John Gray in Conversation with Alain de Botton

That a measure of freedom can be gained through knowledge is something of a cultural norm; it’s part of our DNA. It is also a load of bollocks. Or so argues philosopher John Gray, who recently joined Alain de Botton in conversation at a School of Life lecture in London.

With an origin in Gnosticism, humankind has been told that self-knowledge will lead to greater self-control, and if we can control our ‘selves’, we have the ability to improve those same ‘selves’. But Gray believes that we don’t know ourselves well enough to select which bits are the good bits to be improved upon, and which are the bad ones to be eliminated.

Instead of following this path, which is fruitless and frustrating, Gray advocates what John Keats called ‘negative capability’. In essence: make peace with what you cannot know. When you let go of unrealistic efforts to understand yourself and the world around you, you open yourself up to a number of possibilities that may surprise you. You can stop fretting over the perfect solution to a problem; you must make the best decision you can with the facts on hand.

His argument is that we are not one singular, unified self. We are multiple, plural and, at the heart, unknowable. De Botton challenged him on that point, asking if the value of self-knowledge is so that it can introduce the five or so people we are to each other so that they could, almost by committee, agree who was going to speak and how life was going to be lived. Gray’s answer was an emphatic no.

He made a pointed joke about how decisions made by committees are almost always for the lowest common denominator. That committees are risk-averse and lead to compromise. He then carried his point further and said that the best life doesn’t come from striving for harmony. Observe the chaos, he recommended, and don’t try to bring it under control.

De Botton posed another question to Gray: Do the modern-day myths that ‘careers should lead to money and personal satisfaction’ and that ‘finding someone to love you will bring you joy and acceptance’ provide any use to us? Gray responded that these ideals are incredibly valuable, quoting Freud who said that work and love keep people sane. He said to be bonded into the human world through work and love is what makes us feel that we are adding value to the world, which in turn brings meaning to our days.

However, he did say that the idea of a career is defunct; it’s no longer practical. As we’re all living a lot longer than we used to and with the displacements that are happening because of technological advances, we aren’t going to have a career in the traditional sense. There will be smaller chapters in an ever-changing landscape.

He had a question for the audience too: As technology and robotics increase and the jobs requiring human skills contract, what will the lives of the literate, knowledgeable humans look like when our skill-set is superfluous? He has a picture in his mind of a grand-scale reality TV show where we have nothing of value to do with our days and simply live lives to show off to each other. Perish the thought.

When asked about the moments in his life that could be marked as transformational, Gray said that they rarely came from academic ideas, rather they came through human connection, music, fiction, drama and films.

It was a thought-provoking evening with so much more than I’ve recorded here and it made me want to dig deeper into these questions, to suss out the truth for myself. Gray ended the evening with this quote: ‘Sanity lies in accepting that we’re not whole, never will be whole. And, paradoxically, we’ll be more whole if we accept this truth.’

So perhaps I shouldn’t question. I should simply accept that some things are unknowable. And get on with an enjoyable evening at home with good food, good wine and good company.


John Gray has been described as the ‘pre-eminent philosopher of our time’, with a long career in hallowed academic hallways such as Oxford, LSE, Harvard and Yale. He has also authored seventeen books over the years, with his most recent book The Soul of the Marionette: a short inquiry into human freedom published in March 2015.


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