John N Gray, British philosopher

“Even the deepest contemplation only recalls us to our unreality. Seeing that the self we take ourselves to be is illusory does not mean seeing through it to something else. It is more like surrendering to a dream. To see ourselves as figments is to awake, not to reality, but to a lucid dream, a false awakening that has no end.”

“Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.”

“Our lives are more like fragmentary dreams than the enactments of conscious selves. We control very little of what we most care about; many of our most fateful decisions are made unbeknownst to ourselves. Yet we insist that mankind can achieve what we cannot: conscious mastery of its existence. This is the creed of those who have given up an irrational belief in God.”

“The result of toppling tyranny in divided countries is usually civil war and ethnic cleansing.”

“While the Marxist faith in central planning is now confined to a few dingy sects, a quasi-religious belief in free markets continues to shape the policies of governments. Many writers have pointed to the havoc and ruin that have accompanied the imposition of free markets across the world. Whether in Africa, Asia, Latin America or post-communist Europe, policies of wholesale privatisation and structural adjustment have led to declining economic activity and social dislocation on a massive scale.”

“Our intellects are not impartial observers of the world but active participants in it. They shape a view of it that helps us in our struggles. Among the imaginary constructions created by the intellect working in the service of the will, perhaps the most delusive is the view it gives us of ourselves – as continuing, unified individuals.”

“Nietzsche was an inveterately religious thinker, whose incessant attacks on Christian beliefs and values attest to the fact that he could never shake them off.”

“Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice. If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans. If we speak of the history of the species at all, it is only to signify the unknowable sum of these lives. As with other animals, some lives are happy, others wretched. None has a meaning that lies beyond itself. Looking for meaning in history is like looking for patterns in clouds.”

“It is significant that nothing resembling Platonism arose in China. Classical Chinese script is not ideographic, as used to be thought; but because of what A.C. Graham terms its ‘combination of graphic wealth with phonetic poverty’ it did not encourage the kind of abstract thinking that produced Plato’s philosophy. Plato was what historians of philosophy call a realist – he believed that abstract terms designated spiritual or intellectual entities. In contrast, throughout its long history, Chinese thought has been nominalist – it has understood that even the most abstract terms are only labels, names for the diversity of things in the world. As a result, Chinese thinkers have rarely mistaken ideas for facts. Plato’s legacy to European thought was a trio of capital letters – the Good, the Beautiful and the True. Wars have been fought and tyrannies established, cultures have been ravaged and peoples exterminated in the service of these abstractions. Europe owes much of its murderous history to errors of thinking engendered by the alphabet.” – The Deception: Plato and the alphabet

“It is sometimes asked why Western observers were so slow in recognising the truth about the Soviet Union. The reason is not that it was hard to come by. It was clear from hundreds of books by emigre survivors – and from statements by the Soviets themselves. But the facts were too uncomfortable for Western observers to admit. For the sake of their peace of mind they had to deny what they knew or suspected to be true. Like the Tasmanian aboriginals who could not see the tall ships that brought their end, these bien-pensants could not bring themselves to see that the pursuit of progress had ended in mass murder. … What makes the twentieth century special is not the fact that it is littered with massacres. It is the scale of its killings and the fact that they were premeditated for the sake of vast projects of world improvement.” – The Vices of Morality: The unsanctity of human life

“In the Greek world in which Homer’s songs were sung, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life is ruled by fate and chance. For Homer, human life is a succession of contingencies: all good things are vulnerable to fortune. Socrates could not accept this archaic tragic vision. He believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man. So he re-envisioned the good to make it indestructible. Beyond the goods of human life – health, beauty, pleasure, friendship, life itself – there was a Good that surpassed them all. In Plato, this became the idea of the Form of the Good, the mystical fusion of all values into a harmonious spiritual whole – an idea later absorbed into the Christian conception of God.”

“We are not authors of our lives; we are not even part-authors of the events that mark us most deeply. Nearly everything that is most important in our lives is unchosen. The time and place we are born, our parents, the first language we speak – these are chance, not choice. It is the casual drift of things that shapes our most fateful relationships. The life of each of us is a chapter of accidents.” – The Vices of Morality: The fetish of choice

“Today, for the mass of humanity, science and technology embody ‘miracle, mystery, and authority’. Science promises that the most ancient human fantasies will at last be realized. Sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles. But to think that science can transform the human lot is to believe in magic. Time retorts to the illusions of humanism with the reality: frail, deranged, undelivered humanity. Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war.” -The unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish

“The truth that Dostoevsky puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor is that humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tell us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so.” – The Unsaved: The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish

“Atheists say they want a secular world, but a world defined by the absence of the Christians’ god is still a Christian world. Secularism is like chastity, a condition defined by what it denies.” – The Unsaved: Atheism, the Last Consequence of Christianity

“Jesus promised the resurrection of the body, not an afterlife as a disembodied consciousness. Despite this, the followers of Jesus have always disparaged the flesh. Their belief that humans are marked off from the rest of creation by having an immortal soul has led them to disown the fate they share with other animals. They cannot reconcile their attachment to the body with their hope of immortality. When the two come into conflict it is always the flesh that is left behind.” – The Unsaved: Gnosticism and the cybernauts

Religion is not a primitive type of scientific theorizing, any more than science is a superior kind of belief-system. Just as rationalists have misunderstood myths as proto-versions of scientific theories, they have made the mistake of believing that scientific theories can be literally true. Both are systems of symbols, metaphors for a reality that cannot be rendered in literal terms. Every spiritual quest concludes in silence, and science also comes to a stop, if by another route. As George Santayana has written, ‘a really naked spirit cannot assume that the world is thoroughly intelligible. There may be surds, there may be hard facts, there may be dark abysses before which intelligence must be silent for fear of going mad.’ Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our inquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.” – Sweet Morality (p. 226-7)

“Before Christianity suicide was not in any way troubling. Our lives were our own, and when we tired of them we were at liberty to end them. One might think that as Christianity has declined, this freedom would be reclaimed. Instead secular creeds have sprung up, in which each person’s life belongs to everyone else. To hand back the gift of life because it does not please is still condemned as a kind of blasphemy, though the offended deity is now humanity instead of God.”

“Tyranny offers relief from the burden of sanity and a licence to enact forbidden impulses of hatred and violence. By acting on these impulses and releasing them in their subjects tyrants give people a kind of happiness, which as individuals they may be incapable of achieving.” – An Old Chaos: What a Tyrant Can Do For You

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