If the folly of this world is interminable, so too is the search for a better world. A portion of a lecture by English philosopher John Gray recently emerged on the internet. In it, the former LSE professor speaks on the question ‘can we live together in the world’, a question this blog has touched on before. Gray suggests the answer, yes.
But, for Gray, this does not mean humankind will live together any differently in future than it has in past. This is neither an apocalyptic end of the world nor a happy and splendid end of history prophecy. There will be, says Gray, tyrants, revolutions, and wars, a familiar range of disorder no different, really, than at any other period of human history.
This is a typically gloomy and brilliantly boring John Gray answer to an interesting question. In a sense, humankind has always lived together in this world, even if in a disconnected and disorderly fashion. Humankind has never really been apart, since the most sequestered of human settlements and even uncontacted tribes are part of this world and come from it.
The big question, however, the profound one Derrida raised, is whether humankind can live together well. This gets closer to the point of the question, of the search for amicable living, even collaborative goals and ambitions. For many, this question means to ask whether humankind can form a good world order, one with not only material, ecological, and spiritual wellbeing for all, but also a world that is united, somehow, ‘one’.
For Gray, the answer to this question must be a qualified no, because the future of humankind contains no single final civilization. For John Gray, no single civilization, outlook, philosophy, or way of life can contain the entirety of good human ways of living. For him, there is always a conflict between different goods and goals, within single lives, between civilizations, and in the course of human history as a whole. Thus, progress is ephemeral, as the generations pick and favour different goods, in different contexts, forgetting the human costs and meaning of those choices along the way. As Gray argues, all past attempts to conceive and realize a single universal world-spanning civilization have failed because no political vision can perfectly contain all human ends, hopes, and goals. He has claimed there can be no ‘global we’, because the goals of all humankind are many and conflicting. For Gray, living together well must mean living imperfectly, because human life is imperfect.
John Gray is one of the most important thinkers on these questions, because his answers grasp some important simple and honest human truths. It is the ancient and modern utopian schemes of perfect world orders that have brought about most of the great injustices and calamities in human history. For instance, the world disorder of today, issuing from disastrous wars and economic policies, can reasonably be blamed on yesterday’s Fukuyama inspired globalism, that justified these misadventures by envisioning a world of universal human rights, democracy, free trade, and cosmopolitan individualism.
As persuasive as John Gray is, for me, even though humankind is imperfect, this does not mean that humankind cannot find the common ground for a better world. It does not mean things cannot get better, for a time, and in certain limited and imperfect ways. The shared goals and ideals of every society and civilization are always contested and never singular. Definitions differ, emphasis on some shared values over others varies. Unity and uniformity should not so quickly be conflated and not every difference amounts to implacable conflict, there are degrees. For me, world order reform and a new sense of ‘we’ is not utopian and is still worth striving for, if conceived as an imperfect order and an imperfect we, but an order and a we still.
The vision of a better future does not need to be clouded by the idea of a final triumph of good over evil, of order over chaos, of unity over division. It is the disorders of the world that make order imaginable and possible. No order is absolute, but it is possible. The ancient Egyptian and Babylonian worldviews were shaped by the theme of a cosmic contest between order and chaos. But, it was not until Zoroaster that the idea of a final triumph of order over chaos emerged. John Gray is right that there never will be a future peaceable kingdom, but that does not mean a better world is humanly impossible, only that it is humanly imperfect.
*Gray’s larger point, against progress, is that what is gained, will eventually be lost, and come with a loss of something else. This point, which I think Gray is more concerned with, is valid enough, since things conflict, goals and goods are not all compatible in practice. There is no perfect union of humankind, but there are better and worse orders, worth striving for and defending.