The Soul of the Marionette

From a review of John Gray’s new book The Soul of the Marionette:

In The Soul of the Marionette, however, Gray makes a profound observation when he points out that at present the faith most educated people hold to, especially in the west, is Gnosticism. According to the Gnostics of old, the world was created not by God but by a wicked and wickedly playful demiurge, although most people are unaware of the fact. In the Gnostic view, Adam and Eve were right to eat the forbidden apple, and the Fall of Man was in fact a fall into freedom, “a fall”, as Gray beautifully puts it, “into the dim world of everyday consciousness”. Furthermore, our fallen state is not final. As Gray writes: “Having eaten its fill from the Tree of Knowledge” – gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge – “humankind can then rise into a state of conscious innocence”, which will be, as Kleist’s essay has it, “the final chapter in the history of the world”. And this, Gray argues, is exactly the faith to which, all unknowingly, so many of us cling today: “throughout much of the world, and particularly in western countries, the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion,” by the tenets of which “the boldest secular thinkers are possessed”…

In the early pages, Gray questions the notion that human beings desire freedom, at least in the active sense of being free to choose how to live – as an admirer of Isaiah Berlin, he does have a soft spot for the concept of negative freedom, “that consists in an absence of human obstacles to doing what you want or may come to want” – and suggests that, on the contrary, what we unwittingly desire is freedom from choice. People do yearn for inner freedom, and wish to practise a kind of quietism, especially “in a time of endemic instability, when political systems cannot be expected to last” – sound familiar? – yet simultaneously cannot accept that they merely drift through life in an affectless trance. Hence the present-day fondness for conspiracy theories of all kinds, since, as Gray writes, “if someone is pulling the strings behind the stage, the human drama is not without meaning”.

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