Above: John Gray underneath the portrait of Isaiah Berlin in Corpus Christi’s Lower SCR
By Dr Richard Lofthouse
John Gray (Exeter, 1968) has scarcely shaken my hand in the lodge of Corpus Christi when we are approached by two young men, one wearing an academic gown. They offer effusive handshakes and manage to confirm that one of us is a philosopher. A strange conversation ensues. I reason that they must have recognised John, who by any measure is famous; he, meanwhile, is wondering why I have organised a greeting party like this. They are drunk, and it is barely lunchtime.
Gray copes with it all admirably and we are rescued by Corpus’s genial Domestic Bursar Andrew Rolfe, who shows us to the late nineteenth-century Thomas Jackson building on the corner of Magpie Lane and Merton Street. Our objective is to identify the freshman room of Sir Isaiah Berlin, who went up to Corpus in 1928.
Berlin, of course, has a claim to be one of Oxford’s greatest thinkers. In a discussion about freedom given at the British Library earlier this year to mark the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta, when asked about who had most influenced him most, Gray, who also has claim as one of Oxford’s greatest thinkers, said of Berlin: ‘I revere and even love him.’ It is a strong hint as to the partly Oxford soil from which Gray’s own philosophy has grown, not discounting his grammar school education and upbringing in a working-class setting in South Shields.
But to find Berlin’s freshman room we have to put on Day-Glo vests and hard hats, because the building is being renovated. Gray, in his sixties and slightly stiff-bodied, makes light of the scaffolding and dust and missing floorboards, and we narrow it down to two rooms on the first floor, overlooking Merton Street, both with mullioned windows and fireplaces.
Against my own expectation, it is a powerful moment of historical imagination. Fleeing the Bolsheviks in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1920, Berlin’s wealthy Jewish family initially took him to Riga. Encountering further difficulties and anti-Semitism, they came to London the following spring. Berlin was 11. Just seven years later he sat in one of these two rooms, his head full of Greats, warmed by a Corpus fire stocked with glowing coals, overlooking Merton chapel and Grove Walk, the delightful passage that takes you down to Christ Church Meadows.
From that innocent moment in time, which with the passing of events seems ever more poignant, Berlin would go on to outscore the future philosopher A J Ayer at finals; take a second first in PPE with less than a year’s study; win a Prize Fellowship to All Souls at the tender age of 23; and many years later, after the war, become the inaugural President of Wolfson College and the President of the British Academy. More important (one might argue) than this conventional score card, was his work for the British Diplomatic Service in the Second World War, his translation of novelist Ivan Turgenev from Russian into English, and directly in the shadows of the horrific passage of events that defined world history in the twentieth century, his immensely original impact on the history of ideas by his own original thought.
Over a very modest plate of cold bean salad in the secluded calm of Corpus’s Founder’s Room, Gray tells me that his undergraduate and graduate years at Exeter, where he studied PPE before completing a DPhil, were good ones, and that his long stint as a tutorial fellow, later Professor, in politics at Jesus College between 1976 and 1997 was ‘highly congenial’. The reason he left Oxford for the London School of Economics was, he notes, simply because the chair of Professor of European Thought, which was created for him, offered more time for research and writing. He then retired from this post in 2008 to pursue full-time writing. Now 67, he works at full-tilt from a study in Bath where he lives with his wife; Bath ‘because I can walk everywhere, because it’s beautiful and because I can still get to London and back during a day.’
This all makes sense given Gray’s prodigious success as a writer. He writes beautifully, and he has published work across an unusually wide field of subjects. A whole decade before the world economy blew up in 2008 he published False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism, which argued that free market globalisation is inherently unstable and subject to complete disintegration. Four years later, he published the single book that shot him to stardom – unexpectedly, he notes, as is so often the case with these things – Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002), which was a monumental broadside against liberal humanism, which in another book, Heresies (2004), he refers to as ‘the unthinking creed of thinking people’.
With more than 30 books and hundreds of reviews and essays, many in The Guardian and New Statesman, Gray’s record is dizzying and his status almost without equal, the novelist Will Self proclaiming him the greatest living philosopher.
His many enemies have instead noted his almost unequalled appearance of pessimism, and with it a lack of apparent energy to change the world. Others have accused him of changing position too much and taking on too much, appearing at once to pronounce on massive subjects such as the human condition and evolution, in the next breath criticising politicians and foreign policy.
The beans all but gone and the clock ticking over the minutes relentlessly, I venture that there is something almost horrific about most of Gray’s chosen subject matter.
Take the early reaches of his 2013 book The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. It begins with a citation by that gnarly old decrier of communism, Arthur Koestler, imagining highly civilised apes living in harmony with the treetops, while the Neanderthals trampled the forest, and ‘transgressed every law and tradition of the jungle.’ ‘… From the point of view of the highly civilised apes,’ says Koestler, the humans were ‘a barbaric relapse of history.’
Within the next few pages the reader is taken from suicides in Conradian, equatorial settings to cannibalism and corpses in Naples during the Second World War, causing an officer of the British Intelligence Corps, Norman Lewis, to undergo a conversion to pessimism. We then switch to Curzio Malaparte, a writer and soldier who overlapped with Lewis in wartime Naples and became an Italian liaison officer with the American High Command. Malaparte noted that the fight for survival during the war exhibited dignity, but the fight for life that came after the liberation – by extension our own lives of getting on and getting up – was undignified and squalid. Gray draws, from Malaparte’s little-known book The Skin (1949, and which was incidentally placed on the Vatican’s index of prohibited books): ‘There are not two kinds of human being, savage and civilised. There is only the human animal, forever at war with itself.’
It is easy to see how from such a platform Gray is scathing about regime change, to mention just one widely cited instance of his political commentary. It was monstrously naïve to assume that getting rid of Hussein or Gaddafi, both admittedly heads of noxious regimes, would automatically result in greater freedoms and democracy. The opposite ensued. Gray adds that when he predicted that Al-Qaeda would be followed by something worse, he was laughed out of court. But now we have ISIL. A third example concerns the return of torture in America, justified by the war on terror. His broader point is that there is no steady accretion of advances towards greater civilisation or even human decency over a long period of time. It can all be taken away terrifyingly quickly.
There are numerous other positions Gray takes, including one that is highly critical of free market capitalism, but the bedrock of his essential position is already visible in outline, the view that humans should be returned to their status, as Darwin regrettably came to see it, as animals among other animals, not the exalted species-apart that Christianity or its liberal humanist descendants would have us.
By now we are on to fruit and cheese, but it is as if we have barely started. Gray talks almost as rapidly and brilliantly as Berlin did, the latter dubbed ‘the world’s greatest talker’. Talking to John Gray is like stepping under a dense waterfall. For every question, a torrent of brilliance, but coming up for air is tricky. I trivialise the exchange for a moment, by asking if the frequent mention of ‘animals’ in his book titles followed the tabloid adage that animals and babies sell. ‘No,’ he says. The point of animals is that whereas the Victorians retched at the idea of being among the apes, it is in fact humans who have turned out to be the most destructive species – precisely Koestler’s point and a neat reversal of how things looked in c1870. Gray swaps homo sapiens for homo rapiens. On an evolutionally timeline, as opposed to a political one (Gray’s writings can disconcertedly swap between them), he shares James Lovelock’s position of arguing that Earth will have no choice but to evict us.
With coffee pending, I venture even more crassly onto the terrain of hobbies and pets. Does he own animals? I can reveal that he and his wife, who is Japanese, have a great love of cats. They were once ruled by four, two Burmese and two Birman, of whom one of the latter ‘survives and thrives at the age of 18.’
Gray has no truck with animal rights extremists, who if anything have merely traded human rights for animal rights, thus betraying their own Enlightenment delusion, only inverted. Yet he remains intensely interested in the degree to which humans overplay their difference from other species, thereby setting up the basis for the pursuit of delusory, abstract goals that more often than not are used to justify oppression.
This is where Berlin comes back into the frame, via his huge respect for Russian nineteenth-century thinker Alexander Herzen, and Herzen’s friend, the novelist Ivan Turgenev.
The French socialist Louis Blanc told Herzen one day that life was a great social duty, and that man must always sacrifice himself to society. Herzen replied, ‘Why?’
‘How do you mean, “Why?”’ said Blanc. ‘But surely the whole purpose and mission of man is the well-being of society.’
Herzen replied, ‘But it will never be attained if everyone makes sacrifices and nobody enjoys himself.’
Berlin then comments:
‘In this gay and apparently casual passage, Herzen embodies his central principle – that the goal of life is life itself, that to sacrifice the present to some vague and unpredictable future is a form of delusion which leads to the destruction of all that alone is valuable in men and societies – to the gratuitous sacrifice of the flesh and blood of live human beings upon the altar of abstractions… the purpose of the singer is the song, and the purpose of life is to be lived.’
The whole sequence is reproduced by Gray in his 1996 book, Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought. It is arguably the best single volume by which to begin to understand the thought of John Gray.
As Gray notes immediately, via Turgenev, ‘liberalism is not so much a political doctrine as a mode of resistance against doctrines.’ The result is not pessimism but realism, and a space for human happiness that is congruous with what is possible.
A hundred pages later in the same volume, Gray cites another Oxford colleague, Sir Stuart Hampshire (Balliol, 1933), in a central passage that presages another of Gray’s major publications, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007):
‘Hegelianism, positivism, Marxism, constructed in the shadow of Christianity with a view to its replacement, purported to give an account of the development of mankind as a whole, an account of the destiny of the species: this included an alienation or fall, followed by a political or social redemption, leading to a final salvation of humanity. From the standpoint of a naturalistic philosophy, looking at the so far known facts of human history, the gross implausibility of these accounts comes from the false speciation and the false humanism.’
What Gray then did was to brilliantly push this boat right across the lake, noting for instance that Margaret Thatcher’s de-regulatory zeal had partly to do with the decayed energies of Methodism.
What Gray shared with Thatcher, with whom he briefly sympathised, was an ethical minimalism premised on a negative concept of liberty. Gray puts it thus, ‘Negative freedom is “true” freedom because it best captures what makes freedom valuable, which is the opportunity it secures to live as you choose.’ We might hope for a more positive concept of liberty, extending to the pursuit of democracy in Iraq, for example, but we are deluded if we then stray into any form of political eschatology in which we are all supposed to be moving towards some end point in human history, often (and historically) demanding dreadful atrocities in the here and now.
If you want an up-to-date example, consider Greece and the European Union, Gray says. The straitjacket of a currency union presaging political unity is an Enlightenment delusion. If history is any guide, it will not endure. Greece is not Germany and Germany is not Greece.
Forget all the delusions, says Gray, and you will be much happier.
To the critics who chorus that were we to follow Gray, we have no reason to get out of bed in the morning, Gray’s response is equally blunt: so don’t, he says. He fully accepts a version of progress, where the poor are helped out of poverty, where suffering is reduced, where technologies are of obvious benefit (he includes anaesthesia and birth control). But he is absolutely unyielding about our apparently dazzling successes as a species, insisting that all knowledge is ethically ambiguous, that technology is completely two-edged, that we are not any more advanced than any previous society, and that far from being a bad thing, this is a good thing, and a corrective to our monstrous myopia in confusing our own time on Earth with greatness, just because we own a touchscreen.
He cites Montaigne as fine reading for troubled times (‘Not “how to live” but “how do I live?”’), and cites Keats’s notion of negative capability as another guiding star, namely the readiness to live in mystery and ignorance without requiring absolute certainty in knowledge, which cannot be acquired – but he exempts law, medicine and some branches of science which have expanded and enhanced the lot of mankind. He does not do social media, and the impression he gives is of unfailing decency and minimal ego, insisting that he wants no disciples, no legacy, no ‘school’ of Gray, no ‘Grayisms’.
As we take photos of him underneath the portrait of Berlin that hangs in the Corpus’ part-modernist Lower SCR, more coffee is served and he continues to discuss, with undiminished energy and precision and speed, numerous figures he likes, ranging from Schopenhauer to US economist Nouriel Roubini, the poet Wallace Stevens, British historian Norman Cohn, Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi. His only admission of a hobby turns out to be the pursuit of an esoteric literary inquiry concerning novelist John Cowper Powys. It’s an invigorating conversation that touches on his next book, which will concern different types of atheism. Although considering himself one, he hates Richard Dawkins for his ‘evangelical’ denial of God.
As Gray says more than once, his mission is to provoke discussion and debate, to make people think. With the last click of the shutter, photographer Joby Sessions is done and we return to the front quad where Gray is greeted by his German publisher for the next conversation.
Images © Joby Sessions