Gray’s Anatomy

I’ve just finished a collection of John Gray’s essays, Gray’s Anatomy. Gray is perhaps my favorite conservative thinker—conservative in the European tradition, which has some intellectual depth, rather than the mindless combination of Jesus and market-worship that is American movement conservatism. I’m not conservative myself, since my temperament inclines me not toward “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” but rather toward “change it around a bit, let’s see what happens.” Still, I think a serious secular liberalism or humanism has to come to grips with a perspective like that of John Gray’s. He is, I think, quite right in seeing much of Western secular humanism as a bastard child of monotheism, from its myth of progress to its inability to come to grips with the tragedy and the sheer animal nature of human life.

The book is particularly interesting to me because it includes earlier as well as recent Gray material. From what I can tell, before about 1995, Gray was a perhaps daring, but still largely conventional English Tory. His more straightforward conservative writing from this period seems a bit dogmatic, boring, perhaps even easy to dismiss. He gets more interesting after he makes a more decisive break with neoconservative and neoliberal notions, even though his break is clearly rooted in his earlier more old-fashioned form of conservativism.

His earlier material exhibits a certain condescending praise for religion, or at least religiosity, as a repository of tradition. Even early into the 1990s, he could write mushy things such as

And here we have the root of the conservative objection to the notion of progress: that it serves as a surrogate for spiritual meaning for those whose lives would otherwise be manifestly devoid of sense. The idea of progress is detrimental to the life of the spirit, because it encourages us to view our lives, not under the aspect of eternity, but as moment in a universal process of betterment.

He praises religion as a way of coping with the tragic aspects of life, which has a good point, but also too easily slides into a quietist apologia for a status quo.

Later on, however, he comes out full-bore against any sense of a “meaning of life,” either as offered by conventional religion or by humanist surrogates.

Searching for a meaning in life may be useful therapy, but it has nothing to do with the life of the spirit. Spiritual life is not a search for meaning but a release from it. . . . Contemplation is not the willed stillness of the mystics but a willing surrender to never-returning moments.

In some ways, Gray’s “spirituality” hints at being even more distant to conventional religion than much popular atheism. The point is not to offer a substitute hope when the gods melt away, it’s to live without that sort of transcendent hope.