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Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions Paperback – September 1, 2004

4.7 out of 5 stars 9 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gray, a philosopher and professor at the London School of Economics, sounds like the quintessential grumpy, world-weary intellectual: he disagrees with almost everyone and is pessimistic about almost everything. In these essays, originally published in the New Statesman, he contents himself with criticizing ideas and politics on both the right and left, but proposes little that might solve the problems he sees, apart from a typically contrarian endorsement of the use of torture (arguing that "in a truly liberal society, terrorists have an inalienable right to be tortured") and a wishful argument for why Europe needs to style itself as a "counterweight to American power." The book is divided into three parts: the first expands on Gray's view that humans (he calls them "Homo rapiens") have an apocalyptic capacity for self-destruction; the second looks at the war on terror; and the third focuses on European, mainly British, politics. Many of the essays revolve around current events-the earliest was written in 1999, the most recent in early 2004-but they already feel dated and distant, especially when he refers to the aftermath of 9/11 and the early stages of the Iraq war. Theoretically, Gray's cynical, nonpartisan opinion might appeal to Americans frustrated with the ideological polarization and intransigence of American politics, but his relentlessly crotchety discussion of not-so-current events is most likely to turn off readers.
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About the Author

John Gray's books include the best-selling Straw Dogs. He is Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Granta UK (September 1, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1862077185
  • ISBN-13: 978-1862077188
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.6 x 7.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,023,372 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
When I was younger I used to argue with others that belief in God was irrational and nothing more than superstition. I eventually realized that this was very upsetting to many people and stopped. Unknown to me, my own faith at the time was what John Gray calls liberal humanism, a belief that science and reason can lead to human progress. Over many years I have gradually became less sure of this. "Heresies" and John Gray's previous book "Straw Dogs" completed my disillusionment. I find he is as unsettling for me as I was for others.
John Gray is a Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics. He has written several books on economics and modern politics and at one point was even an advisor to the government of Margaret Thatcher.
In this book John Gray brilliantly exposes the vanity and hubris of the human species and in particular the view that secular humanism is really a religion with God left out.
"Heresies" is a collection of 24 of his essays which were published in the "New Statesman" magazine during the period leading up to, during, and after the present war in Iraq. The issues he addresses are quite wide ranging, from a discussion of why liberal humanism is only a secular rendition of Christian myth, but without the idea of original sin, to the total misguidedness of the war in Iraq.
Like his other books, his writing is a model of clarity and precision in the statement of both his own ideas and the ideas of others. He has the extraordinary gift of making the reader have a revelationary understanding of what in retrospect should have been really quite obvious, but is normally hidden by the fog of humanistic ideals and a faith in the perfectibility of man.
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Format: Paperback
According to Gray, the Enlightenment cast off the shackles of one religion, only to forge replacement fetters. The new religion, based on "humanism" is called "progress". This faith rests on the notion that the human condition can be constantly and continuously improved - forever. Instead of a metaphysical paradise, the new religion proposes one that can be achieved here and now. We act, he says, in the false belief that "science" is the new divinity. With so many problems having been solved through the application of science and technology, we've come to believe ALL obstacles can be overcome. What this faith ignores, Gray warns, is the finite supply of resources our planet has to sustain this programme.

In this collection of thought-provoking essays, Gray closely and critically scrutinises the new "faith" and explains its manifestations. In a trinity of themes, he looks at "progress", "terrorism" and "politics". The "scare quotes" are necessary here, because the reader may discover wholly new definitions of these terms within these pages. With incisive wit and deep insight, he examines the dedication to "progress" - where it came from and what it means now. A careful observer, he explains that "progress" is meaningful in the process of science. In the hands of politicians, industry and modern education, it is but a superstition. The world, he says, is "suffering from disseminated primatemaia - a plague of people." In his view "Homo sapiens" has evolved into "Homo rapiens", stripping the planet of resources with little idea of the impact it's having. The plague must be curtailed like any other infection. The first step in that therapy is shedding the belief that resources are limitless and technology can replace shortfalls.
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Format: Paperback
When reviewing a book like this, it's almost impossible to leave your political views aside. Even though I often disagree with John Gray, I have to admit that he's a prolific and sometimes brilliant writer. In a previous review of `HERESIES against progress and other illusions'', I made the blunder of not recognizing that the piece `Torture: a modest proposal' was a parody. Apparently I wasn't alone in this and that it was a parody wasn't as obvious as in Swifts proposal that we roast and eat babies. But I suppose the title should have given it away and I totally missed that. Thanks to Zachary Michaelson for pointing this out.
In his spoof article Gray thus mocks Alan Dershowitz but is he also poking fun at liberals like John Rawls? I suppose that's the idea but I'm not sure it's a laughing matter. Maybe he tries to convince us, as John Banville suggests in the Guardian, that it's a `foolish and tragic mistake... to imagine that (more dental implants and) fewer thumbscrews will make us into better beings'.
His critique of humanism, atheism and the idea of progress is well known by now and in my view tends to become a bit monotonous. In contrast to the `evils that come with the growth of knowledge', `the myth of religion are ciphers containing the truth of the human condition', Gray heralds onto the congregation.
This is how I ended my now deleted review: `HERESIES is highly entertaining, provocative and witty but at the same time frustratingly biased and presumptuous. John Gray takes us on a bumpy ride indeed.'
That's still how I feel and these essays, first published in the New Statesman, gives us a good idea of his spirited polemics.
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