21 Lessons for the 21st Century
by Yuval Noah Harari.
Spiegel and Grau, 2018.
Hardcover, 400 pages, $28.

Reviewed by Jeffrey Folks

Yuval Noah Harari is a brilliant historian teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His 2015 bestseller, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, was greeted with positive reviews by Barack Obama, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and other luminaries. Among other critics, the judgment was more nuanced. Peter Forbes in the Independent found Sapiens “eloquent and humane,” “brave and bracing,” while also noting that the book was as much philosophical meditation as historical research. Tom Payne in the Telegraph judged Sapiens “at once well informed and vatic.”

The 2017 sequel, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, also received generally positive if more qualified notices. In a Time review Bill Gates found Homo Deus “a deeply engaging book,” although he questioned Harari’s bleak vision of the future. In the New York Times Jennifer Senior found Harari to be “a gifted thinker and a precocious mind” (whose writing, she added, is nonetheless filled with “blithe pronouncement[s]” of an extremely uninviting future). As Senior put it, the future Harari predicts “looks like Westworld, rather than Disney World.”

For his second “brief history,” Harari draws his title from the idea that in the twenty-first century, the “big project of humankind will be to acquire for us divine powers of creation and destruction,” including near-immortality and absolute happiness. Harari is not the first author to speculate on these themes. Among many such were William Morris in News from Nowhere (1890) and, in a dystopian vein, Aldous Huxley in Brave New World (1932) and After Many a Summer (1939) [published in the U.S. as After Many a Summer Dies the Swan]. More pertinent, perhaps, is Filippo Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto (1909). Harari shares with Marinetti a fascination with the exponential increase of technology and its transformative effect on human nature itself. Like Marinetti, Harari bases his vision of the future on speculation concerning the potential of a combination of social science and technology and, of course, the conviction that humanity has now arrived at dramatic turning point, an element in nearly all futurist writing. Marinetti’s fascination with the superman is not unlike Harari’s focus on the rapid evolution of homo sapiens as it merges with and then finds itself subjugated by artificial intelligence. It goes without saying that, according to this view, man’s cultural and spiritual heritage is of little use to those in the future.

In his third book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari discards the persona of the historian altogether and becomes what he has trended toward all along: a speculative futurist and advocate of progressive ideas. Those twenty-one lessons are, for the most part, merely a summation of familiar liberal talking points updated to apply to what Harari views as a world increasingly dominated by artificial intelligence and the algorithms upon which it depends. If the book seems original, it is because it is filled with overblown claims and sweeping generalizations that make the work appear to be bold and insightful. In reality, like his earlier works, Harari’s third book falls into a familiar tradition of antagonist thinking of the sort analyzed in great depth in the work of Roger Scruton.

Antagonist thought is inherently mischievous in nature, its “purpose” being épater la bourgeoisie and to draw attention to the self of the alienated rebel. At the core of this reflex is the adolescent’s resentment of the authority of the wealthy and successful bourgeois father. Driven by this resentment, the intellectual youth discovers a sense of purpose in deconstructing the world that the hard-working father has built up. The resented authority of the father is then by association extended to include all authority, especially that of conservative institutions such as the church, the rule of law, heterogenous marriage and family life, business and finance, and constitutional democracy. In opposition to these institutions the antagonist deploys an array of ideas including atheism, anarchism, socialism, gender construction, and various forms of authoritarianism (communism, fascism, or, in the case of 21 Lessons, artificial intelligence).

Certainly, one of the most disturbing elements of Harari’s writing is its indifference toward democracy and the sanctity of individual rights. 21 Lessons mocks the notion that citizens possess the free will necessary to make intelligent choices for themselves. Lacking this free will, elections are just the product of ad campaigns and irrational whims: wouldn’t it be better, Harari suggests, if the State were governed by well-meaning experts, persons like “Einstein and Dawkins” rather the likes of an “illiterate maid.” And of all the nations in the world, it is America in which this misguided faith in democracy is most revered. That is surely one reason, along with its military power and conservative view of social issues, that America is the object of so much loathing on the part of left-wing intellectuals. Democracy, in their view, is not a precious gift passed down by our ancestors: it is an obstacle, along with constitutions and the church, on the path toward global government.

Harari is correct, of course, in pointing out that democratic capitalism has existed only for several hundred years, but one needs to consider the real nature of alternatives to our current economic and political systems. What Harari’s books promote is global governance with the restriction, if not elimination, of corporations and, in effect, an end to democratic decision-making. The future that these works envisions is a vast global welfare state ruled largely by supercomputers, a world in which humans have no real power or purpose. “Purpose,” in fact, would have to be encouraged by the state so as to achieve “a contented life in a post-work world.” The author suggests that sports and hobbies, even religion, which he seems to regard as a sort of hobby, might fill the gap resulting from the elimination of meaningful work and self-responsibility. All aspects of everyday living would be governed by the State, itself nothing more than a perpetual and all-powerful global police state directed by artificial intelligence. I regard that as a terrifying proposal, breathtaking in its scope and evil.

The alternative, as many in the world are beginning to see, is a revitalization of faith in God, in democracy, in family, and in free enterprise. Christianity is not a warmongering and imperialistic ideology, as Harari’s books sometimes suggest, but a life-giving and salvational faith, as are Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and Judaism. Capitalism, which leftists paint in broad strokes as repressive and inequitable, is, as Deirdre McCloskey demonstrates in great detail in her Bourgeois Era trilogy, merely the manifestation of an innate instinct in all human beings toward material exchange and betterment. Far from being a brief moment in human history, preceded by monarchy and ensued by AI-directed communism, capitalism in one form or another is simply another word for mankind’s innate curiosity, productivity, and ambition. Foreclosing capitalism amounts to the repression of one of man’s defining traits: his remarkable creative intelligence in regard to material production and self-improvement. To repress this instinct in favor of a pointless existence as the “beneficiary” of a global welfare state is the actual threat to the species.

To accept the end of liberal democracy, the demise of religion, and the suppression of economic creativity as solutions to our “unprecedented crisis” is hardly a solution. One would as well push the nuclear button and get it over with, but fortunately this is not necessary. Contrary to what the author claims, the world we know is not a dire place with a hopeless future. In fact, it is a world that continues to advance at an astounding rate. Global GDP over the past century has risen at something like 7 percent per year. Healthcare has put an end to many of the diseases that savaged mankind in the past, and the world’s population is better educated and skilled than ever. There is no reason to believe that these advances will not continue into the future. The dangers of climate change, about which Harari has much to say, have not manifested themselves in a catastrophic way, despite decades of predictions on the part of similar authors and a warning from Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez that the world will come to an end in 2031. It is true that nuclear war remains an important danger, but, so far at least, it has been checked. Social media, far from being the scourge that already controls our minds through the accumulation of data, need not control us: we can simply turn it off.

Remarkably, after deconstructing so many forms of conventional and traditional belief, at the end of 21 Lessons Harari returns, as if on some enormous wheel of reflection, to a position that is the starting point of all conservative thought: the necessity of a basis of order and value in a world unredeemed by faith. Having rejected all the “stories,” as he sees them, of religion, nationalism, romantic love, and every other sort of order—and having rejected even the philosophy of non-attachment enshrined in Buddhism—Harari then makes a startling announcement: that the foundation of all truth is the recognition that existence is neither a mental construction, as liberal thought believes it to be, nor a rejection of mental constructions of the sort offered by postmodernism: rather, it is an unshakeable recognition of the reality of suffering and of the need to order existence so as to lessen it. Existence is grounded on this absolute reality: the suffering of others is real, and we must work to alleviate it.

Isn’t this near the core of the message of Christ and of the long tradition of thought built upon his teachings? Isn’t this the message of conservatism, based as it is on restraint, compassion, private charity, and self-responsibility? By a peculiar irony, it seems that Harari’s radical skepticism, so often directed at religious thought, has cleared away every trace of modernist and postmodernist thought and returned to the starting point at which Western civilization began. When Christ taught that suffering was the true nature of the human condition and that his teaching was the Way and the Light, he rejected those competing stories of the State, the self, and the marketplace. Strange, isn’t it, that a secular writer so thoroughly versed in every branch of modernist philosophy should arrive in the end at a point no different from that of the origin of Christian teaching?

One must give Harari credit, despite much mischievousness along the way, for pursuing his analysis to its logical end. If, indeed, all of the “old stories” no longer compel belief and we are truly at sea, then it is, as the author recognizes, truly the end for homo sapiens. Having boxed himself into a corner—the old truths no longer apply, but without them we can no longer survive—the author is honest enough to admit that we must in some manner salvage the enduring truths. We must restore a values-based civilization, and to do so we must restore faith in the divine origin of life. Nothing less will do.

Yuval Harari is far from being the visionary writer that some of his critics supposed following the publication of Sapiens. One finds oneself more often questioning his generalizations than agreeing with them, and as the questioning mounts, one finds that the writing loses credibility. In the end, however, Harari appears to reject much of what he has said about the need for global government, universal welfare, and religious skepticism and to adopt a values-based philosophy that echoes the teaching of the world’s great religions and of the humanistic teachings that evolved from them. Without a grounding in faith, how would it be possible to assert, as Harari appears to do at the end, that all meaning is derived from belief in the goodness of creation? Belief of that sort cannot be derived from scientific rationalism: it can only be secured through faith.

This is a turnaround indeed from Harari’s earlier pronouncement that “[h]umankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories [by which he means religion and other belief systems such as classical liberalism] are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them” (21 Lessons 263). Having traced the rise of homo sapiens in three volumes and examined the dilemmas facing mankind, the author might do well to consider another dimension, one beyond time and space. Surely, the spiritual life that transforms existence from hopeless materialism to a condition of joy and purpose would be worthy of the author’s consideration. Harari is an intelligent and skilled writer who might, over time, have much to bring to that discussion.

For now, his body of work strikes one as ingenious but largely forgettable. What’s the point of dissecting the impact of AI and robotics on the lives of human beings which are devoid of meaning and purpose to begin with? Harari suggests that such future humans may become enslaved by the very technology they have invented. How could they be any more enslaved than they are to begin with, in thrall to a philosophy of scientific materialism?  

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).