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Yuval Noah Harari certainly struck a chord with his huge bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus. We’ve had plenty of pop-science, pop-economics and lots of pop-psychology bestsellers. Now there’s what can be considered to be a sort of pop-history.
This is not to demean Harari’s books or his insights in any way. His ability to present complex philosophical arguments, themes and history in such an accessible manner as in these books is surely to his credit and not a basis for criticism.
If you are not familiar with his writing, Sapiens can be considered a thematic – rather than a chronological – history of how humanity has gotten to where is today, while Homo Deus continues this thematic approach and is well described by its sub-title: A Brief History of Tomorrow.
I can’t say I totally bought into his speculations about where humanity is headed – I think I have a somewhat more benevolent view of what makes us human – and towards the end he does accept that his speculations are based around just one of many possible trajectories of history.
However, I was struck by a passage in the book where he talks about the importance that we have come to attach to feelings and to looking inside ourselves for solutions.
Humans and Humanism
At the risk of being excessively brief, the background to the passage is a discussion on how humanism and the placing of humans as individuals at the centre of the universe has not always been the case in history.
The prevalence of this view can be traced back to the Enlightenment, about 250 years ago. At that time, scientific explanations of the world around us and our place in it increasingly replaced earlier explanations. These had depended on belief in gods in various guises.
These beliefs had led, to differing extents, to conclusions that we could exercise free will to determine our fate, but that much of what happened was the will of God or the gods.
By the 21st century, the place for God in running the world is much diminished in the view of most people. Instead the individual is placed at the centre of determining outcomes.
And this leads to a difficulty. If we are at the centre and we confront a problem, to where do we look for help? The answer that has emerged from the human-centered view is that we must first look inside ourselves.
Humanists and Wizards
This can be difficult. So why would human thought and philosophy have led us in this direction?
Harari illustrates this progression of thought by reference to popular culture and fiction. The heroes of the epics of classical Greece and Rome faced situations of battle and struggle that resonate well today.
Stories with similar structures continue to dominate fiction. Success doesn’t come easy, tragedy can strike at any time and we all still love to see the good guy win out in the end. Similar formats can also be seen in medieval fables.
But there is a major difference between these pre-humanist stories and the ones we tell ourselves today to explain the world. The heroes of these older stories did not focus on their feelings. They were not totally devoid of introspection. But their adventures did not cause them to fundamentally change their character or outlook on life.
The crucial point is that they did not find solutions to what faced them by looking inside themselves. Rather their bravery, deviousness or other defining characteristic was a given from the start. They know this and they acted accordingly, accepting the whims of the gods to either support or thwart them in their ambitions.
Harari contrasts this with what happens to Dorothy, the Tin Man and their companions in the Wizard of Oz. They all each start their journey with a problem to be solved. Indeed, their journey is undertaken solely to find a solution.
They believe in the external power of the Wizard. They maintain this belief, but are then disappointed when they find he is a charlatan without the supreme power to help them.
So, are they sure to fail? Has their journey been wasted?
No. In confronting this disappointment and loss of belief in magic and external power they each find within themselves the strength and wisdom to solve their problems.
The Wizard does not solve the problem, but the journey is not wasted. It is a catalyst that enables each of them to find a solution by looking inwards.
Look Within Yourself for the Answer
Harari points to many other modern examples ranging from Huckleberry Finn to Star Trek where a similar dynamic drives the story. The hero is confronted by a problem. They first look for outside assistance. They, and we, soon find that the answer lies within. External events or assistance can only help us to access and activate this inner strength.
These stories illustrate a choice that confronts us all, all the time. When faced with a difficulty should we deny our responsibility and hope that some outside intervention will, magically, step in for us?
Or should we accept that we are the authors of our destinies, that no-one ever promised a smooth ride, but that solutions are available to improve matters?
Finding inner strength and solutions within ourselves is not always easy. Outside assistance has a role to play to perhaps guide us or just to force us to confront the reality.
But ultimately, irrespective of how much help there is available, we must look inside, and know ourselves. Then we can say ‘I have this’.
With a little help of course.
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While working in a corporate environment, Aedie saw that many people lose track of who they are as they go about their jobs and building their careers. This is not good for their personal development, their careers or how well they do their jobs. She writes and teaches on how to reconnect with your own self and the world while continuing to meet the demands of modern living.