On 25 May, the renowned political philosopher John Gray gave a talk about his latest book The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom, and encouraged the Bristol audience to see things differently.

Gray approached the subject of human freedom by exploring ancient and modern civilisations and the history of recurring and, of course, progressive, thought. Gray’s starting point came from the inspiration he drew whilst reading an essay on marionette theatre by an obscure German writer, Heinrich von Kleist. In the essay, Kleist argued that the puppet might be freer than the human – it is graceful in its movements and lacking consciousness, whereas the human is pulled to the earth by gravity and burdened with self-awareness.


Gray went on to explore the major beliefs of the Gnostics, and said that his work can be seen as a direct criticism of the Gnostic movement. The top two of the Gnostics’ contentions are that knowledge liberates and that humans are spirits, that is, minds.

Gray countered the former with a powerful argument that all knowledge is ambiguous, offering the example of modern technology abolishing all privacy. As for the latter, he took on a rather rationalist position, claiming that we are what we are – finite bodies of flesh and bones – and that there’s nothing wrong with embracing this fact.


Full of erudite observations, Gray elaborated his thoughts by making numerous references to other thinkers and writers – Yuval Noah Harari and Leopardi being just two. However, the most interesting mention was the notion of ‘negative capability’, first explored by the Romantic poet John Keats to describe the artist’s openness to the world opposed to those who seek the categorisation of beauty. This concept was fully embraced in the context of Gray’s describing the ability to rise above the presuppositions and predeterminations of societies, and experiencing the world somewhat liberated of those chains in the attempt to assert your own individuality.

Seen in this light, the initially pessimistic views take on a different dimension – one of a true individual mind that rejects impositions and embraces the unknown – the scary path to human freedom.

Having a long teaching practice as a Professor of Politics, John Gray charmingly won over the audience in his hearty encouragements to look behind the curtains, to dismiss notions of self-knowledge, and in his claims that one can thrive in ignorance and mystery.

Images: Ivana Galapceva


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