The Silence of Animals is a recent book by iconoclast writer John Gray. Gray gives the impression of an ancient pagan philosopher, at odds with his time. His influence as a popular thinker can be attributed not only to his literary style, but his willingness to attack cherished popular beliefs and espouse a radical rethinking of basic assumptions.
Gray is an atheist, but decidedly an outsider. Contemporary atheist culture tends toward secular humanism and rationalism, philosophies Gray despises as vacuous and challenges in this book. Not the stereotypical modern atheist, Gray is a genuine philosophical skeptic. His worldview is an eclectic composite of the archaic and the novel.
To his mind, the important question is not whether one believes in God, but whether one believes in humanity. An atheist who answers the latter question affirmatively is still a “believer.” Such an atheist is also, methinks, the principal target of his book. Gray tries to persuade his readers to give up the last vestiges of religious thought and embrace a more thoroughgoing, liberated godlessness.
Why, then, should I find this book worth reading? If I do not accept his premise that theism is an impossible intellectual position (and I don’t), the rest of his argument—the whole antihuman tirade—is not especially convincing or apposite. Nevertheless, Gray strikes me as a potentially important original voice. His is a well-read, blunt, oddly appealing nihilism. Though his attacks are not directed chiefly at religion in The Silence of Animals, the alternative to religious thought Gray espouses here may prove far more dangerous to Christianity than any of the popular rationalisms that currently afflict our culture.
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Gray defines humanism as belief in human uniqueness. Modern humanism is a synthesis of Socratic rationalism and Christian salvationism. Humanists believe that reason lends special value to human existence, whether this is dressed up in overtly religious terms or pseudoscientific speculation. Reason, it has been said since Socrates, allows humans access to the higher realm of concepts, which allows us to discern the order of the universe. Reason, is has been said since much more recently, necessarily increases through time, allowing humanity to advance.
Thus the other key element of humanism, religious or secular, is faith in progress. By this Gray does not refer to technological or scientific progress; of course, in a given society, knowledge can accumulate over time. But humanists often conflate this sort of progress with a notion of progress as humanity getting better—moral and political problems being solved, moving humanity toward full or further self-realization.
But this whole panoply of ideas is rooted in false readings of human nature and human history. Rationality, according to rationality itself and science, can be nothing more than a kind of coincidence, an evolutionary accident, a chance confluence of factors. It is not, if the physicalist account of consciousness is accurate, a positive thing granted us by some divinity. “The human mind has no built-in bias to truth or rationality and will continue to develop according to the imperative of survival” (78-79). When we actually study human behavior, we see that we humans are directed not chiefly by reason but by irrational psychological forces before which each of us is helpless—which, actually, comprise who we are.
In short, we cannot forget that we are in fact animals, deeply bred with animal traits we as a species show no inclination to shake (if that were even possible), determined by senseless natural processes. This is a patently obvious truth, according to Gray, and yet also one that most of us seek to undermine in any way possible.
Humanists today… scoff at mysticism and religion. But the unique status of humans is hard to defend, and even to understand, when it is cut off from any idea of transcendence. In a strictly naturalistic view—one in which the world is taken on its own terms, without reference to a creator or any spiritual realm—there is no hierarchy of value with humans at the top…. Human uniqueness is a myth inherited from religion, which humanists have recycled into science. (77)
If this is true, the idea of progress reveals itself as a secularization of a fundamentally religious and Christian understanding of time. It is in fact far less rational to imagine that human nature will magically improve in future, than it is to suppose the intervention of a supernatural order. “The belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith…. [Humanists] exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals” (80).
Apart from the argument from human unreason, how does Gray know that humans are not getting anywhere as regards recurring moral and political dilemmas? History. Any apparent progress is always followed by regress.
The illusion of moral progress is upheld only by fragile social mechanisms, and even so old evils recur in new forms: slavery as human trafficking, torture as enhanced interrogation, and so forth. Throughout the book, Gray cites recent instances where civilization has quickly relapsed into barbarism: Naples in the Second World War, for instance. Cannibalism, mass prostitution, torture, political corruption and worse regularly follow on the breakdown of the social order; all human kindness seems to dry up, and everyone reverts to animal survival instinct. Destructive tendencies simply don’t go away; they remain latent, ready to manifest.
The illusion of political progress, meanwhile, is maintained by utopian or meliorist vanity. Whether by sudden revolution or gradual increments, we have moved no closer to paradise. From the French Revolution to the Arab Spring, revolutions, Gray points out, may benefit some (often at the expense of others), but increased freedom is a rare consequence. “To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake” (58). Meliorist hope in slow change is also misplaced: new fires flare up as fast as old ones are put out.
In today’s Europe, we do not see signs of improvement on past failures, but rising xenophobia and the decline of the western economy. The latter especially is inevitable: “Wealth can be created in many kinds of economic system, but never for long. The human animal consumes what it has produced, and then moves on” (71).
Science and history thus refute the humanist idealization of progress at every turn. No real or enduring progress has ever nor can ever be made in certain areas of human life. Why, then, do humanists cling to it with such unreason? The answer is cognitive dissonance.
The phenomenon has notably been studied in UFO cults. Prophecies are made; they fail to come to pass; the “weaker brethren” are sloughed off; but then the true believers receive a new enlightenment that gives meaning to the failure. The cult ultimately emerges stronger and more fervent in belief than it was before, all due to the human capacity for denying reality.
But this pattern is more deeply embedded in the collective psyche than most of us care to admit. In truth, “Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition” (73). Movement after movement rises with great promises for the future, stumbles, and fails. But this does not shake the faith of humanists that somehow, in the future, things will be better; that there is something innate in humanity that draws us toward greatness. Faith in progress, Gray says, exists not because of any real evidence, but to give a humanist’s life meaning.
The most vivid metaphor Gray draws on is an old parody of Rousseau’s statement that man is born to be free, but remains everywhere in chains. The skeptic may well retort, “Fish are born to fly—but everywhere they swim!” (58) The ichthyophil’s argument perfectly parallels the romantic’s. Liberal idealists try to awaken a humanity distracted by “trifles” to their supposed inner desire for freedom, to making their own choices and not bowing to the herd. But in fact, all they do is create, often by violent methods, a new herd from the same stock of humanity. “The charm of a liberal way of life is that it enables most people to renounce their freedom unknowing. Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream” (62).
But simply labeling the humanist malady cognitive dissonance is not enough, as Gray knows. There is something deeper at work in the conflicts and contradictions that drive the human psyche. So Gray chooses to delve further into our unreason through psychology and philosophy of mind.
He first tackles the concept of myth. Humanists like to think of myth as a religious phenomenon they themselves have surpassed. But if anything can be regarded as an essentially human activity, Gray remarks, mythmaking seems a plausible candidate. Even if we grant that true rationality requires absence of myth—which Gray questions—”life without myth is like life without art or sex—insipid and inhuman” (79). Because it is inhuman, it is also impossible.
Gray plows his way through these difficult waters with some classic epistemological observations and opinions. The fundamental fallacy of much philosophy and religion, he argues, is to believe that mind and cosmos correspond, that they possess a shared reality. In actuality, language, symbols, the tools of our rationality, interpose between us and raw objective reality. As the very substance of thought, they pose limitations that we can never overcome. For the symbols that make up the economy of the reason must be partial and inexact.
Human beings are animals that have equipped themselves with symbols. Helping deal with a world they do not understand, symbols are useful tools; but humans have an inveterate tendency to think and act as if the world they have made from these symbols actually exists. (132)
Myths in the epistemological sense are unverifiable and irrefutable. In religion, humans receive “illusions… [that] contain truths that cannot be conveyed in other ways” (98), such as humanity’s subjection to powers beyond its control. Rationalist humanism seeks to repress our instincts by eliminating “false” symbolism; ultimately all symbols would fail the test, and we would eliminate any hope of grasping our world. But the religious instincts suppressed by rationalism manifest in humanism, in the belief that man is a god—that he somehow through reason stands over and above the world. This is not merely a myth, but a myth completely void of truth.
Ultimately, even science is but another symbol-system, an approximation, that tries to pin down a “slippery world” (96). Its basis in the economy of human reason both allows it to operate successfully and means that it can never perfectly describe the reality “outside.” Subtle errors will remain despite advanced processes of fact-verification, and in the midst of time, how are we to know where and what those errors are? This poses no real challenge to science, which is of course highly effective as a tool. But it is just a tool, with limitations. If we forget the fundamentally “fictive” quality of science, it takes on disproportionate mythic significance, loses its efficacy, and stagnates.
Gray’s reasoning may or may not be sound—and philosophers will no doubt continue to debate this for ages—but where does that leave us as finite individuals, left with the paradox that all our knowledge depends on myth?
Gray turns to Freud as a flawed forerunner of his own thought. Freud realized that human ailments have no true cure, for human selves are made up of contradictory impulses that will forever war within, not autonomous reason. He also understood that we have no real freedom to shape our own fates, that we are determined by a chaotic natural order. The goal of psychoanalysis is to help us to accept our fates. Though itself a kind of myth, psychoanalysis provides us with a system of metaphors that allow us to come to grips with reality—through myth, yes, but through one that frees us to understand our own experience of reality in fresh and healthy ways.
We are all saddled with psychological problems. The natural way of healing is through the unconscious process of myth-making, which transmutes traumatic experience to something meaningful. By recognizing the illusory quality of myth, we can comfortably discard myths that are no longer helpful to us, and move on.
If indeed, “Shaped by an animal struggle for life, the human view of the world is haphazard and slanting” (108), we are stuck for the rest of our lives with the distortions and dissonances produced by our own minds. But merely coming to this realization allows us to better appreciate our present and future; it opens us to a whole new world of possibilities for how we live our daily lives.
Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom—possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. (108)
And what is the best consequence of this freedom? It is not “self-realization.” The idea that there is some true inner self or deep potential that, if we can only learn to find it, will make us happy, is a myth worth being disposed of. Instead, life consists in the construction of the self. If so, we can relax our frantic introspection, our rigid adherence to moralities, and simply construct ourselves however we please moment to moment. Looking for ideal happiness will mean little enjoyment of the present until life is over.
Similarly, trying to force some ideal, immutable order on the world as humanists do is a recipe for disaster. History bears witness. All our ideal societies reproduce the frailty of our reason (130), and result in only more chaos and disorder. But, on the other hand, if we should somehow as human beings recognize and embrace chaos, perhaps we would do less to increase our own suffering.
There is no elixir for the human condition. But Gray does argue that there is a way for us to live fully within our limitations. Gray believes that “godless mysticism” of the sort propounded by philosopher Fritz Mauthner provides us with a way to free ourselves. It is an apophatic way, analogous to religious mysticism except that it seeks not transcendence, but relief in brute reality from the glut of words and symbols that ride roughshod over our consciousness. It is suspending our false concept of discrete selfhood. This is the road to true atheism.
Atheism does not mean rejecting ‘belief in God’. It means giving up belief in language as anything other than a practical convenience. The world is not a creation of language, but something that—like the God of the negative theologians—escapes language. Atheism is only a stage on the way to a more far-reaching skepticism. (145)
Gray concludes on a positive, poetic note. He meditates on how a godless mystic might come to terms with his or her mortality by contemplating nature, by projecting one’s consciousness out of one’s self. By nature, Gray does not mean the sanitized ideal of the stereotypical animal-lover; rather, he means the violent, dirty, chaotic, and yet piercingly beautiful world outside human mental constructs. It is about “de-anthropomorphizing” (157), or deconstructing, one’s own self.
This ability is cultivated in silence. Traditional societies create spaces—often religious—for silence. In so doing, they, unlike modern man, recognize that noise and inner restlessness are both the normal state of the human creature, and something from which we need to seek occasional refuge. Today we tend to prize this restlessness and constant activity. Unlike past societies, which regarded this as mere misery, we seem to believe that meaning can be found in pursuit of distraction from being.
On the contrary, contends Gray, what is more likely to provide meaning than being itself? True, you will never really escape your self; in this respect, some nature mystics are as deluded as religious mystics. However, “if you look with eyes that are not covered with a film of thought, you may come on a scene that can only be seen once” (168).
The self is made up of habit and memory. Moments where these things break apart, or are let go of, are moments where we can become something new. This is the only progress available to us; it is not accessing some higher, curative, “rational” destiny, but healthful regeneration consistent with our animal nature. It is salvation from the kind of irrational optimism that results in delusion and destruction. Too much immersion in the world of the self produces dyssynchrony with exterior reality, a kind of madness. Godless contemplation, however, can bring some kind of resynchronization; it offers brief respite from human weakness while remaining within the limits of our humanity.
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It is easy for me to pick out points of departure for the classical theist: a theist, for instance, might not deny that Gray is essentially correct that the “substance of the reason” is the slippery reality of language, at least in the sense that reason operates through words. However, the theist might attribute great significance to the mind’s conceptual content, agreeing with Socrates that the reason does give us access to a higher realm of significance. In fact, presupposing the divinely-bestowed reasoning powers of our mind is the only assurance that our concepts reflect reality at all. Perhaps Gray is then correct that true atheism is not merely disbelief in God, but disbelief in the stuff of human reason, and liberal humanism, with its peculiar teachings about progress, freedom, and human reason, is merely a gutted Christianity.
Likewise, while one of Gray’s premises is that we should judge humans by their realities rather than their ideals, a Christian might demur: human ideals actually tell us a great deal about what it is to be human. Certainly, the humanist falsely assumes that his or her particular vision for the future is the human ideal for all times and places; however, there is a common thread through all human ideals that bespeaks dissatisfaction with the world as it is that, C. S. Lewis and others would argue, “points to” an innate relationship with another plane of reality.
In fact, what Gray is explicitly attacking is the Greco-Christian concept of the Logos, which casts a long shadow on forgetful modernity. The Logos is the fundamental reason and order of the universe, accessible on some level to the human mind. Ultimately this leads to theism, to a transcendent reason, so much so that Christianity positively identifies the Logos with Christ. Whereas Christians see the Logos hidden beneath apparent (demonic) disorder, to Gray, it is in flat contradiction to the true chaos of the cosmos to which science attests. When we have disposed not merely of God but his Logos, then we will have achieved a true, enlightened atheism.
But I am not a philosopher, and I do not intend to write any sort of rebuttal to Gray’s perspective. It seems to me a kind of postmodern regress to a pre-Christian philosophical mentality, in which being itself is owed a kind of piety, but being itself is not identified with God or even with any kind of transcendence.
While the theist may well consider Gray’s position about as opposite his own as it is possible to be, that does not mean this book is valueless to him. The theist may find much to like in Gray’s critique of secular humanism’s fundamental irrationality. More importantly, however, a theist might find Gray’s bold march into nihilism a fresh opportunity to present the Christian alternative apart from modernism’s self-indulgent sneers.
Gray’s godless contemplation could certainly be seen as a step in the right direction. Gray challenges moderns, whatever their philosophical persuasion, to look down and re-evaluate what is most real, and he challenges us to do it seriously and receptively, without immediately resorting to favored mental constructs and assumptions. Of course, what Gray is after is a bracing and minimally-mediated encounter with reality, or being. On the other side of human limitations is an unsearchable mystery; our closest approach is when we silence ourselves and really learn to see.
To a classical theist, this sounds like great advice. Contemplation in pursuit of being, according to theists and especially mystics like St. Bonaventure, is the path to perceiving God. But Gray is quite clearly skeptical of religious mysticism. In Gray’s opinion, religious mystics still cling to that bit of mythic neediness that makes them seek a “higher self.” But godless contemplatives, in dissolving themselves, seek nothing, just blissful emptiness. There is no redemption here—for none is needed—and no true calm—for escape is an illusion—but there is, Gray believes, a simple confrontation with “being.”
But the skeptic contemplative’s tension between reality and illusion can, to the Christian, be successfully resolved in faith. The classical Christian will also reject Gray’s belief that morality is immaterial to contemplation, as Christianity, like most great religions, rejects the idea that contemplation is likely to be successful if paired with unrestrained indulgence in sinful or even sensual delights.
And this is due to a deeply differing anthropology. To Gray, the animal impulses (which Christianity has never denied we possess as such) simply are what comprise the human, and so to quiet them is but another denial of reality. The Christian objects that paying heed to the impulses (or passions) creates conflict of interest, obscuring the dictates of our reasoning inner selves and making us less inclined to make rational decisions. Contemplation can only really take place when these impulses, like words, do not jam our consciousness with distractions.
We may further note that Gray’s “constructive resignation” corrodes any will to exterior action, whereas religious mysticism can and should feed it. Religions use ritual and sacrament to convey divine grace and transform the inner person for good works. Contemplation should flow into action “in the world,” and religions, unlike godless mysticism, trace out what sorts of action best concord with the highest reality.
Gray is not altogether opposed to action, and shows (like the religious) a healthy incredulity toward the trendy fix-alls tossed around by humanism. But his teaching, of itself, feeds only the interior life of the individual, and his radical skepticism toward progress would, as many other readers have noted, seem to reject all attempts to improve the world we live in. Gray’s treatment of the relationship between the “real” and the “ideal” so completely destroys the possibility of the latter that a reader might be tempted to say, “Well, what is the point of repeatedly attempting to address ethical and political dilemmas if we can never fix them?” But perhaps Gray would take issue with this whole line of thinking. Just because we can’t make complete or enduring fixes, he might say, is no reason not to make small improvements where we see possibilities.
Few, Gray admits, can accept the world that he lives in, a world of peace with uncertainty, lived without sentiment, only cold clear-sightedness. Due to the way it undermines the self, he does not expect humanity in general to ever “progress” to his perspective. Moreover, nothing but a very profound and unimaginably horrible catastrophe is likely to shake the faith of the West in progress and its own ascendant star.
But Gray does want to make some improvements, in his own way, by calling uncomfortable truths to the minds of those who genuinely want to see reality as it is. Contemporary atheist culture retains an impulse to cry blasphemy when treasured ideas are challenged, most notably when it comes to “the flaws of the human animal…. A type of atheism that refused to revere humanity would be a genuine advance” (81).
The Silence of Animals will not convince everyone; in key areas, it certainly didn’t convince me. It is also possible that there is a massive contradiction in Gray’s attempt to use reason to persuade us of human irrationality. But the book has a gray gorgeousness to it, a fineness of literary craft, and above all an ability to provoke serious thought and speculation. For these reasons, I recommend it.