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Book Summaries Philosophy

Straw Dogs Summary (7/10)

In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as sacrifices to the gods.

‘Gaia’ is the name of a goddess in Greek mythology, and the Gaia principle, by Lovelock, suggests that the earth is a self-regulating, complex system that is influenced by its habitants. And that human beings, are merely organisms in this system, that will be treated like straw dogs, if they disrupt the balance of the earth.

This book is an attack on Homo rapiens (the endearing name that is given to human beings), a species that has used everything in its disposal to expand itself in the world, without any consideration for the natural habitat that it occupies. John Gray lays out simple arguments to dismantle the faith that human beings have placed in the systems they co-created, including science, religion, and philosophy.

Science as truth

Science has taken the place of religion as the ultimate source of authority but has made human life seem accidental and futile. To restore meaning, there must be a restoration of faith, and the power of science must be overthrown, but this cannot be accomplished by sheer will. Science derives its power from technology, which controls our lives, whether we like it or not.

Religious fundamentalists think they the cure for the illnesses of modern life. But they are symptoms of the disease they think they are curing. They want to recover the unreflective faith of traditional cultures, but this is a hopeless fantasy.

We cannot believe as we please; our beliefs are traces left by our unchosen lives.

Gray argues that there is nothing special about human beings. We cajole ourselves into thinking that we are divine in some way, that we do not belong on earth, they we are greater than animals, but the truth is that we are exactly like animals. We live according to our narrow interpretations of reality; we sleep and eat and defecate. The difference is that we think we need meaning in our lives, while other animals are content to simply be. One reason is we have a sense of time while animals don’t.

Prudence

Those who used to be Christians can only experience intense pleasure if it is mixed with the sensation of acting immorally. They live a life that is protected from pleasures, that is prudent in every sense. But why should my future goals be more important than my goals now?

‘Why should a youth suppress his budding passions in favour of the sordid interests of his own withered old age?’

Philosophy

The ancient Greek and Indian philosophers did not try to pursue philosophy merely to gain knowledge, but to achieve a more practical aim – peace of mind.

Drug use is a secret admission of a forbidden truth. Happiness is beyond reach for most people. For them, they cannot be fulfilled by daily life, but in escaping from it. And since happiness is unavailable, most people seek pleasure.

Morality

Freud taught that a good moral character depended on accidents from childhood. We know this to be true, but it is hard to believe.

Humans thrive in conditions that are condemned by morality. The injustices of one generation creates peace and prosperity for the next. The delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are the by-products of war and destruction. The same can be seen in individuals. Gentleness flourishes in sheltered lives, but an instinctive trust in others rarely exists in people who have struggled against the odds.

The qualities that we acknowledge as good do not withstand ordinary life. A lot of what we admire comes from what we judge as evil or wrong.

Humanism

‘I should liken Kant to a man at a ball, who all evening has been carrying on a love affair with a masked beauty in the vain hope of making a conquest, when at last she throws off her mask and reveals herself to be his wife.’

This fable by Schopenhauer is meant to reveal that Kant’s unknown beauty was Christianity. Today it is humanism. The conventional creed in Kant’s time was Christian, but now it is humanist. Even though philosophy has shaken off Christian faith, it has not given up the error that humans are radically different from other animals.

Unlike Kant, Schopenhauer followed his thoughts where they led. Kant thought that unless we are free, we cannot make sense of our morality. But Schopenhauer responded that our experience is not free, but is driven by biological needs – fear, hunger, and sex.

Schopenhauer argued that compassion for other living things can be achieved by rejecting the Will, by ceasing to care about our survival and well-being. Nietzsche thought that the morality of compassion was anti-life, and that even though life was cruel, it was better to glorify the Will than to deny it.

Nietzsche knew that there was no meaning in history, but he was trapped in the Christian cage. He was a believer to the end, and never gave up faith that something could come out of the human animal. The ridiculous figure of the superman was invented to give history a meaning it did not have. Heidegger, like Nietzsche, was a post monotheist, an unbeliever who could rid his mind of Christian ideas. In his book Being and Time, an attempt to set out a view of human life that is independent of religion, he merely provides secular substitutes for Christian ideas.

We are ‘thrown’ into the world, which remains always foreign or ‘uncanny’ to us, and in which we can never be truly at home. Again, whatever we do, we cannot escape guilt; we are condemned to choose without having any ground for our choices, which will always be somehow mysteriously at fault. Obviously, these are the Christian ideas of the Fall of Man and Original Sin, recycled by Heidegger with an existential sounding twist.

Human knowledge is separate from human well-being. The examined life may not be worth living. Modern humanism fails to recognize its irrational origins, and the hubris of its project.

Post Modernism

Postmodernists make human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness. But this relativism is not a superior kind of humility, it is the worst form of arrogance. By denying the existence of the natural world regardless of our beliefs, the postmodernist rejects any limit on human ambitions.

The Grand Inquisitor

The Grand Inquisitor, in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, tells Jesus that humanity is too weak to bear the gift of freedom. That humans do not seek freedom but bread. People will worship whoever gives them bread – they need their rulers to be divine.

This assertion is the final and unanswerable criticism of Christ, it is reality versus illusion.

People want to believe in miracles. And today, for most people, technology symbolizes what Christianity did in the past, ‘miracle, mystery, and authority.’ Science promises the most ancient human fantasies – that sickness and ageing will be eradicated, and so will scarcity and poverty. That human beings will become immortal.

Nature of Truth

Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for truth.

A pagan does not sacrifice the pleasure of life for the sake of mere truth. It was not unadorned reality, but artful illusion that they value. And among the Greeks, the goal of philosophy was happiness, not truth. The worship of truth is a Christian cult.

Christianity lashed out against the pagan tolerance of illusion, by claiming that there is only one true faith. They gave truth a supreme value it did not have before. And it made disbelief in the divine possible.

The long-delayed consequence of Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it

Technology and Inaction

Gray thinks that people have lost the ability to play for the sake of play, that by giving themselves to purposeless work, they have resigned themselves to a Sisyphean struggle. If Gray calls for anything, it is an appeal to inaction. It is a call to reject one’s own nature, even though that is exactly what he criticizes about human beings, their inability to change their animal selves.

Inevitably technology will take over. As per the Unabomber’s warning, humans will become domesticated animals. Homo-rapiens can be thanked for their unchecked pillage of the world. And thus, it is only a future of ex-humans that can live in such a world, he even questions if a post-human world is such a bad thing after-all.

Humans have fucked things up, by using language, ideas, and beliefs to give their lives meaning. Thus, the solution is not in more action, but in ceasing to act. There is nothing heroic in trying to save the world, or in trying to change oneself.

Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things.

They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.

The final appeal in the book is for humans, instead of busying themselves with the mission of progress, which is completely illusory, to be content with just seeing.

It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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