Gray’s Anatomy

I’ve just finished a collection of John Gray’s essays, Gray’s Anatomy. Gray is perhaps my favorite conservative thinker—conservative in the European tradition, which has some intellectual depth, rather than the mindless combination of Jesus and market-worship that is American movement conservatism. I’m not conservative myself, since my temperament inclines me not toward “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” but rather toward “change it around a bit, let’s see what happens.” Still, I think a serious secular liberalism or humanism has to come to grips with a perspective like that of John Gray’s. He is, I think, quite right in seeing much of Western secular humanism as a bastard child of monotheism, from its myth of progress to its inability to come to grips with the tragedy and the sheer animal nature of human life.

The book is particularly interesting to me because it includes earlier as well as recent Gray material. From what I can tell, before about 1995, Gray was a perhaps daring, but still largely conventional English Tory. His more straightforward conservative writing from this period seems a bit dogmatic, boring, perhaps even easy to dismiss. He gets more interesting after he makes a more decisive break with neoconservative and neoliberal notions, even though his break is clearly rooted in his earlier more old-fashioned form of conservativism.

His earlier material exhibits a certain condescending praise for religion, or at least religiosity, as a repository of tradition. Even early into the 1990s, he could write mushy things such as

And here we have the root of the conservative objection to the notion of progress: that it serves as a surrogate for spiritual meaning for those whose lives would otherwise be manifestly devoid of sense. The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moment in a universal process of betterment.

He praises religion as a way of coping with the tragic aspects of life, which has a good point, but also too easily slides into a quietist apologia for a status quo.

Later on, however, he comes out full-bore against any sense of a “meaning of life,” either as offered by conventional religion or by humanist surrogates.

Searching for a meaning in life may be useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit. Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. . . . Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments.

In some ways, Gray’s “spirituality” hints at being even more distant to conventional religion than much popular atheism. The point is not to offer a substitute hope when the gods melt away, it’s to live without that sort of transcendent hope.

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  • Charles Sullivan

    Is there a word missing in this quotation from Gray (perhaps the word 'not")?

    "Spiritual life is a search for meaning but a release from it. . . ."

  • 林俊娟
  • DM

    perfect example of when PHILOSOPHY becomes an ENEMY OF LIFE…

    not quite samantha with her *supernatural spit*, eh?

    you were at the WRONG PLACE at the WRONG TIME…
    this isn't one of your little WORD GAMES…

    blasphemy is a DEATH SENTENCE

    you people actually BELIEVE the BS you preach!

    GOD 1 – atheists 0


    Repent and turn to God or be destroyed…


    my interpretation of the STATUE FIRE… it symbolizes the SPIRITUAL DEATH of atheism…,0,4295974.story–005.jpg


    we do like your music Lady Gaga, but…

    The B**BQUAKE – 911

    Let me show you the FATE OF TRAITORS…

    they are incapable of telling the difference between SCIENTIFIC *FACT* AND

    they also preach a *VALUE FREE SCIENCE* called *POSITIVISM* that ignores the
    inequalities of wealth and power in capitalist civilization…

    for a sample taste of PZ Myers' GARBAGE…



    what happens when you LOSE Pascal's Wager…

    the blood and bodies of the atheist movement…

    you mofos killed MICKEY MOUSE!!!!

    this has more TRUTH then what Dawkins, Randi, Harris, Myers, and Shermer
    combined have said in their entire lives…!v=5R2wE8Sduhs&playnext;_from=TL&videos;=hht1U_19anc&feature;=rec-LGOUT-exp_fresh%2Bdiv-1r-3-HM

    they tried to BULLDOZE the entire METAPHYSICAL DIMENSION…
    they LOST THE WAR……

    you have FORFEIT YOUR SOUL, shermer… you have become an object in the material world, as you WISHED…

    we're gonna smash that TV…


    you pushed too much and *CROSSED THE LINE*

    degenerates (PZ) or children (HEMANT) – ATHEISTS!

    do you have anything to say, you STUPID LITTLE F*CKER?

    how about I tell you, Mr. Shermer, EVERYTHING YOU THINK ABOUT THE WORLD is

    THE BOOBQUAKE – 911!


    the 9th and FINAL RING of Dante's Inferno is designed for little blaspheming traitors like you…

    but at least FREE AIR CONDITIONING is included!

  • Alastair

    I've read Straw Dogs, the essay "Enlightenment's Wake" and Gray's interpretation of Isaiah berlin, (simply titled "Isaiah Berlin"), published in about 1995. I've been trying to write down what it is about Gray's writing that has made it so interesting to me lately. I've never been a thorough-going materialist. My entry into modern western philosophy was via Kierkegaard, Weber, philosophy of technology (Dreyfus, Feenberg and others), Heidegger, then the big challenge of Marx, principally via Lukacs. Prior to encountering Gray's writing, psychoanalysis coloured my take on all these thinkers. (I like the characterisations of Marxism as "the world from the outside in" and psycho-analysis as "the world from the inside out"). In particular psycho-analysis prompted me re-examine the issue of radical choice – or choice that radicalises – that is so central in Kierkegaard, and the "rationality" it presupposes. (I'm using inverted commas for reasons that will become clear I hope). There are deep links to be made between Kierkegaard, protestantism, Heidegger, and the place of radical choice against a background of nihilism (godlessness). Many people have surely explored these links. (One such might by T W Adorno, who wrote his doctoral thesis on Kierkegaard). The thing that brings me up short is my own retrospective view of radical choice, which now seems much less objective, and much more clearly influenced by psychology (i.e. drives – for want of a better word – invisible at the moment of choosing), even though I would very strongly resist a label of "irrational" for what I am talking about. There are different sorts of rationality I think. Certain patterns of discourse have rationality as a way to avoid psychosis, for example. (continued)

  • Alastair

    Alastair continues… (sorry it's a long one)
    I think that radical choice can, as it were, create worlds (even if only for the chooser) and be emancipating. Stanley Cavell has recently written an essay on Kierkegaard in which he critices K for not extending this power of existential choice (and a world created this way) to the community, which can similarly be emancipated, which is again the challenge of Marxism. (Kierkegaard was against socialism, because he believed it to be inimical to extraordinariness in individuals, and his whole output seems to have been an exploration of how that could be manifested in life, which led to the focus, in some of his work, on religious genius – like Abraham in "Fear and Trembling") However, my feeling is that at the deepest level, the values (worlds) invoked by the radical choosing are not accessible to the rationality supposed by Kant to be a genesis of universal man (universal truths, universal laws, etc.) This is the rationality extended by Fichte and Hegel that culminates (so to speak) in the philosophy of praxis that is Marxism (and the end of philosophy to its adherents).
    Incommensurability of values, combined with the objectivity of values (good meets good and cannot be resolved by a universal rational critique), is the interpretation that Gray gives to the thought of Isaiah Berlin, and gives rise to what Gray advocated (in 1995 at least) as "agonistic liberalism", which upholds the toleration of competing values between which individuals choose in "agony".
    My (limited) reading on the strand of German Romantic thinking on language (Hamann and Herder), as well as Wittgenstein's trajectory through logical anlaysis of language to an emphasis on language usage as "truth"-founding, has tended to make Gray's ideas more powerful.

    The drawback is (as someone indicated earlier) that liberalism has been played out as if it IS THE (universal) RATIONAL answer, when "agonistic liberalism" as envisaged by Gray and, presumably Berlin, knows itself to be limited (but not irrational) – i.e. it knows it's debt to Romanticism.

    In between other readings, I took an opportunity to view a talk given by Slavoj Zizek (a self-described Communist)in 2007, on "materialsm and theology", which is available on YouTube. It is a great demonstration of a secular materialist thinker who
    clearly treats religious practice seriously, and is respectful of it, and knowledgeable too.