Best quotes from "21 lessons for the 21st century" by Yuval Noah Harari
Anyone you talk to will readily admit that the world it’s facing many challenges. Each society needs to deal with its own issues, but we also have very pressing global problems. How are we to arm ourselves in order to have a voice in such discussions? Who’s going to make the decisions that will affect not only our children but maybe the fate of humanity?
In the words of Bill Gates:
“The human mind wants to worry. This is not necessarily a bad thing—after all, if a bear is stalking you, worrying about it may well save your life. Although most of us don’t need to lose too much sleep over bears these days, modern life does present plenty of other reasons for concern: terrorism, climate change, the rise of A.I., encroachments on our privacy, even the apparent decline of international cooperation.
In his fascinating new book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, the historian Yuval Noah Harari creates a useful framework for confronting these fears. While his previous best sellers, Sapiens and Homo Deus, covered the past and future respectively, his new book is all about the present. The trick for putting an end to our anxieties, he suggests, is not to stop worrying. It’s to know which things to worry about, and how much to worry about them. As he writes in his introduction: “What are today’s greatest challenges and most important changes? What should we pay attention to? What should we teach our kids?”
You can read the full review in the NYT.
Instead of writing an in-length review of the book, which it’s truly fantastic, but also quite scary if you start really thinking about some of these questions, I decided to publish all the quotes and highlights I did while reading the book.
As I was reading it, I made sure to highlight the most important parts of each chapter, and so reading through all the following quotes feels like you’re reading a summary of a long and complex book, and not just bits and pieces of it. They’re very interconnected, but just like the book, each chapter stands on its own legs. Feel free to use the menu below to jump to any chapter that gets your attention and read my quotes from it.
In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.
If the future of humanity is decided in your absence, because you are too busy feeding and clothing your kids– you and they will not be exempt from the consequences. This is very unfair; but who said history was fair?
My first book, Sapiens, surveyed the human past, examining how an insignificant ape became the ruler of planet Earth. Homo Deus, my second book, explored the long-term future of life, contemplating how humans might eventually become gods, and what might be the ultimate destiny of intelligence and consciousness.
though the technological challenges are unprecedented, and though the political disagreements are intense, humankind can rise to the occasion (of solving the big problems) if we keep our fears under control and are a bit more humble about our views.
The invisible hand of the market will force upon you its own blind reply. Unless you are happy to entrust the future of life to the mercy of quarterly revenue reports, you need a clear idea what life is all about.
But please note that this book could have been written only when people are still relatively free to think what they like and to express themselves as they wish. If you value this book, you should also value the freedom of expression.
Humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers or equations, and the simpler the story, the better.
The Second World War knocked out the fascist story, and from the late 1940s to the late 1980s the world became a battleground between just two stories: communism and liberalism. Then the communist story collapsed, and the liberal story remained the dominant guide to the human past and the indispensable manual for the future of the world.
In 1938 humans were offered three global stories to choose from, in 1968 just two, in 1998 a single story seemed to prevail; in 2018 we are down to zero.
If mosquitoes buzzed in our ears and disturbed our sleep, we knew how to kill the mosquitoes; but if a thought buzzed in our mind and kept us awake at night, most of us did not know how to kill the thought.
Perhaps in the twenty-first century populist revolts will be staged not against an economic elite that exploits people, but against an economic elite that does not need them any more.
Democracy is based on Abraham Lincoln’s principle that ‘you can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time’.
By manufacturing a never-ending stream of crises, a corrupt oligarchy can prolong its rule indefinitely.
Humans vote with their feet. In my travels around the world I have met numerous people in many countries who wish to emigrate to the USA, to Germany, to Canada or to Australia. I have met a few who want to move to China or Japan. But I am yet to meet a single person who dreams of emigrating to Russia.
So what next? The first step is to tone down the prophecies of doom, and switch from panic mode to bewilderment. Panic is a form of hubris. It comes from the smug feeling that I know exactly where the world is heading– down. Bewilderment is more humble, and therefore more clear-sighted.
It is undoubtable, however, that the technological revolutions will gather momentum in the next few decades, and will confront humankind with the hardest trials we have ever encountered.
The human care industry– which takes care of the sick, the young and the elderly– is likely to remain a human bastion for a long time.
The expert goes over my text, and says ‘Don’t use this word– use that word instead. Then we will get more attention from the Google algorithm.’ We know that if we can just catch the eye of the algorithm, we can take the humans for granted.
‘There is no such thing as society. There is [a] living tapestry of men and women… and the quality of our lives will depend upon how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.’
In the wake of the Brexit vote, eminent biologist Richard Dawkins protested that the vast majority of the British public– including himself– should never have been asked to vote in the referendum, because they lacked the necessary background in economics and political science. ‘You might as well call a nationwide plebiscite to decide whether Einstein got his algebra right, or let passengers vote on which runway the pilot should land.’
scientific insights into the way our brains and bodies work suggest that our feelings are not some uniquely human spiritual quality, and they do not reflect any kind of ‘free will’. Rather, feelings are biochemical mechanisms that all mammals and birds use in order to quickly calculate probabilities of survival and reproduction. Feelings aren’t based on intuition, inspiration or freedom– they are based on calculation.
Instead, we might perceive the entire universe as a flow of data, see organisms as little more than biochemical algorithms, and believe that humanity’s cosmic vocation is to create an all-encompassing data-processing system– and then merge into it. Already today we are becoming tiny chips inside a giant data-processing system that nobody really understands.
Human emotions trump philosophical theories in countless other situations. This makes the ethical and philosophical history of the world a rather depressing tale of wonderful ideals and less than ideal behaviour.
If the bank refuses to give you a loan, and you ask ‘Why?’, the bank replies ‘The algorithm said no.’ You ask ‘Why did the algorithm say no? What’s wrong with me?’, and the bank replies ‘We don’t know. No human understands this algorithm, because it is based on advanced machine learning. But we trust our algorithm, so we won’t give you a loan.’
For without a social safety net and a modicum of economic equality, liberty is meaningless. But just as Big Data algorithms might extinguish liberty, they might simultaneously create the most unequal societies that ever existed. All wealth and power might be concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite, while most people will suffer not from exploitation, but from something far worse– irrelevance.
Already today, the richest 1 per cent owns half the world’s wealth. Even more alarmingly, the richest hundred people together own more than the poorest 4 billion.
If we want to prevent a small elite from monopolising such godlike powers, and if we want to prevent humankind from splitting into biological castes, the key question is: who owns the data? Does the data about my DNA, my brain and my life belong to me, to the government, to a corporation, or to the human collective?
People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented. Pundits often blame such feelings of alienation on the decline of religious and national bonds, but losing touch with your body is probably more important. Humans lived for millions of years without religions and without nations– they can probably live happily without them in the twenty-first century, too. Yet they cannot live happily if they are disconnected from their bodies. If you don’t feel at home in your body, you will never feel at home in the world.
This was a fantastic chapter that I’d strongly recommend and that I agree with. Harari makes an example of the Olimpics, and the impossibility of having a global Olimpic game 1000 years ago.
In truth, European civilisation is anything Europeans make of it, just as Christianity is anything Christians make of it, Islam is anything Muslims make of it, and Judaism is anything Jews make of it. And they have made of it remarkably different things over the centuries.
People often refuse to see these changes, especially when it comes to core political and religious values. We insist that our values are a precious legacy from ancient ancestors. Yet the only thing that allows us to say this, is that our ancestors are long dead, and cannot speak for themselves.
The process of human unification has taken two distinct forms: establishing links between distinct groups, and homogenising practices across groups.
War spreads ideas, technologies and people far more quickly than commerce.
Global politics thus follows the Anna Karenina principle: successful states are all alike, but every failed state fails in its own way, by missing this or that ingredient of the dominant political package.
So when you watch the Tokyo Games in 2020, remember that this seeming competition between nations actually represents an astonishing global agreement. For all the national pride people feel when their delegation wins a gold medal and their flag is raised, there is far greater reason to feel pride that humankind is capable of organising such an event.
The people we fight most often are our own family members. Identity is defined by conflicts and dilemmas more than by agreements.
That does not mean there is anything wrong with national bonds. Huge systems cannot function without mass loyalties, and expanding the circle of human empathy certainly has its merits. The milder forms of patriotism have been among the most benevolent of human creations. Believing that my nation is unique, that it deserves my allegiance, and that I have special obligations towards its members inspires me to care about others and make sacrifices on their behalf. It is a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in a liberal paradise. More likely, we would be living in tribal chaos.
The problem starts when benign patriotism morphs into chauvinistic ultra-nationalism. Instead of believing that my nation is unique– which is true of all nations– I might begin feeling that my nation is supreme, that I owe it my entire loyalty, and that I have no significant obligations to anyone else. This is fertile ground for violent conflicts. For generations the most basic criticism of nationalism was that it led to war.
Everything changed in 1945. The invention of nuclear weapons sharply tilted the balance of the nationalist deal. After Hiroshima people no longer feared that nationalism would lead to mere war– they began fearing it would lead to nuclear war. Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people’s minds, and thanks in no small measure to the atom bomb, the impossible happened and the nationalist genie was squeezed at least halfway back into its bottle. Just as the ancient villagers of the Nile Basin redirected some of their loyalty from local clans to a much bigger kingdom that was able to restrain the dangerous river, so in the nuclear age a global community gradually developed over and above the various nations, because only such a community could restrain the nuclear demon.
Zealous nationalists who cry ‘Our country first!’ should ask themselves whether their country by itself, without a robust system of international cooperation, can protect the world– or even itself– from nuclear destruction.
Most threatening of all is the prospect of climate change. Humans have been around for hundreds of thousands of years, and have survived numerous ice ages and warm spells. However, agriculture, cities and complex societies have existed for no more than 10,000 years. During this period, known as the Holocene, Earth’s climate has been relatively stable. Any deviation from Holocene standards will present human societies with enormous challenges they never encountered before.
This terrifying experiment has already been set in motion. Unlike nuclear war– which is a future potential– climate change is a present reality.
Each of these three problems– nuclear war, ecological collapse and technological disruption– is enough to threaten the future of human civilisation. But taken together, they add up to an unprecedented existential crisis, especially because they are likely to reinforce and compound one another.
A person can and should be loyal simultaneously to her family, her neighbourhood, her profession and her nation– why not add humankind and planet Earth to that list? True, when you have multiple loyalties, conflicts are sometimes inevitable. But then who said life was simple? Deal with it.
I also love that Harari lost his shit in this book more than once and threw phrases like “deal with it.” more than once.
Even mental illness– the last bastion of religious healers– is gradually passing into the hand of the scientists, as neurology replaces demonology and Prozac supplants exorcism.
The victory of science has been so complete that our very idea of religion has changed. We no longer associate religion with farming and medicine. Even many zealots now suffer from collective amnesia, and prefer to forget that traditional religions ever laid claim to these domains. ‘So what if we turn to engineers and doctors?’ say the zealots. ‘That proves nothing. What has religion got to do with agriculture or medicine in the first place?’
Of course religious groups might harden their views on particular issues, and turn them into allegedly sacred and eternal dogmas. In the 1970s theologians in Latin America came up with Liberation Theology, which made Jesus look a bit like Che Guevara. Similarly, Jesus can easily be recruited to the debate on global warming, and make current political positions look as if they are eternal religious principles.
However, though they may quote various biblical passages in defence of their positions, the real source of their difference will be in modern scientific theories and political movements, not in the Bible. From this perspective, religion doesn’t really have much to contribute to the great policy debates of our time. As Karl Marx argued, it is just a veneer.
At first sight, this odd concoction of old and new seemed an extremely inappropriate choice for a state embarking on a crash course of modernisation. A living god? Animist spirits? Feudal ethos? That sounded more like a Neolithic chieftainship than a modern industrial power. Yet it worked like magic. The Japanese modernised at a breathtaking pace while simultaneously developing a fanatical loyalty to their state. The best-known symbol of the success of State Shinto is the fact that Japan was the first power to develop and use precision-guided missiles. Decades before the USA fielded the smart bomb, and at a time when Nazi Germany was just beginning to deploy dumb V-2 rockets, Japan sank dozens of allied ships with precision-guided missiles. We know these missiles as the kamikaze. Whereas in present-day precision-guided munitions the guidance is provided by computers, the kamikaze were ordinary airplanes loaded with explosives and guided by human pilots willing to go on one-way missions. This willingness was the product of the death-defying spirit of sacrifice cultivated by State Shinto. The kamikaze thus relied on combining state-of-the-art technology with state-of-the-art religious indoctrination.
Both these cases may seem to smack of racism. But in fact, they are not racist. They are ‘culturist’. People continue to conduct a heroic struggle against traditional racism without noticing that the battlefront has shifted. Traditional racism is waning, but the world is now full of ‘culturists’.
One thing that might help Europe and the world as a whole to integrate better and to keep borders and minds open, is to downplay the hysteria regarding terrorism. It would be extremely unfortunate if the European experiment in freedom and tolerance unravelled because of an overblown fear of terrorists. That would not only realise the terrorists’ own goals, but would also give this handful of fanatics far too great a say about the future of humankind. Terrorism is the weapon of a marginal and weak segment of humanity. How did it come to dominate global politics?
Another fantastic chapter and a topic that I’ve argued about many times. Terroism isn’t worth our time or our fear, it’s but a mosquito, annoying but in reality, harmless.
I believe most people agree with this point of view once they detach themselves from the fear terrorism intrinsically arises within us.
Anybody who was not strong enough to cause substantial material damage was of no consequence. If in 1150 a few Muslim fanatics murdered a handful of civilians in Jerusalem, demanding that the Crusaders leave the Holy Land, the reaction would have been ridicule more than terror. If you wanted to be taken seriously, you should have at least gained control of a fortified castle or two. Terrorism did not bother our medieval ancestors, because they had much bigger problems to deal with.
[Presidents pass] Command of trillions of dollars, millions of soldiers, and thousands of ships, airplanes and nuclear missiles pass from one group of politicians to another without a single shot being fired. People quickly got used to this, and consider it their natural right. Consequently, even sporadic acts of political violence that kill a few dozen people are seen as a deadly threat to the legitimacy and even survival of the state. A small coin in a big empty jar makes a lot of noise.
This is what makes the theatre of terrorism so successful. The state has created a huge space empty of political violence, which now acts as a sounding board, amplifying the impact of any armed attack, however small. The less political violence in a particular state, the greater the public shock at an act of terrorism. Killing a few people in Belgium draws far more attention than killing hundreds in Nigeria or Iraq. Paradoxically, then, the very success of modern states in preventing political violence makes them particularly vulnerable to terrorism.
How then should the state deal with terrorism? A successful counter-terrorism struggle should be conducted on three fronts. First, governments should focus on clandestine actions against the terror networks. Second, the media should keep things in perspective and avoid hysteria. The theatre of terror cannot succeed without publicity. Unfortunately, the media all too often provides this publicity for free. It obsessively reports terror attacks and greatly inflates their danger, because reports on terrorism sell newspapers much better than reports on diabetes or air pollution. The third front is the imagination of each and every one of us. Terrorists hold our imagination captive, and use it against us. Again and again we rehearse the terrorist attack on the stage of our mind– remembering 9/11 or the latest suicide bombings. The terrorists kill a hundred people– and cause 100 million to imagine that there is a murderer lurking behind every tree. It is the responsibility of every citizen to liberate his or her imagination from the terrorists, and to remind ourselves of the true dimensions of this threat. It is our own inner terror that prompts the media to obsess about terrorism, and the government to overreact.
The last few decades have been the most peaceful era in human history. Whereas in early agricultural societies human violence caused up to 15 per cent of all human deaths, and in the twentieth century it caused 5 per cent, today it is responsible for only 1 per cent.1
On the other hand, it would be naïve to assume that war is impossible. Even if war is catastrophic for everyone, no god and no law of nature protects us from human stupidity.
One potential remedy for human stupidity is a dose of humility. National, religious and cultural tensions are made worse by the grandiose feeling that my nation, my religion and my culture are the most important in the world– hence my interests should come before the interests of anyone else, or of humankind as a whole. How can we make nations, religions and cultures a bit more realistic and modest about their true place in the world?
Personally, I am all too familiar with such crass egotism, because the Jews, my own people, also think that they are the most important thing in the world. Name any human achievement or invention, and they will quickly claim credit for it. And knowing them intimately, I also know they are genuinely convinced of such claims.
People fed on such a historical diet have a very hard time digesting the idea that Judaism had relatively little impact on the world as a whole. Yet the truth is that Judaism played only a modest role in the annals of our species. Unlike such universal religions as Christianity, Islam and Buddhism, Judaism has always been a tribal creed.
Apes not only avoid taking advantage of weak group members, but sometimes actively help them. A pygmy chimpanzee male called Kidogo, who lived in the Milwaukee County Zoo, suffered from a serious heart condition that made him feeble and confused. When he was first moved to the zoo, he could neither orient himself nor understand the instructions of the human caretakers. When the other chimpanzees understood his predicament, they intervened. They often took Kidogo by the hand, and led him wherever he needed to go. If Kidogo became lost, he would utter loud distress signals, and some ape would rush to help.
Meanwhile in Egypt– centuries before the birth of Moses– scribes wrote down ‘the story of the eloquent peasant’, which tells of a poor peasant whose property was stolen by a greedy landowner. The peasant came before Pharaoh’s corrupt officials, and when they failed to protect him, he began explaining to them why they must provide justice and in particular defend the poor from the rich. In one colourful allegory, this Egyptian peasant explained that the meagre possessions of the poor are like their very breath, and official corruption suffocates them by plugging their nostrils.
Anti-Semites usually think that Jews are very important. Anti-Semites imagine that the Jews control the world, or the banking system, or at least the media, and that they are to blame for everything from global warming to the 9/11 attacks. Such anti-Semitic paranoia is as ludicrous as Jewish megalomania. Jews may be a very interesting people, but when you look at the big picture, you must realise that they have had a very limited impact on the world.
Many religions praise the value of humility– but then imagine themselves to be the most important thing in the universe. They mix calls for personal meekness with blatant collective arrogance. Humans of all creeds would do well to take humility more seriously. And among all forms of humility, perhaps the most important is to have humility before God. Whenever they talk of God, humans all too often profess abject self-effacement, but then use the name of God to lord it over their brethren.
‘We do not understand the Big Bang– therefore you must cover your hair in public and vote against gay marriage.’
The third of the biblical Ten Commandments instructs humans never to make wrongful use of the name of God … Perhaps the deeper meaning of this commandment is that we should never use the name of God to justify our political interests, our economic ambitions or our personal hatreds.
Morality doesn’t mean ‘following blockquoteine commands’. It means ‘reducing suffering’. Hence in order to act morally, you don’t need to believe in any myth or story. You just need to develop a deep appreciation of suffering. If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself or to others, you will naturally abstain from it. People nevertheless murder, rape and steal because they have only a superficial appreciation of the misery this causes. They are fixated on satisfying their immediate lust or greed, without concern for the impact on others– or even for the long-term impact on themselves.
This quote it’s really great, it touches a lot of very Taoist and Buddhist ideas: that hurting someone else hurts us deeply. You can’t solve your internal problems by shoving them onto someone else. Every bad action emanates from our lack of internal balance.
Yet we do not really need such complex long-term theories to find a natural basis for universal compassion. Forget about commerce for a moment. On a much more immediate level, hurting others always hurts me too. Every violent act in the world begins with a violent desire in somebody’s mind, which disturbs that person’s own peace and happiness before it disturbs the peace and happiness of anyone else. Thus people seldom steal unless they first develop a lot of greed and envy in their minds. People don’t usually murder unless they first generate anger and hatred. Emotions such as greed, envy, anger and hatred are very unpleasant. You cannot experience joy and harmony when you are boiling with anger or envy. Hence long before you murder anyone, your anger has already killed your own peace of mind. Indeed, you might keep boiling with anger for years, without ever actually murdering the object of your hate. In which case you haven’t hurt anyone else, but you have nevertheless hurt yourself. It is therefore your natural self-interest– and not the command of some god– that should induce you to do something about your anger. If you were completely free of anger you would feel far better than if you murdered an obnoxious enemy.
So the value of the lawgiver god ultimately depends on the behaviour of his devotees. If they act well, they can believe anything they like. Similarly, the value of religious rites and sacred places depends on the type of feelings and behaviours they inspire. If visiting a temple makes people experience peace and harmony– that’s wonderful. But if a particular temple causes violence and conflicts, what do we need it for? It is clearly a dysfunctional temple.
I keep forgetting what Secularism is, so here’s the definition: “indifference to, or rejection or exclusion of, religion and religious considerations.” As a philosophy, secularism seeks to interpret life on principles taken solely from the material world, without recourse to religion.
[In relation to religion] Often, strong beliefs are needed precisely when the story isn’t true.
Healthy relationships require emotional, intellectual and even spiritual depth. A marriage lacking such depth will make you frustrated, lonely and psychologically stunted. Whereas two men can certainly satisfy the emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of one another, a relationship with a goat cannot.
Without the guidance of scientific studies, our compassion is often blind.
Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
The secular world judges people on the basis of their behaviour rather than of their favourite clothes and ceremonies.
If you believe in an absolute truth revealed by a transcendent power, you cannot allow yourself to admit any error– for that would nullify your whole story. But if you believe in a quest for truth by fallible humans, admitting blunders is an inherent part of the game.
As we come to make the most important decisions in the history of life, I personally would trust more in those who admit ignorance than in those who claim infallibility. If you want your religion, ideology or world view to lead the world, my first question to you is: ‘What was the biggest mistake your religion, ideology or world view committed? What did it get wrong?’ If you cannot come up with something serious, I for one would not trust you.
What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.
If you really want truth, you need to escape the black hole of power, and allow yourself to waste a lot of time wandering here and there on the periphery. Revolutionary knowledge rarely makes it to the centre, because the centre is built on existing knowledge. The guardians of the old order usually determine who gets to reach the centres of power, and they tend to filter out the carriers of disturbing unconventional ideas. Of course they filter out an incredible amount of rubbish too. Not being invited to the Davos World Economic Forum is hardly a guarantee of wisdom. That’s why you need to waste so much time on the periphery– they may contain some brilliant revolutionary insights, but they are mostly full of uninformed guesses, debunked models, superstitious dogmas and ridiculous conspiracy theories.
There is something amiss with the intentions of those who do not make a sincere effort to know.
The contemporary world is too complicated, not only for our sense of justice but also for our managerial abilities. No one– including the multibillionaires, the CIA, the Freemasons and the Elders of Zion– really understands what is going on in the world. So no one is capable of pulling the strings effectively.
In fact, humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions. Ever since the Stone Age, self-reinforcing myths have served to unite human collectives. Indeed, Homo sapiens conquered this planet thanks above all to the unique human ability to create and spread fictions. We are the only mammals that can cooperate with numerous strangers because only we can invent fictional stories, spread them around, and convince millions of others to believe in them. As long as everybody believes in the same fictions, we all obey the same laws, and can thereby cooperate effectively.
So even if we agree that the Bible is the true word of God, that still leaves us with billions of devout Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Egyptians, Romans and Japanese who for thousands of years put their trust in fictions. Again, that does not mean that these fictions are necessarily worthless or harmful. They could still be beautiful and inspiring.
the Nazi propaganda maestro and perhaps the most accomplished media-wizard of the modern age, allegedly explained his method succinctly by stating that ‘A lie told once remains a lie, but a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.’ In Mein Kampf Hitler wrote that ‘The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly– it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.’
The truth is that truth was never high on the agenda of Homo sapiens. Many people assume that if a particular religion or ideology misrepresents reality, its adherents are bound to discover it sooner or later, because they will not be able to compete with more clear-sighted rivals. Well, that’s just another comforting myth. In practice, the power of human cooperation depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction.
Similarly, if all your neighbours believe the same outrageous tale, you can count on them to stand together in times of crisis. If they are willing to believe only accredited facts, what does that prove?
Football can help formulate personal identities, it can cement large-scale communities, and it can even provide reasons for violence. Nations and religions are football clubs on steroids.
First, if you want reliable information– pay good money for it. If you get your news for free, you might well be the product.
Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions. Poets, painters and playwrights are therefore at least as important as soldiers and engineers.
Pain is pain, fear is fear, and love is love– even in the matrix. It doesn’t matter if the fear you feel is inspired by a collection of atoms in the outside world or by electrical signals manipulated by a computer. The fear is still real. So if you want to explore the reality of your mind, you can do that inside the matrix as well as outside it.
Huxley’s genius consists in showing that you could control people far more securely through love and pleasure than through fear and violence.
Humankind is facing unprecedented revolutions, all our old stories are crumbling, and no new story has so far emerged to replace them. How can we prepare ourselves and our children for a world of such unprecedented transformations and radical uncertainties? A baby born today will be thirty-something in 2050. If all goes well, that baby will still be around in 2100, and might even be an active citizen of the twenty-second century. What should we teach that baby that will help him or her survive and flourish in the world of 2050 or of the twenty-second century? What kind of skills will he or she need in order to get a job, understand what is happening around them, and navigate the maze of life?
So what should we be teaching? Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching ‘the four Cs’– critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity.
From time immemorial life was divided into two complementary parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working.
Unfortunately, teaching kids to embrace the unknown and to keep their mental balance is far more difficult than teaching them an equation in physics or the causes of the First World War. You cannot learn resilience by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The teachers themselves usually lack the mental flexibility that the twenty-first century demands, for they themselves are the product of the old educational system.
To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the twenty-first century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account– they are in a race to hack you and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.
Of course, you might be perfectly happy ceding all authority to the algorithms and trusting them to decide things for you and for the rest of the world. If so, just relax and enjoy the ride. You don’t need to do anything about it. The algorithms will take care of everything. If, however, you want to retain some control of your personal existence and of the future of life, you have to run faster than the algorithms, faster than Amazon and the government, and get to know yourself before they do. To run fast, don’t take much luggage with you. Leave all your illusions behind. They are very heavy.
In almost all cases, when people ask about the meaning of life, they expect to be told a story. Homo sapiens is a storytelling animal, that thinks in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believes that the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings. When we look for the meaning of life, we want a story that will explain what reality is all about and what is my particular role in the cosmic drama. This role defines who I am, and gives meaning to all my experiences and choices.
What are a few dead people compared to eternity? This is of course utter nonsense. Eternity is at the very least 13.8 billion years– the current age of the universe. Planet Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago, and humans have existed for at least 2 million years. In contrast, the city of Jerusalem was established just 5,000 years ago and the Jewish people are at most 3,000 years old. This hardly qualifies as eternity.
A crucial law of storytelling is that once a story manages to extend beyond the audience’s horizon, its ultimate scope matters little. People may display the same murderous fanaticism for the sake of a thousand-year-old nation as for the sake of a billion-year-old god. People are just not good with large numbers. In most cases, it takes surprisingly little to exhaust our imagination.
A wise old man was asked what he learned about the meaning of life. ‘Well,’ he answered, ‘I have learned that I am here on earth in order to help other people. What I still haven’t figured out is why the other people are here.’
The stories that provide us with meaning and identity are all fictional, but humans need to believe in them. So how to make the story feel real? It’s obvious why humans want to believe the story, but how do they actually believe? Already thousands of years ago priests and shamans discovered the answer: rituals. A ritual is a magical act that makes the abstract concrete and the fictional real.
In front of the amazed eyes of the assembled peasants the priest held high a piece of bread and exclaimed ‘Hoc est corpus!’– ‘This is the body!’– and the bread supposedly became the flesh of Christ. In the minds of the illiterate peasants, who did not speak Latin, ‘Hoc est corpus!’ got garbled into ‘Hocus pocus!’
If you want to know the ultimate truth of life, rites and rituals are a huge obstacle. But if you are interested– like Confucius– in social stability and harmony, truth is often a liability, whereas rites and rituals are among your best allies.
Suffering is the most real. You can never ignore it or doubt it. If you want to make people really believe in some fiction, entice them to make a sacrifice on its behalf. Once you suffer for a story, it is usually enough to convince you that the story is real.
Self-sacrifice is extremely persuasive not just for the martyrs themselves, but also for the bystanders. Few gods, nations or revolutions can sustain themselves without martyrs. If you presume to question the divine drama, the nationalist myth or the revolutionary saga, you are immediately scolded: ‘But the blessed martyrs died for this! Do you dare say that they died for nothing? Do you think these heroes were fools?’
When you inflict suffering on yourself in the name of some story, it gives you a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a gullible fool.’ When you inflict suffering on others, you are also given a choice: ‘Either the story is true, or I am a cruel villain.’ And just as we don’t want to admit we are fools, we also don’t want to admit we are villains, so we prefer to believe that the story is true.
At a time when the Spanish conquistadores stopped all human sacrifices to the Aztec and Inca gods, back home in Spain the Inquisition was burning heretics by the cartload.
We hope to find meaning by fitting ourselves into some ready-made story about the universe, but according to the liberal interpretation of the world, the truth is exactly the opposite. The universe does not give me meaning. I give meaning to the universe.
In practical terms, those who believe in the liberal story live by the light of two commandments: create, and fight for liberty.
Humans obviously have a will, they have desires, and they are sometimes free to fulfil their desires. If by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to do what you desire– then yes, humans have free will. But if by ‘free will’ you mean the freedom to choose what to desire– then no, humans have no free will.
Realising this can help us become less obsessive about our opinions, about our feelings, and about our desires. We don’t have free will, but we can be a bit more free from the tyranny of our will. Humans usually give so much importance to their desires that they try to control and shape the entire world according to these desires. In pursuit of their cravings, humans fly to the moon, wage world wars, and destabilise the entire ecosystem. If we understand that our desires are not the magical manifestations of free choice, but rather are the product of biochemical processes (influenced by cultural factors that are also beyond our control), we might be less preoccupied with them. It is better to understand ourselves, our minds and our desires rather than try to realise whatever fantasy pops up in our heads.
The Buddha taught that the three basic realities of the universe are that everything is constantly changing, nothing has any enduring essence, and nothing is completely satisfying.
‘What should I do?’ ask people, and the Buddha advises: ‘Do nothing. Absolutely nothing.’ The whole problem is that we constantly do something. Not necessarily on the physical level– we can sit immobile for hours with closed eyes– yet on the mental level we are extremely busy creating stories and identities, fighting battles and winning victories. To really do nothing means that the mind too does nothing and creates nothing.
Fighting other people because you believe in the glory of an eternal God is unfortunate but understandable; fighting other people because you believe in the emptiness of all phenomena is truly bizarre– but so very human.
The big question facing humans isn’t ‘what is the meaning of life?’ but rather, ‘how do we get out of suffering?’
Can a nation really suffer? Has a nation eyes, hands, senses, affections and passions? If you prick it, can it bleed? Obviously not. If it is defeated in war, loses a province, or even forfeits its independence, still it cannot experience pain, sadness or any other kind of misery, for it has no body, no mind, and no feelings whatsoever.
So if you want to know the truth about the universe, about the meaning of life, and about your own identity, the best place to start is by observing suffering and exploring what it is. The answer isn’t a story.
When people ask the big questions of life, they usually have absolutely no interest in knowing when their breath is coming into their nostrils and when is it going out. Rather, they want to know things like what happens after you die. Yet the real enigma of life is not what happens after you die, but what happens before you die. If you want to understand death, you need to understand life
If you got this far, thank you for reading! Most of this wasn’t written by me and the only effort I put on it was cleaning it up and making sure it looked good (which took a surprising amount of time).
I hope you feel like you understand what “21 lessons for the 21 century” it’s all about. After reading through all my quotes, I realised they paint a really good depiction of the book. All these highlights are almost creating a shortened version of the book, which makes sense since I tried to highlight the most important passages.
Once again, thank you for reading and I hope you found some inspiration and truth in these quotes.