John Gray: fifty shades of shite

December 18, 2012 at 3:17 pm (atheism, history, humanism, intellectuals, Jim D, New Statesman, perversity, philosophy, relativism, religion, secularism)

“Again, nothing infuriates the current crop of evangelical atheists more than the suggestion that militant unbelief has many of the attributes of religion. Yet, in asserting  that the rejection of theism could produce a better world, they are denying the clear evidence of history, which shows the pursuit of uniformity in word-view to to be itself the cause of conflict. Whether held by the religious or by enemies of religion, the idea that universal conversion to (or from) any belief system could vastly improve the human ot is an act of faith. Illustrationg Nietzsche’s observations about the tonic properties of false beliefs, these atheists are seeking existential consolation just as much as religious observers” John Gray in the New Statesman, 30/11/12)

Here at Shiraz, we’ve previously had occasion to identify him as probably the most profoundly reactionary writer in respectable, mainstream journalism today. Gray can be difficult to follow precisely because his writing is vague, evasive and often illogical. In the New Statesman article from which the quote at the top of this piece is taken, for instance, it is difficult to discern even what he understands by the word “toleration” (as opposed, for instance, to “indifference”) and why he seems to think that irrational beliefs are a positively good thing. His repeated approving references to Nietzsche do, however, provide a telling clue.

Like Nietzsche, Gray despises humanity in general, and enlightenment humanism in particular. I’m not sure whether Gray would share his hero’s dismissal of democracy (“liberal” / “bourgeois” or otherwise) in favour of the artistocratic ideal of the  Übermensch. Gray certainly seems attracted to Nietzsche’s emphasis (present from the first in in Die Geburt der Tragödie) on the unconscious, voluntaristsic ‘Dionysian’ side of human nature, as opposed to the rational ‘Apollonian’ side. Also, like Nietzsche, Gray is in fact an atheist, but seems to regard this as being entirely unconnected to any rational belief system, and simply a personal judgement that the ignorant masses cannot be expected to understand.

Gray’s contempt for humanism (and humanity) was well expressed in an earlier piece he wrote for the New Statesman:

“The idea that humankind has a special place in the scheme of things persists among secular thinkers. They tell us that human beings emerged by chance and insist that ‘humanity’ can inject purpose into the world. But, in a strictly naturalistic philosophy, the human species has no purpose. There are only human beings, with their conflicting impulses and goals. Using science, human beings are transforming the planet. But ‘humanity’ cannot use its growing knowledge to improve the world, for humanity does not exist.” John Gray, ‘Humanity doesn’t exist’, New Statesman (10/02/11)

I’m not arguing, by the way that Gray’s views shouldn”t be published, or are unworthy of debate. I would question, however, what such an enemy of the Enlightement is doing as lead book reviewer in a publication whose strap-line is “Enlightened Thinking for a change.”

By the way, Nietzsche’s thinking contains an essential contradiction (explained by  Antony Flew, thus): “Of course, Nietzsche goes on to use his views about the essentially ‘falsifying’ nature of language, and therefore of rational thought, to give theoretical backing to his favourite belief in the superior veracity of action and ‘will’. But here the central paradox in Nietzsche’s theory of knowledge emerges: he cannot himself, in all consistency, take that theory too seriously.”

Or as a letter to the New Statesman in response to Gray’s article, put it: “It is amusing to read yet again a rational man, John Gray on this occasion (‘Giant Leaps for mankind’, 30 November), arguing rationally for how very irrational we all are.”


Ophelia (“Butterflies and Wheels’) Benson on Gray, here

Salman Rushdie deals with another relativist, pseudo-intellectual enemy of Enlightement values, here.


  1. Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

    Bang on as regards Gray.

    The man has never had an original thought in the whole of his long career and indeed operates as a sort of pseudo-intellectual weathervane – AFAICT vaguely left-libertarian to start with, then a right-libertarian or classical liberal when Thatcher and Reagan made that fashionable, then a third way centrist under Blair and Clinton and on to the thorough-going reactionary he appears to be now (which if he is the unerringly opportunistic surfer of the elite zeitgeist I suspect he is should worry us all greatly).

    Yuval Levin had an interesting piece recently about how Nietzsche is now being openly invoked by the American Right:

    And Peter Levine’s 1995 essay on Nietzsche and Straussianism is also worth a read:

    But the whole point of Nietzsche is that he was in Thomas Mann’s words the most unpolitical of men and the author of aphorisms so gnomic that they can mean anything you want them to…

  2. ertekaz said,

    how to like that
    تصميم مواقع

  3. Andrew Coates said,

    Absolutely, Gray is an ex-economic liberal, free-market hard-liner, to boot.

    I was interested in the last reference to Pankaj Mishra.Some of his views are even worse than those cited!

    Solidarity with Jim and Janine!

  4. Rosie said,

    Pankaj Mishra’s piece was all over the place – a lot of post-Saidian waffle. Good reply from Rushdie. As for Gray he’s an old misery.

    • Malte Brigge said,

      The governing tropes of Nietsche’s writing are inversion and return. For example, in the closing passages of The Birth of Tragedy, Socrates who was previously presented as the epitome of the Apollonian ‘theoretical man’ returns at the point of death to writing lyrics in the Dionysian mode. In other words, at the close of the book, all that has been presented is shifted in an inversion that then destroys the whole conceptual scheme of the book we thought we had just read. This is essential to understanding Nietzsche. The apparent binary oppositions (conscious/unconscious/human/animal/man/women even the distinction between the political and the non-politcal)) are broken up by a tropological mode that places trope over concept and so shatters conceptual security. This is all we can say of Nietzsche and his writings, for to say more is to misunderstand the mode of writing to which he is committed. One cannot parapharse or ‘say’ or ‘apply’ what Nietzsche ‘meant’ we can only read him and wonder – that is the whole point. Gray is an indiscreet simpleton for claiming to be able to somehow unravel Nietzsche’s complicted, contradictory and never-ending tropological enclosures, but the ‘left’ are just as idiotic for claiming to be able to denounce that which the right has ‘made’ of Nietzsche by means of their own counter-reading which is, in the end, just as blind.

      • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

        I agree that Nietzsche utterly defies summary and categorisation – I’ve been reading and re-reading him for 30 years and I’ve never come across a wholly satisfying analysis of his ideas.

        But modern politics no longer works to a timescale which allows you to study and think about a great writer for years and decades before expressing an opinion – in the age of google and wikipedia we think we can get a summary of all we need to know in minutes and turn it into political ammunition.

        We also need to accept that most of what is truly valuable and important in literature, philosophy, art and music is the product of odious reactionaries or apolitical weirdos – those of us who make radical politics our passion rarely produce anything worth reading or seeing or hearing.

    • Roger McCarthy (@RF_McCarthy) said,

      ‘Post-Saidian waffle’

      Perfect phrase which I am sure I will use myself again and again as the fuckers are everywhere.

      • Pinkie said,

        Not round my parts. What is ‘post-Saidian waffle’? Not something you meet on your everyday life, I reckon.

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