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Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

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Straw Dogs is a work of philosophy, which sets out to challenge our most cherished assumptions about what it means to be human. From Plato to Christianity, from the Enlightenment to Nietzsche, the Western tradition has been based on arrogant and erroneous beliefs about human beings and their place in the world. Philosophies such as liberalism and Marxism think of humankind as a species whose destiny is to transcend natural limits and conquer the Earth. Even in the present day, despite Darwin's discoveries, nearly all schools of thought take as their starting point the belief that humans are radically different from other animals. John Gray argues that this humanist belief is an illusion. The aim of Straw Dogs is to explore how the world and human life look once humanism has been finally abandoned.
Straw Dogs explores philosophical issues such as the nature of the self, free will, morality, progress and the value of truth. Drawing his inspiration from art, poetry, and the frontiers of science as well as philosophy itself, John Gray presents a post-humanist view of the world and of human life. Straw Dogs is an exhilarating, sometimes disturbing book that leads the reader to question their deepest beliefs.

246 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

John N. Gray

133 books723 followers
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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Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.2k followers
March 15, 2020

If you are an agnostic with few illusions who seeks the consolations of philosophy; if you are fortified by Ligotti’s bleak analysis (A Conspiracy Against the Human Race) and sustained by Cioran’s grim maxims (A Short History of Decay); if the fiction of J.G. Ballard, Will Self, and Jim Crace is congruent with your assumptions, congenial with your attitudes; then John Gray’s Straw Dogs may be the book for you.

The atheist Gray, who rejects the assumptions of Christianity, here targets the contemporary consensus of humanism. In ridding itself of theistic illusions, Gray believes, secular humanism didn’t go nearly far enough.

For Gray, Utopianism is a variant of the Kingdom of God, progress a non-theistic version of salvation history, the exaltation of human consciousness and the celebration of free will little more than the vestiges of a repressed belief in the integrity and persistence of the immortal soul. Gray argues that there is no real evidence for any of these commonly accepted beliefs: human consciousness is fitful, free will illusory, progress a fiction (history is cyclical, not forward-looking), and ”utopia”—given the contrary nature of man—will be (at best) the occasional result of autocratic, repressive regimes.

Although Gray’s book challenges our comfortable assumptions, it also offers its own severe form of consolation. If we cease to believe in progress, to yearn for utopia, we may save ourselves from continual disappointment; if we cease to believe in a unitary self in command of fictive choices, we may more easily immerse ourselves—as the Daoist and Zen Buddhist do—in the successive ebb and flow of time, the "lucid dream" which constitutes humankind’s richest simulacrum of reality.

Although Gray’s laconic style lacks Cioran’s witty ironies and Ligotti’s deadpan humor, he makes up for it with his wide-ranging scholarship and the concentrated power of his thought. There is much in this book to ponder, much to which a thoughtful reader may return, again and again.

Here are eight of my favorite passages:
* * * * * The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, 'Western civilisation' or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.

* * * * * Cities are no more artificial than the hives of bees. The internet is as natural as a spider's web. As Margulis and Sagan have written, we are ourselves technological devices, invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival: 'We are a part of an intricate network that comes from the original bacterial takeover of the Earth. Our powers and intelligence do not belong specifically to us but to all life.'

* * * * * Among us, science serves two needs: for hope and censorship. Today, only science supports the myth of progress. If people cling to the hope of progress, it is not so much from genuine belief as from fear of what may come if they give it up.

* * * * * Over the past 200 years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith. It has not given up Christianity's cardinal error — the belief that humans are radically different from all other animals.

* * * * * Postmodernists parade their relativism as a superior kind of humility — the modest acceptance that we cannot claim to have the truth. In fact, the postmodern denial of truth is the worst kind of arrogance. In denying that the natural world exists independently of our beliefs about it, postmodernists are implicitly rejecting any limit on human ambitions. By making human beliefs the final arbiter of reality, they are in effect claiming that nothing exists unless it appears in human consciousness.

* * * * * Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see ourselves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.

* * * * * Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.

* * * * * Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?
Profile Image for Warwick.
812 reviews14.5k followers
December 21, 2012
This smallish book is one of the most depressing and pessimistic 200 pages I have read in a long time. John Gray has been getting darker and darker in his vision of the world and Straw Dogs finally brings him round to bleak nihilism.

The book has many virtues. It is written in an admirably simple and clear way, with thoughts broken down and laid out in Pascalian pensées, some of them only a sentence or two long. The content is never less than thought-provoking. In six broad chapters, he outlines his theory that humans are mere animals, that faith in science is no more rational than faith in religion, free will is a myth, progress an illusion, and morality "a sickness peculiar to humans". His vision of the future is one of wars which are "certain to be hugely destructive" and in which humans will probably die by the billion, ultimately to be replaced by machines. Not only is this inevitable, it is not even particularly undesirable: humans are "not obviously worth preserving".

It takes a kind of heroic cynicism to be quite so relentlessly negative, and that alone tells you that Gray must be overlooking quite a lot. But at any rate the book, though rather fascinating, is a mass of inconsistencies. On the one hand he spends a lot of time trying to demonstrate that humans should become less obsessed with action and more content with simply being. But on the other hand he insists that humans cannot change and any attempt to alter human nature is doomed to failure. Similarly, he bangs on about how pointless the concept of truth is – "the worship of truth is a Christian cult" – yet what is this book if not an attempt to put forward his own view of truth and overturn the "untruths" of others? If this book does not offer a kind of truth, it offers nothing.

His criticism of science is too extreme to be valuable. Gray views it as a kind of modern mystical religion, an object of faith every bit as irrational as its religious ancestors. This allows him to make some pretty silly statements:

Yet after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals do for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow.

Call me a bluff old traditionalist, but I feel that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and so on have given me a much firmer basis for that belief than simply past evidence. Gray's failure to recognise progress is perverse. Of course, people will always feel unhappy and will always suffer, but there can be no denying that modern civilisations have raised the general standard of living, demonised inequality, established systems of justice and law enforcement, produced great works of art, and so on and so forth. Gray, when he acknowledges such things at all, merely suggests that this is a blip which will soon be followed by more misery and extinction.

Yes, there is a danger in blind faith in progress or undue veneration of science. But all Gray has to offer as an alternative seems to be an even more unreliable amalgam of Eastern philosophy and Gaia theory. It's not enough. The apocalyptic romance of his vision is itself more akin to mysticism than rationality. And so the leaps in logic pile up. It is worth stressing (though hardly a new idea) that we are animals like any other species. But it takes some effort to go on to say that we are therefore in no way unusual in our accomplishments both good and bad. Similarly, Gray is right to show that morality breaks down in extreme circumstances. But he is wrong to conclude from this that it has no value.

Liberal humanism has had so many demonstrable benefits that any attack on it has to offer some comparable alternative. Straw Dogs sidesteps this competition by arguing that belief in progress or development is silly, and we should rather simply accept that we are ultimately heading for annihilation both personally and as a species. That may be so, but this book fails to prove that bleak resignation is the most appropriate response, either for personal happiness or for social stability.
Profile Image for BlackOxford.
1,081 reviews68k followers
October 7, 2021
Hemlock for the Masses

Straw Dogs is an intellectual meal and a half to digest. And it’s a fusion of styles and subjects that makes it a cuisine awkward to classify - classical philosophy, sociology, technological analysis and forecasting, with a soupçon of New Age mysticism. Having just had another substantial meal in Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God, which uses some of the same ingredients (with an extra helping of philosophy and hold the New Age), I feel compelled to compare the two.

Both books cover the same ground - the 18th century Enlightenment and its effects on modern culture. And both books reach similar conclusions - that the rationalism of the Enlightenment project has reached a philosophical as well as practical dead-end in the 21st century. And they appear to provide similarly vague suggestions about what to do about the intellectual situation - Gray retreating from his youthful right-wing free market liberalism and Eagleton from his left-wing dogmatic Marxism. They seem to have met at some mid-point around the idea of classical tragedy as an expression of our current intellectual state. Not that either author would acknowledge their commonalities. Gray thinks Eagleton is a closet religious fundamentalist. Eagleton thinks Gray is an ill-educated nihilist.

Gray looks forward pessimistically into a world of technological chaos and environmental ruin. His subject is homo rapiens, that species of animal which doesn’t think it’s an animal. This species, us, has come to dominate the planet and in all likelihood will destroy itself through its inveterate penchant for self-delusion. “Humans cannot live without illusion. For the men and women of today, an irrational faith in progress may be the only antidote to nihilism.”

According to Gray, homo rapiens literally has bet its collective farm on a variety of illusory ideas: God, Truth, Progress, Morality, Science, Purpose, and Meaning to name just a few. However none of these have proven either permanent or functional. The reason for their failure is not merely that they have all been the result of a misguided species-hubris, but also that they do not conform to the demands of Nature, that ultimate arbiter of intellectual taste. Gaia, the living soul of the planet, will not be mocked

Eagleton on the other hand looks backwards with an implicit optimism even in the throes of his frequent sarcasm. He has a lot less to say about anthropology than Gray and a lot more to say about the sequence of intellectual developments in and after the Enlightenment. He perceives a trajectory which has gone awry but which is correctable. Eagleton agrees with Gray about both the incompleteness of the Enlightenment as well as the resulting problem of fideistic humanism. He even recognizes the same human flaw which is its source: “Man is a fetish filling the frightful abyss which is himself. He is a true image of the God he denies.”

Stylistically the two writers depart radically. Eagleton writes with elegance and wit, packing every paragraph with philosophical allusions and subtle qualifications. He is a careful writer who understands the complexities of his subject (‘on the one hand, on the other... on the sixteenth hand’) Gray doesn’t write that way, or as well. He is austerely managerial (‘point one, point two... point ninety six’), making his case brick by intellectual brick without hesitation or qualification. Gray is not, therefore, nearly as academic as Eagleton but he’s a far more effective arguer of his case. The reader knows his point of view and can follow it step by step.

Even more important, Gray doesn’t disintegrate into Eagleton’s anemic spiritual nostalgia. For Gray, the situation is as bad as it appears. There is absolutely nothing to have faith in - not in organized religion certainly, but neither in reason, nor art, nor pleasure, nor justice, nor least of all some inner voice which suggests some other reality across a metaphysical divide. Salvation for Gray is one of those illusions that nostalgic intellectuals crave. Eagleton’s hints that there is something we don’t yet have sight of that could pull us out of the fire.

Ultimately, however, it is clear that Gray is an exponent of Natural Law. This is a highly dangerous intellectual stance since it allows conclusions based on whatever presumptions one makes about what is natural (See https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... for some of the history and consequences of these presumptions). For example, by relegating morality to the realm of the unnatural, Gray is implicitly promoting violence. While an ethic of civilized justice may well be nothing more than a shared fiction and convention, I think it’s clear that it is also far more life-affirming than the alternatives. Morality is indeed an invention of human society. And it may well be unnatural (although this is difficult to prove since it arises from natural human creatures). Perhaps moral civilization is what the religious-minded call a state of grace.

So you choose your poison - Eagleton, the philosopher of culture, who uses cultural analysis to demonstrate the deficiencies of culture without a divine presence; or Gray, the philosopher of nature, who uses a decidedly religious concept of nature to demonstrate its brutal disregard for its creatures. It seems to me that it would require a considerable faith to drink hemlock on the basis of either one.
Profile Image for Jon Stout.
275 reviews56 followers
August 31, 2010
The irony is that I agree with John Gray on most of his large points, that we have reason for pessimism, that mankind will fail to handle some of the larger crises of our day such as population growth, that human history is replete with gratuitous savagery and violence in the name of religion and/or humanistic ideals, that we would do better to be aware of our animal natures, and so forth.

But there is something about the way he does it that turns me off. He wants to survey the history of ideas, as well as every new age movement on the horizon, and say, “See where that got us? What’s the point of doing that?” He’s down on secular humanism as well as traditional religions, and he seems opposed to anyone who ever had an original thought in the history of philosophy. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity!” What’s the point of even trying? Better to be like the other animals and passively accept whatever comes our way.

He does have his favorites. He likes Taoism and Schopenhauer. But with most other thinkers, he takes a two-sentence shot and dismisses them without trying to understand. It’s as though he’s saying, “So much for that one! I don’t have to think about him any more! There goes another one!” Potshots are fun, but they are no substitute for engagement.

He says, “According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it is falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted.” (p. 22) No kidding. I guess I missed that the theories of evolution and relativity had been falsified. The hard part was finding circumstances in which they could be falsified. Anyhow, the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science is Thomas Kuhn (even though he’s a historian), who might have buttressed Gray’s arguments if Gray were interested.

Gray says, “Wittgenstein believed that his later thought had transcended traditional philosophy, but at bottom it is not much more than another version of the oldest of philosophies – Idealism.” (p. 53) To that I ask: How can behaviorism be idealism? Wittgenstein discusses where he stands with respect to realism and idealism. Gray should have checked it out.

He says, “It is scarcely possible to imagine a philosophy such as Platonism emerging in an oral culture.” (p. 57) Hello. What we know of Plato’s philosophy comes from dialogues, an oral medium and art form. It’s not hard to imagine; Plato makes it completely explicit.

On a more substantive point, Gray bashes Socrates for using his mind to discern values, the same idea for which he praises Taoism. With regard to Socrates, he says:

“… reason cannot be the guide of life. Euripides rejected the belief that Socrates made the basis of philosophy: that. As Dodds puts it, ‘moral, like intellectual error, can arise only from a failure to use the reason we possess; and that when it does arise it must, like intellectual error, be curable by intellectual process’.” (p. 98)

But then he quotes A.C. Graham on the Taoist as saying:

“He does not have to make decisions based on standards of good and bad because, granted only that enlightenment is better than ignorance, it is self-evident that among spontaneous inclinations the one prevailing in greatest clarity of mind, other things being equal, will be best, the one in accord with the Way.” (p. 114)

I could go on and on, but I would just take up space on rebutting things that annoy me. If John Gray wants to sit passively and appreciate the pleasures of the senses, more power to him. Just give some respect to those of us who may at some point prefer thinking or acting.
Profile Image for brian   .
248 reviews2,939 followers
November 30, 2017
1. although this does happen to crystallize and articulate much of what i believe, that's largely irrelevant. i recommend reading this wonderful nuthouse as the extended essay (read: rant) thomas bernhard never wrote. plus, it lays out the meaning of life and explains the secrets of the universe.*

2. a terrific antidote to all that 'everything happens for a reason' nonsense.

3. makes me happy to imagine people who bought this wanting something else by the guy who wrote men are from mars, women are from venus...

Let's see. You're Michael... Bolton?

Is that your real name?


Are you in any relation to the pop singer?

It's just a coincidence.

To be honest with you, I love his music. I do. I am a Michael Bolton fan. For my money, I don't think it gets any better than when he sings 'When a Man Loves a Woman'.

I mean you must really love his music.

Yeah. Yeah…he, he, he's pretty, he's pretty good, I guess.

You're GODDAMN right he is.

They laugh.

So tell me. What's your favorite song of his?

Hmm. I, I, I don't know. I mean, I guess, I sorta like 'em all.

The Bobs laugh.

Ha! I feel the exact same way, but it must be hard for you, I mean, having the same name as him. I celebrate the guy's entire catalogue. But anyway, let's get down to business, Michael!

You, you know, you can just call me Mike.

* there ain't none; there aren't any
Profile Image for Tim.
11 reviews5 followers
August 21, 2009
Potentially life changing. I say potentially because this is not a book for someone who is scared of facing their fears and doubts about what they have believed about mankind and their life. For me, he has blown me away. I can't help jumping up and wanting to tell someone about so many particular sections that i read that are so striking. I will warn you though, be prepared to experience depression or despair if what he writes does speak to you deeply. I feel both liberated and utterly despairing now, which speaks volumes about the importance of what the author has in many ways set out to do.

This book is laid out in easy to assimilate short sections where the author presents arguments for or against aspects of thoughts, beliefs, myths and faiths that mankind is prone to have.

Essentially he deals with the question of meaning for humankind. How are we different from the rest of the animal world?

Whether you are a Christian, Buddhist, Nihilist or Humanist be prepared to hear some frank, well considered and relevant questions and propositions. This is the sort of book that could merit many readings and is one that makes me think i need to keep a notebook beside me as i read it.

Almost every time i read a section i am left pondering what he has said and find myself engaging in debate with him and myself. This is a very stimulating series of thoughts. I must say that he has written some things that really have made me reconsider what I thought of and how I thought about some aspects of human life.

Not a book for those who are not willing to consider anything outside their own dogmas. If you are keen to question your core beliefs about mankind then i heartily recommend this book which i will read again and no doubt find many quotes from.
Profile Image for Rob.
34 reviews1 follower
July 17, 2011
Just awful. A rambling, unconvincing argument by a terribly self-satisfied misanthrope.

Pretty disappointing, as I picked up the book hoping for a decent discussion on many of the ideas presented. The non-separateness of humans from the natural world, the illusory nature of the self and consciousness... these are ideas I care about. Indeed, if you have never spent time thinking about them, this book may serve valuable as a devil's advocate and catalyst. That's about the only value I found in it.

Gray's book is set up as a series of tiny attacks on much of present-day thinking. However, instead of attacking arguments head-on, Gray prefers to simplify the complexity of whatever argument he approaches. After this reduction, he then proceeds to refute the simplification. If that is not enough, he will then make several unsubstantiated declarative statements, presenting them as either time-tested truths, or as being so obvious they should go without saying. You think by naming his book Straw Dogs, Gray would have gone to greater lengths to avoid making such transparent straw man arguments.

The research Gray put into his arguments is also pretty suspect. His understanding of the psychology and neuroscience of self seems pretty cursory. He comes across as not having a too firm grasp of any of it. His discussion of hunter-gatherer societies and their transition to agriculture is also very poor. I suspect he read a few books and then jammed both of those cultures into the pre-formed mental model he had been working with.

I think Gray should probably spend less time reading his own arguments and spend more time talking with those who actually work in the areas he so casually dismisses. His ideas are not new, and have been discussed ad nauseum in any journal worth its salt.

At the very least, Gray should have shown his book to at least a few people who disagree with it. He might have at least noticed a few of the instances of cognitive dissonance he had written out. If humans are not separate from other species, why does Gray give them such special accord? Animals that lack consciousness (as Gray defines it), can not be anything else other than what they are. However, Gray argues that humans also lack this consciousness, and yet they are still to be excoriated?

Like I said, I care about many of the ideas Gray presents in Straw Dogs, it's just that Gray is so ineffective and unlikable. Rather than coming across as an innovative thinker, he clumsily attacks the page with an imperiousness he has not earned. This is the book one would expect from a angry teenager who is discovering for the first time that the world may be, surprise, somewhat hypocritical.
Profile Image for Annetius.
299 reviews81 followers
April 5, 2021
Τα αιρετικά μυαλά είναι αυτά που ανοίγουν λίγο το κλείστρο και κάνουν ελαφρώς πιο ευρυγώνιο τον δικό μας φακό θέασης του κόσμου. Αυτό είναι απολύτως χρήσιμο για ένα μυαλό που δεν μπορεί να κάτσει απλώς ήσυχα και που είναι διατεθειμένο να ακούσει και να κάνει χρήση της κριτικής του ικανότητας: εν πολλοίς το βιβλίο απευθύνεται στον προβληματισμένο αναγνώστη.  

‌Ο John Gray, σαφώς ένα τέτοιο αιρετικό μυαλό, σύγχρονος φιλόσοφος με αξιόλογη πορεία, πετσοκόβει χωρίς το γάντι τις παραφυάδες αισιοδοξίας που φυτρώνουν στο ανθρώπινο μυαλό, το γεμάτο ψευδαισθήσεις για να καταφέρνει να την βγάζει καθαρή. Ο αισιόδοξος αναγνώστης δε θα βρει απάνεμο καταφύγιο. Ο απαισιόδοξος -η υποφαινόμενη ανήκει σε αυτούς- θα δεχτεί με ευχαρίστηση την ενδοφλέβια αυτή ένεση επιβεβαίωσης των κατά βάση κακών οιωνών για το ανθρώπινο είδος.  

‌Ο συγγραφέας μάς δίνει σε δόσεις μικρών στοχασμών ένα συμπύκνωμα που συμμαζεύει με έναν τρόπο τη σκέψη μας που τείνει να πλατειάσει, να γενικεύσει, να καλμάρει. Περνώντας τη σκέψη του από τη σίτα μεγάλων παλαιότερων και σύγχρονων στοχαστών (Σοπενχάουερ, Νίτσε, Λάο Τσε, Σωκράτης, Ντεμπόρ κλπ), καθώς και κορυφαίων λογοτεχνών (Κόνραντ, Μπάτλερ) καταλήγει στα δικά του ίσως και μπορεί. Απαντήσεις δεν υπάρχουν. Θα έλεγα το αντίθετο: γεννιούνται περισσότερα ερωτήματα. Ο Γκρέυ μάς στέλνει τα φιλιά του από το μέλλον, με αυτό το σχεδόν φουτουριστικό γοητευτικό βιβλίο, σπρώχνοντάς μας να θεωρήσουμε μια Οδύσσεια του διαστήματος Part II. Πόσο μακριά είναι ο χριστιανισμός από την επιστήμη και τον ανθρωπισμό; Γιατί έχουμε σήμερα θεοποιήσει τη δράση και όχι την ενατένιση που πρέσβευε ο Πλάτωνας; Πόσο τελικά μπουκωμένοι με αυταπάτες είμαστε; Η τυφλή πίστη μας στην πρόοδο από πού πηγάζει; Ο άνθρωπος είναι αλήθεια τόσο ανώτερος από τα άλλα ζώα; Οι απανταχού πεσιμιστές, που δεν πιστεύουν στην ανωτερότητα του ανθρώπου και αμφισβητούν τη μοναδικότητα της ανθρωπότητας εν γένει, θα συντονιστούν και θα πάρουν τη δόση τους. 

Οι στοχασμοί του Gray δεν αφομοιώνοντ��ι με τη μία. Μπαίνει όμως ο σπόρος της αμφισβήτησης, ζητούμενο για κάποιον που ενδιαφέρεται να κατατοπιστεί γενικότερα. Επομένως, σίγουρα αυτό είναι ένα βιβλίο πολλών επαναναγνώσεων.  

Για την ωρα, οι πράξεις μου νιώθω πως είναι καρικατούρες, φαιδρές και αστείες. Στη δεύτερη ανάγνωση, ίσως νιώσω ακόμα χειρότερα. Στην τρίτη, ποιος ξέρει, μπορεί και να αυτοκτονήσω, να τελειώνουμε. 

Έχουν χρησιμοποιηθεί πολύ πλούσιες πηγές, οι οποίες παρατίθενται γενναιόδωρα στο τέλος του βιβλίου, για περαιτέρω αναζήτηση.  

Το μόνο σίγουρο, θα ήθελα να διαβάσω και άλλο John Gray• με έκανε «καλά» γκ��εμίζοντάς τα όλα. 


«Η επιστήμη έχει χρησιμοποιηθεί για να στηρίξει την επηρμένη ιδέα ότι οι άνθρωποι διαφέρουν από όλα τα άλλα ζώα. Στην πραγματικότητα, η υπέρτατη αξία της μπορεί να έγκειται στο γεγονός ότι δείχνει πως ο κόσμος που οι άνθρωποι είναι προγραμματισμένοι για να αντιλαμβάνονται αποτελεί χίμαιρα.»

Profile Image for Szplug.
467 reviews1,208 followers
February 1, 2010
Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind's deliverer.

The above quote from Straw Dogs serves as a decent summary of John Gray's disturbing, unpredictable, and relentless look at human folly at the dawn of the new century. Another Goodreads member advised me that Gray was like a man walking through a balloon store with a long pin, and the description is apt: the Englishman wields his pleasing, bracing prose like a semantic sledgehammer in shattering one edifice of conventional wisdom after another. Philosophy, religion, totalitarianism, the modern Right and Left wings of capitalist democracies, the War on Terrorism, the globalization of free markets, man's contingency: all are fair game for the one-man demolition crew. Gray questions how conscious and rational humans actually are, and are capable of being; he paints in clear strokes a picture of how mythology and utopianism - focussed through the prism of Christianity - have underpinned virtually all of the political movements of the past three centuries, all in the name of perfervid belief in the chimera called Progress.

Gray tackles so many cherished truths that he occasionally ends up contradicting himself - such as exploding the belief that man is free, only to base subsequent criticisms upon progress reducing man's freedom. It also brings one to question where Gray believes his ubersceptical route will lead: despite his summational plea to humanity to abandon its endless need for purpose - Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see? - it is difficult to envision such illusion-free existence driving the masses towards aught but despair. Nevertheless, the book is a brisk, wonderful, and eye-opening read, casting enough doubts upon the solidity of perceived wisdom to keep the reader questioning and ruminating for days afterwards. Working from the same vein of thoughtful polemic as that other great doubter of progress, Christopher Lasch - see the brilliant The True and Only Heaven for the definitive summation of the latter's critique - Straw Dogs is a cogent and illuminating - if uncomfortable - read.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,037 reviews1,038 followers
October 3, 2021
John Gray (° 1948) is a modern Nietzsche, using the hammer against humanism, Christian faith, Enlightenment and even science. According to Gray, all these phenomena have in common that they place humankind above every other species, and believe in enduring progress. Again and again Gray is arguing, - no, really shouting out loud - that this is pure nonsense, and that mankind is destined to come to an end. I was really annoyed by his radical opinions, and most of all by his defense of the 'paradise' of hunter-gatherers in prehistory; this is just ridiculous and unfounded, a regression to the 'noble wild' image of the Romantics.

Nevertheless I must confess: every now and then Gray has a point. Of course, he's right to criticize the arrogance of modernity and the tunnel vision anthropocentrism can create. For example: in chapter 2 he convincingly states that mankind wrongly thinks it's always in control, that conscience is our permanent state of mind. Of course, it's not. But then again, Gray proceeds by going right over the top and drawing the wrong conclusions, throwing away the baby with the bathwater. His criticism may be enticing (that's why I still give him 2 stars), but he has not much to offer instead.
Profile Image for Murtaza .
664 reviews3,402 followers
September 15, 2014
The central tenet of this book is that secular humanism is built off a worldview that - despite its protestations - comes entirely from religion. Darwinism suggests that we are animals, and while tendentiously accepting this humanists nonetheless insist on a special place and dispensation for humans. The idea of "progress", entirely a superstition, is in fact based on the Christian concept of salvation which has been transmuted into a secular worldview. Secular humanism as it has been created in the West is really better described as post-Christianity; dependent for its coherence on Christian concepts which are in fact fundamentally at odds with Darwinism.

Humans may be a more advanced animal but as per the hypothesis argued here they are an animal nonetheless. They forage for food, seek warmth, attempt to procreate, communicate using sounds and markings with one another; and inevitably expire just as animals do. The secular humanist idea that we are fully in control of our lives and the decisions we make in it is entirely a religious one. We don't speak of whales, gorillas or birds having a higher purpose, mission or direction but we inexplicably insist that we ourselves do while simultaneously agreeing with Darwinism and its philosophic conclusions.

Due to my own background I am compelled to examine this work from an Islamic viewpoint. In Islam there is a belief that all animals are "Muslim", by which it means they follow the natural behaviors which God has dictated for them. Gray argues that humans alone try to deny their animal nature and attempt to define themselves as separate from the natural world. Islam - as I understand it- heavily draws upon naturalism in its exhortations to look to nature for its signs of creation. It is further built upon the idea of fitra; the essential human nature which is God-consciousness and is similarly expressed by animals and other parts of the natural world. In Islam the difference is we humans alone have the ability to deny and resist our fitra, and it is our duty to overcome this and embrace it. Gray is of course an atheist and this book is not an attempt to validate religious beliefs, but I could not help to be struck by the congruence especially as it has tied into arguments made in the past by Islamic scholars like Fazlur Rahman.

Gray suggests that we truly return to ourselves not when we are alone in our thoughts but when we attempt to reconnect and interact with other animals. I'm inclined to agree; the mystery and negative space that animals seem to take in our minds is more important than it seems without reflection.

This book also contains many ruminations on the nature of man's interaction with technology, politics, capitalism, and Gray's prognostications for the future. This is really a devastating critique of the prevailing orthodoxies of our time. Gray has the courage of his convictions in taking the beliefs of Darwinism to their logical endpoint. He also ably excoriates those among secularists who take pride in their ignorance of the theology. If they did not turn ignorance into a virtue they'd see that their beliefs about progress, humanity and the reality of the world are in fact built wholly on religious ideas.

This is a book which is a useful corrective to the unthinking beliefs dogmas of those who claim to hold the truth today. Gray even provocatively claims that it is religious people who have a better picture of human nature because by their marginalization they've been forced to cultivate a capacity for doubt and questioning greater than the proud standard bearers of secular humanism of our present age.
Profile Image for Alexander.
50 reviews38 followers
October 16, 2011
A bit too breezily aphoristic and dismissive at times, Gray's book is still an impressive nail-bomb of neo-Schopenhauerian polemic, veering between scorched earth and Taoist serenity, stoic good humor under reddening skies.

STRAW DOGS is a brazen "remix" of many familiar memes, but woven so artfully in barbed-wire fashion, covering so many rich topics and controversies, that it does what the best philosophical commentary does: provokes and stimulates both sympathizers and antagonists into enriching psychic combat.

Gray leans heavily on his Bibliography, and seems at times to presuppose a reader who's read most of what he's read. This is not a book of careful, incisive, incremental argument -- he's working more in the Cioran mode of stiletto epigrams, and relies on the reader to fill the gaps and open vistas with his/her own stormy, fulminating meditations. It recalls Nietzsche's allegory of the quiver of arrows shot into a dark wood, to be scavenged and re-shot by the pathfinder into new directions of thought. It encourages the constant weighing and re-weighing of thorny, complex, unwieldy themes.

If I ever taught a course in Intro to Western Civ, I would happily assign the text as lighter-fluid for class discussion -- and would likely get sacked by the Dean after the student complaints came avalanching in. ;-)

STRAW DOGS is a firestarter.
Profile Image for Gail  McConnell.
174 reviews6 followers
September 8, 2021
Secular humanism is Christianity in a tracksuit. That's the book in a nutshell. Admittedly, a small and not particularly satisfactory nutshell. But a nutshell nonetheless.

I recommend this to you, dear reader. Gray writes about a vast array of ideas - from science, theology, philosophy and psychology - and, with tremendous economy, unravels the myth perpetuated by thinkers from each discipline in our so-called liberal secular humanist era: that we humans are higher than animals, and that our fantasy of progress has in fact a rational basis. The book is annoying at times. But productively, I think. Provocatively. Oh, and he has some very choice words to say about philosophers. I'm looking forward to reading 'Black Mass'.

A few choice nuggets...

"Humanism is a secular religion thrown together from the decaying scraps of Christian myth." (31)
"Postmodernism is just the latest fad in anthropocentrism." (55)
"Genocide is as human as art or prayer". (91)
"Justice is an artefact of custom". (103)
"Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen." (110)
"We think of modernity as an idea in the social sciences, when actually it is the last hiding place of 'morality'." (173)
56 reviews
November 27, 2015
I think that Gray is too misanthropic and he relies too much on the gaia hypothesis. He goes out of his way to talk about how the self is an illusion, free will is an illusion and even consciousness (or at least what we normally characterize as consciousness) is an illusion. Why would anyone who agrees with those points find the gaia hypothesis appealing??? Also, if humans are inevitably going to do what they will do as it is all determined (I agree with this), then why in the world would you make pejorative jokes about them, calling them homo rapiens while idealizing "gaia?" It's all part of the same universe, humans, earth... all of it is part of the larger cosmic evolution.

Aside from that, Gray demonizes humanism and the concept of progress. He also demonizes action. Why did he write the book then? Would it be "progress" if people were more contemplative? Why does it matter, ultimately?

I have an answer. Even though we do not have free will, we still are forced to make choices as we occupy human perspectives. If you are completely idle, you probably won't be happy. Generally, even without free will, with choices between being happy and unhappy, people will choose being happy. If you don't, good for you, but you must understand that you are quite different if that's the case:) You need human attachments (and to a lesser extent other animal attachments may suffice). Also, as a human (an average one), you probably have a drive to survive and maintain your body by eating. Those drives actually can give plenty of purpose (depending on how it's defined). I agree with Gray that the emphasis on so many "higher purposes" is misguided and illusory. However, he cherry-picks science to support a strange misanthropy. It's like he wants to hate humans and progress. Or perhaps he wants to be provocative, so he picked certain facts, combined with his rhetoric, to support that aim.

Gray fails to appreciate that he occupies the human perspective. He is guilty of acting as though he is this observer outside of the human race that can judge from some standard outside of human values. Gaia values? I'd like to know what those are! I think that Gray should read the book Brain Trust by Patricia Churchland. She makes an argument that morality is largely social problem solving and it is an extension of our desire to attach to others as highly social creatures. I find that perfectly satisfying. A lot of what Gray says about progress might apply if you view morality that way. However, what Gray minimizes is something Churchland calls attention to. While there is room for pluralism and humans can adapt to many different cultures, as knowledge accumulates, certain behaviors are probably bad for human well-being. For instance, female circumcision to remove sexual pleasure from a female. It is arguably completely unnecessary and there are clearly other ways of doing things. If you effectively got rid of that practice in the world, that would probably be progress.

I think Gray longs for mind-independent knowledge. When he doesn't find it, he sometimes abandons truth. Just because we're animals that are caused by the universe, that doesn't negate realism entirely. It also doesn't mean truth doesn't matter to humans. He cherry picks regarding what bits of knowledge to accept and reject... That is perhaps his biggest flaw. Just because we are embodied, natural, animals without souls doesn't mean that we don't matter. We matter to each other. Just because we only care about our own survival due to evolution doesn't mean that there is no real value in life. From my perspective as a human, I might use knowledge ultimately to serve human ends. It is good to recognize that and I agree with him on that point. However, that's not really a bad thing. It's just life. It's a bad thing from a Christian perspective or if you are for some reason judging humans by some strange cosmic standard you've dreamt up that doesn't really exist or that you probably couldn't know anyway...

This book is worth reading mainly to show what NOT to think regarding the implications of recognizing the limits of human understanding and seeing human beings as animals. I highly recommend Patricia Churchland's book Brain Trust for a much more accurate view of humans. For a decent book on Moral Relativism, I recommend Jesse Prinz's The Emotional Construction of Morals. Even he argues that there can be progress... Churchland certainly doesn't suggest that we are the most peaceful creatures out there. Some of Gray's pessimism may be warranted, but your choices matter and some things are probably worth fighting for (relationships, social attachments, reducing the pain of those you care about and sometimes others). They don't matter to the universe, but they matter to you if you're a regular human (luckily there aren't many sociopaths and most people can form social attachments).
Profile Image for John.
1,101 reviews78 followers
July 28, 2018
In a nutshell we are all doomed. Humans are a plague which will ultimately exceed the worlds ecological limits. Religion has been replaced by science and progress will solve all our problems. A bleak pessimistic view of philosophy and its evolution. I am so glad me and my wife do not have children.

On the positive side I like that early Greek philosophers were not focused on truth but happiness or perhaps a more relevant word would be contentment. This book is all about how messed up the world is and offers no solutions. Our ability now to go beyond the limits of the next village has resulted in a world overloaded by irrelevant news. Gray raises a lot of good points but there is no alternative offered and criticism throughout with a lack of analysis or discussion on the good sides of philosophy. Although I do agree that we are heading for a world of just humans, animals for food and animals caged in safari parks and zoos. A bleak read.
Profile Image for Adrian.
27 reviews5 followers
March 7, 2008
A savage kick in the face of a book, a white hot iron poked into your brain by someone who is not interested in appealing to any of our notions about Western culture or civilization. Or at least that's what it felt like to me when I first read it. The premise of the book is simple. Human life has no over arching purpose, no meaning, no happy ending and no salvation. Gray spends his time trying to prove this point and to liberate the reader from the anxieties that hoping and wanting for more out of life than is possible causes. It's not a book to take lightly, but it's also not simply designed to make you depressed. If anything, it's uplifting and freeing. Life is really what you make of it and its meaning is yours to create.
Profile Image for John.
31 reviews4 followers
January 20, 2016
My concern is less with the poor logical form of Gray's arguments (which I will touch on), and more with the morbid indulgence in pessimistic nihilism this work purports. Gray seems to revel in being the bearer of bad news- something akin to a schoolmate who grimly stares you down to notify you that the teacher wants to see you- (i.e. using titles like "the poverty of consciousness"), Gray supports himself with biased and one-sided arguments (like citing the work of Benjamin Libet and ignoring his criticism like Dr. W.R. Klemm's Advances in Cognitive Psychology), using biased quotes from individuals like Lao Tzu (who was certainly no nihilist), and claiming that Nietzsche & Heidegger didn't go far enough for they kept some of their "Christian hopes."

An example of his poor logical forms can be found in chapter two, where Gray discusses Joseph Conrad's work to prove we have no free will. To summarize Gray's argument: spontaneous voluntary acts usually begin unconsciously, unconscious acts exhibit no free will, therefore we have no free will. This proof based on his argument is clearly flawed. The first premise, quoted from the scientist Benjamin Libet, hardly maintains a fixed premise (note the word usually). If the term usually ruled out any possibility for the "necessary sufficiency" required in any logical proof, in the second premise the argument collapses. Gray should have demonstrated (a) the difference between subconscious and unconscious for the two seem often conflated, and most importantly show how (b) an unconscious action is beyond the realm of free will. Since the simple scientific experiments of Libet-which is where he draws his conclusion- are not applicable to all actions, as argued by Dr. Klemm- we can see that the term usually is misapplied.

According to leaders in the field of consciousness like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell, the subconscious mind by definition goes beyond the realm of communication and into infinity in its vastness. Gray shows himself to be -less than blissfully- ignorant of the mystery of the subconscious mind and it's relation to consciousness. Rather, Gray harps on the Freudian term unconscious which commonly denotes repression and suppression (not a coincidence there). There is no evidence that something unconscious will always remain so. There is no reason to assume that all humans are neurotically controlled by unconscious impulses. Gray then, in an academic lapse, claims that all eastern techniques for meditation are not simply designed to heighten consciousness but actually to bypass it (p. 62). This narrow, unsupported, and unexamined claim falls short of convincing.

What is the limit of skepticism? Gray does not seem to once question his own skepticism, but rather seems to assert that science equals truth. Faith and belief are valueless. That certainly is an interesting belief... a sort of faith in science you might say; though I'm not certain why this doesn't come under the same scrutiny or skepticism he applies elsewhere.
The bottom line; John Gray fails in his attempt to be the next Nietzsche.
Profile Image for Jon.
29 reviews13 followers
July 16, 2016
Three stars, because I'm entirely sympathetic to Gray's argument that humans are in all important respects mere animals, and that humanism is a sham, a holdover from Christianity that wrongly insists that humans are uniquely perfectible and that true progress is possible. Still...what is this mess?

Largely disorganized, uneven (elegant passages shuffled with ones that are extremely poorly written), full of unbacked claims and faulty assertions, inaccurate readings of Eastern religions, undercooked discussions, unclear sentences that strive to sound cool, attempts at aphorisms that fall flat...this book either lacked an editor, or lacked an editor with a backbone. This is grade school Cioran. But where Cioran can occassionally use "I" and yet still humbly speak for generalized modern experience, Gray writes in authoritative second-person, documentary prose which, despite this, overflows with embarrassing bloviating ego.

There are plenty of good, timely insights about mankind, history, the nature and desirability of consciousness (his argument, that consciousness is not so desirable or important, is compelling), and modernity. I learned stuff that will make me investigate Schopenhauer, and I'll check out the Brethren of the Free Spirit (which Gray mentions, fails to describe or define, and yet goes on to compare to the Situationists), but this was largely a waste of time.

Philosophy is usually over my head, but this is TED Talk-level crap. It's written in the combative style of clickbait, as though Gray expects his ideas to be received as outrageous (though they are not new) and to be met with nothing but opposition to his views.

Another rare foray into contemporary nonfiction that has ended in disappointment. Any suggestions?
Profile Image for Joshuacitrak.
21 reviews3 followers
January 13, 2009
do not read this book! it will destroy your egocentric, small minded, action-oriented, "modern" view of the actuality of existence. go back to mindlessly consuming, seeking salvation through your christs (be it jesus, coca-cola, NFL football, technology, the environment, your career, whatever) and stand firm in your belief that humans are the most important species to ever exist. they are, they really are!!!

"The aim of life isn't the change the world, but to see it rightly."

however, if you have had the sneaking suspicion that the human animal places itself on a pedestal too high (for no apparent reason) or that there is no salvation for man in gods or technology or consumption or the speeches of political heads and that human kind throughout history merely advances better ways of destruction and labels them "progress" then this book may be worth picking up.
Profile Image for Tristram Shandy.
690 reviews196 followers
November 25, 2016
”Today liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion.“

This sentence from page xi sums up pretty well the point that John Gray wants to make in his slim volume Straw Dogs. Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. Now do yourself a favour and don’t mix up John Gray, the British philosopher, with John Gray, the writer of books such as Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus because if you do that you will get a roller-coaster ride through the tunnel of horror when picking up Straw Dogs whereas all you might have wanted was a slow and sedate ride on a good old-fashioned merry-go-round.

In Straw Dogs, Gray voices his criticism of the philosophy of humanism, which is based on the belief of free will and implies that mankind, by using science and the teachings of Enlightenment, can create a society in which no one has to suffer and no one is oppressed or put at a disadvantage. In Gray’s opinion, this way of thinking is nothing but a secular version of Christianity, the hope for a “sweet by-and-by” being replaced by the vision of a perfect society on earth. Gray argues that humanism just holds another empty promise in that

”[s]cience can advance human knowledge, it cannot make humanity cherish truth.” (p.125)

In other words, science and technology do enhance our power over the world around us, e.g. by giving us the means to bridge distances, exchange information more and more quickly, build more and more destructive weapons or breed new humans with the help of genetics one day. Nevertheless, science is subject to social interests, to the vanities and ambitions of those who do research and those who sponsor it, and that is why it cannot help us overcome the basic moral weaknesses of the conditio humana. I found Gray’s observations on this point quite convincing. He also says that our ideas of justice are far from being eternal values and ideals but they are also subject to change, not necessarily for the better, although we may flatter ourselves by assuming that exactly this is the case:

”Justice is an artefact of custom. Where customs are unsettled its dictates soon become dated. Ideas of justice are as timeless as fashion in hats.” (p.103)

A last major point that Gray makes is that humanism (and Christianity) are based on one dire error, which was alien to Greek philosophy and which is likewise a concept unknown to Eastern philosophies – namely the idea of free will. Human beings are influenced in many different ways and they are hardly the masters of their own actions, let alone thoughts, wishes and feelings. Gray even goes so far as to claim that the concept of “selfhood” is entirely chimeric. It is here that I would say that Gray throws out the baby with the bath water. Granted, what we are is largely a product of how we grew up, what values were taught us in early life, what traumas we encountered, and all too often our way of reasoning is influenced by what we want to do – for whatever reason – anyway. Granted also, we are not able to freely pick our sex, our social origins, our skin colour, we may be impaired by physical and intellectual shortcomings, most of the important decisions we take in life are also shaped by exterior conditions we are unable to influence, and we cannot defy gravity and fly away like a bird on a wing – all these are arguments Gray lists against the axiom of free will. Nevertheless, I think it would be childish to infer from these obvious limitations that we are simply robots running according to a programme that is unknown to us. Volition, and the opportunity to shape our own lives, is something that unfolds within certain boundaries, and these boundaries are not clear-cut but hazy, and this is where personal responsibility and personal opportunity come into play. I would also hold that Reason and rational thinking are the best forms of guidance we can apply to our lives instead of saying that, as I cannot create the conditions of my own life from scratch and without any limitation, I have no free will at all.

Thus, the promise of humanism is not a question of yes or no, as Gray wants to imply, but one of more or less, and instead of embracing the sort of life that Gray offers us instead – and here he gets really, really murky and esoteric – the limitations imposed on us by the conditio humana are, more than ever, a spur to us to take our own fate into our hands, knowing that perfection, social or individual, is definitely beyond our reach.

Straw Dogs is a dark and ugly read – dark throughout, and ugly at times. It is ugly, but probably true, when Gray refutes our claim to be something special and to there being a touch of nobility in our personal sufferings, which may not mean anything at all in a more universal context. For example, when he summarizes the ordeals of the writer and gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov, he comes to the following bitter and sad conclusion:

”At its worst human life is not tragic but unmeaning. The soul is broken, but life lingers on. As the will fails, the mask of tragedy falls aside. What remains is only suffering. The last sorrow cannot be told. If the dead could speak we would not understand them. We are wise to hold the semblance of tragedy; the truth unveiled would only blind us.”

This is mighty prose, and its tone reminded me a little bit of Nietzsche – but then, this is also one of the shortcomings of Gray’s book: It is dark and murky, i.e. the author often uses apodictic, quasi-Zarathustrian language and he sketches the history of ideas, cursorily criticizing humanist thinkers, without really stooping to going into detail and using rational arguments. The latter would include the danger of having to face a discussion of his own very sweeping statements and assertions. His own offhanded treatment of the question of free will is just one example of this rather sensationalist procedure.

All in all, Straw Dogs is an interesting read, but one which provokes Queen Gertrude’s admonition of “More matter, with less art.”
Profile Image for J.C.J. (James) Bergman.
239 reviews98 followers
June 10, 2022
See my in-depth Video review here: https://youtu.be/g9KdG29oHR0

Straw Dogs is my first book by John Gray that I've read thus far. Admittedly this has been hyped up for me and I think it earns its promising reputation. Effectively, this is a companion piece to Thomas Ligotti's 'The Conspiracy Against the Human Race', both manage to ensue existential panic without any sense of consolation during the reading process.

I liked the aphoristic format of the book, very engaging and succinct. Though admittedly I wanted more from it, but am not quite sure what. Perhaps some kind of catharsis, a conclusion of sorts to what Gray has written. The book ends abruptly, and I was left with no direction or personal note from the author who has just drenched me with a sequence of existentially crippling bombs.

Overall, this is a great work of nihilistic non-fiction. Though I would have liked some sort of conclusion to what he had written at the end, it's worth revisiting but not necessarily accessible to revise for constructive thinking. It merely blodgens you with Gray's extreme pessimism and leaves you to pick up the pieces of glass shards, sharp edged and reflecting the sad face of the reader in its glimmering chimera.

Below are my favourite passages in the book, for those who may be interested:

“According to the most influential twentieth-century philosopher of science, Karl Popper, a theory is scientific only in so far as it is falsifiable, and should be given up as soon as it has been falsified. By this standard, the theories of Darwin and Einstein should never have been accepted. When they were first advanced, each of them was at odds with some available evidence; only later did evidence become available that gave them crucial support. Applying Popper's account of the scientific method would have killed these theories at birth.” //Pg.22

“As pictured by philosophers, science is a supremely rational activity. Yet the history of science shows scientists flouting the rules of scientific method. Not only the origins but the progress of science comes from acting against reason.” //Pg.23

“ Chuang-Tzu admits no idea of salvation. There is no self and no awakening from the dream of self.
“When we dream we do not know we are dreaming, and in the middle of a dream we interpret a dream within it; not until we wake do we know that we were dreaming. Only at the ultimate awakening shall we know that this is the ultimate dream.” // Pg.15

“Progress and mass murder run in tandem. As the numbers killed by famine and plague have waned, so death by violence has increased. As science and technology have advanced, so has proficiency in killing. As the hope for a better world has grown, so has mass murder.” // Pg.96

“Autonomy means acting on reasons I have chosen; but the lesson of cognitive science is that there is no self to do the choosing. We are far more like machines and wild animals than we imagine. But we cannot attain the amoral selflessness of wild animals, or the choiceless automatism of machines. Perhaps we can learn to live more lightly, less burdened by morality. We cannot return to a purely spontaneous existence. If humans differ from other animals, it is partly in the conflicts of their instincts. They crave security, but they are easily bored; they are peace-loving animals, but they have an itch for violence; they are drawn to thinking, but at the same time they hate and fear the unsettlement thinking brings. There is no way of life in which all these needs can be satisfied. Luckily, as the history of philosophy testifies, humans have a gift for self-deception, and thrive in ignorance of their natures. Morality is a sickness peculiar to humans, the good life is a refinement of the virtues of animals. Arising from our animal natures, ethics needs no ground; but it runs aground in the conflicts of our needs.” // Pg.116

“Humans think they are free; conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics. is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind's deliverer.” //Pg.120

“Science can advance human knowledge, it cannot make humanity cherish truth. Like the Christians of former times, scientists are caught up in the web of power; they struggle for survival and success; their view of the world is a patchwork of conventional beliefs. Science cannot bring 'miracle, mystery and authority' to humankind, if only because like those who served the Church in the past - its servants are all too human.” //Pg.125

“Unbelief is a move in a game whose rules are set by believers. To deny the existence of God is to accept the categories of monotheism. As these categories fall into disuse, unbelief becomes uninteresting, and soon it is meaningless. Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians' god is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies. If atheism has a future, it can only be in a Christian revival, but in fact Christianity and atheism are declining together. Atheism is a late bloom of a Christian passion for truth. No pagan is ready to sacrifice the pleasure of life for the sake of mere truth. It is artful illusion, not unadorned reality, that they prize. Among the Greeks, the goal of philosophy was happiness or salvation, not truth. The worship of truth is a Christian cult. The old pagans were right to shudder at the uncouth earnestness of the early Christians. None of the mystery religions in which the ancient world abounded claimed what Christians claimed - that all other faiths were in error. For that very reason, none of their followers could ever become an atheist. When Christians insisted that they alone possessed the truth they condemned the lush profusion of the pagan world with a damning finality. In a world of many gods, unbelief can never be total. It can only be rejection of one god and acceptance of another, or else - as in Epicurus and his followers - the conviction that the gods do not matter since they have long since ceased to bother about human affairs. Christianity struck at the root of pagan tolerance of illusion. In claiming that there is only one true faith, it gave truth a supreme value it had not had before. It also made disbelief in the divine possible for the first time. The long-delayed consequence of Christian faith was an idolatry of truth that found its most complete expression in atheism. If we live in a world without gods, we have Christianity to thank for it.” // Pg.126-7

“Consciousness is a variable, not a constant, and its fluctuations are indispensable to our survival. We fall into sleep in obedience to a primordial circadian rhythm; we nightly inhabit the virtual worlds of dreams; nearly all our daily doings go on without conscious awareness; our deepest motivations are shut away from conscious scrutiny; nearly all of our mental life takes place unknown to us; the most creative acts in the life of the mind come to pass unawares. Very little that is of consequence in our lives requires consciousness. Much that is vitally important comes about only in its absence.” //Pg.60-1

“We think we differ from other animals because we can envision our deaths, when we know no more than they do about what death brings. Everything tells us that it means extinction, but we cannot begin to imagine what that means. The truth is, we do not fear the passing of time because we know death. We fear death because we resist passing time. If other animals do not fear death as we do, it is not because we know something they do not. It is because they are not burdened by time.” //Pg.130

(Bernardo Soares)
“If I carefully consider the life a man leads, I find nothing to distinguish it from the life an animal leads. Both man and animal are hurled unconsciously through things and the world; both have interludes of amusement; both daily follow the same organic itinerary; both think nothing beyond what they think, nor live beyond what they live. A cat wallows in the sun and goes to sleep. Man wallows in life, with all its complexities, and goes to sleep. Neither one escapes the fatal law of being who or what it is.” // Pg.131
Profile Image for Roula.
483 reviews137 followers
June 11, 2020
"other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?"

Το βιβλίο αυτό είναι ένα φιλοσοφικό βιβλίο. Είναι επίσης ένα 100% απαισιόδοξο βιβλίο.ορίστε μια αρκετά αντιπροσωπευτικη φράση που το απιδεικνυει:
" any society that systematically uses science and technology to achieve its goals is modern. Death camps are as modern as laser surgery."
Είναι μια έρευνα για το πως ο άνθρωπος ουσιαστικά κατέστρεψε τον κόσμο, δεν είναι καν απαραίτητος στη φύση και στο σύμπαν, η θρησκεία(και πιο συγκεκριμένα ο χριστιανισμός) είναι μια μεγάλη απάτη κλπ κλπ.. Ωστόσο, μέσα σε όλα αυτά ενώ θες να διαμαρτυρηθεις και να πεις ότι όχι ρε φίλε, δεν είναι έτσι τα πράγματα, δυστυχώς αν σκεφτείς, θα δεις ότι είναι ακριβώς έτσι. Άλλωστε, για να είμαι ειλικρινης, δεν έχω την απαίτηση να συμφωνώ πάντα και σε όλα με αυτά που διαβάζω. Θέλω απλά να με πείθει ο τρόπος και τα επιχειρήματα του άλλου, ότι τα έχει σκεφτεί και τα στηρίζει κάπου όσα λέει. Το βιβλίο αυτό λοιπόν, με απλά λόγια, με έπεισε. Ο άνθρωπος αυτός φάνηκε να έχει διαβάσει πολύ στη ζωή του, προσεγγιζοντας το όλο θέμα φιλοσοφικά, θρησκευτικά, κοινωνικά, οικονομικά, δίνοντας στο τελος και μια πλούσια βιβλιογραφία για όποιον θέλει να ακολουθήσει το παράδειγμα του στη μελέτη. Ήταν ένα βιβλίο μικρό, αλλά εντυπωσιακό και με εξαίρεση το κομμάτι που μιλούσε για την ο��κονομία,, το οποίο βαρέθηκα αρκετά, το απόλαυσα, ακόμη κι αν ήταν μηδενιστικο..
Profile Image for Matthew.
62 reviews2 followers
July 19, 2010
You get the sense reading Straw Dogs that if John Gray were ever to meet a nihilist he'd chide him for being unjustifiably optimistic. Unremittingly grim. A philosphical overview of the human condition that concludes it all started to go wrong for us somewhere around the invention of agriculture. Progress is measured only in the novelty of the tools we use for mass murder. Secular humanism is just Christianity-lite and scientific rationalism exhibits all the key features of a cult. We set ourselves above animals, yet routinely surrender to our most base instincts, all the while inflicting untold damage on ourselves and our planet. If Gray is right, we're fucked. It's already too late.

Straw Dogs is shotgun philosophy - an unrelenting succession of hammer blows to the head. Complete with 30 pages of endnotes and bibliography.
Profile Image for Bruce.
261 reviews38 followers
August 4, 2012
I remember the days when there weren't any reviews on goodreads... and so anything I had to say was of course very valuable! ;-) Nowadays thougthful people who write better than I do have covered the basic ground very well already, leaving nothing but the off kilter angles to me.

So I am going to compare this book to Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion. Both authors do the very important and valuable work of demonstrating through their scholarship of the history of ideas that contemporary science draws heavily on Christian and Greek thought to define its supposedly materialist metaphysic.

Then the two are off in radically different directions. Sheldrake to point out holes in the materialist belief system that suggests everything important and fundamental is known. Gray to say we are animals and shouldn't think of ourselves as anything else, no ethics, no morals, no grand aspirations.

Sheldrake is full of hope and thirst for knowledge and wanting to set free the joy of exploration. Gray thinks that we should really just get over ourselves and let Gaia correct our mistake, already.

Which is not to say that taking a look from Gray's perspective is not at all valuable. There is merit to putting on these sh*t-colored glasses for the duration of this easily readable book.

BTW, Gray cherry picks from eastern thought to support his premises. There are plenty of "humans are special" angles in asian philosophy that he chooses to ignore.
Profile Image for Greg.
29 reviews1 follower
November 21, 2016
This book should be required reading for all people who believe in progress in humanity. That is, anybody who reads the Economist, anybody who believes in the value of "an education", anybody who advocates for human rights, anybody who decries religious fundamentalism, anybody aghast at Donald Trump, anybody who cherishes the democratizing effects of technology, anybody pro-globalization, anti-exploitation, any child of the Enlightenment. In short, anybody who self-consciously holds *progressive* opinions on anything should read this book. That includes me and most of my friends.

Why? Because this book contains the most succinct and piercing counter-arguments to Progress to be found in one place. If prepared, one can open this book to any page and enjoy the sensation of balloons popping within a few sentences.

“Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind's deliverer.”

Kudos to John Gray for playing the devil's advocate so eloquently. Excellence withers without an adversary.
Profile Image for FotisK.
350 reviews154 followers
September 3, 2017
Υπέροχα πεσιμιστικό, πρωτότυπο και αντι-ιδεοληπτικό.
Profile Image for Rinstinkt.
131 reviews
May 29, 2022
Decent. I've had the same thoughts for some time now; obviously didn't know about the author or the book.

The most interesting part was on the modern manifestations of religious thinking, or what the author calls "humanism", "progressvism", "enlightenment" or "belief in humanity".

Here are some of my selected quotes regarding this line of thinking (starts at quote #8):

#1 In James Lovelock’s model of Daisyworld, a planet containing only black and white daisies becomes one in which global temperature is self-regulating.

#2 The simulation … starts with a low temperature. The black daisies, which absorb the heat of the sun better, survive, develop and occupy a large area. As a result, the temperature of the soil increases, becoming more favourable to life. The black daisies reproduce at a high rate but cover too much area, and temperature increases above a critical point; the black daisies die off en masse. But the white ones adapt, develop, and colonize large areas, reflecting the heat and cooling the planet again. The temperature drops – too much. The white daisies die and the black ones return in profusion. After a certain number of fluctuations, a ‘mosaic’ of black and white areas begins to coexist and coevolve on the planet’s surface. Individual daisies are born and die, but the two populations, through successive heating and cooling, maintain an average temperature favourable to the life of both species, and this temperature fluctuates around an optimal balance. No one set the temperature, it simply emerged – the result of the daisies’ behaviour and their co-evolution.

#3 As the Daisyworld model shows, the Gaia hypothesis is consistent with the narrowest scientific orthodoxy. Even so, the hostility of scientific fundamentalists to it is well founded. At bottom the conflict between Gaia theory and current orthodoxy is not a scientific controversy. It is a collision of myths – one formed by Christianity, the other by a much older faith.

#4 Gaia theory re-establishes the link between humans and the rest of nature which was affirmed in mankind’s primordial religion, animism. In monotheistic faiths God is the final guarantee of meaning in human life. For Gaia, human life has no more meaning than the life of slime mould.
#5 If humans disturb the balance of the Earth they will be trampled on and tossed aside. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is unscientific. The truth is that they fear and hate it because it means that humans can never be other than straw dogs.


#8 Philosophy has been a masked ball in which a religious image of humankind is renewed in the guise of humanist ideas of progress and enlightenment. Even philosophy’s greatest unmaskers have ended up as figures in the masquerade. Removing the masks from our animal faces is a task that has hardly begun.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment aimed to replace traditional religion by faith in humanity.
#86 The technological pursuit of immortality is not a scientific project. It promises what religion has always promised – to give us freedom from fate and chance.
#89 Religious cultures could admit that earthly life was hard, for they promised another in which all tears would be wiped away. Their humanist successors affirm something still more incredible – that in future, even the near future, everyone can be happy. Societies founded on a faith in progress cannot admit the normal unhappiness of human life. As a result, they are bound to wage war on those who seek an artificial happiness in drugs.
#92 Nearly all philosophies, most religions and much of science testify to a desperate, unwearying concern with the salvation of mankind.


And finally, here are some other quotes on another deep observation the author makes.

#118 In his novel Nostromo, Joseph Conrad wrote: ‘Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions.’

#119 The idea that the aim of life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared.

#120 Those who struggle to change the world see themselves as noble, even tragic figures. Yet most of those who work for world betterment are not rebels against the scheme of things. They seek consolation for a truth they are too weak to bear. At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.

#121 Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels.

[How I found the book? Author was mentioned in "Depressive Realism" by Colin Feltham.]
Profile Image for John Vibber.
Author 2 books29 followers
August 13, 2020
I experienced “Straw Dogs” by John Gray as a provocative dose of pessimism.

Gray argues that humanism is a religion founded on hollow assumptions about our biological nature. According to him, human nature is fixed; therefore our mistakes inevitably echo those of our ancestors. He tells of history’s littered trail of failed civilizations and calls societal progress an illusion that humanists inherited from Christianity. He says that, given our nature, technology is more likely to seal our fate than change it. He also claims that we have no fixed basis for our moral values. Thus Gray displaces us as the paragon of animals and reframes us as earth’s most rapacious species doomed to inevitable collapse: the self-inflated apes blind to its own nature.

Gray’s writing is brilliant and highly quotable, but relentlessly bleak. I concede our limitations as an animal, but see evidence to question his thesis. Evolutionary psychology is finding evidence of innate moral decision making in primates including human infants. Gray denies that technology can shape our nature, but consider how just one technology birth control has elevated women’s freedoms and opportunities. Could this be societal progress? Furthermore, Gray underestimates the power and accomplishments of humans working collectively. On all these issues, I remain more convinced by the data and arguments in books like Matt Ridley’s “Rational Optimist” and Stephen Pinker’s “The Better Angles of Our Nature.” Enlightenment and Humanist beliefs may in part resemble religion, but when combined with science and economic growth, they tend to better the human condition.

I wouldn’t recommend this book for truth, but I would for reflection. For me, it provoked interesting questions. For instance, what is my authority in a relativistic world to hold certain truths “self-evident?” Can I believe “all men are created equal” if I don’t believe in a creator? Are my affirmations of self-evident truths and equality religious beliefs or something more? What is more?

Straw Dogs is a bit outdated, but it remains an erudite argument for one side of an ongoing debate about progress and human nature. Will society survive and improve? Place your bets. Time will tell.

Profile Image for Richard Newton.
Author 26 books563 followers
September 29, 2015
I feel this is one of those books you are either going to like to hate. If you are open to quite challenging ideas, presented in a fairly passionate and opinionated style then you may well like this book. If you want to see full arguments, no assumptions, and no jumps in logic then you may not. But given that these are thoughts (see title) - the flaws in his arguments are forgiveable.

This is a book which is pretty pessimistic about humanity, but at the same time has a positive tone - well positive if you like to hear about the robustness and capability of nature and life to survive irrespective of mankind or what mankind does to it.

I very much enjoyed the read, but at times it was also frustrating. This is an important book - but it is quite possible you will hate it! I suggest you give it a try. You will know after a few sections whether it is for you or not. If I had to summarise I would say - almost, but not quite, a masterpiece.
Profile Image for Dylan Horrocks.
Author 71 books416 followers
September 4, 2013
This goes on that special shelf of books I will be thinking about and responding to for the rest of my life. I devoured it in a few days and was almost hopping with glee by the last page. Gray has a tendency to adopt a somewhat portentous tone, but I didn't care. Now I want to read a whole lot more Gray.

One small curiosity: aspects of Gray's discussion of the impact of written language on human culture reminded me of David Abram's The Spell of the Sensuous, which made me wonder if Gray has read it. There are many profound differences of course, not least the fact that compared to Gray, Abram comes across as a New Age hippy, and their ultimate conclusions are quite different. But I was struck by a number of interesting correspondences between the two books. I'd be interested to hear from anyone else who's read both books.
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