John Gray: Thatcherite philosopher who moved right

Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify the philosopher John Gray as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism and book-writing today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical.

Gray is almost a self-parody of misanthropic gloom and totally pessimistic about humanity’s prospects. In his books (eg Straw Dogs [2003] Black Mass [2007] and Freedom of Animals [2013]), written since discarding his previous Thatcherism, he dismisses all aspirations to create a better world, arguing that our efforts to improve social conditions usually make them worse, so should not even be attempted. He ends up not just with nihilism, but also with absolute moral and political relativism.

He seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.

Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. It’s unclear whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the  Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, or commitment to secularism, which he despises, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.

Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) and any concept of human progress (as either possible, or – one suspects – desirable) or freedom was well expressed in his recent review  for the New Statesman of Steven Pinker’s book Enlightenment Now. Like many of his “book reviews” this one is merely an excuse to attack an old enemy, and to rehash his own nihilism: additionally, his misrepresentations of Pinker’s arguments are so gross as to throw into question whether or not he’s even read the book.

So it was good to see that the present issue of the NS carries several letters putting Gray in his place. As letters do not appear on the NS website, I thought they deserved republication here:

It is easy for John Gray to rubbish Enlightenment thinking by showing how unenlightened  are all too many of those who claim to be motivated by it.. But then it is easy to rubbish Christianity by showing how un-Christian many of those who claimed to be motivated by Christianity were. Let us look rather at the basis of Enlightenment thought:  it implicitly starts from the absolute equality of all humans because they belong to the same biological species. This means that to be good all human societies must reflect that equality as far as it can be achieved; it means too that everyone must have the right to considerate treatment and, of course, to life itself .

Any attempt to bring about human equality by means of coercion, war and murder is itself contrary to reason. The idea that Nietzsche was an Enlightenment thinker is absurd: he was opposed to what the Enlightenment stood for, and Steven Pinker and Bertrand Russell are quite right in viewing him as its enemy. The greatest Enlightenment thinker was Kant, because he based his ethic on following a rule: actions are only right that, if universalised, they would be to the advantage of human beings as a whole. Thus, it is wrong to lie because telling the truth is to the advantage of all human beings; lying is not.

Kant thus demonstrated that the strict ethical commands of Christianity could be reached by the application of a utilitarian ethic (the greatest good of the greatest number).
-Malcolm Pittock, Bolton, Greater Manchester

Shame that John Gray fails to mention Davis Hume’s atheist classic, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion.. Hume’s point is that whatever idea of a supreme being our past humanity has used for a collective bond of survival, these are notiions that we can no longer believe in – or have to believe in.
-Mike Belbin, London SW3

In defence of Steven Pinker
I cannot help but feel I’ve been reading a very different Steven Pinker to the one portrayed in John Gray’s review of
Enlightenment Now (The Critics, 23 February). The claim that Pinker has nothing to say on tolerance or fairness is difficult to reconcile with a chapter dedicated to equal rights and Pinker’s frequent advocacy for cosmopolitanism, representative democracy and free speech.

It is true that Pinker identifies capitalism as an engine (one of many) for increased welfare and social cohesion. But his concern for those whom the system has failed is surely no mystery but is derived from the humanist values advanced in Enlightenment Now; a view to be sure Gray has challenged in his own works.

In this and his previous publications, I believe Pinker makes a compelling case that if evaluated by metrics such as the rates of violent crime, education and poverty, human well-being has improved. The appropriate response to this should not be one of complacency. Rather the belief that progress is attainable, fragile and hard-fought demands an energetic response that reasserts our duties to one another.
-Tim Eapen, Via email

I should add, on a personal note, that I’m no great fan of Steven Pinker’s ‘scientific’ liberalism, and his sometimes sloppy scholarship (fairly critiqued here), but surely any Marxist (except, it seems this one) must side 100% with him against the arch-reactionary Gray?

I hope it goes without saying that I’m not arguing that Gray’s views shouldnt be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as a regular and prominently featured book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”

  • Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here
  • Kenan Malik also on the attack, here

3 thoughts on “John Gray: Thatcherite philosopher who moved right

  1. “The greatest Enlightenment thinker was Kant, because he based his ethic on following a rule: actions are only right that, if universalised, they would be to the advantage of human beings as a whole. Thus, it is wrong to lie because telling the truth is to the advantage of all human beings; lying is not.”

    Kant also said that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves, not as means to an end.

    Or more exactly, “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means.”

    There is a rich tradition of socialist thought, including a Marxist strain, which is deeply inspired by Kant’s ideas, notably in discussing – critically in the historical context – these principles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be fair, I think Marx was against treating people as ends in themselves. He treats people, not as individuals, but as members of a class: ruling class or proletariat/working class. In this sense, Marxism stands against the liberal idea in which thinkers such as John Rawls hark back to Kant.


  2. Mikey, I can’t comment on John Rawls (never read a word of his) but I think you’re wrong on Marx and the individual. In fact Marx wrote quite a bit about individuals (e.g. Cromwell, Napoleon, Palmerston) always placing them within a historical framework, an approach illustrated by his oft quoted, “Men make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing” (I’m quoting from memory). Later Marxists also wrote important works on the individual, I’m particularly thinking of Plekhanov’s “The Role of the Individual in History”. Trotsky wrote monographs on Lenin and Stalin. In the realm of aesthetics and literary criticism most Marxists who write on this treat the artists very much as individuals – the notion that a writer simply reflects the ideology of the time has been thoroughly discredited, see for example Gyorgy Lukacs on Dostoevsky or Thomas Mann., of for a more up-to-date example see the work of Terry Eagleton (can’t say I’m a big fan of his but that’s another story for another time). Regards, JC.


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