In 1961 Martin Luther King Jr. told an audience on the New York University campus: “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”
This seems an easier idea to accept than what John Gray is presenting us with in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. The book wants us to accept that there is no progress, and more than that, the idea of progress itself is mythical. A fiction.
No matter your reaction, you will find this a fascinating read. Gray is conversant with authors I’ve never heard of, and of the writers and thinkers I’ve read and know, he casts into a new light with his lateral, almost poetic thinking.
In the first part of the book Gray examines what he calls “an old chaos” -- the human propensity to sink to barbarism. Civilization, to Gray, is a thin veneer, and he makes this case quite devastatingly. He introduced me to some writers and thinkers who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, both world wars, depression, pogroms and purges … many of the darkest moments of the 20th century. (In particular, I was intrigued by his etymology of the Orwellian idea -- which is not Orwellian at all -- that two plus two could equal five.) Despite these stories of human depravity, I could not square his statement that progress does not exist with the reality we see today. By all measures, the human condition has improved. Some may argue that we have reached its zenith, but that is not what Gray is trying to convince us. He wants us to see that it is a delusion.
In the second part of the book, called “Beyond the Last Thought,” Gray is much more successful. His argument here shifts to the idea of myth. His ruminations on Freud are fascinating, and his discussion of myth and language is worth a read of the book on its own. The following quote is one of my favorites from the book:
Negative theologians use language as Mauthner thought it should be used: to point to something (not a thing in any ordinary sense) that cannot be expressed in words. If only that is real which can be captured in language, God is unreal. But it is not only ‘God’ that is unreal in this way -- abstractions that have featured in the catechisms of unbelief. 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.
And of course, in the final part, “Another Sunlight”, Gray leads us on this pathway, though by the end of the book, I was not still not convinced.
He had, however, led me closer to understanding the Camus quote: “I do not believe in God and I am not an atheist.”
3.5 stars -- really worth your time, though not a complete success...