Adventures of the X man





John Gray Jonathan Rée on The New Leviathans, the philosopher’s provocative assault on liberalism striking advances in the struggle against female oppression, some of which might even be chalked up to “liberalism”. At one point, Gray attempts a direct takedown of liberalism. It occupies less than a page, and starts from a remark by the 17th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes who, we are told, “loved routine” and said that “words are wise men’s counters … but the money of fools”. Gray interprets this as an injunction against treating general terms as if they referred to some “general thing”, rather than to “particular individuals”. This is surely excessive: if Gray really wants to banish generalities he may find it hard to get away with his imprecations about “liberalism”, “hyperliberals” and the “woke agenda”. He seems to think, however, that the point applies specifically to us “liberals”, who fondly think we are sticking up for something called “humanity”, whereas Hobbes has shown, according to Gray, that such entities are “inexistent”. You might think that “inexistent” things would be harmless, but humanity is, according to Gray, a “dangerous fiction”, which leads (by some route he does not explain) to the doctrine that some humans are “less human” than others, from which it is “a small step to eliminating them”. (“The arrival of humanity is always preceded by mass killing,” he claims; but he is not an over-scrupulous writer and I think he means the opposite.) Readers will be pleased to learn that Gray is – as he professes on several occasions – an opponent of mass murder, but it is hard to see why that would be if he refuses to have any truck with humanity. Gray thinks we need to grow up and recognise that the future does not belong to humanity. “There will be monarchies and republics, nations and empires, tyrannies and theocracies,” he says, “along with stateless zones where there is no government at all.” In short, we must prepare for “global anarchy”. He may be right, of course; but then again he may not. If the climate crisis destroys the human race, then his cherished dystopia will look rather starry-eyed. But if a better world is not inevitable, it is not impossible either: and that is where the hope comes in. “Humanity” may be “inexistent”, but so are efficient railways, net zero and cures for cancer – and all of them would be nice to have. Reasonable people can carry on hoping, against Gray and against hope, that things will eventually get better. Jonathan Rée’s books include Witcraft: The Invention of Philosophy in English and A Schoolmaster’s War. To order The New Leviathans for £17 go to or call 0203176 3837