The purpose of the singer is the song

John gray: the most significant philosopher of our times

There are massive holes in my education. The upside is that I am constantly surprised by some writer, philosopher, artist or musician that other people seem to know about, but about whom I’ve been blissfully unaware. Never too late to learn, as the saying goes.

How could I have read the Slovenian Žižek and never read the unassuming British philosopher John Gray?

John Gray, in his 1996 book, ‘Isaiah Berlin: An Interpretation of His Thought’, includes the following dialogue (with my emphasis in red):

“The French socialist Louis Blanc told (the nineteenth century Russian philosopher) 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.’¹



Another interesting insight on freedom (I keep returning – uneasily – to my friend’s socialist mantra, Aluta Continua. Vitoria e certa! and this piece by Gray expresses my own disquiet:

Gray puts it thus, ‘Negative freedom² 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.’

[2] One has negative liberty to the extent that actions are available to one in this negative sense. Positive liberty is the possibility of acting — or the fact of acting — in such a way as to take control of one’s life and realize one’s fundamental purposes. While negative liberty is usually attributed to individual agents, positive liberty is sometimes attributed to collectivities, or to individuals considered primarily as members of given collectivities”-Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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