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

3.87  ·  Rating details ·  877 ratings  ·  104 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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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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Dec 05, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 08, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
quite good. nice amount of cited books and authors to check out.
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
Nov 08, 2020 rated it really liked it
Although I never knowingly avoided philosophical works it takes an author who writes in interesting way without looking down to the rest of us readers, lacking full knowledge of various philosophical and sociological main and side streams, for me to pick up the book. Basics are required I agree but you can differentiate between a good author from any specialized field and the one writing to a specialized community at any time - good writer tries to intrigue you to pick up the basic works and go ...more
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
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
B. Rule
Jun 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I found this little philosophical-literary essay quite mordant and charmingly dark. Gray is a world-weary and genteel pessimist espousing resignation and stoical acceptance. The windmills at which he tilts are an insidious Gnosticism undergirding modern rationalist thinking, and the idea of linear, progressive history as found in all sorts of places, including Christianity, transhumanism, liberal meliorism, Romanticism, scientific progress, and probably Apple's product release calendar. Gray ide ...more
Colin Baumgartner
Jan 18, 2021 rated it really liked it
This is a wild and eclectic ride. Gray draws from such a whimsical and diverse number of sources (Greek religion, Bruno Schulz (author of River of Crocodiles), Philip K. Dick, Aztec religion, &c &c) as he digs into the question of free will and what exactly it is. He starts, logically, with the issue of the Tree of Knowledge and the expulsion of humanity from Eden.

From this starting point, he introduces intriguing points about the gnostic reading of this story. This reading suggests that the Go
Mark Mulvey
Jan 28, 2021 rated it really liked it
"How could a puppet - a mechanical device without any trace of conscious awareness - be freer than a human being? Is it not this very awareness that marks us off from the rest of the world and enables us to choose our own path in life? Yet as Kleist pictures it, the automatism of the puppet is far from being a condition of slavery. Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom."

"In Kleist's essay humans are caught between the graceful autom
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
Theodoros Vassiliadis
Feb 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing

The essay can be split in two parts;
its beginnings stretch out a retrospective on the birth of Gnosticism and its connection
and thirst of inquiring minds throughout times.
Conclusion stands ,that although the reason that human was so successful throughout time as a byproduct of his level of consciousness ,still this does not suffice to render him as the subject that has demystified the rules of life .
Rather he persists to the perspectives that fit his mode of life or fall under the category of a
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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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