John Gray is a philosopher and writer renowned for his critical examination of liberalism, atheism, and the human condition. His unique perspective is shaped over a decades-long career, during which he has authored influential books on topics ranging from political theory to what we can learn from cats about on how to live a good life. His latest book, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism, delivers a provocative examination of the 2020s’ political landscape, challenges liberal triumphalism with a realistic critique of ongoing global crises and the persistent allure of human delusions.
Tyler and John sat down to discuss his latest book, including who he thinks will carry on his work, what young people should learn if liberalism is dead, whether modern physics allows for true atheism, what in Eastern Orthodoxy attracts him, the benefits of pessimism, what philanthropic cause he’d invest a billion dollars in, under what circumstances he’d sacrifice his life, what he makes of UFOs, the current renaissance in film and books, whether Monty Python is still funny, how Herman Melville influenced him, who first spotted his talent, his most unusual work habit, what he’ll do next, and more.
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Recorded October 24th, 2023
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m chatting with John Gray, who is one of the most important and influential thinkers, not just of one generation, but I think you could say of two generations.
John started his career in the book world with books on Hayek and Mill. He’s since written numerous books on many topics. I can tell you that I buy them all and read them all right away. It’s very difficult to summarize John, but that’s fine because today I can present you with John Gray himself. John, welcome.
JOHN GRAY: Thank you very much for that very generous introduction, Tyler.
COWEN: Now, your new book — it is called The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism. I have a number of general questions for you. Who are the intellectual children who will carry on your work?
GRAY: I don’t seek disciples. [laughs]
COWEN: Do you receive them?
GRAY: I have some people who are influenced by my work, but they’re in a very wide range of activities and disciplines, and by no means all or most of them are academic philosophers. I’ve had people contact me who’ve been poets, war correspondents, novelists — a wide range of types of people with different intellectual and other interests.
When I left academic life, which I did in 2007 — that’s 16 years ago — one of the reasons I did so was in order to address an audience wider and more variegated than that of academic colleagues.
I also wanted to be able to write in a way and in formats that were not common or accepted in academic contexts. My current book, like several of my recent books, is not organized in theses or chapters. There are arguments and facts — I hope plenty — but it’s organized in short sections, some of them vignettes of historical events or persons, some of them arguments from within philosophy itself.
I don’t seek any school which carries on my way of thinking or writing.
COWEN: Who are the young minds whose works excite you? When they come out, you think, “Ah, I’m going to read that,” and you pick it up right away — the way, say, I would pick up a new book by you right away.
GRAY: [laughs] Well, I’m not a young mind by any means, but I hope my mind is still young, though I’m not myself young.
I read columnists. For example, I like Michael Lind’s work. I always read what he writes. I read novels. In Britain, I just did a conversation with the novelist Mick Herron, who writes spy thrillers. I do have conversations with academic theorists. David Runciman, whom you probably know from Cambridge, has written on a number of themes interesting to me, including Hobbes and artificial intelligence. But I don’t think there’s a single set of writers who could be called political theorists or philosophers that I follow closely.
COWEN: If liberalism is indeed done, as the subtitle of your new book suggests — Thoughts After Liberalism — what is it exactly we should teach young people?
GRAY: We should teach them the high points of the traditions we know well. If I was asked to produce a curriculum for a young person of, shall we say, 18 to 20, 23, I guess, I would include within it great dramatic works like those of Aeschylus and Sophocles, later Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett.
I would include among philosophical writings some liberals. For example, John Stuart Mill, even though I disagree with him profoundly — a very resourceful and intelligent thinker. Hayek. Another one among conservative thinkers, Michael Oakeshott. And one by whom I myself have been greatly influenced, although he’s not much read nowadays, George Santayana. He’s one of the big intellectual influences on my life, including another American writer, a poet, Wallace Stevens, who wrote a great poem about George Santayana when Santayana was living, in his old age, in a nunnery in Rome.
I would pick great points in our tradition and also other traditions — the Bhagavad Gita, Daoist works like Zhuangzi and Laozi, and I would give them a whole range of those. I would not teach them a doctrine or an ideology or a religion, though of course, if they wish to be instructed in religion, that’s a different matter.
COWEN: The Bible — yes or no?
GRAY: Definitely, the whole of the Bible. One of the key texts for me is two books: the Book of Genesis and the Book of Job. The Book of Genesis because I believe, in the myth of Genesis, one of the central neglected truths of the human situation is brought out, which is that knowledge is ethically neutral. It could be used in various ways. It may, in some sense, be intrinsically good, but it can be put to good and bad uses.
And Job because I think it’s in the Book of Job that the origin of, if you like, skeptical thinking is, rather than in the Greeks. Socrates, for example, is often thought of as a fearless inquirer who doubted everything. He even said that. “I only know that I know nothing,” he’s supposed to have said, at least in some accounts of him. But he did believe that the good and the true and the beautiful are one and the same. He believed in the ultimate rationality and justice of the universe.
Job didn’t. He questioned God. He questioned the rationality and the justice of the universe. I think Job’s questions — even though he eventually returned to the God he questioned — are more profound.
So definitely, the Bible would be a key text along with other religious texts. One of my strong arguments, or at any rate concerns, strong themes of my recent work, is that no one can really understand modern politics who doesn’t really understand religion, because much of modern politics is a succession of footnotes to religion.
COWEN: Those are two of the most pessimistic books in the Bible, right? There’s no resurrection. Genesis is a world without law. In a sense, the message is justice is either arbitrary or meaningless or very difficult to fathom.
GRAY: No, Job goes back at the end. He does go back to —
COWEN: But it’s not very convincing, right? If you’re an honest reader of the book, you roll your eyes and say, “Oh, come on, is this really the message here, or is this a kind of Straussian book?” Right?
GRAY: Yes. Well, you mean it might have a hidden message, and the hidden message in this case is the obvious one.
COWEN: Correct. Do you take the Straussian reading of the Book of Job?
GRAY: Yes, I’m not a theist, I’m an atheist, so for me, it would be quite easy to accept that the world, the cosmos, the human situation, human life, human events do not correspond to any ideas of justice we might have developed, and that they might even be largely random and largely judged by our ideas of justice as very unjust. It’s quite easy for me to accept that, and that’s in fact what I think. But if you are a theist, I think it takes considerable strength of mind and considerable intellectual energy and vigor to question the way Job questioned, so I admire Job’s questioning for that reason.
COWEN: If we look at physics circa 2023, is a true atheism really viable? If I see the leading contenders as string theory, many worlds quantum mechanics, to many observers, they appear at least as absurd as actual theology, which has a kind of simplicity. “Well, God created the world.” Hasn’t atheism become more theological than theology itself?
GRAY: No, not the kind of atheism I hold. But what you say, Tyler, is, of course, very true of many traditions of atheist thinking, perhaps even the dominant ones, because the dominant traditions of atheist thinking in Europe and America and elsewhere — remember, atheism in this sense is something that comes from within theism, from within monotheism — reproduce the central categories and concepts of the religion they deny, even as they deny the beliefs. A lot of atheism is categories taken from theism but then turned upside down.
So, what you say is true of that, but my atheists I’m influenced by would include writers like Schopenhauer, who was an atheist and a pessimist, of course. And the key kind of atheism I attack in my new book — but I’ve been attacking for 20 or 30 years — is the one which attributes to the human species some of the characteristics that used to be attributed to the deity, to God. That’s to say they think that the human history is a narrative with some kind of built-in structure. Doesn’t necessarily produce inevitable results, but there is a providential move from ignorance to knowledge which has consistently greater benefits over time.
That seems to be a secularization of Christian and other ideas of divine providence in history. For me, there’s no providence of any kind in history. There’s no logic in history, although particular situations may have a logic of their own. But the logic, of course, may not be benign. It may be, to use your word, absurd. That’s to say, we may find human beings recurrently trapped in situations in which what they do is bound to produce results different from, or even opposite from, the ones they want. I think that is a recurring human situation.
There’s no logic like Hegel thought or Marx thought or even Mill thought, taking that idea from Auguste Comte, the French founder of positivism. There’s no logic in which history develops through a series of successive stages to some higher and higher levels. There’s nothing like that. My atheism and the atheism of Schopenhauer or Samuel Beckett, or a number of other writers I could cite, isn’t the same as the theological atheism to which you refer, which, as I say, that’s been around for an awful long time. It’s not just recent.
Of course, you are right in another sense, which is that the highest, I would say the highest point of recent science, recent physics, might be a recognition that the world is finally unintelligible or absurd. But that, of course, is a view that an atheist like Samuel Beckett or Schopenhauer and I would endorse, too. There is a convergence in that sense, but it’s an anti-theological convergence, not a theological convergence.
COWEN: Aren’t you then a kind of gnostic of a sort, where the random forces of history or the evil demiurge — the true nature of creation — is forever hidden from us? You don’t call it God, but the actual moral structure of your beliefs is theological nonetheless.
GRAY: No, there have been people who’ve played with gnosticism, and I might be one of them. David Hume, who’s not ever commonly thought — great Scottish philosopher, great skeptic — as a . . . David Hume, in one of his dialogues on religion, he says, maybe the universe has been created by a senile god who then forgot what he’d created, or intervened randomly, forgetting each different . . . A god with dementia, [laughs] so to speak. Now, he was playing with the idea of a demiurge. In this case, the demiurge was a senile divine mind, but he didn’t really attach any significance to it.
I don’t take that view. There’s no mind — senile, benign, or otherwise — behind the universe or its events. There might not even be a universe in the sense in which the Greeks or the Romans, the Stoics, Marcus Aurelius — they all talk about a cosmos. By a cosmos they mean something unified by a logos, by some kind of reason. That might not exist. There might really, ultimately, only be events of various kinds happening and not happening. So, no, I don’t think there’s any mind there at all.
You might say, I guess, in my view, that there are recurring patterns in history which illustrate some of the flaws of the human species. But as I’ve constantly argued in my work over the last 20 years, the human species isn’t an agent any more than any other biological species is an agent. When people talk about humanity doing, it isn’t that. They’re making a category error. All there is, is the multitudinous human animal with its different groups, different traditions, different ways of life, and even each single person has a variety of purposes and values in conflict with each other.
There’s no humanity in that sense. That, by the way, is discussed in my book with relation to Hobbes because he, along with Spinoza, thought that, too. He thought all there was in the end were individuals in the world. That applies to humans, too. Humanity isn’t an agent. It doesn’t do anything, can’t do anything because it doesn’t exist in that sense.
COWEN: I bet 30 years ago, I said to Jim Buchanan something like, “One of these days John Gray is going to end up a Catholic.” I think nowadays I would cite Eastern Orthodox instead, but why don’t you just take the plunge? What do you have to lose?
GRAY: [laughs] You are right. I am attracted more to Eastern Orthodoxy than I am to Catholicism, partly because its rituals and art are so beautiful, and for me, many of my judgments are aesthetic. Also, because it gives a much smaller scope to human reason than does Western Christianity, and Catholicism in particular. After all, Catholicism claims to unify the thought of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers with Christianity. In other words, you might say that what Catholicism did was try to reconcile Athens and Jerusalem. I don’t think Athens and Jerusalem can be reconciled in that way.
The Eastern Orthodox tradition is closer, I would think — if there was anything that could be called original Christianity, it’s closer to it. I am interested in it, but I couldn’t find myself subscribing to it because like all forms of monotheism — or most forms — it’s very anthropocentric. It assumes that the human story, as it were, has something in it of the divine, whereas the stories of other living species, even those with minds . . . I’ve written a book on cats, [laughs] for example. They certainly have minds quite different from human minds, but they have minds all right.
The theistic tradition assumes that there is a kind of linkage between the human mind and the divine mind. In that sense, the human mind is superior to the minds of other animals. I think all forms of Western monotheism think that. I don’t, so I couldn’t. Even though I do find Eastern Orthodoxy attractive, I can’t imagine myself subscribing to it.
COWEN: Do you think that being pessimistic gives you pleasure? Or what’s the return in it from a purely pragmatic point of view?
GRAY: You are well prepared for events. You don’t expect —
COWEN: It’s a preemption, right? You become addicted to preempting bad news with pessimism.
GRAY: No, no. When something comes along which contradicts my expectations, I’m pleasantly surprised. I get pleasant surprises. Whereas, if you are an adamant optimist, you must be in torment every time you turn the news on because the same old follies, the same old crimes, the same old atrocities, the same old hatreds just repeat themselves over and over again. I’m not surprised by that at all. That’s like the weather. It’s like living in a science fiction environment in which it rains nearly all of the time, but from time to time it stops and there’s beautiful sunlight.
If you think that basically there is beautiful sunlight all the time, but you’re just living in a small patch of it, most of your life will be spent in frustration. If you think the other way around, as I do, your life will be peppered, speckled with moments in which what you expect doesn’t happen, but something better happens.
COWEN: Why can’t one just build things and be resiliently optimistic in a pragmatic, cautionary sense, and take comfort in the fact that you would rather have the problems of the world today than, say, the problems of the world in the year 1000? It’s not absolute optimism where you attach to the mood qua mood, but you simply want to do things and draw a positive energy from that, and it’s self-reinforcing. Why isn’t that a better view than what you’re calling pessimism?
GRAY: I’m not saying people shouldn’t adopt the view you’ve just described, Tyler. They can do what they like and feel what they like and think what they like, as long as they don’t harm other people to some large extent. I’m not a gospelist. I’m not actually trying to persuade or convert anyone to or from anything. If you read my work over the last 30 years, you’ll know that. I don’t care what the writer or the reader disbelieves, but I’m offering a particular way of thinking that might interest some people.
If the people it interests are people who, either through reading and thinking or through personal experiences, have found themselves in situations in which organized society and the background of stability — which is necessary if you’re to build things in a pragmatic way and be optimistic about them — is absent, which it has been for large stretches of human history and will be again, and is today in large parts of the world . . .
If you were a Russian, let’s say, and had somehow managed to live till you’re in your 70s or 80s now, you’ve somehow survived what you had lived through. You would’ve seen not one set of background institutions of banking and money and law and ideology; you would’ve seen several worlds. You would’ve lived in several worlds, each of which had passed away to bring about another world with some continuities with the past and some recurring features, but in other respects radically different. It wouldn’t occur to you that there would be long-term back stability in things which would enable you to be pragmatically optimistic.
Let me give you an example, maybe, which is more recent. Back in the ’80s, I met some people in California who were engaged at that time in projects of freezing their bodies or their brains in order to resurrect them technologically later on and become thereby, if not immortal, then amortal. They wanted to escape death.
I put the following question to them. This would be — I can’t remember the exact year, but somewhere in the early to mid ’80s. I said, well, I understand this, but aren’t you assuming when you make arrangements, you sign a contract to have your body or your brain sent off when you die and frozen in some depository somewhere in Nevada or somewhere else, to be reopened when technologies advance, which they thought might take 50 or 100 years, to the point at which you could be de-frozen without damage to your tissues and your brain cells . . .
Aren’t you assuming a high degree of background institutional stability, which actually, not just for the human species, but most of the 20th century up to that point had not exhibited? In 1985, you could look back at two world wars, the stock market crash of 1929, and that’s just affected America.
If you’d lived in Russia, you would’ve lived through the collapse of the Romanov empire, a civil war which lasted three or four years, but in which over 10 million people died or fled to different countries with different languages and different ways of life and so on. You would’ve had Nazism and the Holocaust. You would’ve had Maoism emerging in China. You would’ve had not any background stability of institutions or values, but almost continuous punctuated equilibrium, if I can use such a paradoxical phrase.
So, why do you assume that in 100 years from now, in 2085, why do you assume that there will still be a capitalist system in America, that there will still be laws and contracts, and that the firm you’ve put your brain in to be kept in this deposit will still be there?
They looked at me aghast, and of course, what they said was what everybody always says. Now, I find it funnier then; the joke sometimes wears thin. They say, “What a terribly, apocalyptically pessimistic view that is. How appalling.”
What I’m saying when I say things like that, or when I criticized Fukuyama in 1989, is I expect human history to be in the future as it has been in the past. History and human events will go on as normal with new technologies, maybe new forms of knowledge, but in their ethical and political and civilization respects, they’ll go on pretty much exactly as before.
Now, it seems to me very odd to describe that as a pessimistic view, unless you think that things in the future are going to be radically better. I don’t think that this attitude of pragmatic optimism is possible except in privileged and rare and relatively brief points in history. It doesn’t work most of the time. That, I suppose, you could say is pessimistic, and it could have an effect on people’s motivation.
Actually, when I write, I’m not pretending. I’m not a hot gospeler. I’m not an evangelist, but I’m not a therapist either. I’m just trying to tell things the way they are. People can then do what they want if they’re interested enough to read it. Remember, I’m not trying to get people to read me in order to convert them to my view. If they stumble on my work and like it for whatever reason, that’s great. If they throw it against the wall, I don’t mind at all. That’s up to them. I’m simply putting forth a view of things which I think might be of interest to a range of people.
COWEN: But you would admit that if we go back to, say, Japan in 1950 or South Korea in 1960, it’s a good thing they never had your works to read. In your view, yes or no?
GRAY: No, no. They didn’t need my works.
COWEN: Well, they believed in progress. They made progress happen. They were pretty focused.
GRAY: Did they?
COWEN: Oh, absolutely. South Korea in 1960 was as poor as Central Africa. Today, it’s a very nice, pretty wonderful country.
GRAY: It’s a very narrow historical perspective, if I may say so. Japan modernized not in 1950, but in the 1860s, ’70s, and ’80s onwards. They began under the Meiji generation. They became the second or the third, maybe — it depends on how you count them.
COWEN: Sure, but living in 1950 compared to today — it’s an amazing difference. You wouldn’t hesitate to choose living in Tokyo today compared to 1950.
GRAY: Aren’t you aware, Tyler, that throughout history, there would be periods of 50 years in which things have gotten much better, and then there’s been a catastrophic war or a pestilence which has swept it all away? You can pick any 50-year period you like, and you’ll find many of them of which this is true.
One of my key ideas is that practically all of economics and social theory is based on the last 300 years. That’s a very small dataset for human history or human life. If you take a bit longer one, if you include the Aztecs and the Romans, not just the Meiji Empire but Edo Japan, which by the way, I think was incomparably more cultured and civilized than the majority of human cultures are today. If you take a broader view, then what you will see is long-term trends will look like blips.
COWEN: Are you short the market?
GRAY: I would if I could be bothered.
COWEN: You could earn an immense fortune and give it away to charitable causes, keep it for yourself, buy more cats. Do what you want with the money. Why not do that?
GRAY: I’ve done a bit. There are two answers there. You can’t short it all the time because it doesn’t go down all the time. You might spend your entire . . . If you had a long boom, 30- or 40-years-long boom, and I guess we had a 20-year —
COWEN: We’ve had. According to you, we should be near the end of it.
GRAY: We are near the end of it, but it doesn’t mean —
COWEN: Well, short the market.
GRAY: No, because as you know, I think in Iraq, when Iraq was at its worst stage, the market went up vastly. Equity markets bear no systematic relationship to the underlying economies over these shorter periods.
The other thing is, I have done a bit of investing, and I haven’t always done badly, but it takes too much time, and it’s too boring. As you would call it, there’s an opportunity cost, which is the rest of my life. I can’t be bothered to get too fixated on it to make money. I have enough money now for my own purposes.
I have had cats, not hundreds of cats, but you don’t need hundreds of cats. I’ve had four cats. It’s quite enough. I still love cats, but I’ve lived with four cats for 30 years. Over a period of 30 years, they passed away now, all of them, the last one at the age of 23, a good age for a cat.
I don’t need to do that. Why should I do it? I might get more satisfaction, intellectual and aesthetic, from observing what happens without trying to profit from it directly.
COWEN: If you did, in fact, have the means to direct a billion dollars to any cause, what cause would it be?
GRAY: It’s a very good question. I guess it would be animal conservation, conservation of environments, or at least of species that are rapidly disappearing now because I did say earlier on that a lot of my value judgments are aesthetic. I think a world which was denuded of, let’s say, of 10 billion human beings — it’s a Parfitian question. You recognize this, though it’s not a thought experiment which he ever did as far as I know. I read his works, and I knew him slightly, but I don’t think he ever did this experiment.
Would a world in which a very large number of human beings not only existed but had very high levels of well-being . . . In other words, I’m not talking about the famous repugnant conclusion, whereby if you have a vast world, and everybody’s lives are barely worth living, and you add up the utility, it could be better than a smaller world with many fewer human beings whose lives were much higher. I’m not talking about that at all.
I’m thinking of a different thought experiment that he never did, to my knowledge. Never involved himself in, which is, between two worlds, one in which you have an enormous number of people, let’s say human beings, 100 billion, and all their lives are, in most respects at least, very worth living, but in which there are no other species; and a different world in which there’s a much smaller human population but a thriving biosphere around it . . .
Now, I’m not trying to judge this because I’m not a utilitarian in terms of desire, satisfaction, or some other utilitarian theory of value. But the second world, the world in which there are fewer human beings living well, but in what John Stuart Mill — by the way, who tried to be a consistent utilitarian but never was — he said without what he called flowery wastes — this is in his 1848 Principles of Political Economy — he said the world would be barren and, he thought, almost not worth living in, and I share that view.
COWEN: Would you be biased toward conserving the lives of intelligent mammals and maybe octopuses or not?
GRAY: You mean as over unintelligent animals?
COWEN: Sure. You could save a lot of ants, maybe rather cheaply, but many people would prefer to conserve white rhinos and pandas in China.
GRAY: Yes. I’d prefer to live in a world in which conservation was not necessary, in which the biosphere, as really was the case until maybe the so-called Anthropocene, which was supposedly living — that was the case until a few hundred years ago — which is that human beings, through their activities, could damage particular ecologies.
The islands where Homer set some of his poems were, at the time of Homer, probably covered by trees, thick trees and forests. Now, most of them are not, so throughout human history and prehistory, human beings have damaged or altered their environments.
But there hasn’t been a time up till now in which the whole of the biosphere could be damaged and injured. I prefer to live in a world in which that’s not true. Of course, you might say, “Well, we don’t live in that world, so we’ve got to decide.” I just would say, it would be hard to decide.
But what I would not do is make the decision on highly speculative grounds of those proposed by effective altruists and others, which involve making extrapolations into millions and millions of years into the future about what could be the best or worst outcome. I think those are very unsound ways of moral reasoning because there’s far too much in them that is speculative and uncertain.
I would probably try and make the decisions that could be made for now, in the relatively near future of 50 or 100 years, or even less than that, about which animals . . . You see, ants, probably they’re going to survive whatever happens, most kinds of ants. But gorillas and tigers and highly complex species, which depend upon delicate environments, could be destroyed by wars. They can be destroyed by poaching. They can be destroyed by diseases that spread more quickly when their environment changes. So, I’d probably focus on them.
COWEN: Under what circumstances would you be willing to sacrifice your life? Or for what?
GRAY: Not for humanity, that’s for sure.
COWEN: For the biosphere?
GRAY: Well, I guess in principle, but how can one life change the biosphere? Only, basically, for something or someone that I love. You’re philosophically well read. It’s entirely, to me, an agent-relative thing. There may be values or goods or bads I can think about in an abstract way, but they’re not Platonic in the sense that they exist in some metaphysical realm independent of the human world. They’re all, I would say, projections of the human world, or at least of the living world. Other animals have needs and values, just as we do. I would only sacrifice my life for someone or something that I love, nothing else.
COWEN: What did your parents believe?
GRAY: They were secular Christians. Britain is much more — or at least during my lifetime — has been much more secular. I don’t like the word secular because most of what is secular is just spilt
Britain has been, England especially — Scotland and Ireland to some extent, even Wales, are a bit different — it’s been a society for the last maybe 100 years, let’s say, in which religion has not been as life-shaping as it’s been in many parts of the world, and still isn’t, apart from new religions that have grown in the country. Or not new religions — they’re very old religions but are grown in the country because of immigration — Islam and Hinduism and other religions.
They were just perfectly normal for whom religion was a part of life. If they read P.G. Wodehouse, they might have agreed with him. P.G Wodehouse is a comic writer, lived in America a lot. He was asked towards the end of his life in an interview — I think he lived on Long Island or somewhere, I can’t remember now — anyway, he was asked, “Do you, Mr. Wodehouse, have any religious beliefs?” To which he replied, “You know, it’s frightfully hard to say.”
I think that’s tremendously clever, much more intelligent than most authors, because what he recognized was that belief — when you get outside of formulating scientific propositions and so on, it’s a very fluid, vaporous thing. You can have residues of religious belief, even if you are an atheist, and you might not be able to formulate your beliefs. Even if you have strong religious beliefs, you might still not be able to formulate. I guess they would’ve said that it was not something they spent a lot of time talking about or thinking about.
COWEN: What do you make of recent speculations concerning UFOs? Is that just more theology?
GRAY: Well, I’ve always assumed that the whole thing was an information program generated mostly in the United States to cover up the black weapons programs at the time. That’s what I’ve always assumed. In other words, I’ve always assumed that it was mostly disinformation. Well, could there be something in them? Yes, I suppose so. I think there’s a Harvard astronomer now, isn’t there? I’ve forgotten his name.
COWEN: Avi Loeb, yes.
GRAY: Yes, who thinks there is, and I’m open to that, but nothing really turns on it for me. There’s a wonderful piece of Russian science fiction. You probably know it. What are they called?
GRAY: Yes, yes, yes. That’s it, yes. The short novel is about a visitation to the earth of an alien species. Why did they come? What was their purpose? What did they want to know about the human species? Nothing. Turns out they came for a picnic.
COWEN: Could it be a kind of proof that pessimism is wrong? Some other set of beings out there survive to the point where they can make it here, and they come here and they don’t kill us all or enslave us or —
GRAY: No, no, no, it’s not pessimism or optimism. I’m not fixated on that. In fact, I think they’re silly categories, actually. It depends on your background expectations. It’s that they have no interest in us.
COWEN: That’s a good thing.
GRAY: It is if you think they would otherwise kill us, but maybe they wouldn’t. I think it’s a wonderful idea because it means that from their point of view . . . They might be, by our standards, more intelligent than we are. I don’t know. If they’ve lasted longer than we had or are likely to last, then they might be more intelligent, or wiser at least.
But they’re simply not interested in us. They come and leave some litter like human picnickers do and then leave. To me, although I’m open to the idea of UFOs, which, of course, is a spinoff from the idea, “Can there be intelligent life forms in other planetary systems or other parts of the universe?”
I can’t actually imagine that we are the only living, certainly, or even the only sentient — I find that hard to imagine. But the distances are so vast that unless technology in other places has developed to extraordinary extents, we might be the only one that ever . . . We might be alone apart from, of course, other intelligent species on the planet — like gorillas and possibly octopuses — that exist alongside us.
We might never be in significant contact with these other intelligences if they exist. But it doesn’t really matter much to me one way or the other because I think we’ve actually done a rather good job making ourselves more alone already, actually, by crudifying the biosphere through mass extinctions and so on.
COWEN: Should the UK work toward having the two Irelands reunite?
GRAY: I think it’ll happen. I don’t know whether the UK will work towards it, but I’ve always —
COWEN: You’ll cheer it on, or you’ll be sad, or what will your view be?
GRAY: Well, I think historically, the relations with Ireland of England have been mostly rather tragic or comical or painful. They’ve not ever been very good. I think it will happen. I write a lot in The New Statesman, where I now have a fortnightly column, and I’ve always argued that Scotland would not break away, most likely, at any time that we could see in the future, for various specific reasons that I gave.
I think I was one of the very, very, very few people who were arguing that, because there was a time in which it was supposed to be inevitable. I never thought it would happen, particularly after Brexit, because after Brexit, breaking away would mean leaving the UK and then having several years in a limbo before the independent Scotland was accepted by the EU again. It just wasn’t going to happen, and it won’t happen now. It won’t happen, probably, for 10, 20, 30, 40, or ever.
Ireland, I think will happen, partly for demographic reasons, which is that the population balance in the two parts of Ireland is shifting. I think, long term, partly because of Brexit, partly because it’s proved hard to work out a settlement with the EU for Northern Ireland without diluting the legal sovereignty that Brexit was supposed to achieve — I think it will happen. Whether it will be good or bad, I think it probably will happen.
COWEN: How should the city of Bath deal with its problem of having too many tourists?
COWEN: It’s very crowded, right? It’s impossible to park, difficult to walk around. It doesn’t feel like the city of Bath anymore, at least at some times of the year.
GRAY: Well, I suppose in that sense, during the pandemic, it was much more walkable. But it was also much less lively because, although it’s crowded, the city of Bath, it also has lots of interesting shops and cultural life, partly because of the tourists. It has theaters, cinemas, bookstores, a rather wonderful bookstore called Toppings, which is in the tourist center and is always full.
You wouldn’t have those things if you cut back the number of tourists. You could have a tourist tax. Some countries, or some places at least, do. I think Bhutan has a tax of $200 a day just to be —
COWEN: I think they upped it to $400 recently, but yes, it used to be $200, I believe.
GRAY: I don’t say that’s wrong. You see, that is still, in many ways, a very unique and cohesive culture. So if they had hundreds of thousands of tourists, more could be destroyed than could be justified, perhaps, in terms of the benefits it gave to the people who lived there before.
But Britain is a very individualistic and multicultural society as it stands. I don’t think anything much is destroyed. Just parking — it’s difficult. [laughs] That can be coped with in various ways. I think, in all of these things, in most countries, at most times, in most places, the aim is to achieve a balance. You see, if it was completely destroyed . . .
To give an example there, you might have had this experience too. I have been to Italian cities and museums and art galleries where the crowds were so enormous and so permanent and so thick, and the waits were so long, and when you got in to see the pictures, you could hardly get to see them at all. At that point, almost it’s not worth going, so I do see your point. You’d have to raise the price significantly, probably, of just being there to make it worth being there. You’d have to pay more for it to be worth being there.
COWEN: Is Monty Python still funny?
GRAY: [laughs] Oh, I think so. Our present king, I think, is a fan. I’m a fan, too. It’s funny because it’s absurdist humor, and I like absurdist humor, and lots of British people do. It can be dark humor. After all, the Monty Python team, or part of it, most of it, produced Brazil. Have you seen that film?
COWEN: Sure, of course. Terry Gilliam.
GRAY: Yes. Great film, and very dark, wouldn’t you say?
GRAY: But it’s funny, too. It’s funny partly because it’s so dark.. Also, the end of the Life of Brian, the film that, by the way, I’ve been told — I was told by John Cleese, actually — couldn’t be made now. This was 10 years ago, but I’m sure it couldn’t be made 10 years later either. At the end of it, there’s the wonderful optimistic song, is it not, when they’re all hanging on the cross?
COWEN: “Bright Side of Life,” yes.
GRAY: “The Bright Side of Life.” [laughs] That’s optimism. You’re hanging on the cross, and you’re not going to stop hanging on the cross. You’ve got to hang on there till you die, yet you see the bright side of it all. That’s optimism. I love Monty Python.
COWEN: If someone says, well, today, European literature — it’s alive and well and flourishing. There’s Knausgård, there’s Elena Ferrante, many other fine authors, Submission by Houellebecq. Do you agree? Aren’t we living in a wonderful time for the written word? A kind of renaissance of literature?
GRAY: I’d go further than that. I do read an enormous amount. I don’t like very, very long books, like the Danish author Knausgård. The only very long book I like is Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. You can read that for your entire life, [laughs] in a way, and on and off in bits. I never read it from beginning to end, I have to admit that, but I will continue it. On the whole, I don’t like long.
I would go further than that, Tyler. You might find this surprising. I’m a great fan of film as an art form. I think even what might be called popular films, even TV is in a golden age, I would say now. If I think of the series I’ve enjoyed in recent years — Breaking Bad, True Detective, British series of various kinds, some of the great historical — I think they weren’t made, couldn’t be made for various reasons. New technologies have made them even better in some respects than before, so that is a great thing.
I’m in the process of shifting over from physical books. I’ll keep a few, but I’m getting rid of thousands of books now for various reasons. Literally thousands to Kindle. I’ve got thousands and thousands on Kindle already. The reason for that is partly practical because I can carry it around with me. I can go on holiday and have all these books with me without any difficulty at all.
Also, beyond that, if they’re books connected with my writing, I can search them very easily, rather than spending two hours of a finite lifetime — I’m 75, so it’s more finite than it used to be — searching for a particular phrase or sentence. I can find it instantly, so that’s a very good thing. Also, now with the quality of the printing and of the formatting and of the illustrations and art, it’s very, very high. That’s progress, too.
Remember, I’ve never argued that progress doesn’t occur. I’ve benefited myself from anesthetic dentistry. I benefited quite recently, just a few months ago, from cataract surgery. Wonderful things. But my argument is that progress, actually, even of the scientific and technological kind, can always be reversed, and often is when there is a general civilizational collapse.
I should say, by the way, I’ve often contrasted science and technological process with ethical and political process, and said that the former — scientific and technological — is exponential in a way that improvement or progress in ethics and politics isn’t. That’s more entropic.
There are people who I respect greatly, like Peter Thiel, who have argued that, even in science and technology, this is more of an age of stagnation than we commonly think, that groupthink and various types of institutional follow-up have limited creativity. That actually, even, you might call the paradigmatic [laughs] forms of cumulative advance, which is what progress is.
Progress isn’t just a brief period, a blip when things get a bit better, and then they stop being better and get worse. Progress means that what has been achieved on the past is largely retained as the process of improvement goes on. That’s generally true in science and technology. Of course, if you look at the whole span of the last 3,000 years, there have been many periods in which technologies and skills and knowledge have been lost. That could happen again, I think.
Ethical and political progress is much more fragile than that, but it does occur. And sometimes technological progress can improve human lives a lot, not just in medical context or dental context.
By the way, Thomas de Quincey, the celebrated opium addict, writing in his book, said — I can never remember if it’s a quarter or a third — but he said, I think, either a quarter or a third of all human suffering was toothache, which is true. It was probably true at that time, or might have been true anyway. Definitely not true now. I share that view.
They can even increase new methods of filming and streaming of films and so on, and increase the aesthetic qualities of life, because they’ve made it much easier for someone sitting in a study, as I do, to have access to beautiful forms of film art.
I think, in what people conventionally think of with ethics and politics, it’s always a good idea to expect the worst to come back. It’s always a good idea to think that among the competing memes, it will be the memes that are the most vicious and the most toxic which will win. I think that’s happening now in the world, actually.
COWEN: Has Herman Melville influenced you much?
GRAY: Yes, a lot.
COWEN: How so?
GRAY: I don’t know about influence, because I’m not a novelist, but it’s one of the books — Moby Dick. I’ve also read others. I’ve read others as well. The Confidence-Man is a great book, for example. “Bartleby,” the short story, is a great short story — fantastic. He’s a fantastically deep, profound, difficult writer. Of course, Moby Dick is the big one, full of biblical stuff, as you know.
There’s a wonderful edition by the American — 30 or 40 years ago — Harold Beaver, which has a 200-page set of notes at the end in which all the biblical and other references and allusions are explained. He’s an incredible writer, and almost not a novelist. I don’t know what you would call Moby Dick.
By the way, someone I knew well for the last 15 years of his life, J. G. Ballard, told me that that was one of his favorite books, and he kept recurring to Moby Dick, kept re-reading it and re-reading it.
COWEN: Can you imagine going on a quest for God the way some of Melville’s characters do? There’s too much disappointment you’re setting yourself up for, if you do that.
GRAY: [laughs] Well, I guess I’m not unhappy enough to want to go on that. I guess you go for that. You turn to God for things that you want very much, which are impossible and you know are impossible in the natural order of things. That’s the deep reason, at least in theistic cultures. If someone you love has died and you can’t bear it, then the idea that they still exist in some other realm and might be even happier in that realm can be a great comfort.
If you’re trapped in some situation which is completely hopeless in ordinary naturalistic reasoning — you know you’re not going to get out, you know you’re going to be killed — then you turn to God in those circumstances. I guess I’ve been lucky. I haven’t been in circumstances like that. How would I react? There’s a contrary . . .
That’s why people say there are no atheists in foxholes. I think there are, actually. I think some of the atheists in foxholes were believers before they got into the foxhole. [laughs] But it is true, empirically. I’m a great admirer of the Russian writer Varlam Shalamov, who survived, I think it was 16 or even 19 years in the very worst camps in Soviet Russia — gold mining camps, where the average lifespan was three years.
COWEN: Those are great books.
GRAY: They’re great, great, great books, and the way he describes them — by the way, he was frustrated by the description of him as a gulag writer because he said, “I only wrote about the gulag because I happened to be in the gulag for so long.” [laughs] He loved Proust. He found a copy of Proust once, which was then stolen. In the gulag, he just said, “That’s because I was there. That was how I lived my life. That’s why I wrote. Not because I wanted to write about the gulag.”
But he didn’t want to forget it either, because he thought that something could be written of value about it. He says that the people who broke down mentally, and then physically, the quickest were the Communist Party members and hierarchs who came in. The ones who lasted a long time were the professional criminals. The ones that lasted the longest were religious believers because they knew, if you’re in a camp where nearly everyone would be dead in three years . . . They weren’t death camps in the way the Nazi camps were, but nearly everyone in a section of camps — it wasn’t true of the whole — would not be there in three years, and could be dead.
If you knew that — you look around you, and every single day, you see somebody lying in the snow who’s perished, who was in the next bunk to you on the previous night — how do you adapt to that? He thought that religious faith — but he had none himself. He had none at all himself. Yet he still did survive, semi-miraculously. Not, I think, in a whole way. He was damaged by it, but he did survive, and he did continue writing, even after he escaped, for a long, long time, decades.
I can understand why people turn to divine power to do what they know to be naturally impossible. That’s one of the deepest motives, at least, that people turn to religion. I’ve been lucky; I haven’t had to do that yet.
COWEN: If someone set their views up to minimize disappointment in life, do you think their resulting philosophies and attitudes would be much different from yours, or the same?
GRAY: I don’t see myself as minimizing disappointment. I think that’s a rather miserable go in life. It’s better to be regularly disappointed and intensely disappointed, if what you’re being disappointed in was worth pursuing and experiencing. Many love affairs lead to disappointment, but if you decide then, “I’m not going to have them,” I think that’s a rather miserable view of life, which, by the way, is one of my objections to traditional Epicureanism and Lucretianism.
Traditional Epicureanism and Lucretianism aim for happiness by setting the bar so low that you can’t be disappointed. If you look, and if you think of what’s absent in Lucretius’s view of the good life or in Epicurus’s view, what’s absent? Anything that causes turbulence of mind. Lucretius says explicitly, “You shouldn’t fall in love with other people. Have lots of promiscuous sex. Find some slaves, get it out of your system, so you don’t need to fall in love. If you don’t fall in love, you won’t then be unhappy, because when you fall out of love . . .” He says that explicitly.
In a gentler way, it also underlies Epicurus’s philosophy. Science is not valued, remember, in Epicurus, except as a means for improving the comfort of life. There isn’t a scientific quest, a semi-mystical scientific quest, as there was in Europe at the start of the Scientific Revolution. Most of the leaders of the Scientific Revolution were astrologers or mystics. Of course, Newton was a numerologist and a fundamentalist in his reading of the Bible. They all had attached great spiritual and mystical significance to science.
Epicurus and Lucretius didn’t. It was just a tool whereby we could be made more comfortable. Highly competitive sports, the virtues of war, the martial virtues — they’re not there either. It’s very minimal. If you think of what an entirely Epicurean world would look like, there’d be no faith or religion because that’s led to masses of —
COWEN: Sure, but that’s you, right?
COWEN: No faith, no religion.
GRAY: Yes, that’s me, but I don’t do it in order to . . . That’s just my condition. That’s just how I am. I don’t feel the need for it. Not because I want to avoid disappointment. I can’t imagine doing it, living in order to . . .
What I’m saying is that there are many philosophers — the Epicureans, and to some extent the Stoics as well — who do propose that. They propose that you cut down the basic demands you put on life. They’re so minimal that they’re less likely to be oughten. I don’t do that. I think the opposite. I’m much more like Nietzsche in that respect. I think he’s better, at least to me, aesthetically better and maybe more interesting way of life.
If someone said, “How did you live your life?” and you said, “I successfully avoided all love affairs and, thereby, avoided all disappointments. I never attached any great importance to knowledge, only so far as it met my needs for comfort. I never engaged in competitive sports because I might lose. I never tried. I never invested because I might lose my capital.” I find all of those rather miserable ways of living.
Of course, you don’t have to be an optimist. Think of someone like Joseph Conrad, very far from being an optimist in any respect, but he had a fantastically interesting life. When he was 18 or 20, he was a gun runner for monarchist rebels in Spain. He then became a seaman for 20 years, almost lost his life two or three times in catastrophic shipwrecks, and so on and so forth.
He wrote his novels — he’d certainly be advised against this by Epicurus if you could bring him back from the grave — in his third language, not his second language. He didn’t write them even in French. He wrote them in English, which was his third language. Tremendous mental torment went into that. I’ve read about him suffering for hours to get the right word, which might have been because he was a perfectionist, but also because it was a word in English, which was not one of his early languages, or that he was brought up in.
He was a tremendous pessimist, but he lived a life of extraordinary adventure. I tend to think that pessimists — the pessimists I’ve known in my life anyway — are more likely to live lives of extraordinary adventure because it doesn’t matter to them as much as it does to optimists whether they win or lose. What matters to them is whether what they do is interesting, whether what they do enriches their life in the sense that it shows them things, shows them people, shows them worlds, shows them landscapes, gives them experiences, not only that they hadn’t had before, but even maybe that they couldn’t imagine before.
If you’re an optimist, you have some kind of clear — otherwise, I think the distinction is really rather silly — but you have an idea of how you want to live, of the successful projects you want to get involved in.
If you’re not an optimist — let’s just call it a non-optimist — you’ll settle on what you want to do. If it’s at least possible, if it’s at least in broad terms something that you could do or you could actually achieve, you can, if you want, go off on a wild journey into the Amazon. You might not come back, but you might see a lot of interesting things. If you can at least do these things, if they attract you, then if you are non-optimist, you might be very well inclined to do them. I like people like that.
COWEN: Last three questions are about you. First, who recognized your talent first and how?
GRAY: Oh, I can give a specific person, and he’s mentioned in the acknowledgments of my recent book, New Leviathans. It was a teacher in a grammar school in the northeast of England back in the 1960s called Charles Constable, who was a very well-read man. He was the person who introduced me to R.G. Collingwood’s book, The New Leviathan — singular — on which I wouldn’t say this book is based. It’s quite different in every respect, but it gave me the thoughts that 60 years later then found fruition in this book of mine.
He thought that I could benefit from a university education, including one from Oxford, so I joined — I wasn’t unique in any way — I joined a group of young people, sixth formers, as we called them. Five or six or seven or eight — it might have been as many as ten or twelve — who he groomed to apply to universities like Oxford, Cambridge, and some others. I joined that group after he noted that, and I was successful in going there. That was him.
COWEN: What is your most unusual successful work habit?
GRAY: That’s an interesting thing. It has to be unusual, does it, not just successful?
COWEN: Yes. That you work hard is not really unusual. Obviously, it matters.
GRAY: I do not know how unusual it used to be, but I used to like having a cat nearby. I don’t anymore because I like traveling. I haven’t been able to do much recently because of the pandemic and other things, and I think, if you have a cat or another animal companion, leaving them for long periods is not a good idea. I’ve read actually of a lot of writers who’ve . . . I think of myself primarily now as a writer, not as a philosopher. Philosophers are professors. I’m not a professor anymore.
As a writer, the mixture of calm, companionship, and complete indifference [laughs] that a cat has for you and your work and your thoughts is very calming. I do not know if it’s unusual, but I certainly found that helped my work.
Nowadays, I sometimes play music, or I intersperse it — my work, if I’m working on my computer — with looking at maybe a few moments, 10 or 15 minutes of a film I’ve watched before. There may be some passage in the film that I find particularly beautiful or thrilling. I use that, too. I daresay that would be called slacking, but I don’t think of it as slacking. I think of it as recharging the mental batteries to go on to work.
COWEN: Last question. What will you do next?
GRAY: Very good question, too. Well, having written this book, I have this column I referred to, and I do some reviewing. I’ve done a lot of reviewing of both Pinker and Fukuyama and other writers like that. I also review quite a bit of fiction. I’m reviewing at the moment a memoir by the film producer Werner Herzog, and a novel by him.
I try to review a wide variety of books. I’ll continue doing that, and I may collect them, but I might start trying to write something. I might think of writing a book purely of aphorisms. I like aphorisms because, as I say, they’re short and uncluttered and can be beautiful. A lot of people don’t like aphorisms because if you write an aphorism, you can’t have 10 pages before it explaining what you mean by it, [laughs] like an academic work.
A lot of academic works — they say, “I’m not saying this, I’m not saying that. I don’t think this. I don’t think that. I’m not criticizing professor so and so. I am criticizing the other.” Three-quarters of the book is a set of digressions about what they’re not doing. An aphorism just says something. You don’t have to accept it, but it sounds sometimes dogmatic for that reason. It sounds as if you are trying to impose it on someone. I might produce that, or I might do some more essays.
I’m more and more interested in theology as a root of many of our present intellectual and other perplexities and dilemmas. If you think in what are called secular terms, you can’t really understand the world that we now live in, not just because religions come back in as a force in war and a force in politics, but because many of the things that don’t seem religious are actually inspired by, not just religious needs and impulses, but even by religious categories or symbols or myths.
The singularity, for example, is obviously something connected with ideas of revelation and of rapture. It’s obviously not an idea that it would be easy to have if you knew nothing about those Christian and Jewish and other traditions in which these ideas of apocalypse and revelations — so, I think I might write something more about that.
COWEN: I’m happy to recommend all of John’s books, including the new one, The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism. That’s John Gray, G-R-A-Y. John, thank you very much.
GRAY: Tyler, thank you for your brilliant questions. They were very well chosen and very worth answering, and that doesn’t always happen. I’m not usually an optimist about interviews, but in this case, whatever expectations I’ve had of disappointment have themselves been disappointed.
COWEN: I look forward to seeing you next, whenever that is.
GRAY: Yes, thank you.