This morning I posted extract of my friend Murray Enkin’s summary of Myth from the Ice Age to Mickey Mouse by Robert W Brockway that the myth of progress is our dominant modern myth.
It made me think back to a talk I attended last year by the philosopher in John Gray in which he argued that social and political progress is an illusion.
His central idea is that while we can accumulate scientific and other knowledge we cannot advance in ethics and politics. We might edge forward with, for example, the liberation of women and gays, but we are always at some stage going to go backwards. All civilisations and empires, he points out, eventually blow up. He thinks that there could easily be another full scale war in Europe, that Marie Le Pen could come to power in France, and that Greece could descend into civil war. “We simply don’t know.”
[Eighteen months on a full scale war in Europe after the antics of Vladimir Putin looks more likely but not imminent; Marie Le Pen is expected to get into the second round of next year’s French presidential election and could possibly go further; but civil war looks less likely in Greece. We have, however, had Brexit and Donald Trump being selected as the Republican presidential candidate. But Gray was concentrating on the long view of history.]
Gray’s other central idea is that human beings, very flawed creatures in his mind, are incapable of acting as “one moral unit.” People have too many different views of the world and of what is right. He read Thomas Picketty’s much admired book but abandoned it when Picketty’s “solution” to the growing problem of inequality was world government redistributing wealth. That, he was sure, would never happen, and he’s surely right.
The question his book The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom plays with but doesn’t answer is “How can we be free in the human world as it currently exists?” He thinks about choice. You might choose to have no choice—and be like the marionette, who is freed from gravity—by following the exact teachings of a religion, cult, or totalitarian regimen. Or you might chose not to be enslaved by anything—no job, partner, or membership of anything. The answer to choice is paradoxically for you to choose.