21 Lessons for the 21st Century

“Humans were always far better at inventing tools than using them wisely.” This is essentially the theme of this collection of essays. Not just technological tools but also our social and political systems, our fictions that hold up society and so on.

Harari’s strength lies in interlacing ideas from multiple disciplines as though connecting diverse neural pathways, and using that to broaden one’s horizons. The writing walks the line between probing the flaws in our existing systems and positivity about what humans are capable of. Taken as a whole, there are valuable lessons but if you’re a well-read person who is up to date on the news, individuals essays can sometimes feel like a recap of things you already know. However, there are always nuggets of perspective that will make you think. 

The book is divided into sections – the technological challenge, the political challenge, despair and hope, and truth and resilience. Harari’s ability to zoom in and out of concepts, historical context and specifically human stories at a dizzying speed make parts of the book a mind-expanding experience. He breaks down nearly every trait that we may claim as part of our identity. In a sense, it is the academic version of a book on buddhism that breaks down every aspect of the self to bring you to a point where you realise that you are both all of it and none of it at the same time. 

In the essay on work, he questions whether something like universal basic support would enable people to pursue what they really care about and thereby make society happier as a whole. But how do we define what is universal and what is basic? The definition changes based on culture, location and timing in history. For example, medieval Europe considered church attendance more necessary than even food, whereas today internet access may be considered a basic requirement after food and education. He points out the difference between losing a job, which might be welcome if we are free to pursue other interests, and losing control over our lives, ‘a much scarier scenario.’ To that end, he describes an experiment being conducted in Israel with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who do not work. Their basic needs are provided for and they are free to study the Talmud and engage in discussions with each other. They report higher levels of life satisfaction. Eventually, the state may not be able to support these mean and their growing families. However, ‘as robots and AI push humans out of the job market,’ this experiment amongst Orthodox Jews may become a sample of the future where ‘the quest for meaning and for community might eclipse the quest for a job.”

On liberty, he notes that moral feelings are an evolutionary product and that humans aren’t the only ones who can claim morality – and therefore neither can religion. Moral behaviour has been observed across species – “wolves, dolphins and monkeys have ethical codes.” Where do we draw the lines of morality? He explores the slippery slope with a deft hand. 

In a 2015 study, participants were asked about a scenario where the a self-driving car was about to run over some pedestrians. Most felt that the car should sacrifice its owner in order to avoid killing the pedestrians. However, when asked whether they themselves would chose to acquire a car that made that choice, they chose the car that would prioritise the owner’s life over the pedestrians. In a society creating laws around these scenarios, how do they go about this? He concludes that “morality doesn’t mean ‘following divine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’.”

My favourite essay is the one on secularism, perhaps because it hit home and defined things clearly for me. To him, it is clear that secularism is an aspiration to an ideal, rather than a social reality. So what is the ideal? “”The most important secularly commitment is to the truth, which is based on observation and evidence rather than on mere faith. Seculars drive not to confuse truth with belief.” Looking for truth wherever it may be found . The other pillars are compassion and equality. freedom and courage, responsibility. How do secularists handle ethical dilemmas? By examining the feelings of all parties and trying to cause as little pain as possible. “They don’t confuse ‘uniqueness’ with ‘superiority.” He states that secularism doesn’t suffer from having too few ideals but rather, of setting the bar so high that most cannot live up to it and he goes on to unpack examples from Stalin to Marx and how secularists need to acknowledge the shadow of their limitations. 

I found the essays on religion and terrorism the most hard-hitting. This is where a macro view of how different religions don’t hold up to modern economics and politics but can be manipulated to support any political ideology or governmental policy is an incisive piece. Take a look at this sentence: “After giving the name of ‘God’ to the unknown secrets of the cosmos, they then use this to somehow condemn bikinis and divorces.”

Additional essays on terrorism, immigration and so on receive the same treatment – unpacking and defining the core arguments and then showing how different sides hold different interpretations and how even creating a scaled up version of any of these concepts gets harder to the point of sometimes being inapplicable.

His final essay is on meditation and he is quick to point out that it is a pathway that has worked for him but may not be attractive to all. As he notes, meditation is the study of the reality within us, but in order to evoke change, action is needed, and for that, organisation of many individuals is needed. Meditation cannot solve all our problems but it enables us to see that even when we are looking outward for the reasons that made us angry, we can stop to pay attention to what that anger is within us – what physical sensations it gives rise to, what thoughts are racing through our minds. Similarly, this book is all about gaining perspective and using that perspective to both chill out a bit and to seriously question what really matters to us – is it our identity, our personal success, our ties to our society or our nation, our religion and how it dictates we live, is it our sense of righteousness and superiority that allows us to name different communities as the ‘other’?

I did feel like the book was preaching to the choir. How do you take liberal, secular readers and make them feel good about themselves, and instead, can you make them turn around and look at their shadow and question how to improve without trying to write a prescription for how everyone else should live. It’s a daunting task to take on and the book makes an admirable attempt to do so. 

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