This is a profound and thought-provoking book. Unsettling, in a way, but also liberating, as it hints at a way of becoming comfortable with existence for those of us who find no credible comfort in religion and no spiritual comfort in rationalism.
The subtitle of the book is ‘On progress and other myths’ and it is the mythological nature of progress, and the human conception of it, that makes the central theme of the book. But the book sprung two realizations on me, that seem worth noting here.
First, that it was only with the arrival of Judaeo-Christian religion that the whole idea of redemption became so all-consuming. The idea that man is here for some sort of morally-based purpose, and that recovering some lost virtue is the whole purpose of existence. Before then, in Ancient Greece for example, myths served to explain the world and its happenings, usually in brilliantly imaginative ways. But they didn’t seek to impart some theistic, overarching imperative.
Second, that humanism is as myth-laden as theistic religion. The human-centred view that man is perfectible and that we can get better, in all sorts of ways, through acquiring knowledge and understanding and, even, technnical prowess, is a myth.
The book is based on a series of quotations from, and observations on, writers and thinkers from earlier times. This makes the book varied in texture and all the more enjoyable for it.
The title of the book comes from this quote from the Swiss Catholic theologian Max Picard:
“The silence of animals is different from the silence of men. The silence of men is transparent and bright because it confronts the world, releasing the word in every moment and receiving it back into itself again….Animals have a heavy silence, like a block of stone. Animals stride over the blocks of silence, trying to tear themselves away but always chained to them.”
Gray thinks this is rubbish. He says: “Whereas silence is for animals a natural state of rest, for humans silence is an escape from inner commotion,”.
As I read this book, I kept promising myself I would read it again almost at once, as it is dense and I had the feeling I was not able, on one reading, to appreciate it fully. Perhaps that is a form of recommendation?