What I got from Gray’s book on Berlin was a sense of the tragic and intractable nature of the human condition. Gray writes that the first implication of Berlin’s perspective is a rejection of any idea of a perfect society or a perfect human life. Its second implication is that a developed morality cannot have a settled hierarchical structure that solves our dilemmas by telling us how to act. In political and moral life, we are engaged in endless trade-offs between conflicting goods and evils and there is no infallible system against which we can measure these values against each other. That is why we often arrive at situations in which more deliberation will take us no further and we have no choice but to act.
As Denis Healey reminded us, though we never reach conclusions in politics we have to make decisions. The way I like to describe this approach to life is as a kind of flowing improvisation or existential jazz in which we constantly adapt to new circumstances in order to keep the music going. It is possible to understand the operations of natural evolution in this way and Gray believes that other animals are better performers than we are because they don’t get stuck on fixed scripts the way we do.
…While Gray believes that life can be lived well without such metaphysical comfort, the gentle side of him has sympathy for those who find consolation in these myths of final redemption. The real illusion that Gray is trying to overthrow, in both Straw Dogs and The Silence of Animals, is what philosophers call “teleology”, which is the belief that there is a purpose to life that can be discovered by thought or mediated by revelation. In our determined pursuit of both religious and secular versions of this grand illusion, we have tortured and destroyed each other in unimaginable numbers throughout our history.
…Yet in this book, a new note has entered his writing. To his prophetic contempt for those who destroy others in the name of their theories has been added a lyrical new theme he calls “godless mysticism”, through which he calls us to an attitude of contemplative gratitude for the only life we will ever have.
He writes: “Godless mysticism cannot escape the finality of tragedy, or make beauty eternal. It does not dissolve inner conflict into the false quietude of oceanic calm. All it offers is mere being. There is no redemption from being human. But no redemption is needed.”
Cool, daddy-o. I can dig that.