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Straw Dogs Book Summary – John Gray

What you will learn from reading Straw Dogs:

– How science has replaced religion and become the new source of hope and miracles. 

– Why morality is transient and how we thrive on conditions that morality condemns.

– Why Virtues and Vices always depend on context.

Straw Dogs Book Summary:

Straw dogs takes a very pessimistic philosophical view of humanity, which sets out to challenge our most cherished assumptions about what it means to be human. By showing we aren’t much different to animals John Gray puts forward the argument for a more humble view of humanity. One that does away with the religious hopes and dreams and also critiques the role science has played in replacing religion as the hope of humanity. 


The fall of progress:

The idea of progress rests on the belief that the growth of knowledge and the advance of the species go together – if not now, then in the long run. The biblical myth of the Fall of Man contains the forbidden truth. Knowledge does not make us free. It leaves us as we have always been, prey to every kind of folly.


Humanity’s condition:

Political action has come to be a surrogate for salvation; but no political project can deliver humanity from its natural condition. However radical, political programmes are expedients – modest devices for coping with recurring evils.

Good politics is shabby and makeshift, but at the start of the twenty-first century the world is strewn with the grandiose ruins of failed utopias. With the Left moribund, the Right has become the home of the utopian imagination. Global communism has been followed by global capitalism.

If anything about the present century is certain, it is that the power conferred on ‘humanity’ by new technologies will be used to commit atrocious crimes against it.

Science will never be used chiefly to pursue truth, or to improve human life. The uses of knowledge will always be as shifting and crooked as humans are themselves. Humans use what they know to meet their most urgent needs – even if the result is ruin. History is not made in the struggle for self preservation, as Hobbes imagined or wished to believe. In their everyday lives humans struggle to reckon profit and loss.

When times are desperate they act to protect their offspring, to revenge themselves on enemies, or simply to give vent to their feelings.


Severing our ties with nature:

‘A zoo is a better window from which to look out of the human world than a monastery.’- John Gray

For much of their history and all of prehistory, humans did not see themselves as being any different from the other animals among which they lived. Hunter-gatherers saw their prey as equals, if not superiors, and animals were worshipped as divinities in many traditional cultures. The humanist sense of a gulf between ourselves and other animals is an aberration. It is the animist feeling of belonging with the rest of nature that is normal. Feeble as it may be today, the feeling of sharing a common destiny with other living things is embedded in the human psyche.


Science as the new religion:

But the value of science as metaphysic belongs in another sphere. It belongs with religion and art and love, with the pursuit of the beatific vision, with the Promethean madness that leads the greatest men to strive to become gods. Perhaps the only ultimate value of human life is to be found in this Promethean madness. But it is a value that is religious, not political, or even moral.Bertrand Russel

Religious fundamentalists see the power of science as the chief source of modern disenchantment. Science has  supplanted religion as the chief source of authority, but at the cost of making human life accidental and insignificant. If our lives are to have any meaning, the power of science must be overthrown, and faith re-established. But science cannot be removed from our lives by an act of will. Its power flows from technology, which is changing the way we live regardless of what we will.

Today it is the only institution that can claim authority. Like the Church in the past, it has the power to destroy, or marginalise, independent thinkers.

In fact, science does not yield any fixed picture of things, but by censoring thinkers who stray too far from current orthodoxies it preserves the comforting illusion of a single established worldview. From the standpoint of anyone who values freedom of thought, this may be unfortunate, but it is undoubtedly the chief source of science’s appeal. For us, science is a refuge from uncertainty, promising and in some measure delivering – the miracle of freedom from thought; while churches have become sanctuaries for doubt.


Is the examined life worth living?

Socrates was able to believe that the examined life is best because he thought the true and the good were one and the same: there is a changeless reality beyond the visible world, and it is perfect. When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions.

We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human wellbeing another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.


History and Meaning:

Schopenhauer wrote: ‘What history relates is in fact only the long, heavy and confused dream of mankind.’

If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.

If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself.

Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds. Nietzsche knew this; but he could not accept it. He was trapped in the chalk circle of Christian hopes. A believer to the end, he never gave up the absurd faith that something could be made of the human animal.


The Mind censors the Senses:

We cannot be rid of illusions. Illusion is our natural condition. Why not accept it?

Our senses have been censored so that our lives can flow more easily. Yet we rely on our preconscious view of the world in everything we do. To equate what we know with what we learn though conscious awareness is a cardinal error.

We are all bundles of sensations. The unified, continuous self that we encounter in everyday experience belongs in maya (illusion). We are programmed to perceive identity in ourselves, when in truth there is only change. We are hardwired for the illusion of self.

In order to help us live, the mind censors the senses; but as a result we inhabit a world of shadows. As the contemporary Buddhist meditation teacher Gunaratana has put it: ‘Our human perceptual habits are remarkably stupid. … We tune out 99 percent of the sensory stimuli we actually receive, and we solidify the remainder into discrete mental objects. Then we react to those mental objects in programmed habitual ways.’


We are more then just human:

The lesson of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science is that we are descendants of a long lineage, only a fraction of which is human. We are far more than the traces that other humans have left in us. Our brains and spinal cords are encrypted with traces of far older worlds.


The Morality of Man:

That man is the noblest creature may be inferred from the fact that no other creature has contested this claim. G.C. LICHTENBERG

Today everyone knows that inequality is wrong. A century ago everyone knew that gay sex was wrong. The intuitions people have on moral questions are intensely felt. They are also shallow and transient to the last degree.

Humans thrive in conditions that morality condemns. The peace and prosperity of one generation stand on the injustices of earlier generations; the delicate sensibilities of liberal societies are fruits of war and empire. The same is true of individuals. Gentleness flourishes in sheltered lives; an instinctive trust in others is rarely strong in people who have struggled against the odds.

For people in thrall to ‘morality’, the good life means perpetual striving. For Taoists it means living effortlessly, according to our natures. The freest human being is not one who acts on reasons he has chosen for himself, but one who never has to choose.

In the world of Homer, there was no morality. There were surely ideas of right and wrong. But there was no idea of a set of rules that everyone must follow, or of a special, super potent kind of value that defeats all others. Ethics was about virtues such as courage and wisdom; but even the bravest and wisest of men go down to defeat and ruin.


Humans and Conflicts of Interests:

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.


Schopenhauers’ Will:

For Schopenhauer we are at one with other animals in our innermost essence. We think we are separated from other humans and even more from other animals by the fact that we are distinct individuals. But that individuality is an illusion. Like other animals, we are embodiments of universal Will, the struggling, suffering energy that animates everything in the world.


Virtues and Vices depend on Context:

Hobbes’s Leviathan was attacked for observing that, in war, force and fraud are virtues. The lesson of Bernard de Mandeville’s The Fable of the Bees is that prosperity is driven by vice – by greed, vanity and envy.

If Nietzsche still has the power to shock, it is because he showed that some of the virtues we most admire are sublimations of motives – such as cruelty and resentment – we most strongly condemn.


Same hope, different method (Science):

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..

Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles. But to think that science can transform the human lot is to believe in magic. Time retorts to the illusions of humanism with the reality: frail, deranged, undelivered humanity. Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war.

Science enables humans to satisfy their needs. It does nothing to change them. We are no different today from what we have always been. There is progress in knowledge, but not in ethics. This is the verdict both of science and history, and the view of every one of the world’s religions.


Humanity and Freedom:

The truth that Dostoevsky puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor is that humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tell us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so.

Tyrants promise security and release from the tedium of everyday existence. To be sure, this is only a confused fantasy. The drab truth of tyranny is a life spent in waiting. But the perennial romance of tyranny comes from its promising its subjects a life more interesting than any they can contrive for themselves.

Whatever they become, tyrannies begin as festivals of the depressed. Dictators may come to power on the back of chaos, but their unspoken promise is that they will relieve the boredom of their subjects.


The Forbidden Truth:

Drug use is a tacit admission of a forbidden truth. For most people happiness is beyond reach. Fulfilment is found not  in daily life but in escaping from it. Since happiness is unavailable, the mass of mankind seeks pleasure.

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.