John Gray’s The Silence Of Animals

I write at the close of a terrible and eventful year, a year that has checked the optimism of even the most enthusiastic champions of progress and offers little hope that the year to come will prove any better. In the last twelve months alone, we were witness to race riots originating in America but rapidly spreading across the Western world, as well as a global pandemic that functioned as a kind of stress test, forcing us to confront the glaring weaknesses and contradictions in Western societies that can no longer even pretend to cohere. The American election, ostensibly over, has left half the electorate with a sense of relief, and the other half feeling cheated and suspicious, accelerating the public’s collapse in the faith of their institutions and political leaders. John Gray’s 2013 book The Silence Of Animals continues where his Straw Dogs left off, pillorying “progress and other modern myths” by stubbornly pointing to all that we would deny about ourselves, beginning with our animal origins.

Gray begins by establishing something our entire world is conditioned not to accept: that our modern institutions are founded on a quasi-religious myth, one that is at most an amendment to their original religious founding, rather than a repudiation of it:

In the story that the modern world repeats to itself, the belief in progress is at odds with religion. In the dark ages of faith there was no hope of any fundamental change in human life. With the arrival of modern science, a vista of improvement opened up. Increasing knowledge allowed humans to take control of their destiny. From being lost in the shadows, they could step out into the light.

Science and technology form the backbone of this modern myth, for they offer us palpable proof of progress: today’s smartphone is quantifiably better than yesteryear’s, as is today’s medicine and computer and automobile. Therefore, the thinking goes, the same technocratic approach to politics may yield ever-better returns. At best, Gray argues, this is an updating of the Christian story:

Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress. But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.

Gray’s book explodes this myth, or at least attempts to, by taking us on a whirlwind tour of history and literature and philosophy, mixing dark episodes from our recent past with literature’s most pessimistic and potent critics of progress, from Dostoevsky to Orwell, Joseph Conrad to Curzio Malaparte.

One of the staple episodes he invokes is Naples in the year 1944, after it has ostensibly been liberated from Nazi occupation by Allied troops. The British travel writer Norman Lewis and the Italian journalist Curzio Malaparte were both witness to what was nothing short of the collapse of civilization, when money became worthless and food was in desperately short supply, and the experience scarred both men irreparably. What happens to humans in the absence of law and custom and material abundance? In Naples, when civilization collapsed, man’s animal nature took to the fore.

Observing the struggle for life in the city, Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be – shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong – disappeared. What were left were hungry animals ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.

The book Malaparte wrote about this first-hand experience of human degradation, The Skin, was immediately placed on the Vatican’s list of banned publications, and having subsequently picked it up, I can well see why: it recounts, in often graphic and lurid detail, the kind of Hobbesian war of all against all that civilizations were founded to prevent. What lesson does Gray wish us to glean from this glimpse into human depravity? Merely what our pre-Christian ancestors took for granted: “The ancient pagans did not imagine that humanity had been corrupted by civilization. They knew that what emerges when civilization breaks down is only barbarism, a disease of civilization. There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilized. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.”

The Silence Of Animals is not structured as a formal argument, though it certainly has a hypothesis and presents evidence. It is a bracing read, for the simple reason that every major nation and modern political party, left or right, conservative or liberal, has accepted some variation of Gray’s “myth of progress,” and Gray forces us to confront the possibility that we have been badly misled.

The idea that human evil is a type of error, which will fade away as knowledge advances; that the good life must be an examined life; that the practice of reason can enable human beings to shape their own fates – these questionable claims have been repeated as unchallengeable axioms ever since Socrates acquired the status of a humanist saint. Nietzsche, who attacked Socrates fiercely, without ever ceasing to admire and revere him, wrote: “One is obliged to see in Socrates the single point around which so-called world history turns and twists.”

Gray does well to quote from Nietzsche, for the German philosopher remains the most powerful critic of this kind of sentimental hope. Here is Nietzsche encapsulating Gray’s entire book in a mere paragraph:

The new fundamental feeling: our conclusive transitoriness. Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction! One therefore now tries the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall serve as proof of his grandeur and kinship with God. Alas this, too, is vain! At the end of this way stands the funeral urn of the last man and gravedigger (with the inscription ‘nihil humani a me alienum puto‘). However high mankind may have evolved – and perhaps at the end it will stand even lower than at the beginning! – it cannot pass over into a higher order, as little as the ant and the earwig can at the end of its ‘earthly course’ rise up to kinship with God and eternal life. The becoming drags the has-been along behind it: why should an exception to this eternal spectacle be made on behalf of some little star or for any little species upon it! Away with such sentimentalities!

In canonizing Socrates and banishing the pantheon of gods, Gray argues, we have merely erected a new god, a “divinized version of ourselves,” preternaturally reasonable and good. Nietzsche takes Gray’s argument a step further: that what will emerge from this effort will not be a higher man, but a lower one, an easily contented, uneasily moved and solipsistic creature, happy to live for his pleasure alone. Thus a funny paradox emerges: the sum total of all human effort and ingenuity goes into creating a society that enables man to debase himself, and thereby become unworthy of the very civilization he created.