A Comparative Review of Robert D. Kaplan’s Warrior Politics and John Gray’s Straw Dogs

John Gray is one of several contemporary writers who look back to classical antiquity for inspiration. In his book Straw Dogs several of Gray’s references to ancient Greece reminded me of similar choices made by Robert D. Kaplan in Warrior Politics and so I thought it would be interesting to compare the two books even though they discuss quite different subjects.

Gray’s is the later of the two books and sure enough, when you reach page 230, that is, the final page of the “Further Reading” section at the back of the book, you discover that Kaplan’s Warrior Politics is acknowledged as “a brilliant application of pagan ethics to contemporary statesmanship”.

Kaplan’s book is a study of the art of effective statecraft as revealed by the writers of pagan antiquity and by those later writers who were also influenced by them; his book is really a discussion of prudence as applied to international policy with its focus firmly set on virtuous action.

Gray, on the other hand, turns his gaze within and contemplates the nature of what it is to be human, arguing that we are far closer to other creatures in our animality than we are supposedly comfortable or willing to accept. He has written a sort of commonplace book, almost as if it were a record of thoughts that occurred to him in response to his reading. Gray has also included a wide array of quotations whose purpose is, he assures us, “simply to illustrate” what he has written. (I cannot help wondering, however, if that word “simply” is not a little ingenuous – might it not be that it was the quotations that sparked the thoughts that the writing conveys?)

Both writers admire Homer. Both admire Hobbes and Machiavelli – though Kaplan warns that care must be taken when dealing with the latter. Another reviewer suggested that Gray’s sketches of philosophers “might well have been drawn second-hand from basic philosophy texts” (Sam Nico, Amazon.co.uk). When Gray discusses Machiavelli and Hobbes he appears to reveal the influence of Kaplan – Gray comments that in their writings

a forbidden truth is made plain. It is not only that the good life has little to do with ‘morality’. It flourishes only because of ‘immorality’. (p.108)

Both also share an admiration the writings of Malthus. Kaplan:

If Malthus is wrong, then why is it necessary to prove him wrong again and again, every decade and every century? Perhaps because at some fundamental level, a gnawing fear exists that Malthus may just be right (p.94).


If you want to understand 21st century wars, forget the ideological conflicts of the twentieth century. Read Malthus instead. (p.179)

Malthus, notes Kaplan approvingly, was a “conservative skeptic”. Both Warrior Politics and Straw Dogs may be seen as different manifestations of a neo-pagan form of that worldview asserting itself.

However, Gray’s scepticism, as expressed in Straw Dogs, is a more extreme variant. Gray casts doubt on the value of prudence in our personal lives, whereas for Kaplan prudence is of supreme value in the exercise of statesmanship.

At times Gray seems to delight in a sort of curmudgeonly, nihilistic misanthropy (as Eagleton mentions in his revew of the book). Here is Gray’s dismissal of the species to which I presume he belongs:

Homo rapiens is only one of very many species, and not obviously worth
preserving. (p.151)***

Both Kaplan and Gray agree that in his essential nature man is ever what he was. For Gray, man is essentially a rapacious beast full of dangerous illusions about himself and the world, illusions that are nurtured and protected by his urgent desire to keep himself busy; by keeping himself busy man can avoid having to confront and acknowledge the bleakness of his situation.

Kaplan, however, with his advocacy of prudential pragmatism, surely believes that, despite mankind’s faults, something human is “obviously WORTH preserving”, whether it is the city state, the republic, or contemporary open societies and, inspired by the great writers of the past, Homer, Livy, Plutarch, Sun-tsu, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Kant, Malthus, Churchill, he has much to say on how that may be done.

Kaplan writes as a political philosopher concerned with international relations from the perspective of a “constructive pessimist” (his term for the Founding Fathers of America, which seems to me to be a suitable label for Kaplan himself).

As he sees it, his pessimism “may be germaine” not because everything will go wrong (“many things… will go right in international relations, … which humanists will duly celebrate” p.xxii), but because we are at the same time confronted by “darker issues”. At times he writes with the inspiration of those he admires and, like them, acknowledges that “Objectivity is illusory“, rather as Gray does. But whereas Gray sees most western philosophers, with the exception of Schopenhauer, as suffering from the delusions of their European, Christian, Platonic inheritance and therefore ripe for debunking, Kaplan’s approach is more carefully nuanced:

Philosophy is not necessarily instructive. It can be useless or, in some cases, even dangerous… But… (WP p. xxi)

The qualifying phrases are important in distinguishing the difference between Kaplan and Gray, for while they both operate within a pessimistic framework that acknowledges the weaknesses and limitations of humanity, Gray is more trenchantly dismissive in tone. This is partly a matter of style and definition. Kaplan, for example, uses the word “philosopher” in a broader sense than Gray, while Gray’s style is necessarily more provocative, playful and at times incendiary. Indeed, the brevity and simplicity of Gray’s sentences suggest a writer who is struggling to construct effortlessly ludic aphorisms, but for whom gnomic inspiration to often declines to glib banality:

Philosophers have always tried to show that we are not like other animals, sniffing their way uncertainly through the world. Yet after all the work of Plato and Spinoza, Descartes and Bertrand Russell we have no more reason than other animals do for believing that the sun will rise tomorrow. (p. 55)

I like the first sentence, particularly the uncertain attribution of the second clause – does it refer to “philosophers” or “other animals”? I believe the equivocation to be deliberate propaganda on Gray’s part, executed with an instinctive animal cunning, and as such it is quite effective. But what of the conclusion? The dispatching of four philosophers in the first half of the second sentence aside, what is this passage if it is not merest expression of a tatterdemalion idiocy presuming too much upon the borrowed clouts of a brief and eloquent profundity?

Here is another example:

Human knowledge is one thing; human wellbeing another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living. (p. 25)

Thus is Socrates dismissed.

And here is another:

We cannot choose to be what we are born. In that case, we cannot be responsible for what we do. (p.66)

It is a pity that Socrates has already been dismissed because he could have reminded Gray that “likeness to truth is not the same thing as truth.” We might add that likeness to logic (“A” … “in that case”… “B” …) is not the same thing as logic itself. The reasoning is so sloppy, so adolescent, that one feels as embarrassed for Gray’s conceit when one reads stuff like this as one does for Doctor Faustus‘s:

Bene disserere est finis Logicis.
Is to dispute well Logickes chiefest end?
Affords this Art no greater miracle?
Then read no more, thou hast attain’d that end…

Oh no thou hast not, Doctor Faustus, and neither hast thou, Professor Gray!

It is as if Gray has gone out of his way to confirm the good Anglican doctor’s remark that:

He who makes a beast of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man. – Dr. Johnson

Compare the sloppiness and the idle pessimism of what Gray has to say to the more subtly balanced assessment of our condition given by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire:

People make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

The difference between Gray and Kaplan, which may be one of character and disposition as well as of the requirements that their different themes present, is also reflected in their respective preferences when drawing on ancient Chinese philosophers for inspiration.

Kaplan prefers the political and military strategist Sun Tsu, which is not surprising given both his advocacy of pagan prudence and the title of his book, “Warrior Politics”.

For his part, Gray turns to the playful Taoist dreamer Chuang-tzu. A central but unaknowledged conceit of Gray’s in Straw Dogs is that of himself as one of those wise owls who stares in the darkness and discovers that the aim of life is “merely to see”. What is seen and engaged with then becomes the object of a sort of purposeless play of unmeaning in which “the knack of knowing what to do” (which is Gray’s neat encapsulation of of Taoism) becomes the path to achieving the “good life”; the “good life” is itself simply “the natural life lived skillfully” with a machine-like efficiency.

Even a most rudimentary historical context is denied to the fragmentary, self-less machine-like animal that Gray names homo ludens (or,elsewhere, homo rapiens), but I am at a loss to follow the logic of the argument:

If you believe that humans are animals, there can be no such thing as the history of humanity, only the lives of particular humans… None has a meaning that lies beyond itself. (p. 48)

There is nothing to look back to of any significance and there is little in the future to cause us to exercise prudence. At one point Gray comments that asking “Why be prudent?” is more interesting than asking “Why be moral?” (p.105).

Why be prudent? Gray poses the question, quotes Santayana posing the question, pronounces it unanswerable and like jesting Pilate, “would not stay for an answer”.

It is here, in their attitudes to the past and the future, to history and prudence, that the chasm between Gray, the latter-day Taoist and Kaplan, the contemporary Confucian, yawns the widest.

Gray expends much of his energy telling us that we are no different from other animals – except in our deluded dreams – whereas Kaplan begins his book with a quotation from Jose’ Ortega Y Gasset which strikes a note that could not be more at odds with the opinions that Gray gives voice to. What Gasset wrote is worth quoting in full (even though it will cause me to quote a quotation of a quotation that contains a quotation of a quotation):

Man’s real treasure is the treasure of his mistakes, piled up stone by stone through thousands of years…. Breaking the continuity with the past, wanting to begin again, is a lowering of man and a plagiarism of the orangutan. It was a Frenchman, Dupont-White, who around 1860 had the courage to exclaim: ‘Continuity is one of the rights of man; it is a homage of everything that distinguishes him from the beast.’ (p. xvii)

Unlike Gray and other Taoists (but like any good Confucian whether a Mencian optimist or a pessimist of the school of Hsun-tsu), Kaplan turns to the analecta of the past to discover examples, laws and methods by which he might weigh up his options and choose the most prudential course of action in pursuit of his aims, one of which being self-preservation in a dangerous world.

That Kaplan’s reading list of European political philosophers is taken up in places by Gray does nothing to lessen this divergence of attitude. At times Gray seems to have no use for action at all. One sympathises with his complaint that “The idea that the aim of life is not action but contemplation has almost disappeared” but one also notes – perhaps unfairly – that Gray does not tell us what is to be done to make good the loss; the point being that a culture in which the contemplative life is both valued and available cannot be established, built up, defended, or restored, without a great deal of action in its behalf.

Gray quotes what must be the most famous line from Conrad‘s Nostromo:

Action is consolatory. It is the enemy of thought and the friend of flattering illusions. (p.193)

Gray argues that people find action consolatory because it keeps at bay “a truth they are too weak to bear”, which is their presentiment of their own mortality. He puts in a nice defence of idleness by pointing out that it is idle reflection, not action, that reveals to us the true nature of our circumstances:

Action preserves a sense of self-identity that reflection dispels. When we are at work in the world we have a seeming solidity. Action gives us consolation for our inexistence. It is not the idle dreamer who escapes from reality. It is practical men and women, who turn to a life of action as a refuge from insignificance. (p.194)

Nevertheless, when we do act (for even Gray allows that sometimes we must) we must avoid succumbing to illusions or raising false hopes; we must not expect science to make us free or rational creatures, we must seek peace without harbouring any hopes of achieving it, we must cherish freedom without expecting to preserve it.

The real target of Gray’s Conradian scepticism, however, is the humanistic belief in progress:

The good life is not found in dreams of progress, but in coping with tragic contingencies. (p.94)

On this point both he and Kaplan (and Conrad himself, I should think) would concur, for Kaplan argues that

the world is not “modern” or “postmodern” but only a continuation of the ancient – a world that, despite its technologies, the best Chinese, Greek, and Roman philosophers would have understood, and known how to navigate. (p.vii)

The choice of words in those two quotations illustrates their difference in emphasis, their different responses to their respective scepticisms and their different attitudes to the value of action in the world.

It is their shared scepticism towards the world of men that causes Gray to creak to a halt while at the same time providing the motive and incentive for Kaplan to take the initiative. For Gray it is a matter of “coping with contingencies”, a reactive strategy of dealing with whatever comes along to disturb one’s idle contemplations.

Kaplan, on the other hand, believes there is much to be gained in taking the initiative into one’s own hands by absorbing “the wisdom of the ancients”, making prudent use of their charts and maps to set a course that will preserve the frail bark of the state from the rocks and whirlpools that abound in the seaways of this contingent and risky world. Kaplan believes that we should endeavour to see clearly the risks we face so that we might set and attain realistic goals; Gray, on the other hand, believes that it is our very tendency to project our goals onto the circumstances in which we find ourselves that clouds our vision.


***Pace’ Gray

Shortly after finishing Straw Dogs I read Beyond a World Divided by Erika Erdmann and David Stover. Erdmann and Stover explain and discuss the “the Brain-Mind Science” of Nobel Laureate Roger Sperry and its implications for human values and ethics. I could not help but think of what Gray had written when I read the following passage in their book:

“Those who have argued that the demise of humankind would be a blessing to our earth should be reminded that all the beauty of nature we experience, all the meaningfulness and grandeur of the universe, is created by the interaction of our nervous systems with that universe – and would vanish as our brains reverted to dust. it might be millions or even hundreds of millions of years before intelligent beings would arise again, this time, one hopes, not to make the same mistakes. And it might be never. Clearly, rather than hoping for destruction and the cleaning of the slate, we would be better developing the wisdom of our own species, encouraging pioneers seeking to expand that wisdom – so long as openness toward new knowledge remains part of our greatest good.” (p.178)

David Hurley
3rd January 2003,
revised 12th February 2003
republished 2012

Notes On Chinese Philosophers
Sun Tzu or Hsun-Tzu?
Chuang Tzu
Sun Tzu (flourished circa 500 BC), the author of The Art of War is the more famous of these two writers.

Hsun Tzu (born 312 BC) was a Confucian who set out the most comprehensive philosophical system of his day. Confucius himself said little about human nature:
'By nature, men are nearly alike; by practice, they get to be wide apart. (XVII ii)

Mencius, the first apostle of Confucianism, argued that humans were innately good.

Hsun Tzu, however, insisted that humans are evil by nature. It is by observing the rites, through education and culture that man may attain unto a better estate. We might therefore refer to Hsun Tzu as the first "Conservative Skeptic" (see essay).
In contrast to the Confucian philosophers Hsun Tzu and Mencius, Chuang Tzu (flourished 3rd century BC) was a Taoist. Like Lao Tzu before him, he had little interest in the rites and in public life or a life of service to the state and preferred a life spent contemplating nature and coming up with arresting images and conundrums such as his trying to remember whether he was a butterfly dreaming he was a man or vice versa.

It was Chuang Tzu who wrote the quote that inspired Gray in his choice of title:
"Heaven and earth are ruthless, and treat the myriad creatures as straw dogs."

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