05 February 2019

The Gray Area

The angry English prophet of muddling through life, John Gray, has published another book. Seven Types of Atheism, as described by Christopher Beha in the February 21 New York Review of Books, covers not only the "New Atheists" Gray has often criticized but also secular humanists, scientific rationalists, progressive ideologues (Marxist or otherwise), misotheists (who hate the idea and character of the Abrahamic god), materialists and skeptics. The last two categories are the most acceptable to Gray because they reject idealism and the overly-optimistic redemption narrative of Christian culture. They do not seek the elimination of religion from society, while those who do, Gray has argued before, simply substitute a secular or scientist myth of permanent progress for the Christian original and thus are no better. Indeed, Gray often argues that the New Atheists are worse, not only misunderstanding the true purpose of myth but failing to comprehend the importance of myth to coping with objectively futile existence. In place of religious or secular crusades Gray recommends a contemplative life, aspiring to an "inner freedom" indifferent to forms of government and other causes of worry or anger.

Beha clearly isn't happy with the political implications of what he calls Gray's quietism. He acknowledges that Gray allows for ameliorative political action, but observes that "motivating even these narrow but necessary acts often requires a grand vision of the possibilities for permanent change." People need to believe that positive change is irreversible, but Gray doesn't allow for that. He doesn't  quite endorse the old cyclical view of history, but he rejects the "whiggish" notion of inevitable progress. Gray's error -- if not Beha's-- , so it seems from this second-hand glance, is his assumption that modern political ideology  assumes that progress must be permanent. Since Macchiavelli's time, depending on who you read, political thinkers have been all too conscious of the cyclical nature of history but have tried to beat the system. Centuries of small-r republican theory have been dedicated to contriving a political order to prevent the sort of decadence the ancients believed to be inevitable. Marxist-Leninists have been similarly preoccupied with the danger of backsliding, arguably to an irrational degree in their zeal to root out counterrevolutionaries, capitalist-roaders etc. Their concerns are not really analogous to the scriptual monotheists' obsession with heresy. Modern liberalism of the sort identified with the Democratic party is perhaps more millenarian in this sense in its faith that a bureaucratic welfare state can become a perpetual-motion machine permitting all of us to be whatever we want to be without consequences. Political thinking in general has been more realistic in acknowledging a need for active participation by citizens in holding back decadence and corruption. I'm not ready to concede that this is merely some variant of evangelical zeal, as Gray may believe, simply because it works from the assumption that nothing we do is irreversible. If liberals like Beha acknowledged as much, they might have less reason to worry about what pessimists like Gray think.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Centuries of small-r republican theory have been dedicated to contriving a political order to prevent the sort of decadence the ancients believed to be inevitable."

The problem, of course, being that they think that the problem lies in political philosophy, rather than in human nature. The obvious answer (although also most inhuman) is to set up the "ideal" society, then execute anyone who falls outside the "norm". For some reason, no one ever seems to want to make the hard choice, hoping, rather, that "this time it will be different." It will never be different as long as human nature remains the same.