John Gray

The Privilege of Absurdity

Talking to the Enemy: Violent Extremism, Sacred Values, and What It Means to Be Human


Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 558pp £20 order from our bookshop

In Leviathan Hobbes writes of ‘the privilege of absurdity; to which no living creature is subject, but man only’. Nothing could be more absurd, according to Hobbes’s way of thinking, than killing oneself – except perhaps killing oneself in order to kill others. War shows the law of self-preservation working itself out in practice: humans kill other humans because they fear being killed themselves. But if that is so then any type of warfare that involves certain death for the combatants will be self-defeating. Soldiers who sacrifice their lives in order to protect their comrades are committing suicide – an attitude that Hobbes, for whom a self-interested fear of death was the primary human motivation, could never account for. Behaviour of this kind is not only irrational, but – Hobbes at times suggested – a symptom of madness. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter