John Gray is one of those rare philosophers who has achieved popular success, a success he surely owes at least in part to the publicity provided by his literary admirers. He is a favourite of the novelists Will Self and John Banville. Self has even gone so far as to claim (rather implausibly) that Gray is “the most important living philosopher.” And before the dystopian novelist J.G. Ballard’s death in 2009, he and Gray shared a mutual admiration. With such literary luminaries amongst his fanbase, one would expect Gray’s books to be more than usually (for an Anglophone philosopher, that is) alert to literary matters. And his latest, Seven Types of Atheism, does include some interesting if not quite probing remarks on Conrad and Dostoevsky. But it also includes a notable literary misstep, one that has significant implications for the critique of progress that runs through Seven Types of Atheism and through a number of Gray’s previous works.
When Gray says of Genesis that it is “an allegory or myth – an interweaving of symbolic imagery with imagined events that contained a body of meaning that could not easily be expressed in other ways” he is guilty of a certain imprecision: “allegory or myth” is not an innocuous combination of synonyms. Genesis may well be both of these things (and much else besides), but thinking of it as an allegory can only be done at the expense of thinking of it as a myth. The characters in an allegory are representations of certain themes or ideas or types, and their denotations are strictly delineated. Say whatever you like about Animal Farm, one of those pigs is Josef Stalin. One can’t say anything as specific as that about a myth. The characters in a myth are characters, and their connotations float freely away from them. “Allegory” is etymologically linked to “allegation” – an allegory alleges a particular truth. Generally speaking, allegory is denotative where myth is connotative. Even in the absence of direct correspondences between characters and historical figures or types, an allegory will include narrative details that are there expressly to encourage a narrow reading; each turn in the plot will be traceable to a didactic design. (It’s for these reasons that the literary critic James Wood likens allegorical fiction to “a planetarium devised by a myope.”)
Thinking about Genesis allegorically leads Gray to neglect an important aspect of it. The thing about Genesis that could not easily be expressed in another way (the reason it is a necessary myth and necessarily a myth) is its implicit reckoning with the irrevocable nature of moral failure, and hence with the terrible force of regret. The Fall of Man is a severe thing, irreversible and turning on a moment of decision. The fact that it is an imagined event is crucial to its meaning – it operates not just symbolically but narratively. And it is the primordial narrative because it pictures in a singularly uncomplicated and pristine way the painful embedding of human action within moral causality. As much as atonement might be possible, tell a lie and you are irrevocably a liar, steal something and you are irrevocably a thief, kill a person and you are irrevocably a murderer. Genesis is the most profound expression of this experience.
Gray’s allegorical reading of Genesis, in which the eating of the fruit quite straightforwardly symbolises the acquisition of knowledge and the expulsion from the garden its unhappy consequences, fails to apprehend how Genesis operates as a myth, and supremely among myths, to offer a phenomenology of moral failure, to do justice to the dreadful feeling of having fallen away from what’s right. “The story of Adam and Eve eating from the Tree of Knowledge is a mythical imagining of the ambiguous impact of knowledge on human freedom. Rather than being inherently liberating, knowledge can be used for purposes of enslavement”, Gray says. He has neglected to mention that it is the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil from which Adam and Eve eat. It’s also rather too clear how his own anti-Enlightenment convictions have skewed his reading of the myth. There’s very little ambiguity to be observed in the way knowledge of good and evil impacts upon Adam and Eve. And considering that the tale’s denouement is their eviction from paradise, the reference to “enslavement” is jarringly inapt. (Acknowledging the moral stakes of the myth also takes the edge off of Gray’s observation, which has more than a hint of the “gotcha” about it, that “The serpent in the Genesis myth is identified as satanic only in the New Testament.” It’s worth reminding ourselves how much of our reading of Genesis is shaded by subsequent artistic representations, Paradise Lost chief among them, but Gray’s suggestion that it’s not necessary to read into the myth an “actively malign force” redraws the sharp line between evil and moral error that the myth itself seeks to blur, and so comes perilously close to a Prince-free reading of Hamlet).
“Unlike scientific theories,” as Gray rightly points out, “myths cannot be true or false. But myths can be more or less truthful to human experience.” And there are a variety of ways that myths can be more or less truthful to human experience, a variety of different aspects of human experience to which they can do justice or fail to. Ironically, Gray’s reading of Genesis as a caution against optimistic rationalism remains trapped within rationalist categories; it still sees the tale as imparting a certain piece of knowledge, even if that knowledge concerns the perils of attaining knowledge. Genesis is, for Gray, didactically against Enlightened didacticism, and in no way the worse for it. He doesn’t consider the possibility of it working not allegorically to impart a certain moral lesson but mythically to acquaint the reader with a certain moral experience.
Gray’s admission that a myth is “a way of finding a fundamental truth through a narrative” is bound to undermine his persistent use of the phrase “the myth of progress” as a rhetorical bludgeon against liberalism. It’s not a term he originated, but he’s been labouring to make it his own for several decades now. Presumably for Gray progress is one of those myths that is not very truthful to human experience. But even with this caveat the force of denouncing progress as a myth is much diminished by acknowledging that myths can’t be held to the same standards of falsification as scientific theories. If progress really is a myth, a narrative that reaches for a meaning that’s otherwise inexpressible (in Gray’s own terms), then Gray’s objection to progress is in no way evident merely by giving it the label “myth”. The real issue is that liberalism has scientific pretentions but is in fact thoroughly unscientific, is indeed “mostly composed of repressed religion.” Emphasis on “repressed”. (If the phrase “the myth of progress” is rhetorically effective at all, it’s only to the extent that it strikes one as initially oxymoronic. It’s a phrase calculated to scandalize liberals, for whom progress is everything that mythology is not. It becomes awkward as soon as one actually takes Gray’s sensible advice that “you must set aside the idea that secular and religious movements are opposites”). As Gray says later, “The belief that we live in a secular age is an illusion.” An illusion, not, mind you, a myth. Persistently using the word “myth” the same way it’s used on Mythbusters doesn’t bring any clarity to Gray’s argument.
The experience of grappling with Genesis as a myth might even be seen as redeeming the very notion of progress. A pious conception of progress might see it as a natural outgrowth of the hope that it is never too late for repentance to pay temporal dividends (and liberalism as a set of moralistic-therapeutic dogmas might be seen as an impious version of the same). This might sound like rank superstition, but it’s not if your hope is mature enough to allow for an oceanically wide margin of human ignorance. Because we rarely recognise grace when we see it, the dividends repentance pays often take the form of the surprising realisation of the blessings embedded in our miseries, or otherwise hidden in plain sight. Finding a way to see the story of the Fall of Man as a felix culpa without transvaluing all of your values in the process (in narrative terms, without casting the serpent as a saviour) is, in a sense, what any sophisticated philosophy of progress should be about. (I’m not a theologian, so maybe someone who is can set me right on this, but I want to help myself to what’s good in the thought “Whatever doesn’t damn you makes you holier” without succumbing to what’s obviously bad in it).
This is not necessarily, as the term felix culpa might suggest, a matter of theodicy (a theological doctrine that Gray, following Dostoevsky, is rightly unimpressed by) so much as of political hermeneutics. You could interpret the liberal consensus as implicitly founded on something very like the popular caricature of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Or you could more charitably interpret it as an increasingly over-zealous and muddled attempt to make the best of an apparent unprecedented piece of historical good fortune (think of Jonah Goldberg’s name for liberal modernity: the Miracle). War and civilizational decline may be facts of life, as Gray never tires of declaring, but hoping for peace and growth in perpetuity is perfectly rational to the extent that it’s only sane to be always motivated to avoid the alternatives. Gray misinterprets a great deal of liberal optimism as metaphysical certainty, the confident anticipation of the imminent eschaton, where it is really just the articulation of a responsible desire to perpetuate the conditions of survival and prosperity. There are many self-sabotaging ways of pursuing this desire, as the history of liberalism attests, but it seems self-indulgent to repudiate the desire itself, seems more concerned with achieving a frisson of iconoclasm than with soberly diagnosing modernity’s ills.
The problem is that selecting progress as your target doesn’t bring you close to striking at the heart of liberalism’s fatal conceit. Which is why it’s so disappointing to begin to see Gray’s polemic cohering satisfyingly around the theme of secularization, only for him to turn once more with an expression of grim resolve to his favourite whipping boy, progress.
 It’s a slightly less implausible claim now that Stanley Cavell and Mary Midgley and Robert Spaemann have all died.