• Alex Vikner

Straw Dogs

Author: John Gray

Summary: Straw Dogs challenges some of our deep-held beliefs about what it means to be human. It argues that the belief in human difference is a dangerous illusion and explores how the world and human life look once humanism has been finally abandoned.

The self is an illusion and this “self” controls very little.

Our conscious mind plays a very small role, and we resist this because it strips us from a sense of control.

The unexamined life may be worth living.

The earth is self-regulating and we will be destroyed far sooner than we will destroy the earth.

Only in the modern era is work considered virtuous. This is because we believe in progress and progress condemns idleness.

The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.

We are merely a part of the animal kingdom, neither a special creation nor particularly unique.

A human population of over 8 billion can be maintained only by desolating the Earth.

Wars and destruction are inevitable, especially as the population gets larger.

Humanity's worst crimes were made possible only by modern technology.

Technology doesn’t make us happier, it only allows more people to live and to work less, albeit less happily.

Today science is the only institution that can claim authority. The authority of science comes from the power it gives humans over their envrionment.

Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves.

Science cannot be used to reshape humankind in a more rational mould. Any new-model humanity will only reproduce the familiar deformities of its designers. It is a strange fancy to suppose that science can bring reason to an irrational world, when all it can ever do is give another twist to the normal madness. The upshot of scientific inquiry is that humans cannot be other than irrational. Curiously, this is a conclusion few rationalists have been ready to accept.

Humans cannot live without illusion. For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism.

We are as much automation as mind.

Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad of creatures as straw dogs.

Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.

God needs man as much as man needs God.

Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power. The best craftsman may not know how he works. Very often we are the most skilful when we are the least self-aware.

Our senses have been censored so that our lives can flow more easily.

The electrical impulse that initiates action occurs half a second before we take the conscious decision to act.

Free will is a trick of perspective.

We think our actions express our decisions. But in nearly all our life, willing decides nothing. Our actions are end points in long sequences of unconscious responses. They arise from a structure of habits and skills that is almost infinitely complicated.

When we know what to do we are hardly conscious of doing it.

Most jobs in the economy are for entertainment, not necessity.

We are all bundles of sensations.

We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?

Humans have a limitless capacity for self-delusion, even the most rational among us.

Formerly philosophers sought peace of mind while pretending to seek truth. Perhaps we should set ourselves a different aim: to discover which illusions we can give up, and which we will never shake off. We will still be seekers after truth, more so than in the past; but we will renounce the hope of a life without illusion.

Morality plays a far smaller part in your life than you have taught that it should.

Genocide is as human as art or prayer.

Markets are run by hysteria, not rationality.

Mass murder is a side effect of progress in technology. From the stone axe onwards, humans have used their tools to slaughter one another. Humans are weapon-making animals with an unquenchable fondness for killing.

What makes the 20th century special is not the fact that it is littered with massacres. It is the scale of its killings and the fact that they were premeditated for the sake of vast projects of world improvement. Progress and mass murder run in tandem. As science and technology have advanced, so has proficiency in killing. As the hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder.

Morality tells us that conscience may not be heard - but that it speaks always against cruelty and injustice. In facat conscience blesses cruelty and injustice - so long as their victims can be quietly buried.

Becoming more “moral” as a society can’t happen for sustained periods of time.

At its worst human life is not tragic but unmeaning. The soul is broken, but life lingers on.

Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashions in hats.

The upshot of Freud's work is that being a good person is a matter of chance.

Humans thrive in conditions that morality condemns. The peace and prosperity of one generation stand on the injustices of earlier generations; the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire. the samne is true of individuals.

Prosperity is driven by vice - by greed, vanity and envy.

Moral philosophy os very largely a branch of fiction.

For us, nothing is more important than to live as we choose. This is not because we value freedom more than people did in earlier times. It is because we have identified the good life with the chosen life. The ideal of the chosen life does not square with how we live. We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen.

We are forced to live as if we were free.

The roots of virtues are in animal virtues.

Western thought is fixated on the gap between what is and what ought to be. But in everyday life we do not scan our options beforehand, the nenact the one that is best. We simply deal with whatever is at hand. The Taoists of ancient China saw no gap between is and ought. Right action was whatever comes from a clear view of the situation. They did not follow moralists - in their day Confucians - in wanting to fetter beings with rules or principles. In Taoist thought, the good life comes spontaneously (i.e. acting dispassionately, on the basis of an objective view of the situation at hand / acting according to the needs of the situation). Western moralists will ask what is the purpose of such action, but for Taoists the good life has no purpose. It is like swimming in a whirpool, responding to the currents as they come and go. 'I enter with the inflow, and emerge with the outflow, follow the Way of the water, and do not impose my selfishness upon it. This is how I stay afloat in it' says Chuang-Tzu. In this view ethics is simply a practical skill, like fishing or swimming. The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do. It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind. For people in thrall to 'morality', the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to chose.

The good life means acting according to our natures and circumstances. There is nothing that says that it is bound to be the same for everybody, or that it must conform with 'morality'.

Animals in the wild know how to live; they do not need to think or choose. It is only when they are fettered by humans that they cease to live naturally.

Autonomy means acting on reasons I have chosen; but the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing. We are far more like machines and wild animals than we imagine.

If humans differ from other animals, it is partly in the conflicts of their instincts.

Religious impulse and drive for a purpose are as innate as our drive for sex and lead to our need for salvation.

Getting rid of religion won’t make society better.

There is no way of life in which akk these needs can be satisfied. Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures.

"The certitude that there is no salvation is a form of salvation, in fact it is salvation. Starting from here, one might organise our own life as well as construct a philosophy of history: the insoluble as solution, as the only way out." - E.M. Cioran

Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it.

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life.

A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.

The Earth will forget mankind. The play of life will go on.

Progress is a fact. Even so, faith in progress is a superstition.

Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. They are no different today from what they have always been. There is progress is knowledge, but not in ethics.

History is not progress or decline, but recurring gain and loss.

Today the doses of madness that keep us sane are supplied by new technologies.

Future wars will be fought over dwindling natural resources. Future wars will be wars of scarcity.

The wealth of the richest countries depends on retaining their grip on natural resources.

"I had supposed that most people liked money better than anything else, but I discovered that they liked destruction even better" - Bertrand Russel

We can dream of a world in which a greatly reduced human population lives in a partially restored paradise; in which farming has been abandoned, and green deserts given back to the earth; where the remianing humans are settled in cities, emulatingthe noble idleness of hunter-gatherers, their needs met by new technologies that leave little mark on the Earth; where life is given over to curiosity, pleasure, and play. Such a high-tech Green utopia is scientifically feasible, but it is humanly unimaginable.

There is only one way that humanity can limit its labours, and that is by limiting its numbers.

Can we imagine a life that is not founded on the consolations of action.

The ancient Greeks sought salvation in philosophy, the Indians in meditation, the Chinese in poetry and the love of nature. Progress condemns idleness. The work needed to deliver humanity is vast. Indeed it is limitless, since as one plateau is reached another looms up. Of course this is only a mirage; but the worst of progress is not that it is an illusion. It is that it is endless.

For the ancients, unending labour was the mark of a slave. The labours of Sisyphus are a punishment. In working for progress we submit to a labour no less servile.

The best fisherman is not the one who catches the most fish but the one who enjoys fishing the most. The point of playing is that play has no point. How can there be play in a time where nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else? Since play is beyond us, we have given ourselves over to a life of purposeless work instead. To labour as Sisyphus does is our fate.

Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?

© Alex Vikner

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