Uber-marionettes do not have to wait until they can fly before they can be free. Not looking to ascend into the heavens, they can find freedom in falling to earth. — John Gray, in “The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry Into Human Freedom.” (Farrah, Straus and Giroux, New York. 2015)

From the title, one might expect Gray’s book to explore the concept of free will. But it does not, at least not directly. It is much more than that. Instead, the author explores a central premise of all modern religions: the idea that we can know who we are, from whence we come, the meaning of life and death. Or that, not knowing, we can somehow find out. His backdrop for the inquiry is the current secular faith in knowledge and science, which he interprets as the modern incarnation of ancient Gnosticism. In essence we either put our faith in the mythologies of religion, or in the equally groundless belief that we can rise above our limitations through knowledge.  

Gray neither affirms nor denies arguments for either side. Rather, he simply explores how civilizations both ancient and modern have approached them. The breadth of his sources is intimidating, and his style can be oblique to the point of obfuscation. But to the curious, he is eminently readable. You stay with him because you have to wonder where he is going, and because you sense enough substance to know that, in the end, the trip will be worthwhile. Indeed, it is only in the last two sentences on the final page that his message finally crystallizes.

Drawing from the Bible; modern and ancient philosophy; history and anthropology; classical literature and science fiction; recent politics and modern technology, Gray explores the tension between human self-awareness and our ability to live freely. Because we are self-aware, he posits, we create a self-image which we long to perfect according to some unachievable (and even undefinable) standards. We create a web of mythologies and histories ascribing cause to our shortcomings, and an equally untenable web of inconsistent values in our striving towards salvation through perfection. Monotheists delegate salvation to a religious belief system; non-religionists seek it through knowledge and technology.  

The flaw in all our effort is in thinking that self-awareness means we can obtain real answers to the existential mysteries that bedevil us. We may be self-aware, but we can achieve neither omniscience nor omnipotence. Thus, strive as we might, all our efforts are doomed to fail. And in our striving, we exhaust ourselves and forfeit the one true freedom we do possess, the freedom to be what we are, actors in a play we cannot comprehend, on a stage of which we cannot conceive. True freedom lies in ceasing to strive and instead, like the marionette in Gray’s metaphor, resting against the strings that support us. In so doing, we defy the gravity that pulls us earthward and float easily within the mystery of our existence.