Who wants to be free?

John Gray

The Soul of the Marionette, John Gray, Allen Lane

Rarely does anyone say they don’t want to be free, but with the increasing pressure of a globalised world, talk of freedom has had a resurgence in recent years, whether from the Right, who see threats from radical Islamists and the overreach of government, to the Left, who see threats to freedom of speech and to freedom from global capitalism’s tendency to enslave the poor. In these cases, freedom relates to a conception of persons as thinking individuals with a certain amount of autonomy. But modern society also tends to endorse the scientific perspective that we are products of our genes and culture, and hardly free at all.

Popular philosopher John Gray approaches this philosophical Gordian knot with his latest book where he humbly proposes that freedom is actually the ability to be free from crippling self-reflection. He argues, using examples from science fiction, history and the work of Heinrich von Kleist, that modern humans labour under the old Gnostic heresy that we are souls trapped in a body but that with access to special knowledge – in this case, science – we can improve ourselves. While we should accept the materialist prognosis of science, says Gray, we should not put our hope in the utopian cures with which scientists and their evangelists tempt us. In particular, he argues that technology is of little help, and that it is likely that electronic, intelligent life will evolve beyond us (echoing the dystopian fantasies of the Terminator and Matrix movies). Technology is not the vehicle we think it is, to help us get to our destination quicker; rather, it will simply drive by us and get there before us. We also think society is improving and becoming less violent, says Gray, but we ignore the evidence to the contrary. He cites the Aztecs as evidence that violence is intrinsic to human nature and that the Aztecs were at least honest about this, and we should be too.  We should also recognise the falsity of the idea of human progress, the legacy, Gray says, of both Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Gray, as his surname may suggest, is rather gloomy about humanity, and his work is lacking in much hope. His view here and elsewhere is that there is nothing unique about our particular incarnation of carbon-based life, that our animal natures are dominant and that, despite our wishful thinking, we cannot swerve from the path we are on, which includes environmental catastrophe. We are like machines or puppets, only seemingly moving of our own volition. But he tries to snatch freedom from the jaws of materialist determinism by critiquing the idea that freedom means the capacity for progress. Rather, he sees freedom as a kind of Sisyphean resignation to our fate.

Gray has been criticised by fellow atheist Raymond Tallis (particularly in the book Aping Mankind), who asks why, if we are no different to animals, we, unlike animals, are able to think we are. Terry Eagleton, whose views are closer to traditional Christianity, reprimands Gray for prioritising our dog-eat-dog-edness over our tendency to altruism. And much traditional Christian doctrine upholds that there is something special about humans, at the very least our capacity to even notice moral dilemmas and name them as such. Recent Christian criticism of anthropocentrism rightly argues that we are part of the animal kingdom and the physical world (as Genesis emphasises), that we are not God and that we therefore are tainted morally by our limitations. But we are also like God, as the serpent in the garden suggested, in the sense that we have the capacity for ethical and moral deliberation, even if we don’t always choose rightly. This may be a highly developed example of the empathy found in some animal species, but it is enough of a difference in degree to be significant.

It is true that our conceptions of freedom are not what they should be. In the US, talk of freedom is often about being free from moral obligation, or maintaining a lifestyle, while the reality is often simply being kept in a state of high-anxiety so that war can be perpetuated to the benefit of politicians and arms manufacturers. Freedom is also equated with choice, which is closely aligned to consumerism. The idea is that in our postmodern culture every material good, relationship, philosophy and religion are there for the taking in a global market and we just choose the lifestyle and identity we want. What’s often left out of this picture is what influences our desire, besides the fact that this supposed smorgasbord creates anxiety from the need to decide. As Gray would assert, this is a choice forced upon us, which Jesus, and much Eastern religion, suggests is the opposite of freedom.

Gray is targeting a larger conception of freedom though – the assumption that we can control our destiny. He writes that this is a legacy from Christianity, which sees that history has a purpose, but that this was co-opted by non-Christians, particularly in the Enlightenment, who jettisoned the idea of God and replaced Him with ourselves. It is true that Judeo-Christianity developed a linear version of history, but what is not so clear in Gray’s work is that traditional theology sees humans stuck in a negative cycle without God. In that sense, it is the opposite of Enlightenment faith in humanity. Christians agree with Gray – the outlook is bleak without God. It is just that we believe in God, so believe there is meaning to history, and that through God we can participate in that meaning. Gray rejects Christianity (and religion) in an intellectual sense, but like Voltaire he thinks it has its uses. In fact, he surmises such beliefs may be evolutionary helpful, in that they have prevented us from going mad from despair. At least, suggests Gray, believing the myth of God in control didn’t lump the unbearable burden onto human beings.

Gray may question the limitation of human knowledge, but he seems fairly sure in his statements that God doesn’t exist. While Christians may agree with his scepticism of the human potential for perfection, this is where Christians and Gray part company, not only in the obvious disagreement over God’s existence, but in what this implies for our definition of freedom. For the always illuminating French writer Jacques Ellul, freedom is inseparable from hope. To be free we must be able to look beyond the grim circumstances of the present to the possibility of improvement. Despite his intentions, Gray’s freedom – the freedom from the delusion that we can do more than our animal natures allows – might otherwise be named hopeless fatalism. It is a twisting of the term to suggest that freedom is recognising we are not free. For Christians, faith is more than a helpful myth to help us carry on in the face of our helplessness; it is the belief that God has revealed his existence and his purposes for the world, and that he frees us from our animal natures and our slavery to genes and culture. Furthermore, although agreeing with Gray that we can accomplish little under our own steam, Christians traditionally believe that God is accomplishing his purposes through us, in the work of the Holy Spirit.

This in itself may not sound like freedom; in fact it may sound like one of the marionettes of Gray’s book title. But as we are reminded in the thought of Thomas Aquinas, God is not someone who interferes with us, but is the reason for our existence. He is the ground of our being, just like the physical ground allows us to walk where we choose, and without it we could not be said to be walking at all. And this version of freedom means not simply putting the future out of mind, but being able to cast all the burden of the future elsewhere – onto God. This is obviously sometimes easier than it sounds, but it is a reminder that, as opaque as they sometimes are to us, God has his purposes for the world, and they are in general terms restorative purposes. Gray’s version of freedom seems to be the happy acceptance of inevitable decline.


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