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

Observing the struggle for life in the city, Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be—shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong—disappeared. What were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.

When civilization is stripped away, the raw animal emerges. “Darwin showed that humans are like other animals,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, expressing in this instance only a partial truth. Humans are different in a crucial respect, captured by Gray himself when he notes that Homo sapiens inevitably struggle with themselves when forced to fight for survival. No other species does that, just as no other species has such a range of spirit, from nobility to degradation, or such a need to ponder the moral implications as it fluctuates from one to the other. But, whatever human nature is—with all of its capacity for folly, capriciousness and evil as well as virtue, magnanimity and high-mindedness—it is embedded in the species through evolution and not subject to manipulation by man-made institutions.

Fourth, the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine—the idea of providence, of redemption. Gray notes in The Silence of Animals that no other civilization conceived any such phenomenon as the end of time, a concept given to the world by Jesus and St. Paul. Classical thinking, as well as the thinking of the ancient Egyptians and later of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Shintoism and early Judaism, saw humanity as reflecting the rest of the natural world—essentially unchanging but subject to cycles of improvement and deterioration, rather like the seasons.

“By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs,” writes Gray, “Christianity . . . founded the modern world.” But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world—the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the “myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world.” Thus did a fundamental change emerge in what was hoped of the future. And, as the power of Christian faith ebbed, along with its idea of providence, the idea of progress, tied to the Socratic myth, emerged to fill the gap. “Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress,” Gray explains. “But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.”

Thus, it isn’t surprising that today’s Western man should cling so tenaciously to his faith in progress as a secular version of redemption. As Gray writes, “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.” In one of his more brutal passages, he adds:

Humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith. They see the realization of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal. They exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Plainly absurd, this nonsense gives meaning to the lives of people who believe they have left all myths behind.

IN THE Silence of Animals, Gray explores all this through the works of various writers and thinkers. In the process, he employs history and literature to puncture the conceits of those who cling to the progress idea and the humanist view of human nature. Those conceits, it turns out, are easily punctured when subjected to Gray’s withering scrutiny.

Gray pulls from the past Stefan Zweig (1881–1942) and Joseph Roth (1894–1939), noted Austrian authors and journalists, both of Jewish origin, who wrote extensively about what Austria had been like under the Hapsburg crown. As Zweig described it in his memoir, The World of Yesterday, the vast Hapsburg Empire seemed to be a tower of permanence, where “nothing would change in the well-regulated order.” Zweig added, “No one thought of wars, of revolutions, or revolts. All that was radical, all violence, seemed impossible in an age of reason.” In Roth’s novella, The Emperor’s Tomb (1938), he describes the tidy uniformity of Austrian life. All provincial railway stations looked alike—small and painted yellow. The porter was the same everywhere, clothed in the same blue uniform. He saluted each incoming and outgoing train as “a kind of military blessing.” People knew where they stood in society and accepted it.

This little world was utterly destroyed with the fall of the Hapsburgs after World War I, and many heralded the departure of this obsolete system of royalist governance. After all, the polyglot empire was not a modern state, even during its final sixty years or so when Franz Joseph finally embraced new technology such as railroads and telegraphic communication. But the old system lacked some of the “ancient evils,” as Gray puts it, that more modern states later revived in pursuit of what they anticipated as a better world. Torture had been abolished under the Hapsburgs. Bigotry and hatred, while evident in society, were kept in check by an authoritarian monarchy that didn’t have to respond to mass movements spawned in the name of self-government. “Only with the struggle for national self-determination,” writes Gray, “did it come to be believed that every human being had to belong to a group defined in opposition to others.”

As Roth wrote in his short story “The Emperor’s Bust”:

All those people who had never been other than Austrians, in Tarnopol, in Sarajevo, in Vienna, in Brunn, in Prague, in Czernowitz, in Oderburg, in Troppau, never anything other than Austrians, they now began, in compliance with the “order of the day,” to call themselves part of the Polish, the Czech, the Ukrainian, the German, the Romanian, the Slovenian, the Croatian “nation”—and so on and so forth.

Roth could see that the declining devices of empire were being replaced “by modern emblems of blood and soil,” as Gray puts it. Thus, Roth’s progressive, future-gazing outlook soon gave way to a kind of reactionary nostalgia. Gray explains:

Along with the formation of nations there was the “problem of national minorities.” Ethnic cleansing—the forcible expulsion and migration of these minorities—was an integral part of building democracy in central and eastern Europe. Progressive thinkers viewed this process as a stage on the way to universal self-determination. Roth had no such illusions. He knew the end-result could only be mass murder. Writing to Zweig in 1933, he warned: “We are drifting towards great catastrophes . . . it all leads to a new war. I won’t bet a penny on our lives. They have established a reign of barbarity.”

Both Roth and Zweig died before they could see the full magnitude of this barbarity. But, whatever one may think of the Hapsburg Empire and what came after, it is difficult to see that train of events as representing human progress. Rather, it more accurately is seen as just another episode, among multitudes, of the haphazard human struggle upon the earth.

AND YET the myth of progress is so powerful in part because it gives meaning to modern Westerners struggling, in an irreligious era, to place themselves in a philosophical framework larger than just themselves. That is the lesson of Joseph Conrad’s An Outpost of Progress (1896), discussed by Gray as a reflection of man’s need to fight off despair and gloom. The story centers on two Belgian traders, Kayerts and Carlier, sent by their company to a remote part of the Congo, where a native interpreter lures them into a slave-trading transaction. Though initially shocked to be involved in such an activity, they later think better of themselves after receiving the valuable elephant tusks put up as trade for human chattel, as well as after reading old newspapers extolling “Our Colonial Expansion” and “the merits of those who went about bringing light, faith and commerce to the dark places of the earth.”

But the steamer they were expecting doesn’t arrive, and their languid outpost existence is darkened by the threat of starvation. In a fight over a few lumps of sugar, Carlier is killed. In desperation, Kayerts decides to kill himself. He’s hanging from a gravesite cross when the steamer arrives shortly afterward. Conrad describes Kayerts’s disillusionment as he contemplates what he has done and his ultimate insignificance born of placing himself outside civilization: “His old thoughts, convictions, likes and dislikes, things he respected and things he abhorred, appeared in their true light at last! Appeared contemptible and childish, false and ridiculous.”

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