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Cutting the strings of human exceptionalism

In The Soul of the Marionette, philosopher-author John Gray covers familiar ground, eloquently. He plunders obscure writers and leans heavily on his knowledge of history to build an argument that deconstructs human exceptionalism and to dispel the notion that people, society and culture progress in some linear fashion. His thesis is that humans create the illusion of order because the alternative — embracing the certainty that we are mortal and meaningless creatures (“flawed, intermittently lucid animals”) in an indifferent world — fills many of us with paralyzing dread. That created sense of order was once overseen by invented gods, then an invented god and now by science (which, in a sense, elevates human ingenuity to the status of an invented god). Regardless of how it is embodied, the underlying impulse is to create a sense of purpose and progress that he, of course, considers false.

The title is based on a short story that brings to life the crux of the issue. Which is truly free, the marionettes (who have no control over their actions and are free to simply allow external forces to work upon them) or the person at the end of the strings (who, ostensibly, must constantly impose — and question the veracity and quality — of their plan)? In the case of humans, our sense of self (the part of us that thinks we are unique) can be thought of as the puppet master while our physical bodies are the puppets. We look to our puppet master concept of existence (that we exert meaningful agency upon our actions, our selves and our world) when in fact we are enslaved by the unlimited freedom facing us because, as Gray puts it, “human life is spent anxiously deciding how to live.” In fact, the gulf between thought and action is what drives us to distraction and depression because as humans, “what they long for is freedom from choice.”

Through this filter, he takes apart our proclivity for celebrating as progress the questionable achievements of humanity, noting that “humanity is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything.” Rather than exceptional, or even particularly cunning "what seems to be singularly human is not consciousness or free will but inner conflict.”

Some might find this bleak view of our species and our place in apathetic world disconcerting; I find it inspiring, giving us a roadmap for a true form of freedom. “If you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be consent to let meaning come and go.”

Beautifully written, challenging, exquisitely thought out – fans of Gray will not be disappointed.