Goodreads helps you keep track of books you want to read.
Start by marking “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom” as Want to Read:
The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom
Enlarge cover
Rate this book
Clear rating
Open Preview

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

3.85  ·  Rating Details ·  297 Ratings  ·  47 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)
More Details... edit details

Friend Reviews

To see what your friends thought of this book, please sign up.
This book is not yet featured on Listopia. Add this book to your favorite list »

Community Reviews

(showing 1-30)
filter  |  sort: default (?)  |  Rating Details
Feb 07, 2016 Caren 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 Kemp
Jul 07, 2015 John Kemp 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 Jim Coughenour 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
May 12, 2016 Satyasmrti rated it liked it
Missable half baked book. The book description from the publisher that is used for selling the book is all you need to read instead of reading the book itself.

While I appreciate the central thesis that freedom that human beings think they have may be an illusion, the many digressions make you lose the plot. There are many good arguments about world being inherently violent, the impossibility of knowing ourselves deeply, that ultimately humans are just animals who take themselves too seriously a
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
Oct 15, 2015 Dannyblue 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
Clark Hays
Jan 31, 2016 Clark Hays 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 anima
Alex Zakharov
Aug 05, 2015 Alex Zakharov 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
Jeff Rowe
Sep 18, 2015 Jeff Rowe 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
May 24, 2015 Christopher 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 13, 2016 Brian Denton 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
Nov 13, 2015 Shalini 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 Derrick 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.
Dec 20, 2016 Matthew rated it it was amazing
An accessible and interesting inquiry into the nature of human freedom, free will and consciousness. Gray touched on points raised in works as widely scattered as Kleist's "In the puppet theater," Borges' "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote," Bentham's Panopticon, E.M. Forster's "The Machine Stops," and the many Gnostic-themed works of Phillip K. Dick. Far ranging and extremely well written, thought provoking and enjoyable. I was impelled to pick it up after having finished season 1 of HBO's W ...more
Bruce Reiter
Nov 11, 2016 Bruce Reiter rated it really liked it
Picked this up from the library because of the Subtitle. Can humans achieve freedom? Author spends a lot of time with the philosophers, the Gnostics and asks some tantalizing questions. It would be spoilers to let you in on the questions or the manner in which Gray directs his readers. Everyone has an axe to grind and Gray is no better nor worse than the others. like the style and the author does provoke reaction to his perceptions.
Lee Barry
Oct 30, 2016 Lee Barry rated it really liked it
Sometimes depressing but mostly enlightening. The second half of the book is most enjoyable. Nice last lines: "Uber-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free. Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth." That's kind of a happy ending.
Feb 21, 2016 Mangoo rated it liked it
John Gray belongs to the class of contrarians, an anti-hedonist one at that, and his philosophy appears to revolve on the notion that humans are what they are, an imperfect type of animals, and they are fated to remain like they are, for good and bad, with any aspiration for salvation or transcendence doomed to fail. The present variation on such lifetime theme is at once less venomous than some prior ones, shorter and more coherent. The core idea here is gnosticism, which from being apparently ...more
Rana Emerson
Nov 03, 2016 Rana Emerson rated it it was amazing
Gray is one of my favorite philosophers.
Sep 14, 2015 Tra-Kay rated it liked it
"A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom," the title reads.'s not.

The book is completely disorganized, but to paraphrase Stewart Lee, repeats the word "marionette" a few times at the end to give the illusion of structure. Basically it's a shallow survey of the philosophers the author has read and thinks might have some vague connection to the concept of freedom, which means that, like the children's book Inkheart, it is at least useful for discovering new material.

The book contains some intere
There are some provocative ideas here, and Gray makes some interesting if obscure and unexpected connections between various writers and traditions. But it isn't philosophy: it's largely polemic. He asserts his position rather than argues it; and in several places - especially where he attacks Stephen Pinker - he descends into blunt sarcasm.

The gist of his proposition seems to be that our species will never escape our fate by somehow rising above our natural condition through reason or technolo
The American Conservative
John Gray, emeritus professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics, is an enigma. He began his intellectual life on the left but moved right in the late 1970s, becoming a fan of Nobel Prize-winning free-market economist F.A. Hayek. Gray’s libertarianism was tempered, however, by studying British philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s critique of “rationalism in politics.” During the 1990s, Gray was associated with New Labour—the center-left ideology that brought Tony Blair to power in ...more
Sep 03, 2016 Crystal rated it liked it
This book was an enjoyable hodgepodge of unsupported assertions and leaps in logic. It would make a great dinner conversation after a few glasses of wine, but as a considered argument it was lackluster, meandering, and frustrating. The book takes as its starting point a quote from "The Puppet Theatre" by Heinrich von Kleist: "...grace will be most purely present in the human frame that either has no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god." F ...more
Ever gnawing at my humanist sensibilities and meaning-seeking trust in science to light the way, I came away from reading another John Gray title extremely satisfied to have been so artfully provoked. Subtitled 'A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom' this book is a quick read, touching on a wide range of connected ideas. At times, I wanted to know more about the ideas and more about the personalities Gray had included to advance his arguments. The notes at the book's end were welcome starting point ...more
Sep 12, 2015 Sujith rated it really liked it
This is another of Gray’s signature books where drawing together from works of lesser known past writers continues with the questioning of the idea of human freedom. Gray points out that we flatter ourselves that we yearn to be free—" but what is it that we actually want when we seek freedom? Instead of embracing our condition we battle against it, with everyone from world ancient mystics to modern scientists dreaming of a type of freedom almost comically at odds with our true state."

According t
Mar 16, 2015 Steven rated it liked it
Shelves: own
In familiar style, John Gray builds his latest book using cultural points (literature, films, historical characters) as a means of elucidating his arguments. However, although I'm a fan of Gray's writing and I tend to agree with his often bleak and blunt opinions of our species, I felt that something here was lacking. I think that part of the problem lies in his undoubted knack of arguing against straw men without providing a fleshed out counterargument, and some of the sections felt at best rus ...more
Even though I didn’t agree with all the philosophical arguments, I enjoyed learning about the different philosophies and their impact upon various historical figures, cyborgs, writers and artists. In particular, the small historical asides about the Aztec way of life and writers like Philip K. Dick caught my eye. I’ll have to read more about how Philip K. Dick’s experiences and shifting philosophies bled into his science fiction work.

I was also unfamiliar with Gnosticism but this book was a succ
Apr 13, 2016 Aja added it
Shelves: favorites
Despite it being a short book, the pages are packed with so much information. I have never read a book in which the author presents so many abstract ideas that matched my own, while also bringing in new ideas that really made me think. I love the way Gray writes because it is elegant, yet easy to follow. I would recommend this book to anyone because it will definitely make you reconsider some things about the world and your own life. I would love to read more by this author; he's my new favorite ...more
Jun 04, 2016 Douglas rated it really liked it
A useful addition and original spin on recent ir/rational free will discussion. Writing style makes use of threads of literary obscurity and weaves a pleasantly poignant picture intent on humbling humans. This book along with Sam Harris's Free Will and Patricia Churchland's Touching a Nerve have influenced a clearer understanding of what it means to exist as a human. Influenced to read John Gray's previous work.
Mar 20, 2016 Philip rated it it was amazing
"What seems to be singularly human is not consciousness or free will but inner conflict — the contending impulses that divide us from ourselves. No other animal seeks the satisfaction of its desires and at the same time curses them as evil; spends its life terrified of death while being ready to die in order to preserve an image of itself; kills its own species for the sake of dreams. Not self-awareness but the split in the self is what makes us human."
Nov 02, 2015 Landis rated it really liked it
On page 149 now and fighting my instincts to buy my very own copy. It is a book that needs to be dipped into from time to time because, although it is not a long book, there are a tremendous number of references and directions all harnessed to support Grays theory and that would benefit from further consideration. ...more
« previous 1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 next »
topics  posts  views  last activity   
Goodreads Librari...: Book wrongly attributed 3 21 Jan 28, 2015 11:58AM  
  • Slavoj Žižek
  • The Pyrotechnic Insanitarium: American Culture on the Brink
  • Holderlin, Kleist, and Nietzsche: The Struggle with the Daemon
  • J.G. Ballard (RE/Search #8/9)
  • Nomad Codes: Adventures in Modern Esoterica
  • Why We Love Sociopaths: A Guide to Late Capitalist Television
  • Dialogues
  • The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man
  • A User's Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews
  • New Maps Of Hell: A Survey Of Science Fiction
  • Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It
  • The Oxford Book of Aphorisms
  • Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity
  • Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy
  • 8
  • On Evil
  • Nature and Madness
  • Martin Heidegger
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.
More about John N. Gray...

Share This Book

“Alone among the animals, humans seek meaning in their lives by killing and dying for the sake of nonsensical dreams.” 6 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.” 3 likes
More quotes…