Is There Any Meaning to Human Life Or Should We Just Get On With It?

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September 1, 2015 · Posted in Commentary 

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom. John Gray. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015. 179 pp.

Leslie Evans

John Gray

John Gray

John Gray, English political philosopher and acerbic journalist, is our great pessimist. If at one time raising a lance against the happy illusions of progress was to make one a lonely outsider, today the already creeping  cataclysms of overpopulation and resource depletion, worsened by the early effects of global warming, can hardly be ignored – in the rise of fanatical Islamic movements that are destroying the resource-poor Arab Middle East and North Africa, the endless bloodshed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, the failed economic recovery of southern Europe, or the rapid erosion of the American middle class. The sense of decline and of imminent peril is reflected in the avalanche of dystopian films and novels that dominate the cultural landscape.

In this collection Gray presents three long essays, each touching briefly on many individual writers, some well known, some obscure. He begins with Heinrich von Kleist’s 1810 essay, “The Puppet Theatre,” from which Gray takes his title. Marionettes, Kleist observes, precisely because they have no self-consciousness, respond perfectly and with grace to the strings to which they are bound, the freedom to follow the arc of gravity.

It seems absurd to take the unconscious motions of a wooden doll as some kind of freedom. But it points, as Kleist intended, to the problem of where consciousness and free will come from if the universe is composed solely of physical matter. Something animates matter. Kleist pointed to the Gnostic solution to the problem: that an ignorant or malign inferior deity has imprisoned human spirits in deadening matter and that on death the surviving divine spark of each human must escape from the physical world altogether.

The Gnostics were a  dissident Jewish sect that peaked in the second century AD, and once nearly absorbed Christianity. Nursing their wounds in Alexandria after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, they came to reject the creator God Jehovah as having failed them, and the Earth itself. They taught that knowledge – in Greek gnosis – was the key to escaping from the prison of deadening matter and promised a new life in a spirit world called the Pleroma far beyond the stars.

Gray, in what I would regard as an overstretched analogy, regards as Gnostic modern scientific secularism’s faith that “science will somehow enable the human mind to escape the limitations that shape its natural condition.”

Rather than offering individual nonphysical immortality as the actual Gnostics expected, the gnosis of modern science promises greater human freedom for very mortal masses through expanded control over physical matter. As Gray puts it, “Throughout much of the world, and particularly in western countries, the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion.”

I wouldn’t think an actual Gnostic, who abhorred matter altogether and wanted not to control it but to flee from it, would recognize this as Gnosticism, but for the sake of argument Gray’s point is clear enough. And while he explores many ideas in this short volume this is the predominant one. All the variations for him come down to fantasies of rescue from our limitations, by submission to nearby or distant gods or by remaking ourselves by our own efforts into a superior species, a central tenet of liberal belief, which all too easily ferments into pathological forms when political movements seek to hasten the process, as in those twentieth century modernist cults, Communism, fascism, and Nazism or today’s militant Islamist jihadis.

Gray spends some time on the Italian poet and essayist Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837), a radical thinker who lived mostly in an isolated part of the Papal States. Leopardi, himself an atheist and materialist, took a position that hard scientists might find hard to fathom, that humans require a certain measure of illusions to function as a civil collective. There is no doubt, he wrote, “that the progress of reason and the extinction of illusions produce barbarism.”

Gray summarizes. The Greeks invented the illusion of a hidden harmony behind the evident chaos of human affairs. Christianity came and imposed its illusions of a heavenly order beyond this one. And Christian assurances have lost believers, Gray in Leopardi’s vein continues, “humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image.”

Leopardi had no difficulty with the idea that matter could think, or required some nonmaterial explanation. But he did not on that account reject religion simply on the grounds that its claims were objectively false. He did object to Christianity because it devalued the natural world, and because it claimed a universalism that made it an expansionist and tyrannical doctrine.

“Modern rationalism,” Gray writes, “renews the central error of Christianity – the claim to have revealed the good life for all of humankind. . . . What Leopardi called ‘the barbarism of reason’ – the project of remaking the world on a more ration model – was the militant evangelism of Christianity in a more dangerous form. Events have confirmed Leopardi’s diagnosis.”

In an essentially Gray vein he continues:

“As Christianity has waned, the intolerance it bequeathed to the world has only grown more destructive. From imperialism through communism and incessant wars launched to promote democracy and human rights, the most barbarous forms of violence have been promoted as means to a higher civilization.”

As for Leopardi, he looked back on the more tolerant polytheism that predated Christianity as a superior form of illusion, though he conceded that once it was destroyed it could not be recovered. He rejected all projects of reform and revolution as causing more evil than they would correct. Humans cannot be remade into something more than they are. They are self-aware material machines, by their nature as prone to greed and cruelty as to more commonly admirable qualities.

Philip K. Dick Turns from Gnostic Escape to Seek Salvation from the Space Brothers


Philip K. Dick

Philip K. Dick

After brief segments on Edgar Allan Poe and Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem, Gray offers a longer piece on the doyen of paranoid fantasy fiction, Philip K. Dick, who was at least, a self-proclaimed Gnostic, convinced that the earth is ruled by an evil demiurge. Dick’s special talent was to make us question reality. Gray says of it that “Dick’s achievement as a writer came from detaching science fiction from speculation about the future and linking it with perennial questions about what can truly be known. In many of his novels and short stories he explored the dizzying possibility that the universe is an infinitely layered dream, in which every experience of illumination proves to be one more false awakening.”

This is consistent with a classic Gnostic view of the world of matter and pervades Dick’s output – until a psychotic break in 1974 led him to imagine still more vast cosmic conspiracies, this time coming to the aid of humanity.

As Gray reminds us, Plato, the Greeks, and the early Christians, including Jesus himself, had no concept of a gradual improvement of humanity over time. For Jesus, the world was about to end altogether, while for the Gnostics, time might pass but it contained no expectation of change for the better. After the death of Jesus, Christianity came to see time as unrolling toward the Second Coming, as history having a goal ending in paradise even if it must pass through Armageddon.

“The modern world,” Gray writes, “inherits the Christian view in which salvation is played out in history. . . . This is an idea that informs virtually all of western thought – not least when it is intensely hostile to religion. From Christianity onwards, human salvation would be understood (at least in the west) as involving movement through time. All modern philosophies in which history is seen as a process of human emancipation – whether through revolutionary change or incremental improvement – are garbled versions of this Christian narrative, itself a garbled version of the original message of Jesus.”

After a breakdown into a period of hallucinations in April-May 1974, when he was 45, Dick incorporated something of this ubiquitous evolutionary notion into his Gnostic paranoia. He came to believe that a “hyper-structure” was directing the emergence of a new species of humanity with a higher level of awareness. Radio Free Albumuth, a manuscript he left behind when he died of a stroke in 1982 at the age of 53, exemplifies this transition. Incorporating himself as a character, in an America gone fascist under President Ferris F. Fremont, hope for the future rests in mysterious radio broadcasts from godlike space aliens.

Gray concludes, “The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous.”

Does Even God Want to Live for Eternity?

John Gray is attracted by quiet byways and unexpected points of view. He spends a few pages on T. F. Powys (1875-1953), author of eight novels and fifteen collections of short stories, but today mostly forgotten. Son of a clergyman, Powys lived in remote Dorset villages, married a local girl, rarely traveled, briefly farmed, then turned to writing.

In his masterpiece, Mr. Weston’s Good Wine (1927), a dark comedic allegory about a visit by God to a remote Dorset village, he leads up to a question that has often bothered me. What would one do with eternal, or even extremely long, life? I am myself an agnostic Gnostic. That is, I am an unbeliever in the three Abrahamic religions, but agnostic about Gnosticism. But if there were life after death, and there were no physical body, just what would you do with yourself? Everything you do here is contingent on physicality: you work at something, you read, drive a car, fix dinner, go to the movies, repair something, eat, have sex, feel something physical, have physical purpose. Remove all of that and I can imagine some kind of electromagnetic energy existence with a mind and communication with other such entities, and some purpose, but how long would that be meaningful.

And how about such easy notions as “All dogs go to heaven”? What would a dog, whose whole reality is smells, touch, and taste make of a nonphysical existence?

The Christian-Islamic idea that you go to heaven, body intact, carries with it such incredible baggage as to seem far more improbable: are there toilets in heaven? Animals to be killed to provide food? And who does that? Who grows the food?  Who cooks it? Who takes care of the garbage? Magic food on the plate from nowhere, and no digestive tract or excretory system in the magic body? Is there sex in the spirit world? To what end? Books? What does one do all day? Where do people live in their human bodies? Are there bricklayers and plumbers and electricians? Interior decorators? And lawyers? If you take the body with you it raises all of these questions.

T. J. Powys only confronts the most insurmountable one: boredom. In Mr Weston’s Good Wine, as Gray tells it, “a wine merchant arrives in an old, mud-spattered Ford van on a dull November evening in the village of Folly Down. Accompanied by an assistant called Michael, Mr Weston is a short, stout man dressed in an overcoat and wearing a brown felt hat under which his hair is ‘white like wool’.”


Mr Weston and his assistant Michael at Folly Down. Illustration for the book by George Charlton.

Mr Weston and his assistant Michael at Folly Down. Illustration for the book by George Charlton.


Mr Weston had once written a long book in which he had imagined humans much like these, and was surprised to find them  in Folly Down to be actual real beings. He came “with two wines to sell – the light white wine of love and the dark wine of death.”

Not having heard of Powys before, I read Mr. Weston’s Good Wine. It is an old fashioned book, a window into a world that seems to be far older than 1927.  Most of the characters are simple, unhappy, or unpleasant people. Sex or lusting for it is all pervasive for the young. Women, and a few of the men, long for marriage, unabashedly so they can physically consummate desire. Most succumb without getting as far as the nuptials, usually in the moss beneath the village oak tree.

The elders drink all evening at the village inn and plan how they can get the better of their neighbors. Outliers are people like Luke Bird, a young man who believes humans have no souls and so preaches the gospel to cattle and geese, until he begins to hunger for the body of Jenny Bunce, when all thought of the scriptures disappears from his mind. Or the heavy drinking minister Grobe, who has renounced God after the death of his wife. His daughter Tamar, unique among the village girls, is saving herself to have sex with an angel.

Then there is Mrs. Jane Vosper, who devotes her life to enticing the village girls to her parlor or to the mossy bed under the oak tree to be raped by the two Mumby brothers. She takes her pleasure in seeing them get pregnant and lose any prospect of marriage, unrepentant when one of the pregnant Kiddle girls drowns herself in the village pond. To protect the Mumbys, Mrs. Vosper spreads the story that the repeated pregnancies are all the work of old Mr. Grunter, the church grave digger. Grunter goes along with the pretense for the little prestige it brings him.

Mr Weston visits each of the main characters. As you would expect in any such tale, he dispenses rewards and punishments. But these, like the lives of the villagers, are also darker than you might expect from the creator of the universe. He does arrange for Luke Bird to marry Jenny. And he releases an invisible lion who disintegrates the evil old Mrs. Vosper. But his assistant Michael, who is of course an angel, fulfills Tamar’s desire by having sex with her, which kills her. And Mr Weston rewards Tamar’s father the minister by ending his despair with a bottle of his dark wine, which leaves him dead.

At the end of the story Mr Weston and Michael drive to the top of a hill overlooking the town. The talk drifts to an old enemy, who had once had the form of a serpent. We presume this is the lion, which a boy in a nearby village at the beginning of the book got a peek at behind a curtain in the back of Mr Weston’s van. Michael suggests that if it is time to make an end of him he would prefer to go out in fire. Powy’s concludes:


‘And so he shall!’ cried Mr Weston. ‘Will you be so kind, Michael, as to drop a burning match into the petrol tank?’

‘And we?’ asked Michael.

‘Shall vanish in the smoke, replied Mr Weston.

‘Very well,’ said Michael sadly.

Michael did as he was told. In a moment a fierce tongue of flame leaped up from the car; a pillar of smoke rose above the flame and ascended into the heavens. The fire died down, smouldered and went out.

Mr Weston was gone.


Gray calls this God who wishes to cease to exist “more subversive of established religion than any of the humanistic pieties of contemporary atheism.”

Aztecs and Us

Gray devotes a section to the Aztecs for one of his most interesting discussions. Everyone knows that public human sacrifice and cannibalism had an outsized place in Aztec society. John Gray employs this to challenge conventional assumptions about human nature and the basis of social life. He begins with the dominant Western assumption about the reasons for government, voiced by Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan (1651), that fear of violent death compels people to cede power to the state to protect themselves and assure social peace to pursue industry and commerce.

In contrast, Gray writes, “A belief in underlying chaos underpinned order throughout Aztec society. The violence of the state mirrored that of the cosmos and the gods. The Aztecs felt no shame in making a spectacle of killing. The population rejoiced in ‘the lines of victims dragged or driven up the wide steps of the pyramids to meet the waiting priests . . . feted through the streets to dance and die before the deities they represented.”

He quotes scholar Inga Clendinnen:


“The killings were not remote, top-of-the pyramid affairs. If only high priests and rulers killed, they carried out most of their butchers’ work en plein air, and not only in the main temple precinct, but in the neighbourhood temples and on the streets. The people were implicated in the care and preparation of the victims, their delivery to the place of death, and then in the elaborate processing of the bodies: the dismemberment and distribution of heads and limbs, flesh and blood and flayed skins. On high occasions warriors carrying gourds of human blood or wearing the dripping skins of their captives ran through the streets to be ceremoniously welcomed into the dwellings; the flesh of their victims seethed in domestic cooking pots. . . .”


Far from being barbaric in other respects, the Aztec capital at Tenochitlan was beautifully laid out, a garden city kept far cleaner than European cities of its day and filled with painted murals and a rich center for trade.

Hobbes and with him the Western tradition has assumed that human brutality can be tamed, and where it is not, civilization will founder. Gray writes that the Aztec believed that humans “were fated to live in a world in which their rulers [the gods] were their enemies,” and that while no end of chaos was possible, a tenuous balance could be sustained, and that only through continual human sacrifices.

“If Hobbes had been right in his diagnosis of human conflict,” Gray writes, “Aztec life could only be a brutish anarchy, without art, industry or letters. The actuality was the thriving metropolis that so amazed the invading Spaniards.”

Many people might be inclined to dismiss the Aztec world as an isolated pathology without  broader implications for human nature. John Gray disagrees. The Aztecs killed in order to create meaning in their lives. But they “did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. When they practised human sacrifice it was not to improve the world, still less to fashion some higher type of human being. The purpose of the killing was what they affirmed it to be: to protect them from the senseless violence that is inherent in a world of chaos.”

The crossover significance of the Aztec experience is the distilled clarity of their choice to use killing as such to give meaning to their lives. Gray concludes that this is a characteristic of all major modern civilizations, the prevalence of humans killing others, or choosing to die themselves, to give meaning to their lives, though in the West this meaning may be expressed in patriotic or religious symbolism. A more pure contemporary version is “jihadists courting martyrdom.”

If the Western tradition is different from that of the Aztecs it is that its mass killing, at least since the rise of Christianity and it secular successors, has been to impose various notions of human improvement:

“Alone among the animals, humans seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams. Chief among these absurdities, in modern times, is the idea of a new humanity.

“In the twentieth century, the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. If followers of Lenin dreamt of a socialist humanity, the Nazis imagined they were bringing into being a ‘superior race’. Western governments that launch wars of regime change may seem in another league, but the impulses that drive them are not altogether different. Critics claim the true aims of these adventures are geopolitical – the seizure of oil or some other strategic advantage. No doubt geopolitics plays a part, but a type of magical thinking may be more important.”

Miscellaneous Observations

The second half of this short work is best viewed as a series of discreet observations abstracted from the context in which Gray wrapped them.

Has Violence Declined? Deaths through major wars, certainly since the end of World War II, have dropped sharply. Should this be seen as a transformation toward a more humane civilization? Gray is dubious. Among the great powers nuclear weapons deter direct warfare, while proxy conflicts in the former colonial countries; the endless blood letting in the Congo; the Vietnam War; the Iran-Iraq War; the some seventy millions killed internally by the Maoist regime in China, 35 millions during the Great Leap Forward alone; Pol Pot’s Cambodia; the genocide in Rwanda; the current dissolution into confessional civil wars of much of the Middle East, have all told against the idea of a new age of peace.

“War has changed, but it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organized states that can at some point negotiate peace it is now more often a many-sided conflict among armed irregulars in fractured or collapsed states, which no one has the power to end.”

He adds other kinds of human-caused misery, notably that “a quarter of all the world’s prisoners are held in American gaols, many for exceptionally long periods.” He ultimately rates the claim that mass violence has been in a seventy-year decline as “murky.”

Will Robotic Innovation Be a Blessing or a Curse? Another channel in modern thought for those seeking to perfect the human race is to create machines that combine the intelligence of humans with the vast speed and data access of computers, and even to merge physical humans with such machines. Gray sees two disastrous consequences in the extension of robotics and artificial intelligence in this direction: The most extreme would be the supersession of humans by intelligent machines. The more immediate one is the greater and greater displacement of human labor and the consequent redundancy of increasingly large numbers of workers. He begins, not unexpectedly, with futurist Ray Kurzweil, who recently became Google’s Director of Engineering. Kurzweil is the best known advocate of transhumanism, the notion that we are on the verge in a decade or so of reverse engineering the human brain in computer form, which at some point in the future will allow humans to migrate their personalities into computer circuits to achieve a form of immortality.

John Gray joins other horrified skeptics such as Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk (cofounder of Tesla Motors), and Oxford’s Nick Bostrom:

“Eventually humans could find themselves displaced by thinking machines they had originally created. The upshot of progress in human knowledge and invention might well be human redundancy.

“Kurzweil and other scientific futurists celebrate the increase of knowledge as enhancing human power. By controlling natural processes, they believe, humans can gain master of the planet and even the universe. It does not occur to them to inquire who or what will exercise this mastery.”

If that prospect still lies at least a few decades in the future, we are already deep in the earlier impacts of robotics, computerizations, and automation: “Self-driving cars and telephones that interact with human voices are the front line of a rapidly advancing trend. Occupations that seemed safe because they required a level of skill or education are no longer secure.”


“If an earlier burst of technological advance left behind a lumpen proletarian underclass, the current wave looks set to create a lumpenbourgeoisie. Denied any prospect of a lifelong career, lacking pensions or savings, the former middle classes can expect a life of precarious insecurity for the foreseeable future . . . . The inherent tendency of this wave of technological innovation seems to be to render the human majority superfluous in the process of production. In a more remote future envisioned by techno-enthusiasts, human redundancy could be more complete.”

Consequences of Human-Caused Climate Change. Humans may have instigated global warming but that “does not mean that humans are in control.” He does not expect humans to go extinct, but he does predict that they will cease to be “as central in the life of the planet as they have been over the last few centuries.” He compares homo sapiens to the Neanderthals, “a byway in evolution.” Our global decline will be abetted by the new technologies in communication and warfare.

On Materialism and Consciousness. Toward the close, Gray returns to some of the ideas he raised in the pages on Leopardi on matter, consciousness, and free will. He criticizes scientists who blur the line between science as a method of inquiry and philosophical questions for which there is no scientific data. “Knowledge is growing at accelerating speed; but no advance in science will tell us whether materialism is true or false, or whether humans possess free will. The belief that the world is composed of matter is metaphysical speculation, not a testable theory.”

What Gray does argue is that consciousness is an emergent property of matter, and therefore not at all unique to humans. “Dolphins delight in watching themselves in mirrors when they are having sex, while chimps react to the death of those they care for in much the same ways that humans do.” Moreover, much of the processes of the mind are hidden from consciousness. Gray insists that these subterranean parts of the mind, “a relic of our animal ancestry,” are essential to science, art, and human relationships. This is a view in line with modern studies of the necessary conflation of emotion and reason in the brain in our decision-making processes (see for example, Antonio R. Damasio’s Descartes’ Error).

Morality, Civilization, and Barbarism. Finally Gray turns to the subjective illusions that we choose to give meaning to our lives. The Greeks and Jews lived with a sense of tragedy. Christianity in his view, at least as developed by Paul and Augustine, stood somewhere between the Greek and Jewish view of an unchanging human state and later Christianity in which history is moving inevitably toward the Second Coming.

“Where these older moralities are superior to modern moralities is in understanding that humankind can never overcome its inherent limitations. It is only in recent times that human beings have come to see themselves as potentially godlike. Ancient thinkers were more intelligent as well as more honest. They knew that human action can change the world, sometimes for the good. They also knew that civilizations rise and fall; what has been gained will be lost, regained and then lost again in a cycle as natural as the seasons.”

And as secularism has advanced at the expense of the monotheisms, it has incorporated the faith that history progresses toward an ever brighter end point.

Often, impatience to get there inspires modern day barbarians. Think of the masses that rallied to the cause of Communism and Nazism in the 20th century. Or the thousands making their way to Raqqa in Syria today to fight on the side of the Islamic State.

Gray insists that there are no believable universals around which one can rally in opposition to the fanatical barbarians. The stock choices of the past, God and “humanity,” have no real existence. This makes defending civilization “intractably difficult work, while barbarism comes with a promise of transgression and excitement. The fragility of civilization is testimony to the perennial dream of a life without restraint.

“Before it means anything else, civilization implies restraint in the use of force; but when it serves noble-sounding goals, violence has a glamour that is irresistible.”

As for freedom, Gray tells us that “for the present and the future that can be clearly foreseen, it is only the freedom that can be realized within each human being that can be secure.”

This seems to be a pessimistic view. At best, stoic advice for chaotic times. Yet the point he is making is that freedom is to be found in accepting ourselves and laying aside the various hopes that some special knowledge or belief will make us, or our species, something immortal or vastly better than what exists now.


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