The British political philosopher John Gray is one of my favorite writers. He is not a religious believer — he is what you might consider an atheist contemplative, or what reviewer Simon Critchley identifies as a “passive nihilist” — and Gray’s conservatism, such as it is, stands well outside the boundaries of the contemporary Right. In fact, it’s really more anti-liberal than conservative, with “liberal” meaning the entire spectrum of mainstream Western politics. He is profoundly skeptical of the idea of progress, and of the Enlightenment project. Gray is certainly bleak, and his views cannot be reconciled with Christianity, but I always, always learn from his beautiful prose and his provocative insights, even when I disagree with them (though I often do agree). Here’s an excerpt from Critchley’s review of Gray’s newest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress And Other Modern Myths:
Where does Gray’s loathing of liberalism leave him? He identifies the poison in liberal humanism, but what’s the antidote? It is what Gray calls “political realism”: we have to accept, as many ancient societies did and many non-Western societies still do, that the world is in a state of ceaseless conflict. Periods of war are followed by periods of peace, only to be followed by war again. What goes around comes around. And around. History makes more sense as a cycle than as a line of development or even decline.
In the face of such ceaseless conflict, Gray counsels that we have to abandon the belief in utopia and accept the tragic contingencies of life: there are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions. We have to learn to abandon pernicious daydreams such as a new cosmopolitan world order governed by universal human rights, or that history has a teleological, providential purpose that underwrites human action. We even have to renounce the Obamaesque (in essence, crypto-Comtian or crypto-Saint-Simonian) delusion that one’s life is a narrative that is an episode in some universal story of progress. It is not.
Against the grotesque distortion of conservatism into the millenarian military neoliberalism, Gray wants to defend the core belief of traditional Burkean Toryism. The latter begins in a realistic acceptance of human imperfection and frailty. As such, the best that flawed and potentially wicked human creatures can hope for is a commitment to civilized constraints that will prevent the very worst from happening: a politics of the least worst. Sadly, no one in political life seems prepared to present this argument, least of all those contemporary conservatives who have become more utopian than their cynical pragmatist left-liberal counterparts, such as the British Labor Party.
Read the whole review, to which I cannot do justice in a short excerpt. Better yet, read Gray.
There are moral and political dilemmas for which there are simply no solutions. The older I get, the more convinced I become of this. The trick is to discern when accepting this with relation to a particular dilemma shows wisdom, and when it shows foolish fatalism. It is hard for me to think of a political stance that is more alien to the American spirit than the tragic sense Gray espouses. That’s not to say that he’s wrong — far from it. But it is to say that we Americans find this very hard to swallow.