Steeped in Hobbes and Schopenhauer, English philosopher, John Gray, has long since recognised that all schemes to remake the world – socialism, liberalism, environmentalism – are destined to fail. Instead, we must learn to live without the consolation of religion, of scientific explanation, of any dream of the perfect society.
Gray – who the New Statesman has called ‘the philosopher of pessimism’ – is often caricatured as a sour misanthrope, a wilful catastrophist. He is nothing of the kind. In truth, he is, like JG Ballard, about whom he writes so well in ‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’ (2002), a visionary. Modernity is his urgent, defining subject, and here he attempts to articulate nothing less than what the young Oxford philosopher Edward Skidelsky has called ‘a total view of the world’, a Weltanschauung.
Straw Dogs has since been regarded as a seminal treatise on the failures of globalisation. Drawing on a wide range of sources, from science to fiction to more speculative theories such as Gaia (the belief that the planet is a self-regulating organism), the book unfurls in a series of numbered paragraphs. The style is terse and pithy; sometimes bold assertion supplants argument and there is repetition, overstatement and too much direct quotation from the work of EO Wilson and others. But there are moments of beauty and insight, too, and disgust at the excesses of history – the wars, destruction, the ideological follies.