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The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom

3.88  ·  Rating details ·  754 ratings  ·  91 reviews
Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom

In his brilliantly enjoyable and freewheeling new book, John Gray draws together the religious, philosophic, and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom. We flatter ourselves about the nature of free will and yet the most enormous forces—logical,
Hardcover, 192 pages
Published May 19th 2015 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (first published March 1st 2015)
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Feb 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: adult-nonfiction
This was a very odd book. I kept reading and reading, thinking, I have never looked at the world quite like this guy does, which is what made it interesting. Really, that is one of the benefits of reading, isn't it? You get to look at the world through other eyes.
I actually think this quote from page 9 rather sums up his point of view:
Many people today hold to a Gnostic view of things without realizing the fact. Believing that human beings can be fully understood in the terms of scientific mater
John Pistelli
A brief and essayistic digest of Gray's analysis—he views western modernity as deludedly self-satisfied in its unwitting recapitulation of the Gnostic heresy that humanity can be God—and his aesthetic—his is an austere and gentlemanly nihilism, such as one finds in Borges or Sebald. There is little new here for those who have read Straw Dogs or Black Mass, but Gray's opening tour of modern literary Gnosticism from Kleist to Dick is fun, like a good lecture, and it put a few more books on my read ...more
Jeff Rowe
Sep 18, 2015 rated it really liked it
Full confession: I love John Gray. I read Silence of the Animals and Straw Dogs before this. So going in, I'm already primed to like this book. It didn't disappoint. Some of the stuff was just a clearer exposition of points he makes in his other books. Like how science wants to be anti-religion but it really is just another of the many branches of Christianity/Gnosticism. His chapters on robots were excellent. Humans don't want to make simulated versions of themselves. They want perfected versio ...more
John Kemp
Jul 07, 2015 rated it liked it
Neither as stimulating as Straw Dogs, nor as wide-ranging and challenging on contemporary issues as I had hoped. Little on AI (despite the title), nothing on the paradoxical issues of political freedom and the fundamentalist challenge (particularly since Gray is such a trenchant critic of idealism). The point about science as the child of Gnosticism is well made and probably needs reiterating regularly. The passage about Aztec sacrifice and its relation to our own culture was definitely arrestin ...more
Jim Coughenour
Jun 18, 2015 rated it it was ok
Shelves: thinkingcap
Judge this book by its cover. It's as depressing and provocative as its bad art suggests.* At its best, it's a musing meander among gloomy writers of yesteryear, some superb (Heinrich von Kleist, Bruno Schulz), some simply alcoholic or insane in interesting ways (Guy Debord; Philip Dick). There are also dark nuggets of the celebrated Gray gloom, of which I can't resist inserting a couple here:
Our successors may not be rebellious robots but more highly evolved decendents of computer worms. The pr
Clark Hays
Jan 23, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Cutting the strings of human exceptionalism

John Gray covers familiar ground, eloquently. He plunders obscure writers and leans heavily on his knowledge of history to build an argument that deconstructs human exceptionalism and to dispel the notion that people, society and culture progress in some linear fashion. His thesis is that humans create the illusion of order because the alternative — embracing the certainty that we are mortal and meaningless creatures (“flawed, intermittently lucid anim
Mohammed Al-Humaikani
Nov 22, 2017 rated it really liked it
An unorthodox case is presented in the book which is that modern scientific thinkers are products of a brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed christianity. Gray unrelentingly pushes one’s brain into deep thinking leading to a general re-evaluation of once well-established ideas. Though the book can lead to varying conclusions, it shall always stimulate the reader to enter a dynamic conversation with the writer. Some may find the book severing all hopes of optimism and pushing one into a chasm o ...more
Bob Nichols
Jun 18, 2019 rated it it was ok
The book is challenging. It jumps around some, alluding to various other writers on this and that and I didn’t find a clear, succinct statement about his overall thesis. Taking on the history of Western philosophy, Gray starts with Plato-Socrates, continues with Christianity-Gnosticism, and then moves on to the enlightenment, modern-day science and now the world of algorithms. For Gray, the differences in these thought traditions are superficial. What they have in common is an arrogance of sorts ...more
Peter Geyer
It took me a while to decide whether to buy this book, finding the slim text in the bookshop where I often buy slim texts for a train road home. I've read another of his books, which I found thought-provoking and so purchased it on that basis, in addition to flicking through the book (more than I might usually). I'm interested in observations of what people are like, particularly notions of consciousness. "Thought-provoking" by the way means just that, not agreement or argument.

Gray's method se
Feb 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
You should read Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals instead of this one, but you should read this one too if you liked Straw Dogs. Gray continues to advocate the idea that humans are not in control of their own future and progress is not inevitable like modern science promises.

He makes an interesting analogy with gnosticism, the religion that posits an evil demiurge to solve the problem of evil. Like the followers of that religion, the followers of today's science recognize that hum
David Rush
Oct 03, 2018 rated it really liked it
The big takeaways
• The Gnostic world view holds a much greater influence today than people realize
• Paranoia and Conspiracy Thinking are a type of Gnosticism
• All of this is a search for meaning, and people will go to extreme lengths to find meaning
• In order find meaning in a meaningless world illusions are necessary
• In a sense humans are puppets but there is no puppet master
• Meaning is a conundrum

He starts off with a story about watching marionettes and uses that to say that some believe o
Danny Daley
The reviews promised "thought-provoking," and that it was, to say the least. Gray ties together ideas from religion, science, science fiction, literature, and philosophy to essentially ask the questions - what is human freedom, and do we possess it? The book answers the second question better than the first, as freedom, like other concepts discussed, are ill-defined. Gray argues that humans are not free, but that they really do not want to be, based on the way they place so much emphasis on mean ...more
Oct 15, 2015 rated it really liked it
'modern rationalism renews the central error of christianity - the claim to have revealed the good life for all humankind’

‘unable to exorcize violence within themselves, humans have chosen to sanctify it’

‘alone among the animals, humans seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams. chief among these absurdities, in modern times, is the idea of a new humanity.'

‘by intervening in societies of which they know nothing, western elites are advancing a future they
Alex Zakharov
Aug 05, 2015 rated it really liked it
Short and is as enjoyable as it is uneven. In the first (and best) chapter Gray draws from the examples of Tarkovsky, Borges, Philip K Dick (and a handful of more obscure sources) and develops a convincing theory of how modern rationality and faith in science is a flavor of Gnosticism. Naturally in Gray’s view the modern version is particularly objectionable as it doesn’t just seek to redeem the spirit through knowledge, no, in Gray’s view humankind are puppets living in a matrix circumscribed b ...more
William Shiflett
Mar 20, 2019 rated it really liked it
The success of a polemic requires either a sympathetic audience or a subtle message. Given its contrarian outlook, The Soul of the Marionette is unlikely to receive much in the way of sympathy. Its lack of subtlety ensures that even nonpartisan readers will find its assumptions bemusing and its assertions tenuous.

In the first section, Gray defines human freedom as the absence of doubt and indecision. To support his claim, he references Heinrich von Kleist’s essay “The Marionette Theatre”. Accord
May 21, 2015 rated it really liked it
I did not find this as strong or as ground-breaking as Straw Dogs or Black Mass, but I still found it enjoyable, quotable, and necessary in this day and age. I particularly appreciated the segment of Aztec sacrifice and comparable modern behaviors as well as Gray furthering his thoughts on A.I. and darwinism.

I do have to say though that while I totally agree with Gray on being opposed to letting the christian/humanist Axis of Magic Tropes govern public discussion, I maintain the difference that
Brian Denton
Jul 12, 2016 rated it really liked it
In which John Gray argues that modern secular humanism, far from a break with superstition, is actually little more than an updated variation on ancient Gnosticism: The idea that humans, if only they had the proper knowledge, could transcend their benighted state of affairs on earth. This, according to Gray, is an absurd proposition given that humans are "flawed, intermittently lucid animals whose minds are stuffed with nonsense and delusion." Better to embrace our finite, conflicted nature and ...more
Jun 03, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is my first foray into anything vaguely philosophical and I cannot comment or give a star-rating for the content. However it was a very readable book. Inner freedom according to John Gray appears to be becoming a Über-marionette that does not seek to fly but is free to fall to earth. It is accepting that there is no such thing as free will or sense to human lives, and being free from conflicting moralities. He uses a wide range of examples to illustrate his point from ancient religions like ...more
Feb 28, 2015 rated it it was ok
His most disappointing and least illuminating book so far. Long on literary exegesis, but short on pretty much everything else. I was looking forward to some more critical appraisals of contemporary issues. Still, Gray is the most insightful philosopher alive these days. His other books are superb examples of a true contrarian thinker.
Bob Adamcik
May 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
The book is an excellent, if oblique, inquiry into human free will. And it's conclusion is refreshing and uplifting. I definitely suggest a read...and further exploration of books by John Gray.

My full review is posted here:
Scriptor Ignotus
May 20, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: philosophy
A meandering and ponderous book about the ancient myths that discretely underlie the rationalist belief that the advances of science and morality will allow mankind to escape the shackles of its own material existence. Contains some interesting food for thought, but I found it lacking in focus.
Sep 01, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Gnosticism, self-consciousness, freedom and fall from grace explored in a way that I have not encountered before. From the civilization of the Aztecs to a science fiction future, the author explores the needs of humanity, citing some interesting sources along the way.
Ayan Dutta
Apr 17, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Like every John Gray book, this one deserves a Ten star . Sad that no other thinker ( barring Taleb) has similar scholarship or erudition .
Dec 28, 2019 rated it liked it
I like reading John Gray, even though I don't agree with his bleak philosophy. But he's a remarkable thinker. He's like some prophet of old that speaks of doom but nobody listens. He's quite unique, although he shouldn't be, because he takes materialism and Darwinism to its logical conclusion: that human beings are nothing but biological machines shaped by natural selection to fit their environment of tree tops and savannahs. Most Darwinists, and who isn't a Darwinist these days, don't do that. ...more
Jul 24, 2018 rated it did not like it
A short inquiry into human freedom - not short enough, I think. This book is full of bizarre sweeping statements (see: human beings murder primarily as a means to create meaning, and "soon come to find satisfaction in it") that are completely un-backed by any kind of empirical data.

"War has changed, but it has not become less destructive." Really? Then maybe we need some numbers, instead of a haiku listing a bunch of atrocities. It's impossible to see if something is increasing or decreasing wit
Scott Lupo
Dec 19, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
Another good read by John Gray. It is a short inquiry, yet it covers a wide range of topics but predominately it is about human freedom and the nature of free will. A mix of religion, philosophy, history, metaphysics, and logic the book meanders through musings about the human condition. We believe we are free but "freedom among humans is not a natural human condition. It is the practice of mutual non-interference - a rare skill that is slowly learnt and quickly forgotten." His example of the Az ...more
Jan 22, 2019 rated it liked it
First, the good stuff. I found Gray’s marionette analogy piquant in the best way possible. It’s vivid and it destabilizes your world view. He knows how to wield the power of pictures in explaining the abstract(Gray has other analogies scattered throughout the book), and as a writer I admire that. The Soul of The Marionette also contains possibly the best closing line I’ve read in the past year or two. That’s something.

Now for the not so good stuff. Gray’s arguments are new, yes. I don’t think yo
Daniel B-G
Mar 07, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Not a recent read, there are two versions of this in the database and I had the wrong one, it claimed to be written by the author of Men are from mars... (now that would be a rude awakening if you went in unprepared). It reads exactly like a John N Gray book should, not so much an attempt to puncture the balloon of western liberal hubris, but an attempt to turn it into perforated paper. The target here is free will, and whilst I disagree to an extent on the assessment (I don't believe in a binar ...more
Akhil Jain
Jul 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
My fav quotes:
• In ancient Europe, Stoics asserted that a slave could be freer than a master who suffers from self-division. In China, Daoists imagined a type of sage who responded to the flow of events without weighing alternatives.
• Humans, unlike a marionette, are self-aware and hence always remain doubtful. The defining characteristic of humans is inner-conflict. If humans were infinitely aware, they wouldn’t hesitate.
• Both science and modern day religions aim to provide the final word on
Jan 10, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Well I could tell it’s been a while since I have read a book on philosophy/theology/sociology, it took an awful amount of concentration to get my head around some of the ideas. Overall it was fascinating if a little scattershot in its approach. I learnt a lot, especially about Gnosticism which it turns out I’d completely made some incorrect assumptions about. I didn’t agree with everything and there were a few false arguments I felt (if the author avers that we can’t know if animals are self awa ...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.

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“Alone among the animals, humans seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams.” 10 likes
“Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. By destabilizing the climate, it is making the planet less hospitable to human life. By developing new technologies of mass communication and warfare, it has set in motion processes of evolution that may end up displacing it.” 4 likes
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