Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

John Gray's pessimistic yet ultimately liberating view is that humans think life could be better than it is, and that change is possible. Gray says, like the animals, we should accept life as it is and eschew notions of progress. 

According to British philosopher John Gray, human beings are different from animals in that we have ideas about ourselves and how life should be. Our minds are filled with thousands and thousands of words - ceaseless noise - tormenting us into thinking that life should be better than it is. This has led us as a species to believe in our own human perfectablility.

The philosophy of humanism, which is our own secular religion, insists that we are on an inexorable path to progress. We can expect life to get better, because we are rational, intelligent human beings. John Gray says this is a myth. He insists that while science continues to make advances, human psychology stays hopelessly the same.

Animals, however, are not tortured by words and their own ideology of progress. While they have methods of communication with each other, and ways of interpreting the world around them, their minds are not prey to the distressing cognitive noise that so preoccupies humans. Animals accept the world as it is and don’t mourn an imagined utopia. John Gray suggests we should turn away from our unrealistic myths of progress, try to clear the ceaseless noise in our heads, and try to live like the animals, accepting life as it is.

To illustrate his argument, Gray uses examples from writers and poets such as J.G Ballard, Freud, Wallace Stevens and Arthur Koestler, to name a few. Indeed, the text liberally quotes a wide range of writers. Gray clearly finds literature both inspiring and aesthetically satisfying, giving The Silence of Animals a rich tone that in part reads like literary appreciation.

The Silence of Animals is a both pessimistic and liberating. It liberates the reader from the constant hurly-burly of modern life, with its imperative for change and improvement. It’s also sobering, as it suggests that we are flawed animals that think too much and too well of ourselves.

The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths, by John Gray. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780241953914  RRP: $19.99

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