The Fallacy of Human Freedom

The Fallacy of Human Freedom

Mini Teaser: Faith in progress and the perfectibility of human nature are at the center of Western thought. What if this faith is misplaced?

by Author(s): Robert W. Merry

John Gray, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 288 pp., $26.00.

JEAN-JACQUES Rousseau famously lamented, “Man is born to be free—and is everywhere in chains!” To which Alexander Herzen, a nineteenth-century Russian journalist and thinker, replied, in a dialogue he concocted between a believer in human freedom and a skeptic, “Fish are born to fly—but everywhere they swim!” In Herzen’s dialogue, the skeptic offers plenty of evidence for his theory that fish are born to fly: fish skeletons, after all, show extremities with the potential to develop into legs and wings; and there are of course so-called flying fish, which proves a capacity to fly in certain circumstances. Having presented his evidence, the skeptic asks the believer why he doesn’t demand from Rousseau a similar justification for his statement that man must be free, given that he seems to be always in chains. “Why,” he asks, “does everything else exist as it ought to exist, whereas with man, it is the opposite?”

This intriguing exchange was pulled from Herzen’s writings by John Gray, the acclaimed British philosopher and academic, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths . As the title suggests, Gray doesn’t hold with that dialogue’s earnest believer in freedom—though he has nothing against freedom. He casts his lot with the skeptic because he doesn’t believe freedom represents the culmination of mankind’s earthly journey. “The overthrow of the ancien régime in France, the Tsars in Russia, the Shah of Iran, Saddam in Iraq and Mubarak in Egypt may have produced benefits for many people,” writes Gray, “but increased freedom was not among them. Mass killing, attacks on minorities, torture on a larger scale, another kind of tyranny, often more cruel than the one that was overthrown—these have been the results. To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake.”

Such thinking puts Gray severely at odds with the predominant sentiment of modern Western man—indeed, essentially with the foundation of Western thought since at least the French Encyclopedists of the mid-eighteenth century, who paved the way for the transformation of France between 1715 and 1789. These romantics—Diderot, Baron d’Holbach, Helvétius and Voltaire, among others—harbored ultimate confidence that reason would triumph over prejudice, that knowledge would prevail over ignorance, that “progress” would lift mankind to ever-higher levels of consciousness and purity. In short, they foresaw an ongoing transformation of human nature for the good.

The noted British historian J. B. Bury (1861–1927) captured the power of this intellectual development when he wrote, “This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions . . . laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress.”

We must pause here over this doctrine of progress. It may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future. “No single idea,” wrote the American intellectual Robert Nisbet in 1980, “has been more important than, perhaps as important as, the idea of progress in Western civilization.” The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”

Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals , he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”

GRAY’S REJECTION of progress has powerful implications, and his book is an attempt to grapple with many of them. We shall grapple with them as well here, but first a look at Gray himself is in order. He was born into a working-class family in 1948 in South Shields, England, and studied at Oxford. He gravitated early to an academic life, teaching eventually at Oxford and the London School of Economics. He retired from the LSE in 2008 after a long career there. Gray has produced more than twenty books demonstrating an expansive intellectual range, a penchant for controversy, acuity of analysis and a certain political clairvoyance.

Pullquote: Progress is the idea that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment. Gray rejects it utterly.Image: Essay Types: Book Review