Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Neither Progress Nor Perfection

John Gray
It’s always refreshing to read a jeremiad against the notion of progress. Millenarian ideologies, fundamentalist religions, pseudo-therapies and panderers to notions of esthetic beauty as the aim of art, all set a high bar which can be disconsonant with the inner being of the casually depressed observer of modern existence. In his review of John Gray’s The Silence of Animals: On progress and Other Modern Myths (“Backwards to the Future,” TLS 8/30/13) David Hawkes quotes an earlier line from the English philosopher’s Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions to the effect that “Belief in progress is the Prozac of the thinking class.” The line is reminiscent of Raymond Aron’s famous regurgitation of Marx’s “religion is the opiate of the masses,” in referring to Marxism as The Opium of the Intellectuals, and both Marx and Aron are relevant to the discussion. Summarizing Gray’s view in The Silence of Animals, Hawkes remarks, “To lose faith in progress is to lose the ability to see meaning in life. It is to abandon the notion, central to rationalism and religion alike, that empirical appearances conceal substantial essences. It breaks with any concept of a non-material mind, self or soul concealed within the body. It assumes, with neo-pragmatists and postmodernists, that signs do not refer to an external reality, but create their own referents. To lose faith in progress is to view the world as a depthless simulacrum with no underlying significance.” So finally someone speaks the truth. There is no meaning or order to anything. All is chaos and nothing is what’s meant to be either in terms of Hegelian dialectics or God. Unfortunately, this appears to be too much for Mr. Hawkes who loses his philosophical erection and insists on presenting an antidote to all this meaninglessness. “The possibility is that history does indeed have a meaning, purpose and end, and that these can easily be discerned by human beings, but that the direction of history’s development is backwards not forwards. History is not progress bur regress, not advance but decline, and it leads to destruction rather than to utopia.” “Hindsight is always twenty twenty,” might be the retort to Hawkes' last ditch attempt to make sense of life.

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