John Gray has been an insightful critic of various features of, or tendencies in, political liberalism for decades. Whether it be the problem of evil in the modern world, the extent to which law is merely an artifact of state power rather than “a free-standing institution towering majestically above the chaos of human conflict,” the stubborn hope of a “secular eschatology,” or the by now largely discarded “agonistic liberalism” of Isaiah Berlin, Gray’s arguments have been consistently interesting and provocative (though rather bleak).
Here is a new book out this November by Gray targeting the heart of his work over the years, though one with evident (and, I think, rightful) praise for one of the major figures in liberalism, Thomas Hobbes: The New Leviathans: Thoughts After Liberalism (Macmillan). Sure to be greatly engaging and provocative.
Ever since its publication in 1651, Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan has unsettled and challenged how we understand the world. Condemned and vilified by each new generation, his cold political vision continues to see through any number of human political and ethical vanities.
In his wonderfully stimulating book The New Leviathans, John Gray allows us to understand the world of the 2020s with all its contradictions, moral horrors, and disappointments. The collapse of the USSR ushered in an era of near apoplectic triumphalism in the West: a genuine belief that a rational, liberal, well-managed future now awaited humankind and that tyranny, nationalism, and unreason lay in the past. Since then, so many terrible events have occurred and so many poisonous ideas have flourished, and yet our liberal certainties treat them as aberrations that will somehow dissolve. Hobbes would not be so confident.
Filled with fascinating and challenging observations, The New Leviathans is a powerful meditation on historical and current folly. As a species we always seem to be struggling to face the reality of base and delusive human instincts. Might a more self-aware, realistic, and disabused ethics help us?