politics and culture. The record of the past century shows that incremental change is rare, whereas revolutionary upheaval is normal. Time and again entire societies have vanished and whole ways of life have been extinguished. Yet even the most radical critics of contemporary societies seem to believe their own societies are immortal. It does not occur to them that their civilization may simply disappear as so many others have done in the past. Scientific and technological advance makes this more rather than less likely.The belief that knowledge is intrinsically benign is perhaps the definitive modern myth. The pacification of the world by canals and railways, the power of radio and television to conjure away tyrants, the role of the Internet in giving birth to a peaceful world — these and many other whimsical hopes have all foundered on the same intractable fact. Knowledge advances, while the human animal stays the same. Homo rapiens will not cease to be predatory and destructive, nor will Homo religiosus cease to pursue the intimations of faith.Contemporary humanism is a religion that lacks the insight into human frailty of traditional faiths. In envisioning the universe as the work of a divine person Western monotheism has always been anthropocentric, but it has preserved a sense of mystery, the insight that the nature of things is finally unknowable. In contrast secular rationalists have promoted a type of solipsism. Like the Tlo¨ nists of Borges’s fable, examined in Chapter 5, they think the real world and their intellectual constructions are — or can be made to be — identical. Hence the ornate theories of justice devised by credulous philosophers, the elaborate systems of incentives designed by bien-pensant economists and the recondite schemes for taxing emissions advanced by Greens — just the latest of many attempts to reorder human life by the use of reason.Humankind is not a collective agent that can decide its destiny. If humans are different from other animals it is chiefly in being governed by myths, which are not creations of the will but creatures of the imagination. Emerging unbidden from subterranean regions, they rule the lives of those they possess. Many of the worst crimes of the last century were the work of people possessed by what they believed to be reason. Science is believed to confer a superior rationality on its initiates, but science cannot make us into a rational animal of the kind imagined by humanist philosophers. Humans can anthropomorphize anything, except themselves.A little realism would surely be useful. Accepting that we are flawed and our problems not fully soluble need not be paralysing; it could make us more flexible and resourceful. But no realist will try to convert the world. The myth-free civilization of secular rationalism is itself the stuff of myth. Myths are fictions, which cannot be true or false; but fictions can be more or less truthful depending on how they capture human experience. No traditional myth is as untruthful as the modern myth of progress. All prevailing philosophies embody the fiction that human life can be altered at will. Better aim for the impossible, they say, than submit to fate. Invariably, the result is a cult of human self-assertion that soon ends in farce.The line of thinking that is traced in this book runs in an opposite direction — not only in questioning the idea of progress but also, and more fundamentally, in rejecting the idea that it is only through action that life can be meaningful. Politics is only a small part of human existence, and the human animal only a very small part of the world. Science and technology have given us powers we never had before, but not the ability to refashion our existence as we wish. Poetry and religion are more realistic guides to life.From one angle the writings collected here can be read as a vivisection of contemporary belief, and some readers are sure to demand a replacement for the creeds that have been dissected. In the current climate of needy uncertainty this is an inevitable reaction, but it also misses the point. In our everyday dealings we all rely on a kind of animal faith in the trustworthiness of things. But belief is dangerous in politics, while the core of religion has never been doctrinal. The life of the spirit is not a matter of subscribing to a set of beliefs, and only people bent on converting the world trouble themselves with creeds. The obsession of secular rationalists with true belief is an inheritance from Christian traditions deformed by Greek philosophy, which from Socrates onwards preached the fanciful dogma that reason, virtue and the good life are, in the end, one and the same. Keats’s negative capability — ‘being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and certainty’ — seems to me a more interesting way to live, and more likely to yield glimpses of truth.The point of showing the flimsiness of all that is seemingly solid is not to come upwith an immovable truth, and persuade the reader to accept it. Persuasion is a missionary enterprise, the goal of which is conversion. Instead the aim is to present a record of what one observer has seen, which readers can use as they will.

Table of Contents


Part One
Liberalism: An Autopsy
1 Modus vivendi
2 John Stuart Mill and the idea of progress
3 Santayana’s alternative
4 Oakeshott as a liberal
5 Notes towards a definition of the political thought of Tlon
6 Isaiah Berlin: the value of decency
7 George Soros and the open society

Part Two
The Euthanasia of Conservatism
8 Hayek as a conservative
9 A conservative disposition
10 The strange death of Tory England
11 Tony Blair, neo-con
12 Margaret Thatcher and the euthanasia of Conservatism

Part Three
From Post-Communism to Deglobalization
13 The system of ruins
14 Cultural origins of Soviet Communism
15 Western Marxism: a fictionalist deconstruction
16 The end of history, again?
17 What globalization is not
18 The world is round

Part Four
Enlightenment and Terror
19 The original modernizers
20 The Jacobins of Washington
21 Torture: a modest proposal
22 A modest defence of George W. Bush
23 Evangelical atheism, secular Christianity

Part Five
After Progress
24 An agenda for Green conservatism
25 Joseph Conrad, our contemporary
26 Theodore Powys and the life of contemplation
27 Homo rapiens and mass extinction
28 A report to the Academy
29 The body disassembled in Damien Hirst
30 As it is


Editorial Reviews

Praise for Black Mass:
A Globe and Mail Best Book

“Steely-eyed, powerful, unhinging and insightful.”
The Globe and Mail