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The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry Into Human Freedom by John Gray

Thomas R. Morgan finds John Gray a bit downbeat.

This is not your standard philosophical treatise on free will. In typical John Gray style, The Soul of the Marionette (2015) considers a more extreme angle. Like a good determinist, Gray assumes that human freedom (to improve our lives, discover meaning, and to shape our own ends) is an illusion – but more radically than most, that it’s an illusion we’re better off without. No doubt if the book had been written after the global pandemic and the beginning of conflict in Ukraine, Gray would have used these events as additional evidence to support his disparagement of human possibilities and freedom. The metaphor of the puppet is pushed home, in the sense that a truer freedom is to be found by cutting the ‘strings’ – our dream of improved lives for humanity – and allowing ourselves to drop into a pervasive knowledge of our inherent limitations.

Gray’s writing style is always accessible and engaging – for a cat lover like me, ‘Feline Philosophy’ was fun, a joy to read; and the ‘Immortalisation Commission’ was a fascinating exploration of the human quest to overcome death. However, I always feel at odds with Gray’s core views. His broad knowledge-base seems to camouflage a philosophical stance which, for me, is too sweeping. The theme that runs through much of Gray’s writing is that humanity is not progressing and, moreover, cannot. Change happens; but progress, like freedom, is illusory. At times – particularly in the section ‘When The Machine Stops’ – he reminds me of Arthur Koestler in his ongoing insistence that humanity bears the symptoms of being a kind of tragic evolutionary blind alley.

Gray begins The Soul of the Marionette by being tolerant – almost complimentary in places – about mysticism and esoteric traditions such as Gnosticism. However, Christianity, the regular punch bag of many modern intellectuals, comes under fire. It’s presented as a human attempt to answer life’s problems – a job for which more ‘primitive’ religions were insufficient, concerned as they instead were with establishing harmony with the immediate surroundings. Gray quotes Giacomo Leopardi, who wrote, “Christianity… was a new source of illusions.” Religion’s value is not therefore in truth, but in the illusion it provides – illusion being natural, and nature (for both Leopardi and Gray) being more truthful, authentic, and desirable, than the pretensions of human reason.

Gray presents the freedom he’s denying in two ways: as freedom to choose, and freedom from choice. He seemingly overlooks the point that to turn to freedom from choice must itself require a choice. Moreover, he seems to delight in philosophies which are similarly paradoxical. One paradoxical idea is presented with further reference to Leopardi: everything is material, and it is matter that thinks, but matter seemingly torments itself by trapping thought, which is matter… Also, when referring to Edgar Allan Poe, he asserts that reason cannot discern nature, as if in this monistic materialistic worldview where only matter exists, reason were somehow separate from nature. Gray also separates particular aspects of humanity from nature, such as in his reference to Poe’s poem ‘Ligeia’.

It is unclear to me why Gray constantly seeks to denigrate human capacities such as will, reason, and feeling. They are presented as epiphenomena; as superfluous and ultimately out of tune with nature’s mindless onslaught. What is it that makes such human idiosyncrasies less valuable than natural, more mindless matter, particularly given that they must spring from the same pool?

Gray cites some interesting literary examples of humanity’s attempt to create a better version of itself; for example, in J.L. Borges’ short story ‘The Circular Ruins’. But this, and other citations, serve only to emphasise the delusion of human dreams and aspirations.

There is in fact very little discussion about actual freedom in the first part of the book. Here, he focuses more on different approaches to Gnosticism. The overriding message here is that because in Gnosticism nature has a deficient, imperfect designer (called the Demiurge) there is little hope for human salvation beyond nature. He also explores the notion you can find in the Sci-Fi novels of Philip K. Dick, of a futile hope for human life to ultimately make sense. This is a theme that echoes in many of Gray’s works. His presentation of the Aztecs as a frightening exception to human civilizations is fascinating and thought-provoking. According to Gray, with their brazen acceptance of human sacrifice Aztec societies demonstrate a more honest understanding of the human predicament, embracing as they did humanity’s purportedly insurmountable propensity for violence.

In contrast to this, and somewhat reflecting the content of his book Black Mass (2007), Gray cites a number of examples of ‘magical thinking’, particularly belief in our ability to create new and better (violence-free) societies or utopias. He points out the frequent failure of such efforts, or their collapse into something much worse. Obvious examples are National Socialism and Communist ideologies. But this is something of a ‘straw man’ argument, since Gray conveniently ignores or glosses over the historical successes of humanity – including those laws and technologies that allow academics like him to speak with freedom through books and online about their grim worldviews. Violence may be a determining part of human nature; but there are ample examples of the human ability to overcome or subvert this propensity – the Hindu concept of ahimsa (non-violence) demonstrated by Gandhi and his followers being just one.

Marionette © Raphael Köhler 2019 Creative Commons 4

Gray uses the vagaries of statistics and an analysis of forms of violence to combat the idea that human societies are improving and are now less prone to destruction. He goes on the elaborate on the already frightening prospect that AI will gradually render us obsolete. This brings into question the purpose and motives of such innovation: are computers built to serve or to replace us? Gray’s view seems to be that it doesn’t matter: that our delusions of progress will always lead to our undoing in one way or another.

Gray then moves on to the semi-prophetic conspiracy theory of French philosopher Guy Debord (1931-94) concerning the manufacture of a false reality to pacify the masses. Debord says that to misdirect us from the failure of economics to save us from our limitations, something called ‘the spectacle’ is created by the media, a false impression of the world and of humanity which pacifies us. Although Gray agrees with Debord only up to a point, he uses the concept to again push home his view that humans are delusional about their potential and doomed to non-progressive frustration, thus requiring the fostering of illusions of hope.

Towards the end of the book Gray’s analysis of the limitations of science and the worldviews that spring from it, as well as of other endeavours like philosophy, is admirable. He is unafraid to challenge prevailing lines of thinking and dogmas such as materialism. He intelligently distinguishes between science as a practice to attain certain kinds of knowledge, and science as a worldview – which idea, as far as Gray is concerned, can never itself have a scientific basis. He himself leans towards an ultimately unfathomable picture of reality – which places humanity in a precarious and frustrating position.

In the final part of the book, Gray gives some credence to ancient religions, going back as far as ancient Greece. The charm of Greek myths, Judaism and, to a lesser extent, Christianity, is that they all in some way acknowledged the limitations and weakness of being human – albeit that they ascribe it to sinfulness or the inability to grasp the morality of God or gods. The ancients lacked modern science’s promise to transcend our limitations without recourse to powers or abilities outside our own. This is presented by Gray as being in ancient religion’s favour. But if you buy into the idea of human progress that Gray seeks to debunk, the ultimate message of this book, that there is no freedom, will be somewhat bleak for you.

© Thomas R. Morgan 2023

Thomas R. Morgan teaches religion, philosophy and ethics at Westcliff High, UK.

The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry Into Human Freedom, John Gray 2015, FSG Adult, $10 pb, 192 pages

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