“The Unsaved” – John GRAY

The certitude that there is no salvation is a form of salvation, in fact it is salvation. Starting from here, one might organise our own life as well as construct a philosophy of history: the insoluble as solution, as the only way out.

E. M. CIORAN

1. Saviours

The Buddha promised release from something we all understand – suffering. By contrast, no one can say what was humankind’s original sin, and no one understands how the suffering of Christ can redeem it.

Christianity began as a Jewish sect. For the early followers of Jesus, sin meant disobedience to God, and the punishment for sinful mankind was the end of the world. These mythic beliefs were linked with the figure of a messiah, a divine messenger who brought retribution to the world and redemption to the obedient few.

It was Saint Paul, not Jesus, who founded Christianity. Paul turned a Jewish messianic cult into a Greco-Roman mystery religion; but he could not free the faith he invented from Jesus’s inheritance. It is not only that beliefs about sin and redemption were at the heart of Jesus’s teaching. Without some such beliefs, the Christian promise of redemption has no meaning. If we are not sinners we do not need to be redeemed, and the promise of redemption cannot help us endure our sorrows. As Borges writes of Jesus:

Night has fallen. He has died now.
A fly crawls over the still flesh.
Of what use is it to me that this man has suffered,
If I am suffering now?

In D. H. Lawrence’s story The Escaped Cock, Jesus comes back from the dead only to give up the idea of saving mankind. He views the world with wonder and asks himself: ‘From what, and to what, could this infinite whirl be saved?’

Humans think they are free, conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals. At the same time they never cease trying to escape from what they imagine themselves to be. Their religions are attempts to be rid of a freedom they have never possessed. In the twentieth century, the utopias of Right and Left served the same function. Today, when politics is unconvincing even as entertainment, science has taken on the role of mankind’s deliverer.

One may imagine an esoteric teaching that says there is nothing from which to seek deliverance, a teaching whose aim is to free humanity from the yoke of salvation. In Report to Greco, Nikos Kazantzakis has the Buddha telling his faithful disciple Ananda:

Whoever says salvation exists is a slave, because he keeps weighing each of his words and deeds at every moment. ‘Will I be saved or damned?’ he tremblingly asks.… Salvation means deliverance from all saviours … now you understand who is the perfect Saviour.… It is the Saviour who shall deliver mankind from salvation.

A pretty notion, but who needs it? Animals like any other, but more restless than most, humans find fulfilment, in Robinson Jeffers’s words:

in the
Disastrous rhythm, the heavy and mobile masses,
the dance of the
Dream-led masses down the dark mountain.

Average humanity takes its saviours too lightly to need saving from them. Its would-be deliverers need it more than it needs them. When it looks to its deliverers it is for distraction, not salvation.

2. The Grand Inquisitor and Flying Fish

In his commentary on Dostoevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor, D. H. Lawrence confessed that he had once rejected the philosophy of the Grand Inquisitor as a ‘cynical-satanical pose’. In Dostoevsky’s parable, which appears as a ‘poem’ composed by Ivan Karamazov and told to his brother Aloysha in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, Jesus returns to the world during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Though he comes ‘softly, unobserved’, it is not long before he is recognised by the people, and taken prisoner by the Grand Inquisitor. Shut up in the ancient palace of the Holy Inquisition, he is questioned, but refuses to answer.

The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that humanity is too weak to bear the gift of freedom. It does not seek freedom but bread – not the divine bread promised by Jesus, but ordinary earthly bread. People will worship whomever gives them bread, for they need their rulers to be gods. The Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus that his teaching has been amended to deal with humanity as it really is: ‘We have corrected Thy work and have founded it on miracle, mystery and authority. And men rejoiced that they were again led like sheep, and that the terrible gift that brought them such suffering was, at last, lifted from their hearts.’

Lawrence tells us he once dismissed the Grand Inquisitor’s assertion that humans cannot bear freedom as ‘showing off in blasphemy’. On reflection, his judgement was different: the Grand Inquisitor’s assertion contains ‘the final and unanswerable criticism of Christ … it is a deadly, devastating summing-up, unanswerable because borne out by the long experience of humanity. It is reality versus illusion, and the illusion was Jesus’s, while time itself retorts with the reality.’ Lawrence explains his change of mind with a question: ‘Is it true that mankind demands, and will always demand, miracle, mystery and authority?’ He answers:

Surely it is true. Today, man gets his sense of the miraculous from science and machinery, radio, airplanes, vast ships, zeppelins, poison gas, artificial silk: these things nourish man’s sense of the miraculous as magic did in the past.… Dostoevsky’s diagnosis of human nature is simple and unanswerable. We have to submit, and agree that men are like that.

Lawrence was right. Today, for the mass of humanity, science and technology embody ‘miracle, mystery and authority’. Science promises that the most ancient human fantasies will at last be realised. Sickness and ageing will be abolished; scarcity and poverty will be no more; the species will become immortal. Like Christianity in the past, the modern cult of science lives on the hope of miracles. But to think that science can transform the human lot is to believe in magic. Time retorts to the illusions of humanism with the reality: frail, deranged, undelivered humanity. Even as it enables poverty to be diminished and sickness to be alleviated, science will be used to refine tyranny and perfect the art of war.

The truth that Dostoevsky puts in the mouth of the Grand Inquisitor is that humankind has never sought freedom, and never will. The secular religions of modern times tell us that humans yearn to be free; and it is true that they find restraint of any kind irksome. Yet it is rare that individuals value their freedom more than the comfort that comes with servility, and rarer still for whole peoples to do so. As Joseph de Maistre commented on Rousseau’s dictum that men are born free but are everywhere in chains: to think that, because a few people sometimes seek freedom, all human beings want it is like thinking that, because there are flying fish, it is in the nature of fish to fly.

No doubt there will be free societies in the future as there have been in the past. But they will be rare, and variations on anarchy and tyranny will be the norm. The needs that are met by tyrants are as real as those to which freedom answers; sometimes they are more urgent. Tyrants promise security – and release from the tedium of everyday existence. To be sure, this is only a confused fantasy. The drab truth of tyranny is a life spent in waiting. But the perennial romance of tyranny comes from its promising its subjects a life more interesting than any they can contrive for themselves. Whatever they become, tyrannies begin as festivals of the depressed. Dictators may come to power on the back of chaos, but their unspoken promise is that they will relieve the boredom of their subjects. On this, the Grand Inquisitor cannot be faulted.

The lie in the Grand Inquisitor’s speech is his view of himself. He sees himself as the most tragic of men, cursed with a vision of truth denied to feeble humanity, and so burdened with the responsibility of caring for it. He is bound to save humanity from ‘the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making a free decision for themselves. And all will be happy, all the millions of creatures except the hundred thousand who rule over them. For only we, we who guard the mystery, will be unhappy.’ This is only Romantic conceit run wild. The Grand Inquisitor’s vigil cannot bring salvation to humanity. It does not need it. It can only bring peace to the Grand Inquisitor himself.

In fact, of course, there are no Grand Inquisitors. The inquisitors on whom Dostoevsky’s character was modelled were not saints who dedicated their lives to sparing humanity from being crushed by the truth. They were no different from the rest of mankind, perhaps even worse: crazed fanatics, revenge seekers or timorous careerists. Dostoevsky’s lurid portrait is belied by the human reality. Inquisitors are made not from the saintly-satanic urge to spare mankind from truth, but from fear, resentment and the pleasure of bullying the weak.

Science can advance human knowledge, it cannot make humanity cherish truth. Like the Christians of former times, scientists are caught up in the web of power; they struggle for survival and success; their view of the world is a patchwork of conventional beliefs. Science cannot bring ‘miracle, mystery and authority’ to humankind, if only because – like those who served the Church in the past – its servants are all too human.


GRAY, John, “In praise of polytheism”, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003.

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