Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Truth Is Like a Blanket That Always Leaves Your Feet Cold

Richard King:

This is the point Gray elects to miss and has elected to miss many times before. Human beings are social creatures whose sociability manifests itself in feelings of empathy and altruism. But these feelings are not always in evidence and sometimes they give way to hatred and to violence. Hatred and violence are not exceptional. History, as Gray never tires of reminding us, is strewn with the corpses of the murdered and maimed. But nor are hatred and violence the rule. And when we encounter them – sometimes, not always – our better selves are mobilised. Moreover, it is in this spirit – and not in any post-Christian attempt to take a lathe to the crooked timber of humanity – that we try to improve the lot of our species: so that Mary Turner’s descendants are not strung up and emptied of their progeny; so that orphans with tears in their unseeing eyes are taken in and given a bowl of soup; and so that our own children can have a decent education and the chance of a job at the end of it. Is this a hubristic belief in progress? The very suggestion dies on the lips.

Human beings may not develop but human institutions do. Sometimes they develop in good ways and sometimes they develop in bad ones, and whether the development is good or bad it is never irreversible. Of course such freedoms and rights and securities as we have won could all be swept away if another Hitler came to power. That is what makes the fight for justice not just worthwhile but necessary. Gray wants us to believe that this fight is no different from the one waged by Christians and communists alike. He is wrong. To seek to make things better is not the same as thinking that they can be made perfect. The problem we face – that humanity faces – is not faith in the future but indifference to it. Resource wars are already in progress and population growth is out of control. A catastrophic change in our climate, growing inequality, the prospect of a nuclearised Middle East: these problems are not on the horizon – they are upon us. In The Silence of Animals, Gray talks about the ‘current fad for evolutionary theories of society’. I don’t know what theories he means. But there is one thing I do know, or think I do: without a little ‘evolution’ or ‘progress’ in the political sphere our flawed and wonderful species is doomed.

First of all, let me just say that this article was a delight to read. Critical yet fair, it's an engrossing overview of Gray's recent ouevre as well as a specific review of his latest book. I wish that sort of thing didn't deserve special mention, but there you go.

Now, then, let me suggest that, rather than seeking to make anyone "believe" anything, what Gray is doing is giving book-length exposition to the thinking of the Chinese farmer:

The situation we always live in is like the wise Chinese farmer whose horse ran off. When his neighbor came to console him the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

When his horse returned the next day with a herd of horses following her, the foolish neighbor came to congratulate him on his good fortune.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.

Then, when the farmer’s son broke his leg trying to ride one of the new horses, the foolish neighbor came to console him again.
“Who knows what’s good or bad?” said the farmer.

When the army passed through, conscripting men for war, they passed over the farmer’s son because of his broken leg. When the foolish man came to congratulate the farmer that his son would be spared, again the farmer said, “Who knows what’s good or bad?”

Ad infinitum. Like waves, the events of our lives have no true essence of their own; they simply ebb and flow. If that thought depresses you, then you might just share a little more of that faith in perfectibility than you think.

People are very good at identifying specific things that need to be made "better". Often, though, they lack broader perspective, and so the improvements they make in one area give rise to new problems in a different area, and off we go again. Like Todd Anderson in Dead Poets Society, no matter how they pull and stretch the blanket, some other part of their body is left exposed and cold. However much weight you want to give to humankind's sociable nature, we can at least agree that humans are certainly pattern-seeking animals, and with that in mind, it's not perverse to recognize a certain disheartening pattern in the efforts people make to control and optimize their world. No, hatred and violence are not the rule. But neither are empathy and altruism. There is no "rule", only endless give-and-take. Perhaps that's what Nietzsche was driving at in his conception of the Eternal Recurrence — is humanity capable of accepting such nullifying insights that make a mockery of all they hold dear? Are people capable of unhumanizing their views a little along with Robinson Jeffers?

Almost certainly not. A perspective like this inhabits a forbidding perch; the intellectual air is cold and thin. And humans in general are social enough that they will happily stick together on more hospitable terrain, continuing to dream of a blanket big enough.

That final line is the weakest point of the whole essay. The entire species, doomed? You mean every single last one of us? How likely is that? Human culture, as we understand it today, may not last much longer, but even if a mutated supervirus, an asteroid, a murderously enraged Gaia or all-out nuclear holocaust reduced humans to a few million post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherers scattered in isolated bands, the species would likely continue in some form. Even the dinosaurs are still with us in the form of birds, after all. And perhaps that thought scares us even more — even our dethronement as the dominant species on Earth wouldn't rate a Götterdämmerung of significance. It would just be one more wave in the endless flow of history.