John N. Gray

Image: Anderson Antonangelo


Commentary on the work of the British philosopher

“grace will be more purely present in the human mentality that has no conscience or has infinite conscience, which means a puppet or a god”. (Heinrich von Kleist, About the puppet theater)

British atheist professor and philosopher of European Thought at London School of Economics and professor of politics at Oxford, John N. Gray, has many books translated in Brazil. Unfortunately, he is not well known in these parts. I can imagine some of those reasons, one of them being your religious choice. However, to be an atheist is also to be, in a non-traditional way, religious. But that doesn't interest us now.

Therefore, apart from the religious myths built by the human animal, I believe that what most disturbs him in his work is his worldview. Basically, if we could sum it all up in one sentence, Gray understands that “progress”, as it stands, will not save us. Perhaps, with a remote chance, a small minority, a caste of human beings, can take advantage of this excessive “progress” and try their luck in the rubble of our planet, perhaps in another star.

In his most prominent book on national soil called straw dogs, your first sentence already denounces what will come from your thinking. He says: “Currently, most people think that they belong to a species that can be masters of their destiny. This is faith, not science” (1). In fact, faith has always walked alongside human discoveries. In all areas. From the Pharaoh as the incarnation of the divine on earth, through the sacred scriptures originating in monotheism, to the present date with the vaccine against COVID-19. In this sense, Freud himself already warned of the dangers of religion for the continuity of the human species, precisely in his works “The Future of an Illusion” (2) and in his last published work “Moisés e o monoteísmo” (3).

Thus, although faith and science always walk side by side, in the remote past faith was not taken very seriously. On the contrary, GRAY shows us that the faith of the beginning was disposable, just enough not to disturb the Earth's balance. He says: “In ancient Chinese rituals, straw dogs were used as an offering to the gods. During the ritual, they were treated with the deepest reverence. When it was over, and no longer needed, they were trampled and thrown away... If humans disturb the balance of the earth, they will be trampled and thrown away. Critics of Gaia theory say they reject it because it is not science. The truth is they fear and hate the theory because it means humans can never be anything but straw dogs.” (two)

But the kind of faith we would like to comment on at this point is not religious in nature. That will be for a next opportunity, if any. The faith that we propose to unravel a little more as a simple myth is the one that modern man has been so chained to in the last 200 years, that is, the faith that he commands nature, dominates it without restrictions, is the supreme lord of the planet and therefore the only living thing that matters. Hence the incessant search, I would even say the pathological obsession, for immortality.

In this vein, as GRAY says: “… we have no more reason than other animals to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow” (3). However, in the beginning we assume the posture of reincarnated gods. It didn't work out very well. History tells us, as we well know, how gods disguised as humans were defeated by illiterate, filthy and so worldly warriors. The solution seemed to be science, capable of elevating the human condition to the level of demigods, true demiurges capable of manipulating terrestrial life. Gradually, the right to live or die, including our fellow human beings, passed from the hands of wildlife, and later from barbarism (4), to modern civilization. With the constant development of technological progress, the relentless pursuit is for the infinite Eden.

The problem with the new technological science, itself riddled with scientific empiricism, is that the new promised paradise does not fit with the current model of human beings still alive (not to mention other living beings). One cannot envision a world imagined by Thomas More (5), with so much misery. As early as the XNUMXth century, More's traveling character, Rafael Hitlodeu, already said:

“Indeed, the wisest of easy men foresaw a single and exclusive way for the well-being of all – the equality of things, which I don't know if it can be achieved when goods belong to private individuals.”(6)

Thus, the way out of this paradox, perhaps an impasse, seemed to be the reconstruction of humanity, through the advance towards the supreme power: the death of death. For such a feat, every effort was made, and still is being made, with the rejection of paranormal phenomena. Blind faith in scientific myth has left the human animal with clouded eyes as to its fate. All philosophical currents sought, in their own way, to create the legend of eternity. If we only think of the XNUMXth century until now, we can understand the unshakable search of scientific socialism for the perfect worker, man-machine integrated with pure social materialism; as well as the victory, albeit fleeting, of the commodity production system, offering eternity through the fetish of buying an individual path to the galaxies, even with feet planted on solid ground. It's not hard to imagine how: pills and glowing screens do the job. There are countless books, movies and series that show this insanity.

However, until this beginning of the third decade of the XNUMXst century, all bets on making human beings rightful masters of the world have failed. It is a fact that every day we inappropriately appropriate vast portions of nature. But the cost has been high. And it's tall precisely because we didn't evolve from the top of the trees to be the only lords of this planet. This is not in accordance with the evidence hitherto shown by the reaction of nature itself; whether through furious climatic reactions, or through signs of depletion of nature's resources when defending itself. In the end, if these models of environmental devastation, for the sake of instant opportunities for pleasure (physical and/or psychological) do not suffer a radical setback, we will all be dead, as John Maynard Keynes has already recalled, but we will have murdered the terrestrial globe. A glimmer of hope remains in GRAY's warning words:

“The irony of scientific progress is that, in solving human problems, it creates problems that are not humanly solvable. Science has given humans a kind of power over the natural world that no other animal has ever achieved. But it did not give human beings the ability to reshape the planet according to their desires. The earth is not a clock that can be wound up and stopped at will. As a living system, the planet will certainly balance itself out again. However, it will do so without any contemplation by human beings.” (7)

The lack of contemplation of nature by human beings cannot be complained of. After all, we are giving her enough time to show our insignificance in the long run. Indeed, beyond all human justifications of dominion and power over the earth, we have entered an era of deliberate confrontation between us and it, the planet. It's been known for some time that we've doubled the cape of good hope to recover the biosphere in which we live. It is easy to find books and serious articles about this on the internet (8). In fact, the question that looms is no longer even that, unfortunately. Scientists deliberately imbued with good faith are now trying to mitigate the catastrophe, even if they only offer alternatives based on the same beliefs as before, that is, the way out of this imbroglio that could lead the planet to the sixth extinction depends on us. But how, if it was precisely the human animal that ran against time to eliminate itself?

In this sense, even bona fide scholars continue to believe in science as the only solution to death. But what is the meaning of eternal life? Will we be happier with our memories being transported by random bodies, if we are lucky and have money (again, money) to do so, as the Netflix series “Altered Carbon” (9) showed us? Or is it, what seems more likely, that we have given up on the human condition and are trying, through the new technologies that appear every day, to overcome this condition, which many today see as a form of imprisonment for human beings?

However, by assuming this posture as possible, and even correct, we inflict the greatest heresy against ourselves, namely, we distort ourselves as a species. When playing God, the human being throws the history of his ancestors in the trash, denying them like a plague, or a virus. Just like what we fight now to survive. Instead of looking for an alternative route that frees us from the catacombs of endless progress and without ethical justification, we prefer to assume the same parasitization of viruses in order to try to survive. For isn't it true that the virus kills in an attempt to live eternally? And if so, aren't we also killing the planet in pursuit of immortality?

The German writer Heinrich von Kleist was acutely aware of this fantasy of scientific progress as the ultimate path to omniscient freedom for the human species. For him, only puppets created by humanity could enjoy that kind of freedom, itself unattainable by human beings. Corroborating this view, GRAY states, in his penultimate book published in Portuguese that: “To miss freedom, one must be a conscious being” (10).

Well, how can one pretentiously aim for immortality without even achieving freedom? The solution to this conflict that was never left behind, as Kleist said, was to elevate science as the current demiurge of humanity. Unlike the ancients who knew of the human inability to undress their own inner evil, current humans, numb by secular belief, seek to whirl around themselves, like puppets, and deceive their own primordial flaw: human action.

Really, only the human animal thinks it can own its own nose. They look for a reason for everything. No other animal acts this way. But, when we look for a reason for everything, we end up discovering that there are no predetermined motives for any of our actions. Even our conception is a probability of 1/ sperm (apart from the egg, of course). And we never know when our final sentence will be given. Why try to control even the only two moments in our lives that are so singular?

By rationalizing its entire existence, and, who knows, even its own death, humanity has been withdrawing the romantic vision of itself. The only one that, if not the most correct, was at least the one that gave us the most stimulus on this path full of illusions. Remembering the Italian philosopher Giacomo Leopardi, GRAY writes: “Romantic thought tends towards the cult of the infinite, whereas, for Leopardi, finitude and limitations are necessary for whatever can be considered civilized life. The disease of the age, he believed, came from intoxication with the power conferred by science, along with an inability to accept the mechanical world it revealed. If there is a cure for this disease, it would require the conscious cultivation of illusions.” (11)

Thus, when the era of poor mortals ends, if it is supplanted by the “age of spiritual machines” (12), as conceived by the most eminent futurist of our time, Raymond “Ray” Kurzweil, there will be no more heroes to save us. Neither from distant Greece, nor from present-day Hollywood. Humanity will have evolved from the battery (reference to the film MATRIX, 1999), to the memory card (from the aforementioned ALTERED CARBON series). That is, if we haven't achieved something even more virtual, like a singular consciousness trapped in a cybernetic cloud.

It is possible that some readers are incredulous. After all, the current narrative of human progress runs in the opposite direction. Indeed, apologists for the demiurge promote the iconoclastic view of science as the only worshipable one. Without it, they say, the human species would be lost, perhaps extinct. It will be? If so, what about the other living beings that didn't make use of science and have been on this planet longer than we have?

It is a fact that science boosted the supremacy of the human animal over all other forms of life on the planet. As it is also a fact that she has destroyed, at least it has been so in her name, a good part of it. The problem is that the destruction of nature, for any reason, by any means, is a kind of barbarism. And civilization does not mix with barbarism. Only the subject is the same: the human being.

That is why scientific progress, or knowledge, can be understood as a kind of human redundancy. As GRAY says: “Kurzweil and other futurist scientists celebrate the advancement of knowledge as a factor in the improvement of human power. By controlling natural processes, they think, humans can achieve mastery of the planet and even the universe. It doesn't occur to them to investigate who or what will exercise that dominion. Dreaming of a more fully self-aware species, they are trying to create another version of humanity – one that reflects their flattering image of themselves as rational beings.” (13)

At this very moment, let's think a little more: everything that is redundant is too much; and the human being will never have the exact measure of things. History is fruitful in showing us that, in excess, we are negligent, improvident and impolite. Therefore, and here concerns our entire current catastrophe, how can we think about the sequence of the history of the human animal when he himself becomes excess? For until recently, the progress of knowledge always reserved a place in the sun for humanity. Even at a very high cost for many living species already extinct by human action. But what about now, more precisely from the middle of the last century, when the technological revolution can only proceed with the annihilation of the excess of sapiens in the world?

Until now, few have realized the progressive social depreciation to which almost everyone is subjected. It is no coincidence that “entrepreneurship” has become culture. As there is no more work for everyone, the reserve workforce of the commodity production system has become a museum piece. Acceleratingly, the former lumpenproletariat is giving way to the lumpembourgeoisie. But the remnants of this former social elite have not yet realized this transformation. Or else, if they did, they cling to the other essential myth for these dark times: democracy. As if a political regime made by the human animal could save them from the catastrophe initiated by some of their equals. It cannot. Since the sphere of economic power subjected political power to its dictates, humanity has condemned itself. It is possible that the only way out is a kind of restructuring of human beings into something closer to machines. But it's also possible that something goes wrong along the way of human redundancy and we end up more like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, that is, fragments of dead bodies glued together by the technology of the future, and remote memory of the past. As GRAY says: “… human obsolescence is part of progress” (14).

Finally, and already apologizing for the long text, in Gray's last book, published in Brazil in 2019 (15), this author makes some brief notes on Freud's thought. In the context of this article, what we are interested in highlighting is how Freud was often misunderstood. A staunch atheist, like Gray, Freud had no intention of curing anyone. He accepted that fate was in charge of human actions, even though those actions could change the way we accept it. What Freud always wanted with psychoanalysis was the acceptance of personal destiny, since he considered personal autonomy a legend. If the “super-ego” accepts the limits of civilization, only with a certain distance from the civilizing morals of the moment can we become a person.

In this sense, one of the main objectives of psychoanalysis was a kind of domestication of morality. Freud believed that we would never have peace if we let our warring impulses with each other. Accepting personal destiny would be learning to live with our internal conflicts. Thus, the struggle between the “id” and the “ego”, for him, was a natural condition of human beings. Freud did not share Schopenhauer's vision of letting go of the ego, based on an "oceanic feeling of unity". On the contrary, Freud did not believe in human salvation. The internecine struggle in the heart of humanity would only end with death. The human animal would always be in struggle with itself.

The issue not foreseen, or at least, not deepened by Freud was the exponential acceleration of technological progress. By understanding his psychoanalysis as also a kind of myth, a “mythological theory of instincts”, as he put it, he also accepted science as myth. When writing to Einstein, Freud asks: “But in the end, won't all science lead to a mythology like this? Could the same not be said today of our own physics?” (16). But behold, the myth became reality, and the reality is the myth. The progress of knowledge has become the philosopher's stone for humanity. The reality of finitude has been discarded over the years. The price of this reversal could be catastrophic for our world as a whole.

* André Márcio Neves Soares is a doctoral candidate in Social Policies and Citizenship at UCSAL


1 – GRAY, John. STRAW DOGS. Rio de Janeiro. Record. 2007, p. 19;

2 – Idem, pg. 50;

3 – Ibid, p. 72;

4 – ENGELS, Friedrich. The origin of the family, private property and the state.

5 – MORE, Thomas. UTOPIA. Belo Horizonte. Authentic Publisher. 2017;

6 – Idem, pg. 81;

7 – GRAY, John. The quest for immortality – The human obsession with evading death. Rio de Janeiro. Record. 2014, p. 193;

8 – KOLBERT, Elizabeth. THE SIXTH EXTINCTION – An Unnatural History. Rio de Janeiro. Intrinsic Publisher. 2015;

9 – “ALTERED CARBON”. Based on the work of Richard K. Morgan, the series is set in the 25th century, when technology advanced to the point of allowing the transfer of souls and upload of the mind, making death practically obsolete;

10 - GRAY, John. THE SOUL OF THE MARIONET – A BRIEF ESSAY ON HUMAN FREEDOM. Rio de Janeiro. Record. 2018, pg. 9;

11 – Idem, pg. 25;


13 - GRAY, John. THE SOUL OF THE MARIONET – A BRIEF ESSAY ON HUMAN FREEDOM. Rio de Janeiro. Record. 2018, pg. 75;

14 – Idem, pg. 78;


16 – According to Freud (1932, volume 22, pp. 211-212, apud GRAY, 2019, p. 67);


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