If you follow Socrates' line of thought, the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if, when you examine it, it’s worth even less? That is John Gray’s conclusion; in fact it’s the beginning, middle and end of his entirely nihilistic polemic, Straw Dogs, in which he catalogues a history of rapacious human activity, taking down science, philosophy and everything in between.
“To believe in progress is to believe that, by using the new powers given to us by growing scientific knowledge, humans can free themselves from the limits that frame the lives of other animals. This is the hope of nearly everybody nowadays, but it is groundless. For though human knowledge will very likely continue to grow and with it human power, the human animal will stay the same: a highly inventive species that is also one of the most predatory and destructive.”
That is just one of many quotable extracts from Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, which essentially amounts to an anti-humanistic diatribe in which Gray denounces every action and theory of our irresponsible making. At worst, we are a dangerous self-serving cretinous bunch; at best, we’re positively mad, which would fit neatly with Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Indeed, it’s to Einstein that Sigmund Freud articulated a similar kind of despair in a 1930s letter referenced by Gray in this essay where Gray quotes Freud musing on man’s “active instinct for hatred and destruction”. Such fatalistic observations are what led to Freud being ridiculed, says Gray: his seemingly harsh take on our inherently flawed nature was an affront to our inflated sense of self-importance.
According to Gray, progress is a myth that we cling to in desperation, because the alternative - to accept the futility of it all - is just too unbearable.
Four legs good, two legs better?
We convince ourselves that we are smarter and better than animals, when in reality our ability to ponder the nature of our existence only leads to greater “planetary malady”. We repeat the errors of the past in blind faith that they will lead to a better outcome. War, says Gray, is our desperate bid for freedom and history is but “a treadmill turned by rising human numbers”.
Science comes under a particularly ferocious attack. Gray declares that “it will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their own urgent ends – even if that result is ruin”.
It’s a deeply despondent view of the world. But depending where you stand in the burgeoning/catastrophic times that represent the 21st century, it’s hard to resist, given the rate at which we are decimating an already heaving planet.
However, Straw Dogs has one fatal flaw of a contradiction, and that is Gray’s fundamental premise that life is meaningless and we are slaves to the effort to make it otherwise:
“Our only real religion is a shallow faith in the future; and yet we have no idea what the future will bring. None but the incorrigibly feckless any longer believe in taking the long view. Saving is gambling, careers and pensions are high-level punts. The few who are seriously rich hedge their bets. The proles – the rest of us – live from day to day.”
And yet this is precisely the approach he advocates, concluding the book by imploring us to “simply be”, to see the world as it is and accept our lot – to stop searching for meaning when the meaning is existence itself.
That’s arguably the most apt lesson for living for the fatally optimistic pessimist that Gray is riling against. It would surely pain Gray to say so, but Straw Dogs could almost be read as a self-help guide for the beleaguered thinking classes.