“Other animals do not need a purpose in life. A contradiction to itself, the human animal cannot do without one. Can we not think of the aim of life as being simply to see?” (–John Gray, in “Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Human and Other Animals, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 2003)
Thus, the closing paragraph of a book by Gray once again reflects his pleasure in poetic, but oblique narrative. I find it appealing, an intellectual challenge to extract his meaning. But for those less inclined to mental effort, he might have ended more explicitly: “There is no purpose to life. Get over it!”
Gray generally interchanges meaning and purpose, and his arguments seem directed at the human tendency to seek or create either. More correctly, his premise is that there is no more meaning to human life than to that of non-humans. Granted, many seem to find it in everything, but Gray is not buying it. He’s talking about a fundamental, existential reason for human existence that sets us apart from the rest of the biosphere. He is more inclined to say that, if it’s there, it is beyond us to perceive it.
Apart from the minor existential challenge of abandoning all hope, Gray’s book is an insightful work, if a difficult one to review. Ironically, its most maddening aspect was also its most enjoyable. The entire book is one long, tangential approach to his point. He comes at it so indirectly that it only surfaces in the last chapter, and only then after a second read. While frustrating, the technique makes for a thought provoking ride. It forces you to consider ideas you may have shut out if he’d hit you over the head with them.
His ultimate premise is human insignificance, and the story behind the title is illustrative. It is a reference to the ritual use of dogs fashioned from straw in ancient Chinese tradition. To paraphrase Gray, the models were treated with great respect during the ritual, but afterwards tossed out with the trash. To bring this home, Gray points to Chapter Five of the Tao te Ching. Paraphrased as well, the passage says that, in the great scheme of things, living creatures (including humans) are no more significant than ritual dogs made of straw. Gray’s book is an a systematic deconstruction of our illusions to the contrary.
While the author moves from point to point to build his argument, his general whipping boy is secular humanism, which he pillories repeatedly and throughout. And it’s more than just a foil against his dark view. He clearly has a distaste for what he sees as a secular religion. In his view, humanism sets itself on a pedestal as the solution to theistic pluralism, or as “right” thinking in our current morass of interreligious tension. But that is far too positivist for his dark view. He sees humanism as simply a derivative of Christian mindset but without a deity. It keeps Christianity’s moral code and idea of human “specialness,” but substitutes as a savior science and a belief in progress towards some manifest destiny. In his mind, such faith is just as misplaced as faith in Jesus.
There is much to consider in Gray’s thinking, but also a major flaw. He meticulously dismantles our illusions of ruling some existential world order, but he gives little credit to the fact that we are still a sentient and social species. This discounts the immediacy of our value to one another, both as individuals and in social groups. It is tempting to label him a misanthrope, but that would be harsh. He’s more of a “philosopher grump,” who comes off as though he’s trying to help by pointing out that life is much simpler than we try to make it: “Stop wasting energy on convoluted, contradictory and destructive rationalization. Let all that go. Think of yourself and your fate as a fox or an ant would, that is, not at all. Relax and enjoy the mystery, however transient, until your lights go out.”
The problem with this view is that it is cruel. We are sentient beings and we do need and seek meaning…and we are perfectly happy (happier, really) living with a myth than with the dead end of Gray’s alternative. For one thing, few could cope with the bleakness of his reality. But perhaps more important, the vast majority of humanity lead Jobian lives of poverty, deprivation, fear and displacement. This is true even in the West, where the wealthy and comfortable seldom take an honest look inward at the poverty and desperation surrounding them, and where even they cloak themselves in mythologies to keep out the cold fear of meaninglessness. So why take away even our myths? The misanthropic flaw in Gray’s reasoning is the assumption that people are capable of living with his worldview; when, in fact, it would likely drive most to despair.