15.00: John Gray
Esteemed political philosopher John Gray has written The Silence of Animals, a sequel to his 2002 publication Straw Dogs. Gray lectured for fifteen minutes on his philosophical position before the audience was given a chance to respond. He made clear from the start he is no preacher. He does not want to convert any one. He simply wants ‘to present a number of thoughts in the hope they will be useful.’
Straw Dogs was Gray’s attack on liberal humanism. Critics and philosophers alike declaimed him as a pessimist for spreading the idea that progress is an illusion. The Silence of Animals examines historical figures who, for one reason or another, ‘couldn’t look to progress in their own lives’. In doing so Gray shows how a disbelief in progress doesn’t necessarily end in doom and gloom. Llewellyn Powys, Arthur Koestler and H.G. Well’s lover, Baroness Budburg, all led intensely difficult lives but nonetheless managed to find fulfilment in one way or another.
Gray was careful to clarify the standard definition of progress: ‘ethical improvements can be something like advances in science’. But he believes that, unlike knowledge, civilisation can regress. His claim that barbarism can return almost instantaneously is given validity by the American government’s recent use of ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques, i.e. torture. Modern ideas of progress are rooted in a teleological view of history that arose during the enlightenment. Before then a view of history as cyclical was the norm. Part of Gray’s project is to ‘bring us back to a historical reality’ that sees periods of social stability as rare.
The chair, Claire Armistead, opened the questions in a slip-shod manner, causing one to wonder if she had done her research. The answer to her misconception that the title of Straw Dogs is a ‘riff on Peckinpah’s film’ is in the first line Gray’s book: it is a quotation from a Taoist scripture. Questions from the floor followed thick and fast. Gray asserted his stance against moral relativism, clarified the philosophical position of his mentor, Isaiah Berlin, and explained the differences between humans and animals.
Gray is a perfect pick for the Book Festival, a place jam-packed with liberal progressives lounging around in deckchairs. If you’re not afraid of confronting your own beliefs and prejudices read Straw Dogs. And if you’re feeling despondent after having your illusions blasted out of the water? The Silence of Animals is the cure for you.