The Most Harmful Fiction That’s Ever Been Promoted Anywhere

The philosopher Roger Scruton wrote something a couple years ago that’s really stuck with me. […]

David Zahl / 3.5.13

flightThe philosopher Roger Scruton wrote something a couple years ago that’s really stuck with me. He said, “in order to see human beings as they are, therefore, and to school oneself in the art of loving them, it is necessary to apply a dose of pessimism to all one’s plans and aspirations.” It’s very similar to what a certain colleague meant when he observed that, as a Christian minister, he’s had a lot more compassion and patience for “his flock” since he realized that everyone, himself included, is pretty much insane. “That’s so dark”, you say. “It’s not the whole picture.” Maybe/hopefully so! But what’s more sanity-producing: to be surprised by acts of kindness or to expect them? You don’t have to look far (your own heart) to find that expectation breeds resentment, or as we like to say, judgment kills love.

There’s an adjective for those who go through life disappointed that other people don’t act as they would have them act, a term to describe those of us who blame the world for its failure to conform to our notions of propriety and decency. “Bitter.” Political junkies are particularly susceptible, but we also see this in churches, where the leadership comes to resent the congregation for not tithing more, or coming to Sunday services more regularly, or exhibiting more “fruit” in their personal lives. It’s toxic, to say the least, but like a car with bad wheel alignment, we always seem pulled in that direction, do we not? This is just one way in which an inflated anthropology capsizes love for one’s neighbor, not to mention recognition of need.

All this simply by way of an introduction to one of the more articulate blasts of pessimism I’ve come across since that Scruton article, namely, The Spectator interview with English philosopher John Gray. It’s a refreshing and boldy Romans 7-like take on the dynamic of freedom vs control, enough to remind a person of that great scene in Flight, where an inebriated Denzel shouts over and over “I choose to drink!” to which his lady-friend replies “Oh yeah? Doesn’t look like a whole lot of choice going on.” A few of the more relevant exchanges follow (for his slightly unorthodox take on atheism, you’ll have to read whole interview), ht CR:

book_the_silence_of_animalsIn your new book you say: ‘to think of humans as freedom loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.’ Could you elaborate on this point?

Well there is a certain common view nowadays which says: what human beings have been until quite recently is different from what they really are. And only now do human beings have the chance to be what they are, which many people think is to be free. If we think of Homer; or the way things are described in the Bible; or medieval life: all these other ways of life are somehow today seen as not fully human. There is supposed to be a kind of essence to humanity, in which human beings want to shape their own lives.

So are you denying that it’s a natural human impulse to crave freedom?

Of course not. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the periods of freedom that we’ve had in human history. I’m just saying that it’s not the only human impulse, and rarely is it the most powerful one. You begin to see that when life becomes unsettled, when there are dangers, especially that people cannot understand. It’s then that human beings tend to look at solutions to these problems that typically involve restricting freedoms. In other words: when life gets rough, the need for freedom, or the impulse for freedom, which is real —it’s part of the human constitution you might say— tends very commonly to be eclipsed by other needs. These can simply be for security, or they can be darker needs to bolster up an identity to attack, marginalize, or even exterminate others. These are all classic human responses. The idea that humans are by nature free is one of the most harmful fictions that’s ever been promoted anywhere…

Why do you dispute the notion that knowledge is a pacifying force?

fWell there is this notion in some intellectual circles that evil is a kind of error: that if you get more knowledge you won’t commit the error. People often say: if we get more knowledge for human psychology won’t that help? No. All knowledge is ambiguous in this way. The Nazis were very good at using their knowledge at mass psychology. Or if you were a Russian revolutionary like Lenin, you might use the knowledge of the causes of inflation to take control of the central bank, create hyper-inflation and bring about your revolutionary project. So knowledge can never eradicate the conflicts of the human world, or produce harmony where there are conflicting goals to start with. Because knowledge is used by human beings as a tool to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve…

You also argue that the need for silence is distinctively human. Why do other animals not need this silence?

What distinguishes humans from animals is precisely this need to tell stories. What people seem to want is not to be caught in the shroud of language. Silence for other animals means rest. But the noise that other animals flee is created by other animals. Humans are the only animals that flee internal noise. Humans throughout history, and prehistory, have engaged in all sorts of meditation, either to shift the way they perceive the world, or to produce in themselves, some state of silence, from which something else will come.