On the eve of the Iraq war, John Gray published an essay in the New Statesman entitled ‘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)’. It suggested that there should be a universal right to torture enforceable by regime change and that torturers should receive counselling for the mental traumas they suffered.
The trouble is that few readers got the joke. ‘Months and years later’, Gray observes, ‘I continued to receive protests taking me task for my indecent suggestions’.
The episode might say something about the sense of humour of New Statesman readers (or lack of it). Or it might just be that, when it comes to Gray’s writing, it is genuinely difficult to separate the serious from the satirical. After all what can you say about a professor of philosophy who insists that ‘All prevailing philosophies embody the fiction that human life can be changed at will.’ Or who believes that ‘The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose’?
Gray makes such claims not in self-parody but with deadly earnestness. Perhaps those New Statesman readers were not so lacking in humour after all.
The essays collected in Gray’s Anatomy span more than 30 years. The world has changed immensely in that time, as has Gray himself. What has remained constant is his despair about what it is to be human. ‘Humans think they are free, conscious beings’, Gray suggests, when ‘in truth they are deluded animals’.
Most deluded are those humans who believe in progress. Scientific knowledge accumulates, Gray writes, but there is no accumulation of moral wisdom. Slavery was abolished in the nineteenth century yet millions remain enslaved today. Nearly a century after torture was outlawed, American government officials write memos to justify it.
Not only is progress in ethics and politics a fiction but the very attempt to make the world a better place can only lead to mass slaughter and corrupt the human spirit. It ensures that ‘we do not accept our lives for what they are but instead consider them always for what they might become.’
The trouble is, it is difficult to know how slavery could have been abolished in the first place, or torture outlawed, unless people believed it was possible to act upon the world to change it. It is true that people still get enslaved and tortured. But our abhorrence of the continued practice of slavery and the widespread condemnation of America’s use of torture are themselves measures of moral progress. And, however despicable waterboarding may be, even Donald Rumsfeld never considered, as far as I know, breaking people on a rack. That, too, is progress.
The real problem today is not belief that the world can be changed at will but disbelief that it can be changed at all. That’s why the gloomier that Gray’s prognostications have become, the more he has come to be seen as a national treasure. His messianic pessimism has turned him into a prophet for out times.
The question that Gray never addresses is why a world in which we have given up ideas of betterment should be a world worth living in. The blind acceptance of Utopian ideas can certainly be corrupting. But so, too, can be the blind rejection of Utopianism. ‘Other animals do not need a purpose in life’, Gray observes at the very end of the book, so why can’t humans too ‘think of the aim of life as being simply to see?’ Perhaps because the existence of suffering and injustice presents us with a moral imperative. And ‘seeing’ injustice without challenging it seems to many of us to be deeply immoral.