Interview with a writer: John Gray

22 February 2013

In his new book The Silence of Animals, the philosopher John Gray explores why human beings continue to use myth to give purpose to their lives. Drawing from the material of writers such as J.G. Ballard, Joseph Conrad, Ford Madox Ford, John Ashbery, Wallace Stevens and others, Gray looks at how we can reinvent meaning in our lives through a variety of myths and different moments in history.

Gray refutes that humanity is marching forward to progress, where utopian ideals of civilisation and enlightenment are the end goals. He sees human beings as incapable of moving beyond their primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts, particularly when factors beyond their control make them more fearful.

I spent two hours with Gray at his publishers’ office in London, drinking tea, discussing philosophy, history and literature. Our conversation covered a wide number of key thinkers, from both the ancient and modern world. He began by talking about one of his literary heroes, the late J.G. Ballard.

Why did you decide to include J.G. Ballard in this book, as an example of someone who uses myth as a central theme in his writing?

Well what I like about his writing is the lyricism: they are full of the most beautiful images. Ballard always said he wanted to be a painter, but didn’t have the talent. But his books are galleries of images. The way I talk about him in The Silence of Animals definitely reflects that. The ability he had was to turn scenes of desolation into beauty. When he walked as a child into a ruined and empty casino [in Shanghai in the 1930s], he said it was like wandering into something from the Arabian Nights. To him it was a realm of magic. What he was able to do from that experience was to conjure beauty out of it. That I believe is the power of myth.

In your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

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Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere.

What is your own relationship with religion?

I don’t belong to a religion. In fact I would have to be described as an atheist. But I’m friendly to religion on the grounds that it seems to me to be distinctively human, and it has produced many good things. But you see these humanists or rationalists who seem to hate this distinctively human feature. This to me seems to me very odd. These evangelical atheists say things such as: religion is like child abuse, that if you had no religious education, there would be no religion. It’s completely absurd.

You also say that ‘atheism does not mean rejecting belief in God, but up a belief in language as anything other than practical convenience.’ What are you getting at here?

I was referring to Fritz Mauthner, who wrote a four-volume history of atheism. He was an atheist who thought that theism was an obsessive attachment to the constructions of language: that the idea of God was a kind of linguistic ideal. So that atheism meant not worshipping that ideal. But he took that as just an example of a more general truth: that there is a danger in worshiping the constructions of language. Of course religions like Christianity are partially to blame for this.  But for most of their history, these so called creedal faiths didn’t define themselves by doctrine. Instead they had strong traditions of what’s called Apophatic theology: where you cannot use language to describe God.

Would you call yourself an existentialist? 

No I think that carries too much baggage. I’m a sceptic, but in a positive sense. I don’t mean just standing back from belief, and not having any. But exploring different views of things that have been part of the human world: like the views of the pagan philosophers, with a view to seeing what benefit they can be to us.

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

Well there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with.  Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve.

In one part of the book you ask why humans have such a need for meaning. You’re a philosopher: isn’t meaning important for you?

Well knowledge is important. But I’m not sure if finding a true meaning is. But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality. Even Epicurus said: When we exist death is not, and when death exists we are not. What he was getting at was that we have a different sense of time that other animals don’t have. If we have the idea of our mortality then we see our lives in a different way because we think we see them as a single coherent story.

You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?

What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.

The Silence of Animals by John Gray is published by Penguin.

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Show comments
  • Suresh Dogra

    This is to give entry to religion through a backdoor. John Gray seems to be saying: There is no God, therefore, believe in God. He dwells on the profound meaningfulness of religious myths. But forgets that these myths derive their force from the doctrinal structures underpinning them which the religious communities believe have the backing of a supernatural beings. Homer used the Greek myths believing in the literal existence of the gods and goddesses who presided over the fate of his heroes. if there is no God, the myths will still be meaningful but in the same way as Aesop’s stories or The Arabian Nights.

  • scratphd

    Excellent interview.

  • pearlsandoysters

    Great conversation. I am not immediately tempted to garb the book from the shelf, but it seems to be a good read. The author speculates in a very well informed and non-partisan way, which is a huge relief after hearing the shrill voices of the humanists of all stripes and hues. The calm reflection on issues and genuine speculation deserves to be heard and read.

  • Falco

    Ludwig Gumplowicz (1838–1909), best known for his pioneer work in establishing sociology as a social science, neither believed that there is such a thing as indefinite social progress. He even suggested that the practical value of sociology may be to save mankind from wasting time and energy on futile schemes of Utopian reform.

  • Luke Lea

    “Outbred populations don’t really understand inbred ones at all. Inbred ones see outbred ones as naive and gullible.”

    See ‘Whatever Happened to the Tribes of Europe?’

  • Falco

    In November 1889, the Viennese political economist and journalist Dr. Theodor Hertzka published “Freiland: Ein soziales Zukunftsbild,” a novelistic account of the formation of a colony of Europeans in East Africa meant to illustrate his solution of the “social problem.”

    The paradox of modern capitalism, as Hertzka saw it, lay in the fact that consumption continually failed to keep pace with the ever expanding productive capacity of the modern industrial economy, creating crises of overproduction even in the midst of widespread poverty and want. Freiland depicts a new economic system in which free access to capital (which cannot be owned, but can be used by anyone) and universal availability of production information stimulate the rapid and tandem expansion of production and consumption, leading to universal prosperity.

  • John Kelleher

    When will the world of journalism get the use of the word refute right? In the introduction here it is not only used wrongly but ungrammatically! Refute means to categorically disprove, not challenge or deny as the common usage of the word now seems to be. It is shocking the Spectator has joined this growing trend.

  • Anaphorian Embassy

    if humans have at times placed freedom secondary to other concerns {a questionable statement], it does not appear that doing so has resulted in a better solving of problems or an improvement in peoples lives.

  • Soph

    Thanks JP, nice interview, but tell your editor: readers want more of it.

    I think John Gray is the best modern philosopher we have. Love his books.

    “But one of the chief reasons humans need meaning — and I’m only
    speculating here — is that they are conscious of their own mortality.”

    This doesn’t wash with me:Animals and insects demonstrate the knowledge of mortality too.

  • Robert Landbeck

    “moving beyond their [our] primordial, animalistic, selfish instincts,” is the final frontier for our species to cross and necessary to make real progress. But to do so will require what evolution has failed to do: offer a correction to human nature itself! Easier done than said!

  • Bob E. Jones

    See Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor on the human desire for freedom. See the stifling of dissent in the U.S. when the Iraq was began, and the general acceptance of curtailing civil liberties in the name of national security.

  • Kevin

    A line that could launch a thousand somethings:

    “As their consciousness not developed thy runes perplexed way on track and all them killed.”
    Nice work, google translator. Thank you.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Comparison between men and animals by John Gray was false.Animals have limited consciousness.When she buffalo `s calf died tears came in her eyes but she could not expressed it loudly just like human being.I had seen other incident, group of she buffaloes are lingering on railway track from opposite side train coming very fast she buffaloes know danger was there but as their consciousness not developed thy runes perplexed way on track and all them killed..That why animals remain silence on the contrary men have engaged all sort of meditation because they are conscious of their death and overcome the fear of death give meaning to their life.Man`s entire life governed by his unconscious mind.So we have no freewill.We dance through out our life on instruction of our unconscious mind.We have very limited freedom to save our life in any condition.I think there is tremendous puzzle in thinking faculty of John Gray so wrote confused way.

  • Jonathan P. Allen

    I would contest the idea that a desire for freedom has not been operative pretty consistently, and powerfully, throughout human history. Now, if one defines freedom rather narrowly, as, say, the freedom of the autonomous individual in an industrialized society to act as he or she desires without any consequence, or something along those lines, then yes, that sort of ‘freedom’ has been quite rare. Some aristocratic circles, perhaps, in the past, and then more broadly in modern industrialized, capitalistic societies. But if we interpret freedom as a desire, expressed both socially and individually, to be free of interference and control on the part of centralized political and economic forces (primarily ‘states’ or state-like entities), then desire for freedom has a very long and very deep history across humanity, from the development of the first political entities with state-like characteristics, right up to the present.

    To give a few examples drawn from unrelated places and periods: the indigenous peoples of the American Southeast (the Cherokee, Choctaw, etc.) are descended from, at least in part, the same peoples who built the famous mounds indicative of Mississippian Culture, a culture with numerous manifestations of centralizing, imperialistic even, political culture. However, these proto-states were broken up, and the indigenous peoples of the Southeast, with only a handful of exceptions (the Natchez, for instance), ‘devolved’ into decentralized, village-based polities, deliberately eschewing anything approach centralized, state-like control. Now, there were surely other factors at work besides a desire for freedom, but I do not think it is a stretch at all to see such a desire as a contributing factor. The same may be said of many other indigenous peoples across the Americas, from those who resisted Mexica and Inka imperialism to much later resistance against Anglo- and Hispano- American state-building exercises. The same could be said of much of Africa, by the way.

    Another example: with the gradual break-down of Roman authority and rule in Western Europe, the control of landlords and ‘state’ authorities grew weaker and weaker, leading, so far as we can tell, to considerable growth in peasant autonomy and freedom across the formerly Roman realms. These free communities and persons took centuries and centuries to reintegrate into first a ‘feudal’ order and then into the proto-capitalist, proto-nation state system. The myth of peasants humbly offering themselves up to their betters is in large part just that, a justifying myth, that was the product of coercive force as much as it was of any desires for stability on the part of the peasantry.

    Finally, one may look to the numerous examples of nomadic, semi-nomadic, and mountain-dwelling peoples, from the Berbers to the Bedouin to the Mongols, who have stubbornly resisted sedantizing, pacifying efforts for centuries, sometimes even deliberately articularing a discourse of freedom against ‘settled’ authorities. Now, as I stated above, it is doubtful that few, if any, of the peoples in the above examples would have articulated ideals of nineteenth century Western ‘freedom’ or liberty. But that is not to say that a different, more universal desire for freedom and autonomy did not drive them in great part, albeit joined with other motivations (like not having to surrender one’s goods and crops to a self-styled king).

    • Oscarthe4th

      As you note, the definition of freedom matters. So does the identification of who seeks freedom. The Berbers, the Bedouin, and the Mongols have certainly resisted some forms of suppression, but those are groups, not individuals. To what extent do the individuals in them want freedom from each other and to what extent do some within the groups oppress others? If you look on that level, the desire for some forms of freedom of action may be allied with the desire to restrict the freedom of others within the group.

    • Ben Brucato

      Why privilege the state as the primary position from which interference and control generates? I’ve favored an anarchist position to politics most of my life, but even the classic anarchists miss the notion of social control that most social scientists would favor today, which suggests that the state is certainly not the only source of social control and individual repression, but that it is not even the primary source. Recently, postanarchists have responded to traditions in continental theory, particularly Foucault but extending much further, by developing unique and disparate approaches to authority and control that problematize multiple generative points of control, and likewise multiple points of insurrection. I would suggest that this giving of primacy to the state as the main location of conflict of the people in the interest of freedom may actually solidify Gray’s point. The state as source of control, as enemy of freedom is often the projection of the people and signifies a flight from freedom rather than toward it. They neglect the much more profound sources of control that are in language, custom, family arrangements, technical infrastructure, arrangements for material and economic production, and so on. Revolutions are very infrequently a flight to freedom, and more often a flight toward greater control, individually and collectively. This often gets mischaracterized as a failing of the revolution, whereby people replace masters, where the intentions of the revolution are somehow undermined. I would suggest that most often, this end point is closely connected to the point of origin — the revolution not at a struggle for freedom, but the revolution as a striving for a newly imposed order.

  • JP O Malley

    No, I suspect that is my mistake, Will. Microsoft word seems to prompt all English to US English! Well spotted.

    • Will Honeycomb

      By the way, I think your interviews with writers are a great addition to Coffee House

      • Fraser Nelson


  • Will Honeycomb

    Did John Gray pronounce “skeptic” with a “k”? Was he putting on an American accent?

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