Favorite ideas from John Gray’s Straw Dogs: “Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness.”


“Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labors, it is only in order to return to them.”

Straw Dogs is a collection of essays on the big stuff: philosophy, religion, morality, capitalism. Without knowing the author, you’d think some of his opinions genius but others falling squarely on the crackpot end of the spectrum. Fortunately the author is John Gray, notable English philosopher and retired LSE professor. On the page where I gather my book notes and summaries, I recommend Straw Dogs “for those who question and disagree with just about everything.” I’m happily biased :)

Below are 48 highlights from the book. They are fairly representative of his positions. If you like them, you should read the book [Amazon paperback]. It’s admirably short as these sorts of philosophic thought manuals go.

Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright. […] Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception…

In Kant’s time the creed of conventional people was Christian, now it is humanist. Over the past two hundred years, philosophy has shaken off Christian faith.

Accepting the arguments of Hume and Kant that the world is unknowable, [Schopenhauer] concluded that the world and the individual subject that imagines it are maya, dream like constructions with no basis in reality.

Morality is not a set of laws or principles. It is a feeling – the feeling of compassion for the suffering of others which is made possible by the fact that separate individuals are finally figments.

If we truly leave Christianity behind, we must give up the idea that human history has a meaning. Neither in the ancient pagan world nor in any other culture has human history ever been thought to have an overarching significance. In Greece and Rome, it was a series of natural cycles of growth and decline. In India, it was a collective dream, endlessly repeated. The idea that history must make sense is just a Christian prejudice.

In art, and above all in music, we forget the practical interests and strivings that together make up ‘the will’. By doing so we forget ourselves

Philosophers have always tried to show that we are not like other animals, sniffing their way uncertainly through the world.

Conscious perception is only a fraction of what we know through our senses. By far the greater part we receive through subliminal perception. What surfaces in consciousness are fading shadows of things we know already.

Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power. The most accomplished pianist is not the one who is most aware of her movements when she plays. […] That may be why many cultures have sought to disrupt or diminish self conscious awareness.

The meditative states that have long been cultivated in Eastern traditions are often described as techniques for heightening consciousness. In fact they are ways of bypassing it. Drugs, fasting, divination and dance are only the most familiar examples.

As organisms active in the world, we process perhaps 14 million bits of information per second. The bandwidth of consciousness is around eighteen bits. This means we have conscious access to about a millionth of the information we daily use to survive.

We act in the belief that we are all of one piece, but we are able to cope with things only because we are a succession of fragments. We cannot shake off the sense that we are enduring selves, and yet we know we are not.

We are far more than the traces that other humans have left in us. Our brains and spinal cords are encrypted with traces of far older worlds.

Once upon a time, I, Chuang Chou, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, a veritable butterfly, enjoying itself to the full of its bent, and not knowing it was Chuang Chou. Suddenly I awoke, and came to myself, the veritable Chuang Chou. Now I do not know whether it was then I dreamt I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man. Between me and the butterfly there must be a difference. This is an instance of transformation.

The ancient Greek philosophers had a practical aim – peace of mind. […] It was a way of life, a culture of dialectical debate and an armory of spiritual exercises, whose goal was not truth but tranquility.

If philosophers have rarely considered the possibility that truth might not bring happiness, the reason is that truth has rarely been of the first importance to them.

The universal reach of Christianity is commonly seen as an advance on Judaism. In fact it was a step backwards. If there is one law binding on everyone, every way of life but one must be sinful.

as EO Wilson observes, ‘if […] baboons had nuclear weapons, they would destroy the world in a week’.

Throughout his life, [George Bernard Shaw] argued in favor of mass extermination as an alternative to imprisonment. It was better to kill the socially useless, he urged, than to waste public money locking them up.

Morality has hardly made us better people; but it has certainly enriched our vices.

[Socrates] believed that virtue and happiness were one and the same: nothing can harm a truly good man. […] Beyond the goods of human life – health, beauty, pleasure, friendship, life itself – there was a Good that surpassed them all.

We prefer to found our lives – in public, at least – on the pretense that ‘morality’ wins out in the end. Yet we do not really believe it. At bottom, we know that nothing can make us proof against fate and chance.

The cult of choice reflects the fact that we must improvise our lives. That we cannot do otherwise is a mark of our unfreedom. Choice has become a fetish; but the mark of a fetish is that it is unchosen.

If you seek the origins of ethics, look to the lives of other animals. The roots of ethics are in the animal virtues. Humans cannot live well without virtues they share with their animal kin.

(in Taoism)
…ethics is simply a practical skill, like fishing or swimming. The core of ethics is not choice or conscious awareness, but the knack of knowing what to do. It is a skill that comes with practice and an empty mind.

Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles.

…humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tells us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility

For polytheists, religion is a matter of practice, not belief; and there are many kinds of practice. For Christians, religion is a matter of true belief. If only one belief can be true, every way of life in which it is not accepted must be in error.

Those who spurn their animal nature do not cease to be human, they merely become caricatures of humanity. Fortunately, the mass of humankind reveres its saints and despises them in equal measure.

Federov’s view of humanity as a chosen species, destined to conquer the Earth and defeat mortality, is a modern formulation of an ancient faith. Platonism and Christianity have always held that humans do not belong in the natural world.

The fatal snag in the promise of cryogenic immortality is not that it exaggerates the powers of technology. It is that the societies in which promises of technological immortality are believed are themselves mortal.

It is no accident that the crusade against drugs is led today by a country wedded to the pursuit of happiness – the United States. For the corollary of that improbable quest is a puritan war on pleasure.

They cannot reconcile their attachment to the body with their hope of immortality. When the two come into conflict it is always the flesh that is left behind.

Our essence lies in what is most accidental about us – the time and place of our birth, our habits of speech and movement, the flaws and quirks of our bodies.

‘We are inclined to think of hunter-gatherers as poor because they don’t have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free,’ writes Marshall Sahlins

We are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.

The function of this new economy, legal and illegal, is to entertain and distract a population which – though it is busier than ever before – secretly suspects that it is useless.

How will satiety and idleness be staved off when designer sex, drugs and violence no longer sell? At that point, we may be sure, morality will come back into fashion. We may not be far from a time when ‘morality’ is marketed as a new brand of transgression.

The Internet confirms what has long been known – the world is ruled by the power of suggestion.

Financial markets are moved by contagion and hysteria. New communications technologies magnify suggestibility.

A feature of the idea of modernity is that the future of mankind is always taken to be secular. Nothing in history has ever supported this strange notion.

As machines slip from human control they will do more than become conscious. They will become spiritual beings, whose inner life is no more limited by conscious thought than ours. Not only will they think and have emotions. They will develop the errors and illusions that go with self-awareness.

The world has come to be seen as something to be remade in our own image. The idea that the aim of life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared.

At bottom, their faith that the world can be transformed by human will is a denial of their own mortality.

Wyndham Lewis described the idea of progress as ‘time-worship’

It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance.

Today the good life means making full use of science and technology…it means seeking peace…it means cherishing freedom.

Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness. If we think of resting from our labors, it is only in order to return to them.

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.