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Yuval Noah Harari: 21 Lessons for the 21st Century

Today we associate the Enlightenment with values such as tolerance and freedom, but originally only  a few defended these ideas. Renowned enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire or Kant did not tolerate Catholics, atheists, agnostics, or homosexuals. They preached a moderate version of freedom of consciousness. In sharp contrast, other thinkers inspired by Baruch Spinoza –the philosopher living in Amsterdam, of Iberian origin and expelled from the synagogue– promoted a kind of unrestricted philosophical freedom and tolerance. The Princeton historian Jonathan Israel call it “Radical Enlightenment”. And Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli citizen born in 1976 is clearly a part of it.

In contrast with the persecuted, clandestine spinozists of the 16th century, Harari’s ideas are a big success in the global marketplace. Even his wildest speculations are heard by political and intellectual leaders worldwide. Initially published in Hebrew –his native language– his books are today big bestsellers; two in particular: Sapiens. A brief history of humankind and Homo deus (2014). ABrief History of Tomorrow (2016). The latter has been published in Spanish: 21 lecciones para el siglo XXI.

However  Harari goes even beyond Spinoza. His passionate universalism demands that no one occupies the centre of the world. Not even the “chosen people” par excellance. His main arguments are in line with the III chapter of the Tractatus theologicus-politicus, written in 1670 and banned in 1674 by the courts of The Hague, where Spinoza argues that the Hebrew nation “was not chosen by God in virtue of its superior intelligence, but because of its organization”. Harari claims that Judaism “played a minor role in the annals of our species” and highlights his essentially tribal character, compared with the world religions: Islamism, Buddhism, and Christianity. Harari does not ignore the undoubted cultural and scientific achievements of his own ethno-religious group (Jewish people are 0.2% of the total world populations, but account for 25% of Nobel prizes in Physics, or Physiology or medicine), but he attributes that not to “Judaism” as a superior cultural tradition but to specific, talented individuals. Only after “abandoning the yeshiva schools in favour of laboratories” they excel in science and other disciplines.

This book is a vindication of secularism and secular humanism. Secularization and Enlightenment made the Jewish adoption of the kind of thinking and lifestyle of gentiles possible. They began to go to universities. The author gives this lesson of humility to devaluate nationalist stories and, simultaneously, to explain the history of humanity from a non-local point of view, in contrast with the common human theme of ethnocentrism. We must not forget that the supremacist temptation survives even today in modern nationalism. Even though they sometimes seem like a parody: they are not, a A rabbi did not invent Yoga, and Cristobal Colon was not a crypto-catalan. There is no such thing as the chosen people.

The 21 lessons of this book orbitate towards a problem of scale: Yval Noah Harari is genuinely persuaded that we can face the next global convergence of catastrophes with traditional identities and ethnocentric tendencies. Through different chapters, we see what Mark Van Vugt and Ronald Giphard call a “mismatch”: the idea that we have Stone Age minds ill-equipped to deal with novel existential problems such as climate change, nuclear threats or digital dictatorship. Even our most beloved ideas of freedom, justice and equality, inherited from our mammal lineage, but refined by humanist and religious traditions, could be outdated when facing big scale problems.

We have a big choice to make: either expand the moral circle or perish. Even assuming that we do not have a persuasive substitute for the old, dying liberalism, the last of the meta-narratives. Because according to Harari this old liberalism is our last “ideological deception”. Still, he praises the European Union as an experiment oriented to a global society based on democracy, free markets, peace and human rights. Simultaneously he warns us that the end of national identities would not lead us to the liberal utopia, but to the return of the tribe. He defends a “benign patriotism”, far from isolated nationalism, as an intermediate step before a truly global solution. And here is when things get complicated: Harari fears that “technological disruption”, linked to the findings of neuroscience and informational technologies, is compromising our beloved theories about the electorate’s assumed free choice, and about the prospects of an enlightened government.

Harari is a bit pessimistic about liberal democracy. He thinks that, in its actual form, “it won’t survive the fusion of biotechnology and info technology” and speculates about a future political sovereignty based on intelligent algorithms, not human citizens. The human species could even split into different biological “castes”, if the gap between the cognitive elite and the rest (a term coined by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein two decades ago in “The Bell curve” and developed in a recent sequel, “Coming apart”) keeps growing. Ironically, this result would put an unexpected end to Harari’s intellectual project. Human history can no longer be told from a point of view of a single species.

Link to the original review: El Cultural

Foto: Penguin Random House


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