The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray

John Gray ( has been entertaining us now for years with his trenchant attacks on humanism, global capitalism, campaigning atheism, progress (historical and ethical), The Enlightenment, and any other (as he sees it) variety of flaccid optimism. He has presented these in False Dawn: The Delusions of Global Capitalism (1998), Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002),  Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions (2004),  Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007) and The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths (2013). The eloquence of his doom-laden prophecies is quite addictive.

Gray’s latest book takes on the age old philosophy problem of human freedom. In it, he draws together the religious, philosophical and fantastical traditions that question the very idea of human freedom.  We flatter ourselves in sensing free will in all our actions. Yet the most enormous forces – biological, physical, metaphysical – constrain everything about us.  Many writers and intellectuals have always understood this, but instead of embracing our condition we battle against it, with everyone from world conquerors to modern scientists dreaming of a ‘human dominion’ comically at odds with our true state.

Gray draws on Gnosticism ( for two main ideas. The first is that AE Housman was right: some “brute and blackguard made the world”, if anyone did, someone who resembles the horribly disobliging Demiurge of the Gnostics. There are other alternatives, to be sure; the world might have been assembled by a fractious committee of demigods, as Hume once imagined. But it couldn’t possibly have been made by an omnipotent all loving God. The second Gnostic idea is that knowledge — in particular self-knowledge — is a possible route to self-improvement. Gray slaps this view down with great force, drawing on many powerful sources. “Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves.” One of the still thickening lessons of our time is how often we are wrong — hopelessly so — about who we are and what motivates us. To the lessons of Freud (considerable, in spite of the grotesque elements in Freudian theory) we have to add the mass of data provided by psychologists such as Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and by the ‘situationist’ movement in psychology (for example, Timothy Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves, 2002). Gray sums this up succinctly. ‘Human beings act, certainly. But none of them knows why they act as they do.’ An exaggeration, no doubt, but pardonable, given the astonishing extent of our self-ignorance. We are (as Emerson says) ‘carried by destiny along our life’s course looking as grave, & knowing as little, as the infant who is carried in his wicker coach thro’ the street’.

This is a stimulating and enraging meditation on everything from cybernetics to the fairground marionettes of the title. Gray’s suggestion is that the best we can do is break free of our illusions, and see that ‘only creatures that are as flawed and ignorant as humans can be free in the way humans are free’. See if you agree. It’s an entertaining 192 pages. Whether you’re free to read it is another matter. Or is it? Enquire at your local library or available at

192 pages in Allen Lane

First published 5 March 2015

ISBN 978-1846144493

John Gray-2003

John Gray

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