A review of “21 Lessons For The 21st Century” by Yuval Noah Harari (2018)

Harari is an Israeli academic specialising in world history who is best-known for his books “Sapiens: A Brief History Of Humankind” and “Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow”. I have not read these earlier works but I understand that his latest book reworks many of the themes of his previous writing and indeed he acknowledges that earlier versions of some segments were previously published as essays and articles. So, fascinating and enjoyable though this book is, there is a sense that it is something of a smorgasbord of earlier material. 

This sense is underlined by the title and structure of the book. Convenient though it may be for the title, it is difficult to divine each chapter as a lesson, rather than a knowledgeable rumination, and the division of the book into 21 chapters is something of an artifice because the chapters vary substantially in length from five which are fewer than 10 pages to one which is 45 pages. Having said all this, “21 Lessons” is a genuinely impressive and very readable work. The author displays a stunning breadth of knowledge of different subjects, different nations and different periods of history.

Harari points out that “For the first time in history, infectious diseases kill fewer people than old age, famine kills fewer people than obesity, and violence kills fewer people than accidents”. So he is not so worried about the dangers of terrorism and conventional war, both of which he views as minor threats compared to the existential challenges of nuclear weapons, ecological collapse and technological disruption (especially biotech and infotech). 

He has no faith in religion (he is especially hard on Judaism) and doubts the capacity of liberal democracies to survive in their present form, but he offers few practical solutions (he is sympathetic to the idea of a universal basic income and supports stronger regulation of big data). He is very much a globalist arguing that “we need a new global identity” and that global problems need global solutions (he is a major supporter of the European Union and the United Nations). 

The penultimate chapter – by far the longest – addresses perhaps the most important of existential questions: what is the meaning of life? 

First, he addresses a popular story told for thousands of years which explains that “we are all part of an eternal cycle that encompasses and connects all beings”. He mentions two examples of this circle of life story: the Hindu epic the Bhagavad-Gita and the Disney epic “The Lion King”. Next he looks at religions and ideologies that believe in “a linear cosmic drama which has a definite beginning, a not-too-long middle and a once-and-for-all ending”. Such religions include Christianity, Islam and Judaism and such ideologies include nationalism and communism. Harari rejects all such deterministic stories as lacking in evidence and failing to explain the world as we find it.

Eventually Harari comes to the view that: “The meaning of life isn’t a ready-made product. There is no divine script and nothing outside me can give meaning to my life”. He is very attracted to Buddhism and explains that “According to the Buddha … life has no meaning and people don’t need to create any meaning”. He argues that “The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life’ but rather ‘how do we get out of suffering?’”

And how do we do that? He is passionate about Vipassana meditation which involves observation of the present moment with concentration on breath and sensations throughout the body. So keen is he on such introspection that he meditates for two hours each day and each year takes a meditation retreat of a month or two.


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