If you think, as I do, that this first decade of the 21st century is one of unparalleled moral, mental, and political lunacy, do read this book. John Gray surveys the historic roots of our current follies with magisterial sweep.
The prime culprit, he avers, is apocalyptic thinking, both religious and secular, whose myriad offshoots have dominated most of the West’s concepts and actions for the past four centuries. He traces these complex threads and their mutations with minute yet elegant precision: the chiliastic strain in the Puritan faith of the Pilgrim Fathers which still animates today’s US neoCons; the bastard offspring of 18th century Enlightenment belief in ultimate human perfection which misled Hegel and Marx, and ultimately surfaced as totalitarian Leninism in Russia and Nazism in Germany.
The myth that perfect individuals and societies can be created through political action and social engineering leads inevitably, says Gray, to the doctrine that the end justifies the means; and so all kinds of injustices, and even atrocities such as torture, can be justified by those who believe they are acting in good faith. Whilst deprecating the destructive delusions of ‘God-driven’ politicians like Bush and Blair, whose self-assumed hotlines to God impel them to brush aside uncomfortable or inconvenient facts, Gray nevertheless thinks that the desire of secularists to privatise religion and decouple it from politics is unrealistic. For the religious impulse is endemic in humankind, and has existed since the dawn of history. “Suppressing religion does not mean it ceases to control thinking and behaviour. Like repressed sexual desire, faith returns, often in grotesque forms, to govern the lives of those who deny it.”
He is scathing of the Bush Administration’s invincible ignorance and multiple blunders in
Gray’s vision of the future is sombre. He forecasts decades of wars as ferocious as any we have yet known, fought with all the violence of conflicting faiths using increased technical know-how to control declining natural resources. It is not a comforting thought. But the enduring lustre of his book is the brilliance of his analysis of our Western intellectual heritage and its use and abuse by politicians who aspire to be statesmen but show themselves up as historical ignoramuses and moral pygmies.