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The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  963 ratings  ·  122 reviews
A searching, captivating look at the persistence of myth in our modern world

"By nature volatile and discordant, the human animal looks to silence for relief from being itself while other creatures enjoy silence as their birthright."

In a book by turns chilling and beautiful, John Gray continues the thinking that made his Straw Dogs such a cult classic.

Gray draws on an
Hardcover, 240 pages
Published June 4th 2013 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published 2013)
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Jim Coughenour
I'll start my review with a statement from the middle of this book, which might also stand for a précis of its argument:
Admitting that our lives are shaped by fictions may give a kind of freedom – possibly the only kind that human beings can attain. Accepting that the world is without meaning, we are liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious
Oct 19, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: theory
The world in which you live from day to day is made from habit and memory. The perilous zones are the times when the self, also made from habit and memory, gives way. Then, if only for a moment, you may become something other than you have been.

Richard Rorty in a number of essays on Derrida and Deconstruction notes sanguinely that if rigor is what satisfies you and your philosophy, you need not follow Derrida. This is my clumsy paraphrase and Rorty readily notes there are a number of reasons to
Apr 28, 2013 rated it really liked it
The Silence of Animals - John Gray (2013)

I have a love-hate relationship with John Gray. Every atom of my being wants to deny his excoriatingly bleak judgement on the human condition and yet every time I read and re-read him I end up capitulating to his basic premise. His thinking's precise, forensic and irritatingly undeniable. Just turn on the television and watch the news for about two minutes and you see it playing out everyday.

In a nutshell his argument runs that there's no redemption for
Jan 08, 2019 rated it liked it
Reading "Straw Dogs" by John Gray many years ago was something close to a formative intellectual experience. At the very least it helped me think in new ways about some fundamental things that I had been taking for granted til then. As a result I've always had a soft spot for his essays and books and have continued to pick them up over the years, whenever possible.

Having said that there is something unsettlingly repetitive about his corpus of work. "The Silence of Animals" goes over the same
Stuart Dunstan
If you've read Straw Dogs, it's probably best you stopped there. It seems like each new book by John Gray is full of the same arguments as previous books, just framed slightly differently. I loved Straw Dogs, but there's only so many times I can read a new "remix" of the same ideas.

The best parts of The Silence of Animals are the quotes from books that John Gray peppers throughout, leaving you wanting to read more. I've now added a number of them to my "to read" list, including The Peregrine by
Jun 22, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is an excellent plunge into the nature of myth and what myths define modern life. Gray concludes that Progress is the lasting myth of western civilization, a marriage of Socratic reason and Christian apocalyptic promise, and this myth gives our lives meaning, though it is ultimately a fiction. Gray is erudite and quippy (some choice lines: “Humankind is, of course, not marching anywhere”; “To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a ...more
Jan 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: philosophy
This is the follow-up to Straw Dogs, and happily is more of the same. He debunks the whole idea of humanism and human progress, yet, while an atheist, he is not antagonistic to religion. His style is terse, pointed, and aphoristic. I have many pithy, new quotes to add to my growing list. You can use them as a basis for contemplation, say on a long walk. At the least, his thinking can help one avoid being carried away by the latest fads of civilization.

Sample quotes:

If belief in human
Jul 25, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
What's the book about? A scathing critique of modern civilization and liberal humanism? Loathing for the idea of faith in progress? Or a call to acceptance of human imperfection and frailty while liberating ourselves "from confinement in the meaning we have made. Knowing there is nothing of substance in our world may seem to rob that world of value. But this nothingness may be our most precious possession, since it opens to us the inexhaustible world that exists beyond ourselves." ?

Hard to tell.
Mar 16, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is another of Grays’ characteristic critique of neo-liberal philosophy and follows in the direction of his earlier cult book "Straw Dogs." Referring to the works of writers as varied as Ballard, Borges, Freud, Conrad, Jeffries, Beckett etc.., and with a number of quotes included makes it for a rich reading. Human progress is quintessentially a myth and Gray himself does not hold back and is sharp shooting when he says– “Reviving long-exploded errors, twenty first century believers in ...more
James Murphy
Aug 27, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
John Gray doesn't want us to forget we're animals, or that the fact explains us. This continues the thinking of his previous book, Straw Dogs. His core message here seems to be that technological progress doesn't mean progress in civilization because increases in knowledge don't neutralize man's innate irrationality. That irrationality accounts for our barbarity. Animal nature can't be overcome by our technological advances. Knowledge isn't enough to control it. Therefore, Gray says, progress is ...more
H Wesselius
Oct 09, 2013 rated it really liked it
Gray is absolutely brilliant and has an incredible knowledge of western intellectual history. I first gained an appreciation of Gray through Black Mass where he traces the origin and the continuation of teleological western thought. His scathing critique of goal oriented religions and ideologies from Christianity to Marxism to modern neo-liberal capitalist is best expression of my own ideas of intellectual history.

In the Silence of Animals, he returns to the same theme; the myth of of progress.
Hrafn H.
Dec 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Sub par for Gray. He is trying to convey a complex yet simple idea about the meaningless of life - the beauty of meaningless. The happiness to be derived from meaninglessness.

As his critic in The New York Times points out, he does this by various seemingly unconnected true anecdotes not using a cohesive argument. And there are familiar names, Joseph Conrad, Freud, Santanyana, (the obligatory) Ballard. Nearing the book's end lesser prophets such as Ford Madox Ford (whose book Parade's End Gray
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well consider my mind blown and maybe a little bit depressed. Gray’s arguments about human progress, mysticism and the fallacies of humanism are well argued and more coherent than in the other book of his that I have read, The Soul Of The Marionette. Do I agree, probably not but his points are so well argued using examples from history, philosophy, fiction and poetry that they are difficult to refute. Look forward to reading straw dogs someday, but not straight away.
Joshua Buhs
Feb 20, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Intriguing, if ultimately not convincing--almost by the design.

The book's a hard start for anyone coming in cold to Gray's writing--as I was. Eventually it became clear where he was going, but it took time. The book is divided into three sections, and for most of the first section I was at sea.

In part, that's because of his elliptical style of argument, which is why the book almost cannot be convincing, by definition. Less of an argument, the book is a series of assertions that act as
Apr 10, 2015 rated it liked it
Recommends it for: concerned people
Recommended to mark by: bookclub
This book is what gives higher education its general derogatory, as in over –valued/bloated reputation. The author, John Gray, was a professor of philosophy across the pond. (Cambridge U. etc. and so on.) He has an argument, but fails to make it concisely and is a lousy storyteller. He’s ‘retired,’ but should trade in his professor’s sport jacket (yes, the one with the leather patches on the elbows) for a straw hat and overalls and go fishing—and work on his story telling skills.

His argument is:
Rupert Denton
Aug 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
In this astounding book John Gray a former Professor of European Thought at the LSE strips bare the myth of liberal humanism.

Gray essentially argues that contrary to the liberal-humanist line of thinking, humans are just animals and any of their enlightenment derived soothsaying about progress should be seen for what it is, a myth.

There is an almost hegemonic world view in the Western World that shouts ‘three cheers for humanity we are lifting ourselves from the muck and the future is bright!'
Fred Nolan
The title of Sam Harris’s 2010 TED talk, ‘Science Can Answer Moral Questions,’ soundly fails the Jeopardy test. ‘Could Science Answer…?’ seems better-suited to our Age of Nuance. Or even: ‘Hasn’t Science Already Answered…?’ But Harris, we soon learn, used exactly the words and punctuation he meant.

‘The separation between science and human values is an illusion,’ Harris states. ‘If questions affect human well-being then they do have answers.’ One example is simple by design: that of the suffering
Jan 13, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
Well its John Gray-of course I loved it. Not quite as much as Straw Dogs though as it was a bit less trolly than that and more introspective. I am a recent fan of Mr. Gray but am relieved to find someone else making the same points (though much more eloquently) that I have been for a few years now. Possibly the best part, to which I wholeheartedly agree, is that truly being an atheist and a critical thinker means having no room for ideals such as humanism. Its a point Ive long thought relevant ...more
Dec 07, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I liked this book almost as much as his previous book which explored similar themes and issues – Straw Dogs. We are reminded that the comforts of religion and science are a way of dealing with the chaos of life and an attempt to discover meaning in our existence. This book also explores the human search for happiness but in the end we are advised that it is best just to try to live our lives in an interesting and fulfilling way. We do ourselves a disservice by hiding behind religion and other ...more
Vuk Trifkovic
Mar 30, 2013 rated it liked it
Not nearly as coherent and accomplished as "Staw Dogs" even though the publisher somewhat incredulously bills it as its sequel. The format of footnotes to other authors is often clumsy there is way too much quoted from others, in too long blocks. Finally, his fascination with "oh, so this is how the society looks when it all breaks down", illustrated by vignettes from Naples in WWII or Weimar Republic, comes across as very twee and bourgeois, particularly to a reader has lived through one of the ...more
Sophy H
Mar 28, 2019 rated it it was ok
Meh, I just couldn't get into this at all. The writing felt disjointed, pointless and repetitive. As other people have mentioned here, it feels like a random set of book reviews, with Gray regurgitating large swathes of book passages to highlight a point, but without any positive outcomes. Although I enjoyed Straw Dogs, this just didn't do it for me at all. I drifted off numerous times throughout reading!
Sep 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
What begins as a scathing critic of modern civilization, showing that humanity is just a bunch of animals with a thin layer of civilization on top that comes flying off the minute there's trouble, ends as a book full of love for humans.

Funny enough, this book often touches the things discussed in Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth - while Campbell focuses on "classic" myths, this book shows that most of the things we take for granted nowadays are just myths themselves.
Jan 10, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2019, philosophy
I've added so many books to my to-read list as a result of this thought-provoking but grim manifesto on human insignificance. Composed of brief snippets similar to college essays, Gray's quiet jeremiad is an easy-to-read smorgasbord of philosophical ideas. Delish!
Jun 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
The book I was looking for but didn't know it...
Jul 10, 2019 rated it really liked it
This is a solid read on understanding man as he is, stripped away of all delusions of grandeur. Reading this coincided with some disillusionment of th enature of corporate life. I would certainly be interested to read more of his books, for his original insights and clever selection of quotes. This would have been a 5-star read if not for the slightly disappointing Part 3.

Chronological insights:
1/ We are animals who are nothing without our institutions. We plunge into chaos in times of disaster
Nick Short
Sep 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
The Silence of Animals is divided into a variety of interrelated essays and within each Gray turns to writers of poetry, literature, history, psychology, science and philosophy to deconstruct different myths in modern society. Gray attempts to dispel beliefs in modernity, and specifically he sets his sights on beliefs that claim that humans are collectively moving towards a goal.

In the early parts of the book John Gray asserts that belief in human progress is a myth. Belief in beliefs is also a
Feb 12, 2017 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy
John Gray takes a look at the fancies of man throughout history, and isn't particularly impressed. His main punching bag of choice is the modern notion of progress – particularly those of moral, societal progress –and the scientific optimism which posits that we're living in a intelligible world that we're increasingly beginning to understand. Christianity may be a falsely comforting fiction of redemption, but in the eyes of Gray, rational humanism is a worse fiction still, and as much of a ...more
Elizabeth Cooke
Apr 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
The Silence of Animals is not a rigorous philosophical tract, unfolding evidence and arguments at every turn. Rather, it is a poetic meditation on human myth-making, a long and extended "negative epiphany" (page 191), which tries to slough away the meanings that we blindly ascribe to life. At times, it resembles a series of provocative epigraphs, and it often seems that its principal goal is to startle us, disturb us, to unsettle rather than convince us.

Gray brings various little-known writers
Mickel Knight
May 19, 2018 rated it really liked it
A contemplative beautiful read. For such a dark thesis, I found this a relaxing and thought provoking read. Mr Gray supports his premises by relating the lives of some interesting and philosophical writers. Most of these lived during one of the great wars of the twentieth century. Roughly, their views, shaped by world events of mind boggling violence, approach the truth as expoused by Mr Gray. Humanity does not evolve or learn. Societies do not progresses. Any conceptions of progress are ...more
Jan 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Granted, all the books I've read by Gray after Straw Dogs are basically riffs on the same themes, but they don't stop being thought-provoking and illuminating. His references (or sounding boards) are almost exclusively literary and philosophical in this volume (without much references to science), and they work like Wittgenstein's idea of analogy: different analogies illuminate different aspects of the same theme. Another thing I noticed is that it makes sense that he often takes the flak for ...more
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John Nicholas Gray is a English political philosopher with interests in analytic philosophy and the history of ideas. He retired in 2008 as School Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Gray contributes regularly to The Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement and the New Statesman, where he is the lead book reviewer.
“To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.” 11 likes
“In comparison with the Genesis myth, the modern myth in which humanity is marching to a better future is mere superstition. As the Genesis story teaches, knowledge cannot save us from ourselves. If we know more than before, it means only that we have greater scope to enact our madness. But – as the Genesis myth also teaches – there is no way we can rid ourselves of what we know . . . The message of Genesis is that in the most vital areas of human life there can be no progress, only an unending struggle with our nature.” 8 likes
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