John Gray’s (2008) Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia diagnoses the West’s ‘modern malady’: we are suffering an acute case of eschatological thinking. Having over-indulged on the myth of an End-Time (a coming apocalypse or, in secular parlance, the end of history) we’ve fallen ill. Our primary symptom is political violence, brought on by a mistaken belief in our mandate to bring about the telos or purpose of history. But violence justified by reference to fulfilling history’s purpose has one problem: history has no purpose.
Once you believe you’re privy to the purpose of history there is no reason to tolerate ignorance. All are to be brought into the light, by force if need be. History takes precedence over man and will not tolerate those who stand in the way. This is the grand delusion underlying our modern malady. We believe that history has a meaning, that we’re justified in using violence to bring history to its culmination, and that it is possible to do so through an act of human will (Gray 2008a, p. 38).
Gray captured the essence of this delusion while in Australia for the 2008 Sydney Writers’ Festival:
The old slogan ‘You can’t have an omelette without breaking eggs’ misses out the fact that you can break millions of eggs and still not have a single omelette. And that’s, in a way, the history of the twentieth century.
The intellectual sources of our modern malady
So where did we get this idea of justified immoderation? In answering this question Gray doesn’t limit himself to one adversary. With an attack-dog attitude that would make Socrates blush he tears apart the ideas of the Left and the Right, Marxists and neo-conservatives, Third Way Whigs and liberal humanists  .
The intellectual source common to the Left and the Right is Hegel. On the Left ideas of history as the progressive realisation of a higher state of being moved through Hegel to Marx and into politics via communism. On the Right ideas of an imminent end of history moved through Hegel to Alexandre Kojève and on to Francis Fukuyama (2008a, pp. 6, 173-76). But Gray identifies a prior, and more important, source of our modern malady: (non-Augustinian) Christianity.
Hegel’s philosophy of history rehashes the work of twelfth century theologian Joachim of Flora, who, in reversing Augustine’s separation of the City of Man from the City of God, translated the Trinity into three ages of history, the last of which would be a time of universal brotherhood on earth (2008a, pp. 12-13). Gray astutely identifies (in a point strangely echoing JS Mill’s essay The Subjection of Women) a problem with such End-Time thought patterns: ‘In practise, theorists of social evolution end up backing current trends’ (2008a, p. 125). Hegel declared history fulfilled as Napoleon returned from the Battle of Jena. Kojève believed history was drawing to a close with the establishment of the EU. And Fukuyama declared history’s end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Constant refutation of such hypotheses should be a sufficient basis for us to seriously question the possibility of predicting history’s end. Gray’s more measured point is, however, that the heralds of history’s end usually misidentify contemporary custom as the natural order of things. (They identify nomos as physis.) Comically, this amounts to equating might with right—mistaking what is for what ought to be. It is therefore no surprise that such hypotheses usually turn out to be bad bets (Gray 2008a, p. 125). But eschatological thinking is not limited to Hegelians. It even invades neo-liberal thinking.
Underlying the Enlightenment myth that as human knowledge advances human conflict will wither away is an idea that society is naturally harmonious. On Gray’s account this idea later ‘inspired Hayek’s delusive vision of a spontaneous social order created by the free market’ (p. 83). The belief that things will be okay if we only leave it to the market is easily recognised as an article of faith, but it is only when we see that it is built on the idea of natural harmony that its eschatological character emerges. As Gray states, succinctly,
Neo-liberals believe that the most important condition of individual liberty is the free market. The scope of government must be strictly limited. Democracy may be desirable but it must be limited to protect market freedoms. The free market is the most productive economic system and therefore tends to be emulated throughout the world. Free markets are not only the most efficient way of organizing the economy but also the most peaceful. As they expand, the sources of human conflict are reduced. In a global free market war and tyranny will disappear. Humanity will advance to unprecedented heights.
(2008a, p. 120)
It is not difficult to see how the neo-liberal assumption that society is harmonious at heart can quickly lead (paradoxically) to pre-emptive war by an economic vanguard. Gray recommends that neo-liberals return to and actually read their Adam Smith. Smith was not the market missionary that his modern acolytes claim. He understood that the market, like other human institutions, is imperfect (2008a, p. 121).
Gray is no anti-liberal; rather he believes that ideas of fulfilling or progressing history through the application of reason taint the liberal mind (2008a, p. 81). Liberals begin with an idea of history’s culmination and then use reason to infer the right course of action to bring it about. However, in doing so they participate in the Christian heritage, sharing in the western delusion of salvation in history and, thereby, catch our modern malady.
The treatment: palliative care
Gray prescribes a strong dose of political realism to treat our malady. We must recognise that history is contingent and without purpose, that discord, not harmony, is the natural state in politics, and that humans are fallible and therefore imperfectible beings. At this point things begin to look up. Realism may be a bitter pill to swallow but if it is for our own good we’ll get it down. However it is at this point in Black Mass that Gray changes his tone.
In a move that commits something akin to a breach of the Hippocratic Oath of Dr Jayant Patel proportions Gray recommends that we revive myth. This may sound contrary to his prior contention that we moderns are suffering from too much belief, if not for his distinction between faith-based and consoling myths. We need myths that help us deal with the mystery of life, the contingency of history and politics, and the accident of birth. Such myths should be normatively minimalist, and certainly devoid of teleology and ideas of social harmony. They should serve as our cultural memory. On this score Gray, in celebrating Spinoza’s insights into human nature, writes:
Religions are not literally true, as their followers believe. They are myths that preserve in symbolic or metaphorical form truths that might otherwise be lost, and the mass of humankind will never be able to do without them.
(Gray 2008a, pp. 263-64)
On this view education for ‘the mass of humankind’, whomever that ill-defined set includes, becomes indoctrination into sedative myths—Soma that will keep us titillated but passive. Such myths, it is hoped, will give our lives meaning while minimising the likelihood that we’ll repeat the murderous crusades of the past (pp. 264, 288-97). The prescription is politically realist in the extreme. But at least it will minimise the likelihood of murderous politics.
To achieve this latter end, myths should be public, not relegated to the private sphere (2008a, p. 294). At this point Gray’s conclusion comes close to the ideas of Michael Allen Gillespie and Clive Hamilton  . Society is now post-secular; what we need to do is bring meaning back in, but a kind of meaning that minimises our chances of killing each other.
The problem, as Gray recognises, is that while such myths are intended to give meaning to otherwise meaningless lives, the primary requirement is that the believer lacks the usual concomitant inspiration. But the idea that a myth can give people’s lives meaning when it fails to inspire may itself be a utopian dream. What leads people to adopt myths is the sense of agency that comes with shared (though delusive) meaning (2008a, p. 288-89). Why would people adopt a realist myth that lacks this inspiration? For example, when we’re facing the prospect of ecological catastrophe, which Gray posits as the next great challenge facing the world , can one really imagine the death of apocalyptic thinking in religion? Given such conditions what we need is a renewed yet realistic secularism. This seems our best chance for a moderate politics.
Gray instead returns (literally) to the beginning:
In the Genesis story humans were banished from paradise after eating from the Tree of Knowledge and had to survive by their labours ever after. There is no promise here of any return to a state of primordial innocence. Once the fruit has been eaten there is no going back. The same truth is preserved in the Greek story of Prometheus, and in many other traditions. These ancient myths are better guides to the present than modern myths of progress and Utopia.
(2008a, pp. 296-97)
Christians need only combine the origin myth with an Augustinian theory of permanent human corruption in the City of Man and they’ll be on their way to a clean bill of political health (Gray 2008a, p. 11). But be warned. Lift your eyes too high and the delusions are bound to return.
In summary, when it comes to treating our modern malady Gray’s Black Mass is just what the doctor ordered; if taken in moderation.
 Gray provocatively argues that the common perception of suicide bombers as religiously motivated is also wrong. The ‘single common factor’ linking suicide bombers of the last two decades is ‘their adherence to a set of political goals’. The conclusion: ‘The decisive conditions in producing long-term, large-scale terrorist violence are not cultural or religious, but political’ (Gray 2008a, p. 249). Combine this argument with the central contention of the book—that modern politics is a chapter in the history of religion—and you see that the common perception is arse up. In reality, modern religious society is the target for politically-motivated suicide bombers. We’re not only blind to the ideas underlying modern society. In a possible act of projection we’ve mis-identified the ideas motivating suicide terrorism. [Back to text]
 If you sought a second opinion from the likes of Leo Strauss or Michael Allen Gillespie the prognosis would be the same—negative—but the diagnosis would be vastly different. You’d hear that favourite conservative line: nihilism is the cause of our modern ills. These diagnoses could not be further apart. From one side we hear that there’s too much belief; from the other, that there’s not enough. And this is why Gray’s work is so engaging. He’s not a Left progressive reeling of the old complaints about US neo- or theo-conservatives; nor is he a theo-conservative reeling off the old complaints about the Left. Gray is from that quasi-conservative-cum-skeptical branch of political thought that is now all-too-rare but which in the past included the likes of David Hume, Isaiah Berlin and, more recently, Karl Popper and Australia’s own John Passmore. [Back to text]
 I hesitate to say ‘humanity’ because for Gray the ontological status of humanity is the same as that of Al Qaeda. In a term that reveals Gray’s Thatcherite past they’re both ‘virtual entities’ (2008a, p. 250). [Back to text]
Gray, J 2008a, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, Penguin, Melbourne
———— 2008b, ‘John Gray at the [Sydney] Writers’ Festival – Part 1’, The Philosopher’s Zone, ABC Online
———— 2008c, ‘John Gray at the [Sydney] Writers’ Festival – Part 2’, The Philosopher’s Zone, ABC Online