In turning his hand to the present, historian Yuval Noah Harari is left without the carefully crafted examples that formed the basis of his bravest arguments, writes James Snell
Book review: Is '21 Lessons for the 21st Century' another hit for Yuval Noah Harari
The success of Yuval Noah Harari’s first book, Sapiens, a sweeping assessment of human history, was so great that its author has been granted a status far beyond that normally afforded to professors of global history.
Harari’s second book, Homo Deus, a similar assessment of what the future holds, sold so many copies its success appeared almost preordained.
The books, in sum, seemed to suggest that their author had a star quality. This view is widely held. Harari is increasingly touted as not only a man with interesting stories to tell, but rather as an essential thinker of our age, the writer who may come closest to envisioning and possibly solving our collective problems.
His publishers certainly seem to attribute the success of Harari’s books to their author’s essential character. Judging by the contents of Harari’s new book, they appear to believe that his every thought is worth placing between the covers of a publication.
21 Lessons for the 21st Century knits previously published work and new purpose-written sections into a characteristic but slightly ramshackle whole.
Harari says in his introduction that the book was written “in conversation with the public”, leaving his assessments of the issues arising from modernity compiled, on purpose, in an impressionistic manner, with the entry for each lesson left less than exhaustive.
The substance of Harari’s diagnoses and arguments matter more than this superficial lack of coherence and polish. His arguments broadly fit together – with few joins showing. The problem that presents itself is distinct from questions of structure. It is that Harari’s basic prognosis, although portentous, is not truly substantive.
Harari laments the travails the liberal consensus appears to be facing. He is not the first to diagnose them. He suggests they might not be as terminal as the opponents of this system suggest or its more morbid advocates predict. He warns against hysteria: “Panic is a kind of hubris.” This is not wrong, and it is not without value. But none of it is revelatory.
Some of Harari’s pearls of wisdom seem pedestrian; others seem ill-conceived. In a lesson regarding terrorism, Harari asserts, via the pleasing fable of a small fly driving a large bull to smash up a china shop, that those who committed terrorism against the United States in September 2001 got what they wanted in the end. The terrorists not because they killed up to 3,000 people, but rather because the US – the bull, in this analogy – afterwards smashed up the china shop that is the Middle East. To call this reductive understates matters.
Later in that same lesson, Harari suggests three strategies that together might lessen the effectiveness of terror.
The first requires state action against terrorist networks; the second involves media management – conscious choices by media to guarantee the avoidance of hysteria; the third requires each citizen using their imagination so that they are no longer under the impression that “there is a murderer lurking behind every tree”.
The first suggestion goes without saying, and the latter could be derived from any popular study of the effect of violence and fear on our collective. The second is rather hard to implement without a psychological rewiring of the population at large or a mass reassessment of the situation on behalf of those working in media. Harari does not stop to formulate any of this. He moves on to other things.
Harari is, it turns out, broadly opposed to the exclusive claims religions make for themselves and to the pettiness of some of the commands contained in every holy book.
For him though, the “lawgiver god” of archetype has value in providing a justification for a well-ordered society, it is not a necessary precondition for such a society to arise. Religious people can be good, and they can be bad. Those of religious faith who cannot “acknowledge the shadow” of negativity which accompanies their beliefs are not, Harari says, to be trusted.
All of this may be a lesson in nuance some people need to learn, but for many readers, examples like the above will not prove all that educative.
There is an issue with building a career on radical reinterpretations of narrative history, bold descriptions of the centuries to come, and the dramatic arguments such vast wastes of time can contain.
The problem concerns how a budding intellectual copes when the big ideas that dominate contemporary debate belong to other people.
Having addressed the deep past and the distant future, Harari turns his attention to the present. In doing so he is left without his arsenal of carefully set examples, and without the vast canvasses that provide the basis for his bravest and boldest arguments. The present is so brief it’s almost no time at all.
At times it feels as though Harari can no longer sustain the imagination and intellectual brio that made Sapiens and Homo Deus so successful and broadly admired. And that might be a lesson worth learning for the man some expect to become the defining intellectual of the moment.