The Silence of Sisyphus

John Gray’s writing is challenging. It makes difficult points about doctrines we as humans hold of humankind – our progress, our religion, our place in the universe – and does so in a straightforward way.

For example, in his latest book, The Silence of Animals, we have:

Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.

Gray’s main point in this and his other books is that we are bound by our nature to repeat mistakes of the past. What’s worse, we think we have the capacity to get better, to improve, to progress, when history shows we have no such capacity.

Human progress is no such thing.

His argument has developed a little since Straw Dogs, in recognising that some forms of progress have indeed happened – in science and technology, for example. But he notes that the knowledge we gain from the recurring dilemmas of ethics and politics is not cumulative in the way it is in science. Instead, we are not capable of learning from past experiences of previously attempted solutions.

Gray concludes that we will not be different in future from how we have always been. Further, he argues that to think of progress as leading towards a future, attainable goal is wrong:

History shows history to have no goal.

But in this there is the possibility of freedom – a freedom that comes from the world having, in fact, no meaning. Thus, if there is nothing it “opens to us the world that exists beyond ourselves”, and that we can be “liberated from confinement in the meaning we have made”.

This is a similar point to the one made by Albert Camus in the Myth of Sisyphus. He concludes we must find Sisyphus, a man “condemned to ceaselessly roll a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight”, happy. Camus says:

Sisyphus’s passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing… I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.

Many find John Gray’s writing pessimistic. I find it redemptive, and recommend to you his work.

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Man walks into a column, no.21: Rapture

In celebration of our not having been scorched from this earth, I thought I’d use this week’s post to highlight that when it comes to bizarre practices carried out in the name of religion, the history books take a lot of beating. Where, I wonder, will Harold Camping’s prophecies of doom and cult of loony (and rather sad) followers rank in the all time top ten?

To set the benchmark, I give you this from the endlessly enthralling A History of Christianity by Diarmaid MacCulloch (and yes, I’ve blogged about this book before. Frankly, there’s enough to keep me blogging about nothing else for months). Best let the Professor do the talking:

One of the most extraordinary practices adopted by some ascetics in Syria was to spend years on end exposed on top of a specially built stone column, living on a wicker platform which resembled the basket of a modern hot-air balloon. This form of devotion was pioneered in the early fifth century by [a man called] Simeon, therefore nicknamed the Stylite (‘pillar dweller’). Once established on his column, he reputedly never descended from it before his death.

But wait, there’s more:

Simeon’s frugal needs were met by an eager entourage of admirers who hoisted food up to him from the ground. His pillar survives in part … [t]he column has literally been eaten away by its devotees, who over centuries chipped off small portions which they then ground to powder and swallowed for healing purposes.

A precursor to homeopathy? The real punchline, though, is surely this:

Stylites often became major players in Church politics, shouting down their theological pronouncements from their little elevated balconies to the expectant crowds below, or giving personalized advice to those favoured enough to climb the ladder and join them on their platform. […] Simeon does not seem to have protested while a large expensive church (whose ruins also still survive) was being built round his pillar, thus making this ragged hermit into a bizarre living relic, sole exhibit in a Christian zoo.

Bizarre indeed. The Monty Python boys really weren’t making it up, were they? Suddenly the delusions of Mad Camping don’t seem that extreme. Other nominations for the top ten list gratefully received, either here or via @philblogs.

Scientists find God (particles)

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about why I’m a Liberal Personal Atheist and why it’s bizarre to pretend that someone can’t both be scientific and personally religious.

It was with this in mind that I enjoyed the following passage in the Guardian’s Notes & Theories science blog, written about the search for the Higgs Boson (the full article is here):

I groan at the name ‘God particle’ (so why use it?), but it is hard to ignore the loose parallels that occasionally exist with religious endeavour. Physicists, like believers, build impressive structures to help them find meaning in the world. Among Higgs hunters, there are the faithful who assume the particle is real, though most are surely agnostic. There are those who disbelieve too. When one researcher suggested – he claims unintentionally – that the Higgs boson might not exist, he drew angry fire from a good number of fellow workers.