Book Review: Black Mass

Voltaire once wrote: “All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”  In his book, Black Mass, the British political philosopher John Gray, argues that this unchecked Panglossian sentiment is what leads to utopian thinking by both the devoutly pious and progressive secularists alike.  Essentially, Gray asserts that Voltaire is the quintessential example of an Enlightenment thinker and his ideas have contributed to modern progressivist style thinking that leads to the newest rendition of utopianism.

In the book, Gray asserts that many modern ideologies, even those grounded in modern secularist thinking, are surprisingly rooted in eschatological (End-Time) beliefs. Secularism, of course, can trace it’s origins back through the philosophers of the Enlightenment as well. Ultimately, the embrace of secularism in much of the West has not put the silver stake in Christianity’s eschatological hopes as some may have hoped. “Modern political religions,” Gray writes, “may reject Christianity but they cannot do without demonology.” In the book, Gray argues that the eschatological beliefs of Christianity and progressivism may seem to be opposites, but in reality they are both grounded in delusional utopian thinking.

Black Mass was my first exposure to John Gray. The cover of the book (see above) reeks of pessimism and at times Gray’s realistic assessment of humanity put a knot in my stomach. This book contains ideas and historical references that will shock even the most stone cold realists.  It would be comfortable and certainly easier to avoid reading Gray’s work because of its pessimistic tone, but deep thinkers, like Gray, understand that realism is better suited for politics than is unchecked optimism about the human condition.

Religions have many destructive flaws, but progressive secularists operate under pretenses from the same metanarrative. The need to find meaning and purpose in this chaotic world is generically human. In one way, I agree with secularist assertion that our knowledge of the world is increasing. I assume, however, that Gray would agree with me that we aren’t any wiser than the Ancients. After all, knowledge does not necessarily equate to moral improvement as we’ve seen time and time again throughout history.

In the end Gray tells us that humans are suckers for what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy (the need to fit a story or pattern to a series of connected or disconnected facts). We are a species of natural story tellers who can only be happy through interpreting our experiences in the world as part of a story: good versus evil, right versus wrong, and progressive versus destructive. “If universal narratives create meaning for those who live by them,” writes Gray, “they also destroy it in the lives of others.” Humans are an extremely violent species and conflict is, however unfortunate, a universal feature of human life that is never going to disappear as long as humans exist. Ultimately, Gray argues that we must come to accept reality for what it is and shun the Panglossian myth that we live in the best of all possible worlds.

[click the following for amazon.co.uk and amazon.ca copies of the book]

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3 Comments on “Book Review: Black Mass”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I read Straw Dogs last year and became convinced that humans are totally delusional animals. As much as I appreciate Gray’s perspective, I have to admit I was not as happy of a person. I know we are the stories we tell ourselves. I decided that’s OK, it keeps things colorful. As delusional as it may be, it just is.

    This reminds me, have you ever read the Wikipedia entry for humans?
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human

    • Greg Linster says:

      No, I have never read that before. Very interesting!

      I appreciate Gray’s perspective as well. He really made me think about some uncomfortable things. I don’t, however, think trying to understand realities about human nature and our world necessarily lends itself to unchecked pessimism either. There’s a balance somewhere. Unfortunately, I think most people err on the side of too much optimism as is demonstrated in religion, etc.

      I think most people could stand to use a healthy dose of Gray’s assessment of things as they march to the beat of an all too optimistic drum. I would like to be an optimist, but I also don’t want to be naive to the realities and dangers that come from being overly optimistic. I think my chief goal in life is to be a philosopher while still being a nice guy!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment David! Next I’m going to read Matt Ridley’s perspective on things in the “Rational Optimist”.

  2. Greg Linster says:

    No, I have never read that before. Very interesting!

    I appreciate Gray’s perspective as well. He really made me think about some uncomfortable things. I don’t, however, think trying to understand realities about human nature and our world necessarily lends itself to unchecked pessimism either. There’s a balance somewhere. Unfortunately, I think most people err on the side of too much optimism as is demonstrated in religion, etc.

    I think most people could stand to use a healthy dose of Gray’s assessment of things as they march to the beat of an all too optimistic drum. I would like to be an optimist, but I also don’t want to be naive to the realities and dangers that come from being overly optimistic. I think my chief goal in life is to be a philosopher while still being a nice guy!

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment David! Next I’m going to read Matt Ridley’s perspective on things in the “Rational Optimist”.


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