The Fallacy of Human Freedom


By Robert W. Merry
June 25, 2013

JEAN-JACQUES Rousseau famously lamented, “Man is born to be free—and is everywhere in chains!” To which Alexander Herzen, a nineteenth-century Russian journalist and thinker, replied, in a dialogue he concocted between a believer in human freedom and a skeptic, “Fish are born to fly—but everywhere they swim!” In Herzen’s dialogue, the skeptic offers plenty of evidence for his theory that fish are born to fly: fish skeletons, after all, show extremities with the potential to develop into legs and wings; and there are of course so-called flying fish, which proves a capacity to fly in certain circumstances. Having presented his evidence, the skeptic asks the believer why he doesn’t demand from Rousseau a similar justification for his statement that man must be free, given that he seems to be always in chains. “Why,” he asks, “does everything else exist as it ought to exist, whereas with man, it is the opposite?”

This intriguing exchange was pulled from Herzen’s writings by John Gray, the acclaimed British philosopher and academic, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. As the title suggests, Gray doesn’t hold with that dialogue’s earnest believer in freedom—though he has nothing against freedom. He casts his lot with the skeptic because he doesn’t believe freedom represents the culmination of mankind’s earthly journey. “The overthrow of the ancien régime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt may have produced benefits for many people,” writes Gray, “but increased freedom was not among them. Mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown—these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.”

Such thinking puts Gray severely at odds with the predominant sentiment of modern Western man—indeed, essentially with the foundation of Western thought since at least the French Encyclopedists of the mid-eighteenth century, who paved the way for the transformation of France between 1715 and 1789. These romantics—Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, Helvétius and Voltaire, among others—harbored ultimate confidence that reason would triumph over prejudice, that knowledge would prevail over ignorance, that “progress” would lift mankind to ever-higher levels of consciousness and purity. In short, they foresaw an ongoing transformation of human nature for the good.

The noted British historian J. B. Bury (1861–1927) captured the power of this intellectual development when he wrote, “This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions . . . laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress.”

We must pause here over this doctrine of progress. It may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. “No single idea,” wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, “has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.” The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”

Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”

GRAY’S REJECTION of progress has powerful implications, and his book is an attempt to grapple with many of them. We shall grapple with them as well here, but first a look at Gray himself is in order. He was born into a working-class family in 1948 in South Shields, England, and studied at Oxford. He gravitated early to an academic life, teaching eventually at Oxford and the London School of Economics. He retired from the LSE in 2008 after a long career there. Gray has produced more than twenty books demonstrating an expansive intellectual range, a penchant for controversy, acuity of analysis and a certain political clairvoyance.

He rejected, for example, Francis Fukuyama’s heralded “End of History” thesis—that Western liberal democracy represents the final form of human governance—when it appeared in this magazine in 1989. History, it turned out, lingered long enough to prove Gray right and Fukuyama wrong. Similarly, Gray’s 1998 book, False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, predicted that the global economic system, then lauded as a powerful new reality, would fracture under its own weight. The reviews were almost universally negative—until Russia defaulted on its debt, “and the phones started ringing,” as he recalled in a recent interview with writer John Preston. When many Western thinkers viewed post-Soviet Russia as inevitably moving toward Western-style democracy, Gray rejected that notion based on seventy years of Bolshevism and Russia’s pre-Soviet history. Again, events proved him correct.

Though often stark in his opinions, Gray is not an ideologue. He has shifted his views of contemporary politics in response to unfolding events and developments. As a young man, he was a Labour Party stalwart but gravitated to Margaret Thatcher’s politics after he concluded, in the late 1970s, that Labour had succumbed to “absurdist leftism.” In the late 1980s, disenchanted with the “hubristic triumphalism” of the Tories, he returned to Labour. But he resolutely opposed the Iraq invasion led by America’s George W. Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair, and today he pronounces himself to be a steadfast Euroskeptic.

Though for decades his reputation was confined largely to intellectual circles, Gray’s public profile rose significantly with the 2002 publication of Straw Dogs, which sold impressively and brought him much wider acclaim than he had known before. The book was a concerted and extensive assault on the idea of progress and its philosophical offspring, secular humanism. The Silence of Animals is in many ways a sequel, plowing much the same philosophical ground but expanding the cultivation into contiguous territory mostly related to how mankind—and individual humans—might successfully grapple with the loss of both metaphysical religion of yesteryear and today’s secular humanism. The fundamentals of Gray’s critique of progress are firmly established in both books and can be enumerated in summary.

First, the idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. “Today,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.”

Second, the underlying problem with this humanist impulse is that it is based upon an entirely false view of human nature—which, contrary to the humanist insistence that it is malleable, is immutable and impervious to environmental forces. Indeed, it is the only constant in politics and history. Of course, progress in scientific inquiry and in resulting human comfort is a fact of life, worth recognition and applause. But it does not change the nature of man, any more than it changes the nature of dogs or birds. “Technical progress,” writes Gray, again in Straw Dogs, “leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”

That’s because, third, the underlying nature of humans is bred into the species, just as the traits of all other animals are. The most basic trait is the instinct for survival, which is placed on hold when humans are able to live under a veneer of civilization. But it is never far from the surface. In The Silence of Animals, Gray discusses the writings of Curzio Malaparte, a man of letters and action who found himself in Naples in 1944, shortly after the liberation. There he witnessed a struggle for life that was gruesome and searing. “It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life,” wrote Malaparte. “Only for life. Only to save one’s skin.” Gray elaborates:

Observing the struggle for life in the city, Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be—shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong—disappeared. What were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.

When civilization is stripped away, the raw animal emerges. “Darwin showed that humans are like other animals,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, expressing in this instance only a partial truth. Humans are different in a crucial respect, captured by Gray himself when he notes that Homo sapiens inevitably struggle with themselves when forced to fight for survival. No other species does that, just as no other species has such a range of spirit, from nobility to degradation, or such a need to ponder the moral implications as it fluctuates from one to the other. But, whatever human nature is—with all of its capacity for folly, capriciousness and evil as well as virtue, magnanimity and high-mindedness—it is embedded in the species through evolution and not subject to manipulation by man-made institutions.

Fourth, the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine—the idea of providence, of redemption. Gray notes in The Silence of Animals that no other civilization conceived any such phenomenon as the end of time, a concept given to the world by Jesus and St. Paul. Classical thinking, as well as the thinking of the ancient Egyptians and later of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Shintoism and early Judaism, saw humanity as reflecting the rest of the natural world—essentially unchanging but subject to cycles of improvement and deterioration, rather like the seasons.

“By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs,” writes Gray, “Christianity . . . founded the modern world.” But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world—the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the “myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world.” Thus did a fundamental change emerge in what was hoped of the future. And, as the power of Christian faith ebbed, along with its idea of providence, the idea of progress, tied to the Socratic myth, emerged to fill the gap. “Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress,” Gray explains. “But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.”

Thus, it isn’t surprising that today’s Western man should cling so tenaciously to his faith in progress as a secular version of redemption. As Gray writes, “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.” In one of his more brutal passages, he adds:

Humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith. They see the realization of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal. They exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Plainly absurd, this nonsense gives meaning to the lives of people who believe they have left all myths behind.

IN THE Silence of Animals, Gray explores all this through the works of various writers and thinkers. In the process, he employs history and literature to puncture the conceits of those who cling to the progress idea and the humanist view of human nature. Those conceits, it turns out, are easily punctured when subjected to Gray’s withering scrutiny.

Gray pulls from the past Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) and Joseph Roth (1894–1939), noted Austrian authors and journalists, both of Jewish origin, who wrote extensively about what Austria had been like under the Hapsburg crown. As Zweig described it in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, the vast Hapsburg Empire seemed to be a tower of permanence, where “nothing would change in the well-regulated order.” Zweig added, “No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.” In Roth’s novella, The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), he describes the tidy uniformity of Austrian life. All provincial railway stations looked alike—small and painted yellow. The porter was the same everywhere, clothed in the same blue uniform. He saluted each incoming and outgoing train as “a kind of military blessing.” People knew where they stood in society and accepted it.

This little world was utterly destroyed with the fall of the Hapsburgs after World War I, and many heralded the departure of this obsolete system of royalist governance. After all, the polyglot empire was not a modern state, even during its final sixty years or so when Franz Joseph finally embraced new technology such as railroads and telegraphic communication. But the old system lacked some of the “ancient evils,” as Gray puts it, that more modern states later revived in pursuit of what they anticipated as a better world. Torture had been abolished under the Hapsburgs. Bigotry and hatred, while evident in society, were kept in check by an authoritarian monarchy that didn’t have to respond to mass movements spawned in the name of self-government. “Only with the struggle for national self-determination,” writes Gray, “did it come to be believed that every human being had to belong to a group defined in opposition to others.”

As Roth wrote in his short story “The Emperor’s Bust”:

All those people who had never been other than Austrians, in Tarnopol, in Sarajevo, in Vienna, in Brunn, in Prague, in Czernowitz, in Oderburg, in Troppau, never anything other than Austrians, they now began, in compliance with the “order of the day,” to call themselves part of the Polish, the Czech, the Ukrainian, the German, the Romanian, the Slovenian, the Croatian “nation”—and so on and so forth.

Roth could see that the declining devices of empire were being replaced “by modern emblems of blood and soil,” as Gray puts it. Thus, Roth’s progressive, future-gazing outlook soon gave way to a kind of reactionary nostalgia. Gray explains:

Along with the formation of nations there was the “problem of national minorities.” Ethnic cleansing—the forcible expulsion and migration of these minorities—was an integral part of building democracy in central and eastern Europe. Progressive thinkers viewed this process as a stage on the way to universal self-determination. Roth had no such illusions. He knew the end-result could only be mass murder. Writing to Zweig in 1933, he warned: “We are drifting towards great catastrophes . . . it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have established a reign of barbarity.”

Both Roth and Zweig died before they could see the full magnitude of this barbarity. But, whatever one may think of the Hapsburg Empire and what came after, it is difficult to see that train of events as representing human progress. Rather, it more accurately is seen as just another episode, among multitudes, of the haphazard human struggle upon the earth.

AND YET the myth of progress is so powerful in part because it gives meaning to modern Westerners struggling, in an irreligious era, to place themselves in a philosophical framework larger than just themselves. That is the lesson of Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress (1896), discussed by Gray as a reflection of man’s need to fight off despair and gloom. The story centers on two Belgian traders, Kayerts and Carlier, sent by their company to a remote part of the Congo, where a native interpreter lures them into a slave-trading transaction. Though initially shocked to be involved in such an activity, they later think better of themselves after receiving the valuable elephant tusks put up as trade for human chattel, as well as after reading old newspapers extolling “Our Colonial Expansion” and “the merits of those who went about bringing light, faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth.”

But the steamer they were expecting doesn’t arrive, and their languid outpost existence is darkened by the threat of starvation. In a fight over a few lumps of sugar, Carlier is killed. In desperation, Kayerts decides to kill himself. He’s hanging from a gravesite cross when the steamer arrives shortly afterward. Conrad describes Kayerts’s disillusionment as he contemplates what he has done and his ultimate insignificance born of placing himself outside civilization: “His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! Appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous.”

And yet he can’t quite give up his attachment to civilization or progress even as he ponders his predicament. “Progress was calling Kayerts from the river,” writes Conrad. “Progress and civilisation and all the virtues. Society was calling to its accomplished child to come to be taken care of, to be instructed, to be judged, to be condemned; it called him to return from that rubbish heap from which he had wandered away, so that justice could be done”—justice administered by himself, in a final bow to the permanence of civilization and the myth of progress.

Gray notes that Conrad himself had traveled to the Congo in 1890 to take command of a river steamer. He arrived thinking he was a civilized human being but later thought differently: “Before the Congo, I was just a mere animal,” he wrote, referring to European humanity—which, as Gray notes, “caused the deaths of millions of human beings in the Congo.” Gray elaborates:

The idea that imperialism could be a force for human advance has long since fallen into disrepute. But the faith that was once attached to empire has not been renounced. Instead it has spread everywhere. Even those who nominally follow more traditional creeds rely on a belief in the future for their mental composure. History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but—everyone insists—the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair like that which unhinged Kayerts.

This perception leads Gray to a long passage of praise for Sigmund Freud, who “reformulated one of the central insights of religion: humans are cracked vessels.” Freud, writes Gray, saw the obstacles to human fulfillment as not only external but also within the human psyche itself. Unlike earlier therapies and those that came after, however, Freud’s approach did not seek to heal the soul. As Gray explains, psychotherapy generally has viewed the normal conflicts of the mind as ailments in need of remedy. “For Freud, on the other hand,” writes Gray, “it is the hope of a life without conflict that ails us.” Most philosophies and religions have begun with the assumption that humans are sickly animals, and Freud didn’t depart from this perception. “Where he was original,” says Gray, “was in also accepting that the human sickness has no cure.” Thus, he advocated a life based on the acceptance of perpetual unrest, a prerequisite to human assertion against fate and avoidance of the inner turmoil that led to Kayerts’s suicide.

This insight emerges as the underlying thesis of Gray’s book. As he sums up, “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of any oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.” In other words, we don’t need religion and we don’t need the idea of progress because we don’t need redemption, either divine or temporal. We simply need to accept our fate, as they did in the classical age, before the Socratic faith in knowledge and the Christian concept of redemption combined to form the modern idea of progress and the belief in the infinite malleability of human nature.

IN THE end, then, Gray’s message is largely for individual Westerners, adjudged by the author to be in need of a more stark and unblinking view of the realities of human existence. It’s a powerful message, and not without elements of profundity. And it is conveyed with eloquence of language and dignity of thought.

But this is a magazine about man as a political animal, about public policy and the ongoing drama of geopolitical force and competition. Thus, it would seem appropriate to seek to apply Gray’s view of progress and human nature to that external world. The idea of progress was a long time in gestation in Western thought, beginning perhaps with St. Augustine of Hippo, in the fifth century, who crystallized the concept of the unity of all mankind, a fundamental tenet of both Christian theology and the idea of progress. It drove Christianity toward its impulse of conversion and missionary zeal, which led later, in a more secular age, to impulses of humanitarianism and a desire to spread democracy around the world. And Gray is correct in suggesting that the theological idea of man’s immanent journey toward perfection and a golden age of happiness on earth would lead much later to utopian dreams, revolutionary prescriptions, socialist formulas, racialist theories and democratic crusades.

But it wasn’t until René Descartes (1596–1650) that Western thought began its turn toward humanism. He posited two fundamental axioms—the supremacy of reason and the invariability of the laws of nature. And he insisted his analytical methods were available to any ordinary seeker of truth willing to follow his rules of inquiry. No longer was knowledge the exclusive preserve of scholars, scientists, archivists and librarians. This was revolutionary—man declaring his independence in pursuit of knowledge and mastery of the universe. It unleashed a spree of intellectual ferment in Europe, and soon the Cartesian method was applied to new realms of thinking. The idea of progress took on a new, expanded outlook—humanism, the idea that man is the measure of all things. As J. B. Bury notes in his book The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Growth and Origin (1920), psychology, morals and the structure of society now riveted the attention of new thinkers bent on going beyond the larger “supra-human” inquiries (astronomy and physics, for example) that had preoccupied Bacon, Newton, Leibniz and even Descartes.

And that led inevitably to those eighteenth-century French Encyclopedists and the emergence of their intellectual offspring, Rousseau, who twisted the idea of progress into a call for the use of civic force on behalf of a culminating paradise on earth that Rousseau called a “reign of virtue.” Shortly thereafter, his adherents and intellectual heirs pulled France into what became known as the Reign of Terror.

Much of the human folly catalogued by Gray in The Silence of Animals makes a mockery of the earnest idealism of those who later shaped and molded and proselytized humanist thinking into today’s predominant Western civic philosophy. But other Western philosophers, particularly in the realm of Anglo-Saxon thought, viewed the idea of progress in much more limited terms. They rejected the idea that institutions could reshape mankind and usher in a golden era of peace and happiness. As Bury writes, “The general tendency of British thought was to see salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard change with suspicion.” With John Locke, these thinkers restricted the proper role of government to the need to preserve order, protect life and property, and maintain conditions in which men might pursue their own legitimate aims. No zeal here to refashion human nature or remake society.

A leading light in this category of thinking was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the British statesman and philosopher who, writing in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, characterized the bloody events of the Terror as “the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.” He saw them, in other words, as reflecting an abstractionist outlook that lacked any true understanding of human nature. The same skepticism toward the French model was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, who believed with Burke that human nature isn’t malleable but rather potentially harmful to society. Hence, it needed to be checked. The central distinction between the American and French revolutions, in the view of conservative writer Russell Kirk, was that the Americans generally held a “biblical view of man and his bent toward sin,” whereas the French opted for “an optimistic doctrine of human goodness.” Thus, the American governing model emerged as a secular covenant “designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud . . . [and] place checks upon will and appetite.”

Most of the American Founders rejected the French philosophes in favor of the thought and history of the Roman Republic, where there was no idea of progress akin to the current Western version. “Two thousand years later,” writes Kirk, “the reputation of the Roman constitution remained so high that the framers of the American constitution would emulate the Roman model as best they could.” They divided government powers among men and institutions and created various checks and balances. Even the American presidency was modeled generally on the Roman consular imperium, and the American Senate bears similarities to the Roman version. Thus did the American Founders deviate from the French abstractionists and craft governmental structures to fit humankind as it actually is—capable of great and noble acts, but also of slipping into vice and treachery when unchecked. That ultimately was the genius of the American system.

But, as the American success story unfolded, a new collection of Western intellectuals, theorists and utopians—including many Americans—continued to toy with the idea of progress. And an interesting development occurred. After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of “Progress as Power” thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression.

Gray calls these intellectuals “ichthyophils,” which he defines as “devoted to their species as they think it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be.” He elaborates: “Ichthyophils come in many varieties—the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.” He includes also “the Romantics, who believe human individuality is everywhere repressed.”

Throughout American politics, as indeed throughout Western politics, a large proportion of major controversies ultimately are battles between the ichthyophils and the Burkeans, between the sensibility of the French Revolution and the sensibility of American Revolution, between adherents of the idea of progress and those skeptical of that potent concept. John Gray has provided a major service in probing with such clarity and acuity the impulses, thinking and aims of those on the ichthyophil side of that great divide. As he sums up, “Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.”

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