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HALL OF FAMEon 29 December 2007
It's not easy categorising John Gray. He's generally listed as a "philosopher", but he rarely delves into the roots of human behaviour. His philosophy is founded on recorded history. Like most modern "philosophers", his arena is the canon of Western European tradition and practice. That approach, at least in Gray's hands, makes him more political commentator than philosopher. The shift of emphasis doesn't erode his thinking prowess nor his ability in expressing what he has derived from it. His prose is clean and unpretentious, almost hiding the power of the thinking behind it. In this exciting little work, Gray examines the history of modern "utopian" ideas - their misconceptions and their persistence.

The idea of utopias has long diverted us from confronting realities, Gray suggests. This self-generated departure tends to hide consequences of our acts until it's too late to deal with them successfully. Naturally, one of his glaring examples of this situation is the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. Gray demonstrates how it was planned intentionally long before the causes were manufactured for it. The planning was clearly utopian in that the intentions were delusionary and inappropriate. Both governments declared their intention - based on false pretenses - to "extend democracy into the Middle East". This ambition was expressed without any perception of whether it would be welcomed. It's an underlying principle of utopian thinking, Gray observes, that a society can be re-created from within or imposed from the outside. The failure of such thinking is readily apparent in Iraq - a war that has lasted longer for the US than WWII. Utopian ideas have been seeded on infertile soil.

In explaining how the utopian idea arrived in the Middle East by way of the US-UK "special relationship", Gray skips lightly over Thomas More's original idea to the Enlightenment era. There is a link, however, in that while we are generally taught that the Enlightenment thinkers were building a secular world, they were relying on Christian precepts to expound their ideas. "Improvement" was the means of overcoming disparities in the human condition, and the State could replace the Church in making beneficial change. Among other virtues of this thinking was that it seemed realisable within human timespans. In the 20th Century, a wide variety of such proposals were tried, and Gray brings Marxism, the hippie communes of the 1960s and the Fascist-Nazi movements into the same paddock. Once thought as a "Leftist" ideal, Gray is unsurprised that it is now the policy of choice of the "neo-cons" and their supporters on the "Christian Right". Yet, it seems that no matter where on the political spectrum utopians arise, they continue to commit similar blunders. The goal blinds them to the perils of trying to achieve it and utopia becomes tragedy.

It's easy to peg Gray as grim or dismal. That's a common label pinned on those who seek to have us confront reality and think more deeply about our decisions. In this sense, Gray takes a long view of the role of Christianity in Western thinking. The shift of utopia from heaven to Earth, while seeming to provide improvement, was just as likely to introduce anarchy. He compares two contemporary thinkers, Thomas Hobbes and Baruch Spinoza, in their approach to this problem. Modern liberals declare the unrestrained State as the greatest threat to freedom. Hobbes understood that anarchy was an even greater threat and government was needed to quell it. Spinoza, on the other hand, while unwilling to grant the state power to stomp on emerging anarchy, had a different proposal. Humans are part of the natural world, and turning to the state for salvation of any kind was erroneous. His realistic view was that disorder and peace are natural cycles of the human condition. We must approach this situation realistically, without any fixed or unattainable goals to repress the one to gain the other. Such simplistic thinking can never succeed. Gray has offered an exceptionally rational set of pointers on avoiding such single-mindedness. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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on 25 May 2008
I picked this book up having been recommended the authors previous effort "Straw Dogs" by a college. Though I haven't read straw dogs, I was attracted by the discussion of Utopia.

The book is well written and most of the central ideas of Utopia, Religious Apocalyptic History and political ideals are communicated well. The author takes time to develop his ideas and provides well drawn examples supporting his interpretation. In particular, his discussion on the USA's use of "facts" in certain ways to justify means is very interesting and entertaining. In addition to this, the book is enjoyable in that regardless of whether or not you agree with the authors conclusions, he is certainly not overly dogmatic.

For me, what stood out was the books willingness to engage with the reader and get them to think. It is a book that asks many questions, more than it answers and really got me thinking about how to interpret history. For me, though the factual / historical focus of the earlier chapters was hugely entertaining, the final chapter was probably the most engaging. While I disagreed with certain aspects of it, that the author took the time to make conclusions that actually derived from his discussion, rather than simply being a restatement of what he thought, was particularly interesting and rewarding.

My criticism of the book would be that some liberties with interpretation are given. The author is prone to oversimplifying ideas for the sake of expediency and on one or two occasions this seemed to me to be slightly misleading. For example, one of his descriptions of Aristotle's thought is far too reductive to do justice to Aristotle's thought. However, I understand that this was for obvious reasons concerning the flow of the book.

All in all, a very entertaining and thought provoking read which takes time and effort to engage the reader, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone with an interest interested in the world and our interpretation of it.

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on 6 April 2010
At the centre of John Gray's book "Black Mass" is the not unreasonable assertion that grandiose plans to turn the world upside down and reach Utopia overnight have entailed a great deal of human misery and very little Utopia. There is nothing particularly novel in this assertion, though it is a little more palatable from the pen of John Gray, than say Isaiah Berlin (see The Crooked Timber of Humanity) who liked to promote his own particular -ism (Zionism), including spying for them while in British government service.

Some Gray's contentions are interesting, for example the link between the search for Utopia and Christian doctrine. At other times he seems to over egg the pudding, as when he draws a link between the Holy Trinity and the three stages of orthodox Marxism (I thought it was four?), as if there is something particularly important about the number three. The association appears meaningless and asinine, despite the apparent solemnity and objectivity of Gray's tone.

Another problem was the continual flow of questionable generalisations with regard to historical facts and figures. Cuba is categorised as a totalitarian dystopia, but not a word on the circumstances in comparable countries in the US sphere (say Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, or indeed any of the Latin American countries). With regard to Russia, he talks of "when Russian voters repudiated Yeltsin in favour of Putin" when such a choice was never before the Russian electorate. His account of the end of the British post-war consensus is light on historical context and essentially shallow. The assertion that preventive war was a unique Bush doctrine is questionable, and though his administration was a vocal promoter the idea has had a long history in American policy, and no doubt will continue to.

Having said that, the criticisms of the Iraq War are pungent, but again focus on the alleged Utopian dimension of that policy (the US and UK bring liberal democratic capitalism to the Middle East) at the expense of a full appreciation of the factors that played a part in that misadventure. His criticisms of Francis Fukuyama, Milton Friedman, and a number of other ideologues are sharp and reasonable. The sections that deal with Leo Strauss, and the intellectual influence he has had with the American right, was a real - and scary - eye opener, and almost worth the admission price alone.

As far as solutions go, Gray posits that a sense of realism should inform foreign policy, though he admits that the last self-proclaimed realist (Henry Kissinger) contributions were less than ideal in Cambodia. This is being far too modest about Mr Kissinger's contribution to mass murder. With regard to the broader questions of society, the feeling is one of helplessness and pessimism about the advisability of striving for anything that might be regarded as progress. This is the hole in the book, Gray has nothing much to say on how we should live collectively, though he does suggest that we would be better advised spending time with poets and hedonists. Pleasant company I'm sure, and not to be avoided if the chance presents itself, but does this really make him the "the most important living philosopher" as the back page blurb states?

With all those reservations, I still found it interesting, occasionally entertaining, informative, and always provocative reading. It just doesn't seem to me to be as profound, and as comprehensive as some are making it out to be. Read it by all means, but with a pinch of salt and critical faculties at the ready.
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on 7 August 2007
A daring and breathtaking view of Modern Western political thought, starting at its roots in pre-Christian religions and taking us up to the Neo-cons and Blairites.

It builds successfully on his earlier works such as False Dawn and End Games. He attacks the ideas of progress and terror inherent in Christian, Liberal and other philosophies. I believe his attacks are significant and worth considering. I was always puzzled by the place of violence had in most Western philosophies. But I never saw it in terms of creating a new type of Human. Gray discusses the uses of terror in realizing these impossible goals. This was worth the read alone.

He also touches on the foolishness of universal answers. All problems are contingent and must be solved as they arise and not from an ideologically approved menu of solutions. There is no overarching narrative that must be followed.

It is strong on analyses but short on answers. Answers were not the point in this analyses though. He believes realism is the way out though. Some statements are left hanging. Such as a discussion of ethics based on realism asserts it is the best source for ethics, but never developed this. It is however well footnoted. So it is also a good starting point.

Not an easy read, but a good one. Enjoyed it.
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I found this book extremely interesting although sometimes it was quite heavy going. The book looks at how the idea of a perfect world/state developed as an unachievable ideal, and how the attempts to realise it in later times have caused so much suffering and pain in the world but have achieved so little. Whether communism, Nazism or the current American Christian model of a world of democratic capitalist nations all attempts to remodel the world have ended in disaster.

This utopian thinking has a resonance for all of us, I think. It's easy to believe we can reach a state of perfection in our personal or professional lives where we will be happy and live in harmony, but our very natures make this impossible. We are always reaching for something - it's human nature - utopia for ourselves and for society as a whole is unachievable and we would do better to take a more pragmatic approach to the world's problems.

The other thing I got from this book was the idea that human beings are not rational creatures, nor are we going to become so in the future. We will always fight, compete, envy and believe in things we cannot possibly know. That is what it is to be human. Most of the decisions/beliefs of most of the people of the world are made and held because of emotion, belief, culture and the influence of others; not through rational analysis. There is no point attempting to develop conceptions of a better world that do not take this into account at their very core.

On the down side, this book was heavy going at times, and a little too focused on the recent Iraq war later on in the book. However, I'd certainly recommend it.
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on 27 February 2014
This is a book to make you think. It traces many trends in religious and secular thinking that all stem from what the author sees as a harmful myth - the idea that a perfect world can be achieved. He traces this myth back to the Christian idea of the imminent end of the world and the coming of the Kingdom of God. Having led to much violence in its religious setting, in modern times it has been transposed into a secular guide through such movements as the French Revolution, Communism and other revolutions, all of which have led to reigns of terror. Apocalyptic thinking is willing to sacrifice any number of lives now for the sake of a perfect future which it 'knows' is coming. Gray sees this in the missionary enthusiasm that assumes that all the problems of the world will be solved when the American style of democracy becomes the norm everywhere. This has led to such things as the disastrous invasion of Iraq. This is a complex book which deserves to be read and re-read. In the end it pleads for realism rather than utopianism - the willingness to do what w can to improve things while recognising that the world will never be perfect.
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on 23 October 2007
John Gray made me aware that, though an atheist by 'reason', I am also a closet Christian, or at least highly influenced by Christian attitudes and ideas, one of which is a belief in human progress via science.He also seems to have made me aware that I am believer, unbeliever and agnostic depending on whether I am reading a novel, a book on history or a tome of painfully precise philosophy. This kind of self-knowledge makes me feel less confused and more at ease with myself. There were so many ideas and revelations in this book. I made twelve pages of notes and felt the book had both clarified my thinking and made me aware of certain illusions I had held dear.He hammers home his ideas with grace, skill and humour. Very much of an eye-opener!
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on 2 September 2010
Frankly how can anyone resist a book with the Sunday Telegraph review of :"A load of bollocks... could hardly be more bonkers if it was crawling with lizards"

Myself, I think the book is mostly spot on; in it basic premise that secular ideas are prone to infection from our cultural history (such as religious ideas)... and I dont think thats really that shocking. Clearly we have to really examine why we think what we think, if we want to avoid falling into culturally biased thoughts (but Im not sure its really possible to avoid entirely... thinking it is mght be a delusion).
I think its helpful to have the 'utopian myth' framed as a cultural effect, especially in regard to liberalism; where many people seem to be unwilling to even examine the fact it might be harmful as a universal aim. While I dont think 'secular religion'is a good way to describe secular movements and political ideology, I do think that there is a risk of dogmatic acceptance as there is in religion. It should be possible to discuss this stuff without causing offence.

However, I did find myself a little irritated by the Enlightenment bashing; although to be fair he does admit that there may be no such thing as 'the Enlightenment project'and that it 'was a heterogenous and often contridictory movement' (p59)... which I guess covers him from tarring every form of it with the same brush.
But, then he goes and does the same thing with atheism (and as he mentions Dawkins and Dennett, we have to assume he is using the term to mean 'no belief in God'or 'theory that there is no God' rather than 'believes there is not a God').
I do have a certain amount of sympathy with his view that if our worldview puts humanity on a pedestal above other animals that this is speciesism, probably influenced by religion (or in a more round about way through the cultural impact of religious thinkers such as Decartes). Im also in agreement that there is no reason to think science/humanity is capable of solving all problems.
I also think seem 'certain' forms of humanism to be bordering on specieism and the elevating humanity to the vacant position left by God. That said, I think as humanity is all we have, some effort to make things better is not ridiculous (because better doesnt have to mean perfect or fixed). Gray seems not to see the middle ground between utopian perfect and ideas that target specific issues but have no grander vision (e.g systems to mop up oil spills, heart transplants etc).

Perplexingly he seems to attempt to conflate atheism with humanism (when it seems clear that they are very different concepts- atheism is only a position on god- humanism is about much more than that).
He then goes on to argue for the meaning giving benefits of religion, he say we cannot do without myths that give meaning... well Im not too convinced about that as I dont seem to be ceasing to exist by not having any myths in everything turning out fine (secular or religious). l would argue that meaning is possibly the crux of the matter and it does not necessarily require myths, it can come from reality as much as myth. As Bentham pointed out utilitarians can value pushpin as much as philosphy; and Gray even acknowledges this in his comment about hedonists and poets.

It is good that he acknowledges that Realism has a similar problem with infection with the utopian myth as anything else.

The criticisms aside, the book is very easy to read, it flows well and makes many many good points.
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VINE VOICEon 20 August 2007
Grey's book is a very accurate and concise summary of the various ways Utopian thinking has always been present in western thinking. He's probably correct in thinking that the Enlightenment has contradictory aspects or even a dark side. Valuing abstract reason above all other human values can easily lead to disaster. So what has he added to Popper's analysis in ` The Open Society and its Enemies'?

He really nails Thatcher/Bush/ Blair in their variety of wishful thinking and actually explains what philosophy underpinned their actions, which I've not seen done as well before - he is alive to the contradictions between their aims and the actual results, with the effect of making their mistakes seem more comprehensible.

He's also interestingly brought in Freudian analysis to the party, which I've not seen done before. It's an interesting thought that suppression of the religious impulse might lead to the creation of a different set of neuroses.

However, I think Islam's main current problem is that it has only superficially engaged with the enlightenment, rather than undergone a process of internal change. And that as a consequence it's hard for Islamic countries to achieve a stable, productive split between the secular and the religious. I think this is one of the essential corner stones of democracy.

A very interesting, well written read, nonetheless - recommended , whether his whole thesis hangs together I'm not convinced. He is to my mind excessively pessimistic about the benefits of liberal democracy. I also still believe 'liberal democracy to be the worst system of government apart from all the others' to paraphrase Churchill and that it's worth defending.
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on 16 January 2015
Thought-provoking, radical and essential. He may do more to undermine devout faith than Dawkins, and his political perspectives challenge socialists, liberals and conservatives. He is no neo-con, despite having been a Thatcherite. The subtitle is more informative than the misleading but punchy title.
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