REVIEW: The Unexamined Life is Worth Living – The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom

John GrayJohn Gray has been described as a secular prophet, a soothsayer fond of nihilism. If so one should expect prophetic language, secular jeremiads impugning contemporary political theory. His central message is stark. Tear away the thin veneer of civilization and one finds an allegorical everyman nothing more than a homicidal brute. Add to that the notion that one’s contemporary world is toxic with delusions, which includes the religious belief that God will raise us from the dead, and one can await choruses of infuriated shrieks.

Professor Gray’s new book, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry in to Human Freedom, is his latest foray into what he reasons is our absurdist human condition, the insignificance of human existence, Eugéne Ionesco’s banality without the experience of wild caricature and parody. To inflate the irony, the title owns two delusional words: soul and freedom.

He’s an analytical philosopher which conveys a conundrum unless one admits into philosophy a method resembling the natural sciences. Metaphysics and ontology are thus either completely worthless or own a very limited function. It’s been Professor


Gray’s political position for the decades of his career and would lead anyone with an ounce of compassion to conclude it’s best not to get out of bed.

The enemy in his sight is straw man, that delusional creature who believes in progress and a “faith” that he can manage the world in which he lives. Marcuse may have articulated an “oppositional freedom” directed against entrenched bureaucracies in Marxist countries and the capitalist west, but Gray’s eccentricity translates one-dimensional man into a deluded animal.

Having said that, this new work by Gray is a companion to his 2002 Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. He continues to present his ideas in short fragments which read a bit like an anatomy of twists and turns but with little consensus to formal framing.

The straw dog in this new book has evolved into a puppet which Professor Gray notes in his first sentence “may seem the embodiment of a lack of freedom” (1). But in a paradoxical manner, he proceeds to argue that a puppet, “a mechanical device without any trace of conscious awareness” is more free “than a human being.” In fact, the puppet’s condition is “enviable” (5).

In this initial chapter, “The Faith of Puppets” refers to Heinrich von Kleist and an 1810 essay “The Puppet Theatre.” The puppet, lacking self-awareness, is more free than a human; self-reflective thought is the enemy of freedom. Citing Kleist again, Gray argues that freedom is “not simply a relationship between human beings: it is, above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind” (6).


One needs to imagine, then, a human being with a sense of one’s own past presented with a moment in which it’s necessary to act; the problem is compounded by the impediments which includes the community in which one lives. Gray makes this point: “What those who follow . . . traditions want most is not any kind of freedom of choice . . . . what they long for is freedom from choice” (7).

If so, then there are many who are quite content to be without freedom including “disciples” of “monotheistic faiths” for whom “freedom . . . is obeying God’s will” (6-7).

One might call that notion the “certainty principle”; to live one’s life just so presumably removes one from doubt about the outcome of one’s living.

All of which is hocus-pocus for Gray who adds to his list of straw dogs additional questionable myths of our age including the argument that “knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess” which “has become the predominate religion” (9).

Going far back into the ancient world, then, Gray revisits mystical traditions arguing that human beings are paradoxically stuck between the materialistic demands of the flesh and freedom of the spirit; it’s the sort of self-division that led Stoics to believe that a slave is more free than a master.

Theories abound and those theories are cross-cultural. Chinese Daoists imagine a “type of sage who [responds] to the flow of events without weighing alternatives” (6). The abounding theories today, which help us make sense of our own contemporary


instabilities, continue the argument that knowledge will automatically free us from the prison of the flesh. Since belief in

political solutions is fading, however, the ruling faith is science and its belief that science will enable humankind the ability to “escape the limitations that shape its natural condition” (9). For Gray, however, it’s Gnosticism in a scientific form; assuming for a moment that one could upload one’s self into that ethereal thing called the internet, well, it’s akin to the Gnostic age-old desire to refuse the material constraints of the flesh by exiting the material world.

For Gray, however, that assumes that at the bottom of it all the cosmos is ruled by laws that express overarching purpose. What if, though, at bottom of it all there is no overarching purpose and the regularity of those seeming laws of nature are not abiding laws at all but at the bottom of it all chaotic.

What then?

One can no longer hold to the idea that advancement of knowledge is liberating and progressive including an inevitable ethical progress attached to the sciences both hard and soft.

For Gray, then, an alternative interpretation “may be more interesting.” He notes, scientifically, that the “Aztecs appear unrecognizably alien to the modern mind” but that “may be because the modern mind does not recognize itself in the Aztecs. We cannot understand the Aztecs because we do not want to understand ourselves” (74).

That’s not sheer cynicism according to Professor Gray; regimes

and barbaric groups still abound in the world today. What was


fragile centuries or decades ago is fragile today.

What then?

For Professor Gray we cannot “dream” our world into being or yearn for a type of knowledge “that would make us other than what we are–though what we would like to be we cannot

say” (165). Human nature won’t progress and the modern era is no more virtuous than any other era. The old Socratic maxim that the unexamined life is not worth living is just one more straw dog. The reality is that the world around us is not an illustration of rationality but rather an illustration of hysteria. One should, rather, be perturbed full page advertisements in The Wall Street Journal that free market capitalism brings hope. Such is one more example of utopianism’s laborious illusions or, better, said, Jerry Seinfeld’s advice to George: You need to get over yourself.

Is there, then, any advice for living a “better” life in this stumbling world?

The most perfect form of freedom is the freedom of an animal that is never nostalgic for memorable moments as if they were eternal recurrences. Live, then, like that animal that never agonizes over alternative but responds effortlessly to situations as they arise.

If not that, then live one’s life as effortlessly as a self-regulating machine, uploading one’s self like so much new software and death is nothing more/nothing less than unplugging the machine.

Of course one does not need to be happy with or support Gray’s conclusions. If he is a time-teller, the uneasy lies this forthcoming political season. There is nothing that will help this


generation of Americans to revive their in the Framers experiment which over time did little to make reasonable principles of justice. To believe that everyone is impartially equal is more likely than note is is just one more example of our failed common sense method of reasoning about morality–no possum, no sop, no taters and especially no gravy.

I confess a bit of guilty pleasure in both reading the book and writing this review.

But then like most people, I’m likely fickle and occasionally cheat at golf.

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