Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: "The Revolt of the Masses" by José Ortega y Gasset

The Revolt of the Masses (1930)
José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955) 










190 pages

the accession of the masses to complete social power … means Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilizations. (11)
This dire warning appears in the opening lines of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset’s 1930 work The Revolt of the Masses. He goes on in that essay to describe the origins and characteristics of the revolt he feels has occurred, the masses that have prosecuted it, and the resulting crisis to civilization, both in Europe and world-wide.

To properly understand Ortega’s arguments and conclusions it is important to recognize how he uses particular words that can have existing, popular meanings. Early on in his essay, for example, he makes clear that the revolt to which he refers is not the violent overthrow of a governing regime but rather an upending of the social order, one that has resulted in the masses inserting themselves into, and asserting their sovereignty over, all aspects of society: “not solely political, but equally, and even primarily, intellectual, moral, economic, religious.” (11) The consequence of this “accession of the masses” has been, he argues, the loss of a “vital force,” one necessary for the maintenance and further development of civilization.

Ortega labels those that have for centuries been responsible for providing this vital force as “aristocrats.” These were the scientists, philosophers, politicians and other intellectuals who took responsibility for the enrichment and governing of civilization, and guided the progress of human society in all spheres of development. Critically, the masses had also historically ceded power to these aristocrats to determine the distribution and access to the benefits thus created. Without the leadership of these aristocrats, Ortega argues, civilization as we know it could not have developed, and in fact, cannot now be maintained: “human society is always, whether it will or no, aristocratic by its very essence, to the extreme that it is a society in the measure that it is aristocratic, and ceases to be such when it ceases to be aristocratic.” (20)

Again clarity on Ortega’s use of terms is important. By aristocrat, Ortega refers not simply to someone with money, power or prestige, “not the petulant person who thinks himself superior to the rest.”  Instead, he writes of the select minority, “the man who demands more of himself than the rest”, and is thus capable of supporting and advancing humankind’s social development. He differentiates this select minority from the masses,
who demand nothing special of themselves, [and] for whom to live is to be every moment what they already are, without imposing on themselves any effort towards perfection; more buoys that float on the waves. (15)

Clearly aware of the elitist interpretation that could be read into his argument, Ortega clarifies that though such select minorities may be more likely to be found in the upper classes relative to the lower classes, “within both these social classes, there are to be found masses and genuine minority.” (16)   For Ortega, the distinguishing feature of someone in the masses is not based on income or job description, but rather rests on a more subtle deficiency: an inability to recognize the efforts required by our forbearers to achieve the benefits of current day civilization, and consequently an unwillingness to struggle to improve oneself and society.

Over several chapters, Ortega describes how the revolt of the masses to wrest control of the structures of civilization has occurred, as well as the reasons for the apparent unwillingness of the masses, once in power, to take responsibility for civilization’s maintenance and further development. The striking central claim of his analysis is that the very advances that have enhanced life for so many have also inevitably led to the accession of the masses that now threatens civilization’s future.

Ortega does acknowledge the significant improvements that have occurred in the lives of a vast majority of people as civilization has developed. He describes them as due in large part to the deepening interconnections of the world that have resulted from the on-going communication and transportation revolutions that began in the late 19th century, and have resulted in a dramatically increased reach of information, products and opportunities.

But, he goes on to argue, these same advances have led to a widespread feeling that a pinnacle in development has been reached, resulting in a sense of superiority about the progress achieved. He sees this sentiment reflected, for example, in the common use over the past century of the term “modern culture” (32) --- a phrase that fairly necessitates that whatever comes next must oddly take on the label of ‘post-modern’. He also notes the end-of-history feeling inherent in “progressive Liberalism and in Socialism,” that “what is desired by them as the best of possible futures will necessarily be realized, with necessity similar to that of astronomy.” (45) Together, he claims, these feelings have left a broad swath of humankind “empty of purposes, anticipations [and] ideals” (46) for the future.

This development of a feeling of purposelessness among the masses may have had less damaging impact but for a critical demographic change over the past two centuries: the sudden and rapid population growth in Europe and throughout the world. In an argument similar to one examined in depth by Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (my review here), Ortega notes that the extremely synergistic development in Europe of “liberal democracy and technical knowledge” (52) provided the infrastructure necessary to support radically larger populations. This then, according to Ortega, inherently led to an increase in the numbers of the masses, and, coupled with the dramatic improvements that made people’s daily lives less focused on simple survival, led to an increased involvement of the masses in all manner of cultural activities --- such as social and entertainment opportunities --- that had previously been the exclusive domain of the select minority who had developed them.

In contrast to the select minorities, however, who labored diligently to provide these opportunities, the masses have viewed the resulting benefits as a kind of outgrowth of the natural world, and so essentially a birthright. Failing to recognize the effort required to maintain and grow civilization, the masses have thus narrowed their focus onto themselves, and have found no reason to exert effort in “pushing themselves to excel, [and] have little feeling of ‘duty’ or ‘obligation’.” (65) Broadly, they exhibit a self-satisfied nature according to Ortega, enjoying the inheritance of civilization without feeling any obligation to engage in the struggle necessary to maintain and advance it:
[We should] not be surprised if [mass-man] acts for himself, if he demands all forms of enjoyment, if he firmly asserts his will, if he refuses all kinds of service, if he ceases to be docile to anyone, if he considers his own person and his own leisure, if he is careful as to dress: these are some of the attributes permanently attached to the consciousness of mastership. (24)

Ortega illustrates this mindset by describing a scene that we seemingly see replicated in so many riots over the years when society has not provide mass-man with what they feel is their rightful due:
In the disturbance caused by scarcity of food, the mob goes in search of bread and the means it employs is generally to wreck the bakeries. This may serve as a symbol of the attitude adopted, on a greater and more complicated scale, by the masses of to-day towards the civilization by which they are supported. (60)

Critically, he argues, while abdicating the responsibility for improving society, the masses have also become unwilling to take direction from the select minorities who have historically driven progress, and, in fact, now consider themselves as masters over the governing of and access to these benefits. Ortega defines this newly grasped power of the masses as having originated out of a kind of perversion of democracy, what he refers to as “hyperdemocracy”:
The mass [previously] took it for granted that after all, in spite of their defects and weaknesses, the [select] minorities [“specialized persons” as he refers to them elsewhere] understood a little more of public problems than it did itself. Now, on the other hand, the mass believes it has the right to impose and to give force of law to notions born in the café. (17)

Indeed, now having come to regard their ideas as perfect, members of the masses take on new ideas and beliefs without making any effort to develop the rationale and reasons for them. This leaves them unwilling, then, to put up with contrary opinions, because to do so would subject their own ideas to uncomfortable discussion and consideration.

As civilization has become more complex, however, it has become ever more important to its proper maintenance and progress to have a broad and active education --- to understand the sweep of history and the impact of one’s life and work on the growth of civilization. Mass-man, unwilling, and in fact simply uninterested in engaging in the study and understanding of history and society, is not in a position to support the civilization that he has been born into. Worse, this lack of historical understanding leads them to be easily captured by movements such as Fascism and Bolshevism. The susceptibility to mass movements that Ortega describes parallels points Eric Hoffer made in his essay The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements (my review here), in which Hoffer noted that:
The facts on which the true believer bases his conclusions must not be derived from his experience or observation but form holy writ. … To rely on the evidence of the senses and of reason is heresy and treason. (Hoffer, 79)

Pointing out again that his concern is not to be simply associated with the working class, Ortega notes that even many modern-day, well-educated scientists and engineers fall within his definition of mass-man. The very “technicism” that enabled the rapid expansion of Europe eventually led to a point that scientists and engineers have tended to develop a high degree of specialization, and so, unlike the multidisciplinary aristocrats of the past who had a broad knowledge not only of their field but also of other areas such as philosophy and history, many researchers now do their specialized work while preferring to ignore the broader concerns of civilization. Thus, whatever their contributions to science or technology, they epitomize the defects of the mass-man: one who enjoys the fruits of civilization, but remains fundamentally unwilling to put effort into the fundamental contributions necessary to its maintenance and advancement.

Ortega’s view that the fundamental problem lies not with educational opportunities distinguishes him, for example, from historians Will and Ariel Durant, who in their book The Lessons of History (my review here) also express concerns about the future development of civilization, but point specifically to the importance of education to overcome the ignorance threatening it. As challenging as governments have found improving educational opportunities to be, for Ortega those difficulties pale in comparison to his concern that the masses do not accept responsibility for the need to educated themselves, and so are not motivated to put the effort into pursuing the education necessary to maintain and develop civilization.

Having established how mass-man has ascended to social and political power, Ortega examines the impact of their leadership. One aspect of this is in the relationship between mass-man and the State. Ortega notes that from the end of the Roman Empire until recent centuries, the State was weak and small, run by nobles who felt it their duty to lead. These nobles generally lacked the ability to create a responsive, administrative state, and so were unable to meet the demands placed on them as the numbers of people rapidly increased.

As a result, social rebellions became more frequent, and in response a new kind of State has developed since the mid-1800’s, one that has grown rapidly in power and reach, both to meet the increasing expectations of the masses, as well as to provide the security forces needed to keep them in check. Ortega warns that mass-man has now grown dependent on the structure of an all-powerful State, expecting it to provide the benefits they feel are their due. The significant expectations of mass-man, and the resulting need for States to exercise controlling power, have led, he argues, to a situation in which evolutionary improvements to the State have become impossible.

Ortega also examines the larger implications of the revolt of the masses on the state of civilization (writing in 1930), and his expectations for the future. He sees the world as having been led by Europe from the time that an integrated world civilization developed. In his view, however, the accession of mass-man to a position of power, and their unwillingness to exert the effort required to advance, or even maintain, civilization’s complex infrastructure, have diminished Europe’s ability to maintain its leadership role in the world. As a consequence, from his viewpoint in 1930, a vacuum in leadership had developed, one that left countries and regions of the world drifting in dangerously divergent directions.

Just two decades later, in the wake of World War II, one can with hindsight argue that the United States took over that leadership role. Clearly the US has exerted technical and economic leadership, which has resulted in a tendency to homogenize around US cultural icons. The US has also generally led the expansion in human rights for minorities, whatever shortcomings and failings clearly remain both domestically and abroad. Also, the US has openly taken on responsibility for world stability, investing in a rapid military growth to maintain an open trading regime --- in part, certainly, due to the benefit it brings to the US and its allies.

However, based on Ortega’s line of reasoning in the book, it seems likely that he would not qualify US primacy in these areas as resolving his concerns about the future course of civilization, and the decadence that he felt has set in. The dominance of the US in science and business has been led by a highly educated and capable elite, but one that, it must be acknowledged, has for the most part epitomized Ortega’s description of the specialist type of mass-man, those focused narrowly on their personal goals (whether in a scientific, technology or economic sense), and not only unwilling to invest the effort in the broader education (in say, history, philosophy and civics) necessary to contribute to the maintenance and development of civilization, but often actively disdainful of such education as a waste of time.

Thus, it seems most likely that he would lament the US leadership over the past half century as having only been a consolidation of the power of mass-man, one that has perhaps temporarily held at bay the crisis he foresaw, but certainly not stemmed its inevitability. And, with the recent shift by some leaders in the US to question the desirability of continuing the investments necessary to maintain global leadership, and the push by several other countries to take on that leadership role in their regions and beyond, Ortega’s predicted dissolution of a broadly coherent global civilization certainly is not beyond imagination.

Indeed, many of Ortega’s observations resonate today, ninety years after his essay was first published. For all of the scientific advancements that have enabled continued population growth and provided technical wonders for so many, for all of the (admittedly fitful) expansions to human rights, the broad impression of civilization in crisis seems at least plausible.

Social and political structures in many, if not most, countries of the world now appear strained, if not threatened by out-right attack from the extremes. States world-wide struggle to cope as stagnating economic growth and limited resources make it ever more difficult to satisfy the expectations of an ever growing population of the masses. And these expectations of the masses, and their view of the benefits of civilization as a birthright seems only to have become more dominant; and this even as their unwillingness to engage in the effort to support the maintenance and development of civilization continues apace.

In his essay The Revolt of the Masses, philosopher José Ortega y Gasset provided a bracing critique on the state of civilization, and the decadence that he claimed threatens its future. Examining the developments, particularly since the early 1800’s, that overturned the social order responsible advancing the state of civilization, he describes a sequence of events in which the very benefits provided by modern-day civilization have in his view led to its present decline. Though first published in 1930, his analysis largely resonates today, with his implications for a dystopian future hard to ignore.


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Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Book Review: "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women (2014)
Haruki Murakami (1949)










228 pages

A well-known admonition warns: ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’ Though generally a comment on the quality of the book based how its cover may look, if we take the meaning more broadly to cover also a book’s theme, then one could make an exception for the English hardcover edition of Haruki Murakami’s book of short stories, Men Without Women.

As shown in the picture above, the cover image has a shadowed representation of the upper body of a man, with a puzzle piece missing from roughly where his heart would be; that piece appears off to his side, as if leaving him behind. It’s a clean and crisp cover that accurately reflects Murakami’s writing style, but that also goes directly to the theme of the seven captivating stories in this collection, in which men discover, sometimes years after, the impact a woman has had on their life.

In the opening story, Drive My Car, an actor with glaucoma can no longer drive, and so hires a young woman as a driver. Despite her taciturn nature, the time they spend together in the car leads to the development of an unspoken trust between them. When the driver at one point begins questioning the actor about his life, it becomes the stepping off point for him to reveal a deeply held secret about his long dead wife, one that clearly still weighs heavily on him, though it has been almost a decade since she passed away from a sickness.

In Scheherazade, a man with an unspecified illness that apparently makes it impossible for him to leave the house has a nurse who visits a couple of times a week. She brings food and other necessities, but also initiates a routine of sleeping with him during each visit. The sex is mostly perfunctory, but what stands out for the man are the stories the nurse tells him of her life as they lie together after intercourse. The stories tend to stretch over many visits, and the man comes to value hearing them more deeply than he initially realizes.

The title character of Kino, after catching his wife sleeping with a colleague, has separated from her and opened up a small out-of-the-way bar. He seems to feel little pain or hurt over what happened with his wife, settling into a quiet life, without any consideration for either his past or future. Then a mysterious man who has become a regular at his bar forces him to confront his loss. The title story closes out the book. In it, a man learns that a woman he had dated some years before has killed herself. Despite the fact that years have passed, and he has remarried, the sudden loss of his earlier love shocks him, leading him into a surreal recollection of his time with her. His memories morph wildly into alternate histories of their relationship, and why and how it ended.

I’ve read two other of Murakami’s works of fiction, After Dark (my review here) and IQ84 (my review here), and the slightly off-kilter reality that I discovered and enjoyed so much in those earlier works is present in this new collection also. For me, it has a bit of a feel of the technique sometimes used in science fiction films, in which a scene is tilted a few degrees to imply a slightly altered reality. The characters clearly exist in a larger world that seems quite normal; but they themselves seem to experience their lives as slightly disconnected from what goes on around them.

 It is this engaging style that keeps bringing me back to Murakami’s work.


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Saturday, October 14, 2017

Book Review: "The Lessons of History" by Will and Ariel Durant

The Lessons of History (1968)
Will and Ariel Durant (1885-1981, 1898-1981)










117 pages

Historians Will and Ariel Durant spent some four decades researching and writing the eleven volumes of their famous collection The Story of Civilization. Three decades into that effort, on the heels of the tenth book in the series, they paused to consider what broad understandings they could glean about the history of mankind from their many years of intense study. That examination resulted in the slim but highly engaging and deeply instructive book The Lessons of History.

Summarizing humankind’s history in just shy of a hundred pages is not for the faint of heart, and in the opening chapter the Durants outline their approach, including the challenges they faced in preparing for and then writing the book. First and perhaps foremost among the challenges they identify is the discouraging combination of the large amount of history that remains unknown, and the significant uncertainty that remains about what is considered known. They noted that both of these shortcomings make generalizing about human history risky; but with a nod to their doubts --- “only a fool would try” (13) --- they push ahead.

Over the next twelve chapters the Durants highlight the impact on human history of such themes as geography, biology, race, religion, and economics. In the final two chapters they then address broader considerations: the never-ending --- and they argue natural and necessary --- Growth and Decay of civilizations; and, in conclusion, the definition of progress, and whether humankind can be considered to have achieved real progress over our history.

Clearly each of these topics could be the theme of an entire book; in Lessons, the Durants have distilled them down to just a half dozen or so pages each. Given their decades of study, and eloquent and elegant prose, the result is a series of captivating essays in which each paragraph, often seemingly each sentence, articulates a deep recognition of the human condition. As the Durants write in the Preface, the book
repeats many ideas that we, or others before us, have already expressed; our aim is not originality but inclusiveness; we offer a survey of human experience, not a personal revelation. (7)
Therein, however, lies the benefit of their work: though many of the conclusions they draw have appeared in isolation in other works, here they benefit from the context of being part of a more comprehensive, if densely packed, historiography.

A few specific cases serve to illustrate the breadth and variety of their insights. The chapter Morals and History, for example, describes how moral codes have played a critical role in establishing norms that allow for the development of societies; as humankind has made the passage from hunting-and-gathering to farming and on to the industrial revolution, these moral codes have necessarily been adapted to the conditions of each such stage. The Durants point out that human behaviors that now are proscribed may have provided a strong benefit in societies of the distant past:
Probably every vice was once a virtue --- i.e., a quality making for the survival of the individual, the family, or the group. Man’s sins may be the relics of his rise rather than the stigmata of his fall. (38)

In Socialism and History the Durants examine the centuries-long tug-of-war between capitalism and socialism. As part of the discussion, they note how the dominance of one or the other of these systems during a particular period has been intimately related to the tension between freedom and security --- a challenge they highlight elsewhere in the book also, and one that clearly remains contentious today in the face of rapidly expanding state-run security organizations. Though the powerful reach of such institutions is in part due to advances in technology, the defense already seventeen centuries ago of the need for extreme security measures by the Roman emperor Diocletian has familiar echoes in the debates of the past couple of decades: “the barbarians [are] at the gate, and that individual liberty [has] to be shelved until collective liberty [can] be made secure” (61)

Their discussion on Government and History begins by summarizing the role of government, and outlining how different forms of governance have developed and fared since Roman times. The chapter concludes with an extended look at Democracy, which the Durants describe in unsparingly elitist, and yet --- in light of recent events --- remarkably prescient language, as:
the most difficult of all forms of government, since it requires the widest spread of intelligence, and we forgot to make ourselves intelligent when we made ourselves sovereign. Education has spread, but intelligence is perpetually retarded by the fertility of the simple. A cynic remarked that “you mustn’t enthrone ignorance just because there is so much of it.” However, ignorance is not long enthroned, for it lends itself to manipulation by the forces that mold public opinion. It may be true, as Lincoln supposed, that “you can’t fool all the people all the time,” but you can fool enough of them to rule a large country. (77)

I first discovered and read this book some ten years ago, and found it engaging and profoundly affecting in the way it distilled out critical aspects of humankind’s history while also providing insights and implications for present day concerns and debates. Recently having completed two other sweeping visions of history, one by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (The Phenomenon of Man, my review here), and the second by Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, my review here), I returned to The Lessons of History for a second reading, with even more profitable results.

These authors have wildly different backgrounds: Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology; the Durants studied and wrote as what could be considered classical historians; and Harari is a modern historian looking at what lies behind traditional, event-based histories. Nonetheless we discover through their work significant areas of overlap in their understanding and interpretation of human development. In lines, for example, that echo Teilhard de Chardin’s idea of the noosphere --- a thinking layer that spanned the earth as humans capable of thought and reflection spread across the globe --- and Harari’s related concept of the imagined orders --- fictions or constructs that form the basis of all of our non-biologically driven thought and action --- the Durants note that
Evolution in man during recorded time has been social rather than biological: it has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education.” (34)

The concept of evolution working also in the social and cultural domain thus forms a critical part of all three authors’ understanding of humankind’s development. It must be said, however, that where Teilhard de Chardin believed in the optimistic concept of orthogenesis --- that evolution proceeds in a pre-destined, progressively improving direction --- Harari and the Durants present a much less copacetic view of humankind’s future, one in which progress is not necessarily guaranteed.

The Durants express their concerns in the concluding chapter Is Progress Real, including a statement that seems directed to our current situation:
whether a challenge [to a group or a civilization] will or will not be met … depends upon the presence or absence of initiative and of creative individuals with clarity of mind and energy of will (which is almost a definition of genius), capable of effective responses to new situations (which is almost a definition of intelligence) …. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through … the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change. (91-92) 


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Read quotes from this book here.

Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in his essay The Revolt of the Masses (my review here), has a much darker view of the future of civilization.  The Durants hardly seem optimistic about this future, stating, in words that echo Ortega, that "the great experiment [of civilization] has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance."  However, whereas Ortega argues that the "unwillingess" to want to be educated regardless of available opportunities lies at the heart of the problem, the Durants go on in the next line to propose increased education as a possible path out of the darkness of ignorance:
But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? (101)


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Saturday, September 30, 2017

Book Review: "The Other Side of Silence" by Philip Kerr

The Other Side of Silence (2016)
Philip Kerr (1956)










400 pages

The cold war may have ended decades ago, but the complex machinations of government security services during that period --- between enemies and even supposed allies --- have remained irresistible source material for storytellers. This includes writers of noir, and with The Other Side of Silence Philip Kerr brings his series featuring detective Bernie Gunther out of Germany and central Europe of the 1930’s and 1940’s, and squarely into the middle of cold war conspiracies.

Set in 1956, the story opens with Gunther working under an assumed name as a concierge at a fancy hotel on the French Riviera. His history of having been repeatedly coerced into working as a detective for high-ranking officers in the Nazi regime now has him hiding from potential threats on all sides: Western officials who see him as a former Nazi, and some of his former Nazi blackmailers --- now high ranking officials in the East German government --- who still keep an eye out for how he could be useful to them. His wife having left him and returned to Germany, Gunther’s mostly laying low and biding time, with no clear view of a future. With little to distract him from morosely considering his uncertain lot in life, he has sunk into a melancholy that has drifted dangerously close to depression.

The sudden appearance at the hotel reception of a former nemesis from Nazi Germany shakes Gunther out of his self-absorbed reverie. He barely has time to wonder if he’s been recognized before finding himself caught up in an escalating scheme of blackmail, one that threatens not only delicately maintained cold war relationships between various governments, but also, not surprisingly, his personal safety. When the trap is finally sprung, Gunther must bring to bear all of his decades of experience as a detective to try and escape the pernicious schemes of enemies old and new.

The Other Side of Silence is the eleventh of Kerr’s novels to feature detective Bernie Gunther, a series that began with the books of the trilogy Berlin Noir (my review of those first three novels here). The shift in the setting for this story compared to its predecessors from WWII (and the immediate pre- and post-war years) to a point well into the Cold War changes the atmosphere significantly. Though the tension ratchets up dramatically in the concluding few dozen pages of the story, for the most part the Cold War setting lacks the punch of the earlier novels set in Nazi Germany. Absent the deadly serious implications of the unremitting high-wire act that accompanied Gunther’s compulsory dealings with the Nazi regime, the plot becomes more of an intellectual game of cat and mouse, as spies for foreign powers collide on French soil in pursuit of national advantage.

That quibble aside, there remains much to enjoy in Kerr’s new novel. A portion of the novel includes extended recollections by Gunther of events during the war years, which help establish the backstory of his relationship with a key protagonist; these sections do crackle with the sharp tension induced by the constant risk of sudden death --- from both enemy forces as well as powerful elements of the Nazi regime pursuing their own agendas. And, as in his earlier stories in this series, Kerr brings a thoroughly researched historical reality to the The Other Side of Silence; by incorporating Gunther as a key bit player in among famous historical persons and events, he creates an engaging combination of satisfying noir and fascinating historical fiction.

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Saturday, September 23, 2017

Book Review: "American War" by Omar El Akkad

American War (2017)
Omar El Akkad (1982)










333 pages

What had already been a dramatically increasing polarization in the political and social discourse in the US in the years leading up to the most recent presidential election has only turned more divisive in the wake of the result. With strident voices on both sides of the spectrum more often turning aggressive, and confrontations between individuals or groups more often violent, the first whispers of an old horror have appeared, whispers that have, in the wake of the rioting and death in Charlottesville (LINK), become more audible: is the US on the verge of a second civil war?  (See for example, here, here or here, or for a rebuttal, here.)

Into this contentious and combustible moment arrives Omar El Akkad’s novel American War, in which he imagines the US mired in just such an internal conflict, some half-century into our future.

The story opens in 2075, with the civil war a half year old and going badly for the south, though the north hardly finds itself prospering in the destructive morass. Already early in the book we are given the outlines of a conflict, learning that it will drag on for twenty more years, and will be followed by an even more debilitating post-war period. El Akkad provides this background in the form of a short “module summary” from a future history book; he uses a similar technique throughout the novel to help fill in the broader context of his story, interspersing exerts from war time and post-war sources such as news reports and government documents.

Through these sources we learn that the war has resulted from a series of rapidly worsening and thoroughly debilitating natural phenomena caused by climate change. A dramatic rise in sea level has left much of the coastal US underwater, particularly along the low-lying lands of the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts. In addition to the lost cities and land, and the subsequent migration of the coastal population into the US heartland, desertification has become widespread, particularly across the south. These changes have left many struggling to make a living in the devastated landscape.

The dramatic changes in the climate and their impact on the US have led to far-reaching new regulations --- most importantly one outlawing the use of fossil fuels. Protests in the south against these new rules bring a forceful response from the government, which in turn re-ignites southern feelings of the north as condescending toward its values and culture; anger eventually turns to violence, and finally to a rupture that precipitates the second civil war.

Within the larger story of the conflict, the plot centers on Sarat, a young girl who lives with her family in southern Louisiana. Despite living in a landscape destroyed both by climate change and by its location just beyond the borders of the “Free Southern State” and so all too close to the fighting, Sarat opens the story as a happy, carefree and inquisitive six year old. As she grows into her teen years, however, and she and her family slip ever more deeply into the destructive clutches of the misery and violence of a south on the losing side of a long, drawn out conflict.

An escalating string of devastating events irredeemably shatter Sarat’s innocence and spirit, leaving her with a hatred of the North, an obsession for revenge that builds to a fever pitch. Despite the fact that she does not follow any particular religious doctrine, and that the southern cause she nominally considers herself to be fighting for is based on a history she little firsthand awareness of and only the lightest connection to, her traumatic experiences leave her bitter and angry, desperate to strike out. Through Sarat, El Akkad examines what lies beyond hope, how the disintegration of a person’s spirit can re-direct them onto a darker path, from which escape becomes impossible to imagine. He imagines how far someone might go to assuage their overpowering anger.

Beyond the personal story of Sarat, El Akkad’s novel presents a scary vision of how climate change could lead to the disintegration of a nation, and, how such an economic and social disintegration can destroy lives and create bitter hatreds. Despite the powerful impact of his dystopian view of the future, however, there are several elements that distract from the effectiveness of his story.

Must strikingly, the series of events that lead to the civil war seems outlandish. As someone who has long enjoyed science fiction, it is perhaps a bit hypocritical of me to point out such a shortcoming, but the explanations given for the country slipping into the war seem so alternately implausible and flimsy as to threaten to undermine the story.

Perhaps the most conspicuous of these issues is the amount of the US mainland that El Akkad describes as lying underwater as a result of rising sea levels by 2074. According to the information given in the prologue, over just two decades starting at mid-century the sea level rises sufficiently to not only cover much of the American Caribbean and Atlantic coastal regions --- for example causing the US capital to be moved to Columbus --- but in fact leaves all of Florida except for tiny peninsulas along the panhandle underwater. However, according to on-line apps (e.g., here), such an inundation would require nearly fifty meters (164 feet) of sea level rise; how to square this with current worst-case estimates for sea level rise by the end of the century of only about two meters (6.6 feet)?

Then there is the precipitating cause of the civil war: in reaction to the extreme effects of the changing climate, a law is passed that outlaws the use of fossil fuels in the US. Protests in southern states over the new law turn violent, and ultimately drag the country into civil war. Though southern rebels use historical grievances with the north to rally support, the main cause of the war is described in the story as southerner’s refusal to give up the use of fossil fuel vehicles.

As outlandish as the amount of sea level rise seems, the idea that an entire population in the South would support 25 years of misery and a losing war because of a desire of a few to keep using gasoline powered cars seems ridiculous. And that is aside from the current expectations that we will already largely be driving electric vehicles before mid-century. Hard to believe that even a few tens of thousands of hold outs could motivate an entire portion of the country to fight an unwinnable war.

Finally, El Akkad describes the US as suddenly collapsing inward over just two decades due to the impacts of climate change, withdrawing from the world stage except as a supplier of cheap manufacturing; he imagines other countries, in Asia and the Middle East, quickly fill the void over that same period. This seems at best unlikely. Clearly it is not impossible to imagine the US declining at some point; but a more likely scenario, especially if it happens that quickly, would seem to be an extended and massive disruption of the world economy, as the gigantic US market --- “the buyer of last resort” to borrow a phrase from economist William Greider’s book One World, Ready or Not --- disappears in nearly the blink of an eye.

Clearly, empires do collapse, and sometimes into civil war, losing their standing in the world. And it can occur quickly and with seemingly no apparent warning signs (or perhaps ignored warning signs) to many in the midst of it. As historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in his book Sapiens: A Short History of Humankind (my review here): we construct our social, economic and political around a communal belief in a set of imagined orders; once that communal belief is shattered into competing viewpoints, a society can turn on itself. Thus one can imagine a decline and fall of US power, perhaps even more quickly than Americans could believe possible. But El Akkad’s path to that decline, and the impact of it on the world at large, seems too outlandish to be credible.

All of these questionable elements are introduced early in the novel, to set the stage for the story of Sarat’s coming of age in a time of immense misery and pain, and I initially found them a significant distraction to engaging with the plot. Once the action picked up, however, it became easier to simply accept the premise and ignore the implausibilities, and focus on the dramatic transformation Sarat undergoes as she repeatedly and all too personally experiences the devastation and dehumanization of the war.  As another character observes after witnessing what Sarat has become:
She knew from experience that there existed no soldier as efficient, as coldly unburdened by fear, as a child broken early. (180)


Other reviews / information:
 

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Book Review: "Exit West" by Mohsin Hamid

Exit West (2017)
Mohsin Hamid (1971)










231 pages

Whether escaping the threats of deadly wars or the miseries of brutal economic conditions, migrants have long made the desperate decision to leave their homes, communities and countries in search of a better life. For citizens of the countries in which these migrants arrive, a desire to provide humanitarian relief for people in trouble often conflicts with fear of the economic and cultural implications of absorbing large numbers of outsiders. These fears include not only the perceived loss of jobs and squandering of public services, but that the very cultural fabric of one’s country is being irrecoverably undermined.

Such concerns over the arrival of migrants have become a prominent feature in the recent rise of nationalism in many Western countries, compounded by the specters of terrorism and economic stagnation. The resulting public discourse on immigration has become --- as on so many topics --- increasingly polarized, with the left caricatured as being simply for ‘open borders’, and similarly the right as being narrowly for ‘no immigration’. Centrists discussing how to maintain immigration but with reasonable constraints often seem to find themselves shouted down by extremists on both sides.

Into the swirl of all of these hopes and fears steps author Mohsin Hamid, with his thoughtful novel Exit West, a story at once delicately tender and unflinchingly direct.

Set in an unnamed country shuddering on the brink of a seemingly inevitable descent into civil war, the story follows the lives of a young couple as they struggle to deal with events beyond their experience or control. In their mid-twenties, the two work at jobs that have not yet been shut down by the fighting that is closing in on their city.

They first meet, as the story opens, at an evening business class. Saeed, caring and low-key, finds himself immediately smitten with the fiercely independent Nadia. Even as their cautious relationship deepens, however, the chaos of civil war descends on the city; within the shifting battle lines between fundamentalist militiamen and government forces, Saeed and Nadia must find inventive ways to meet, and to help one another survive.

Eventually the situation becomes too dangerous, and they make their escape, leaving friends and family behind. Arriving in the West, however, they discover that though they may have left the civil war behind, their survival instincts and skills remain necessary as they face fear, suspicion and even violence from natives as well as from their fellow refugees. The two also come to realize that their many challenging and unexpected experiences in distant lands with foreign cultures changes them, and so their relationship, in ways they could never have imagined.

Hamid centers his novel on the story of Saeed and Nadia --- the only two named characters in the book, but through their experiences tells a larger story of the hopes and fears of migrants in general, as well as the terrible dangers and cherished communities left behind as they venture abroad in search of safety and opportunity. And, through an inspired plot device, Hamid forces immigration on the entire world in his story, making it an ineluctable presence in all countries. His story thus becomes one about a world in which many, particularly in the West, feel that a kind of migration apocalypse is at-hand. Rather than descending into a dark dystopia, however, Hamid ultimately presents a hopeful vision of a world that adapts to the new reality, if only grudgingly.

In occasional vignettes sprinkled throughout the novel, Hamid presents other, anonymous characters caught in the same challenging implications of the new world-wide reality of immigration as Saeed and Nadia. One such passage tells the story of an old woman who has lived her entire life in the same house: “it seemed to her that she too had migrated, that everyone migrates, even if we stay in the same houses our whole lives, because we can’t help it. We are all migrants through time.” (209)

I’ve come across a similar sentiment in other texts recently --- views that provide a broader understanding of the implications of immigration. From a book of selected writings of the Spanish economist and philosopher José Luis Sampedro, for example:
In a certain sense, as you see me here, I am an immigrant. Naturally, we understand well the migratory phenomenon in a spatial sense: if someone comes from Sudan, sub-Saharan Africa, they are an immigrant. However, we don’t realize that there are also immigrants in time, because eras are different. The world of my youth is not that of today. It doesn’t belong to the world of today. I am here as a stowaway. Certainly, I haven’t arrived by boat and I have my papers in order, but I am not from here.
(185, Dictionary Sampedro, my review here.)

Austrian writer Stefan Zweig also captured the often dispiriting challenges of becoming a migrant --- both in time and geographically --- in his autobiographical work The World of Yesterday (my review here), in which he describes his traumatic transformation from being born into an upper class family in a seemingly stable Austrian empire into a stateless refuge finally driven to flee Europe, as the Nazi’s rose to power.

Hamid’s captivating writing in Exit West evokes the complexity of the immigrant experience, from the heartbreaking choice to leave family and community behind for a better life abroad to the challenges of making a new home in a foreign land. Through his characters we witness the startling violence and constant wariness that can follow migrants in their search for security, but also the unexpected moments of kindness and grace that can give them hope for the future.


Other reviews / information:

Read quotes from this book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Book Review: "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind" by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2017)
Yuval Noah Harari (1976)










443 pages

The social and cultural traditions within which we grow up tend to become so deeply ingrained in our worldview as to seem to be a part of the natural order of things. According to author and historian Yuval Noah Harari however, all of these social and cultural traditions --- everything we think and do beyond our biological drives --- actually arise out of humankind’s unique ability to create shared myths and fictions. Early in his fascinating and thought-provoking book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harari declares that:
There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. (28)

For Harari, the ability to create shared myths and fictions not only gave Homo sapiens a decisive advantage over other human species, but also explains “why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” (25) The wide-ranging and dramatic implications of this seemingly simple but in reality remarkably powerful ability form the foundation of Harari’s examination of Homo sapiens’ long history. In Sapiens, he charts and examines humankind’s development from bands of foragers to the settled farming villages that grew out of the Agricultural Revolution, through the subsequent consolidation of individual communities into states and empires, and finally the dramatic transition to a globalized society that came with the Scientific Revolution.

Although Homo sapiens first appeared in East Africa some 200 thousand years ago, it was only 70 thousand years ago, according to Harari, that they developed the capability for fictive language. He refers to that transition as the Cognitive Revolution, and describes it as having given Homo sapiens the ability to transmit large amounts of information about the physical world and social relationships, and to create social constructs he refers to as imagined orders. While noting that Homo sapiens are not “exempt from biological laws [and] are still animals, and our physical, emotional and cognitive abilities are still shaped by our DNA” (38), Harari makes clear that this ability to create imagined orders underlies nearly everything about our history and our modern lives.

In particular, imagined orders enabled the successful cooperation between strangers that allowed the formation of large, cohesive groups with rapidly evolving social structures. This gave Homo sapiens a critical advantage over the other, remaining species of humankind. As becomes clear in Harari’s telling, however, the true impact of the Cognitive Revolution only became fully realized once the development of farming allowed the size of human communities to grow nearly without bound.

Though he presents several theories on the origins of the Agricultural Revolution, Harari seems to find settling that history of less interest than the disconcerting question of whether it was actually such a good thing for humankind. Though the pervasive view has been that “the agricultural revolution was a great leap forward for humanity” (78), he argues that it was perhaps instead “history’s biggest fraud” (79), a “luxury trap” (84) that humans unwittingly fell into.

He notes for example that, at an individual level, foragers lived lives that involved doing less work than farmers, and work more attuned to the evolutionary development of the human mind and body. Being mobile and living from a wide variety of food sources also meant that foragers were at much less risk of starvation from bad weather or diseases than farmers, who were tied to their land and reliant on a few crops and livestock.

In an intriguing twist, Harari turns the tables on the consequences of the Agricultural Revolution, looking at it from the purely biological sense of evolutionary processes focused on the spread of DNA. For humankind, in that sense, it has been a mixed blessing, providing “the ability to keep more people alive [albeit] under worse conditions.” (83) For cultivated crops such as wheat, on the other hand, it has been an unqualified success, allowing them to spread far beyond their range as a wild plant. For livestock animals, however, he finds the implications perhaps the most ambivalent: their DNA has been remarkably successful in proliferating itself, but only in exchange for the brutal living conditions inherent in factory farming.

For better or worse, however, the rapid increase in population enabled by the Agricultural Revolution led to ever larger settlements, and in time cities, kingdoms and empires, and eventually our modern world. Harari's review and analysis of this expansion makes evident the decisive role played in it by Homo sapiens’ ability to create imagined orders.  His detailed look at several of them --- social hierarchies, money, empires and universal religions --- also helps crystallize for readers the all-encompassing nature of this ability on our thinking and our lives.

The codification of social hierarchies enabled the growth of increasingly large communities of people; each such hierarchy represented an imagined order --- a purely invented, biologically arbitrary construct, generally arising in each society due to an accidental circumstance of history in that part of the world.

The construct of money eliminated the inherent limitations of bartering, by defining a relative worth for products based on an arbitrary unit of measure, which dramatically expanded economic possibilities. Harari points out that the imagined order of money has been by far the most successful conqueror of variation between cultures: even people who have no connection of language, religion or state will trust in money as having value.

The appearance of the first empires followed within a few centuries the use of money, and became the most common form of political organization. Empires have generally been founded and grown up around invented narratives that underscore the benefits they bring to the variety of cultures they contain.

When discussing religions, Harari has a much broader definition than simply supernatural, theist faiths, such as Christianity or Islam.  For him, any belief system based on a superhuman order --- that is, one which "establishes norms and values that it considers binding ... [and with the] qualities [of being] universal and missionary" (210) --- is a religion.  Thus, along with theist faiths, he also considers non-theist, natural-law ideologies as religions, including capitalism, communism, nationalism and Nazism.

Through his detailed examination of economic and cultural phenomena such as social hierarchies, money, empires and religions, the development and critical impact of being capable of creating imagined orders become clear, as does their origin in the evolutionary appearance of the ability to use fictive language. A purely biologically driven species is unable to comprehend the idea of tying the relative worth of all things to a piece of paper or metal with particular marks on it.  As Harari commented in an interview with Sam Harris, (Waking Up with Sam Harris podcast, Reality and the Imagination, at 27’ 55’’):
My understanding is that a source of human power, but also the source of much human misery is … the human imagination, and the ability of humans to create fictional stories, and then to believe them, to such an extent that they can start entire wars just because they believe some religious or national or economic fiction. ... We control this planet not because as individuals we are much more intelligent than chimpanzees or pigs or dogs, but rather because we are the only mammal that can cooperate in very large numbers;  and we can do that because we believe in fictions. If we examine any large-scale human cooperation, you always find a fictional story at the basis, whether it’s about god, or the nation, or money, or even human rights. Human rights, like god in heaven, they are just a story invented by humans, they are not a biological reality.

A key point for Harari is that imagined orders are in some sense ephemeral, having force only so long as we agree to them: “an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force on the world.” (32) Given the growing divide in our political and social structures, Americans need only look inward to see how fragile the common imagined orders of a nation can be, and how easily they could be allowed to splinter into competing social constructs and beliefs.

In a though-provoking sidestep into the study and understanding of history, Harari examines the idea that there is a “secret of success” of particular imagined orders over others --- for example, Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire and so eventually a universal religion. He notes that having only a superficial knowledge of a historical period can easily lead one into “hindsight fallacy,” the belief when looking back that certain decisions and outcomes were inevitable, when in reality they were not. Another common trap, he argues, is to believe that history’s choices are necessarily to the benefit of humans.

On the contrary, he argues that the more deeply one studies a historical period the harder it often becomes to explain why things happened one way and not the other, and also that no objective scale of the preferential “goodness” of a particular result exists. In a statement with implications for how we should view our own future, he points out that in fact possibilities in the past which seemed very unlikely to contemporaries (such as the eventual dominance of Christianity in the Roman Empire) have often been realized.

While the first part of the book introduces the idea of imagined orders as growing out of the Cognitive Revolution, and the second part describes key imagined orders that enabled the increasing population density made possible by the Agricultural Revolution, it is in the final part of the book --- on the Scientific Revolution --- that Harari demonstrates how some imagined orders can be more successful than others.

Harari links the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution to the point, some 500 years ago, when humankind began to acknowledge its own ignorance, and so ceased to divide knowledge between that which was ordained by religious belief and that which was simply unimportant to know. He notes that along with this change came a shift to making observation and mathematics central to improving our understanding, and a focus on turning scientific discoveries into technical advances.

This revolution occurred first in Western Europe, and, critically according to Harari, was matched there by a burning desire to fill in the gaps, a “mentality of conquest” (283) that set off a frenzied search for new discoveries both in a scientific sense, and also in the searching out of news lands in parts of the globe unknown to Europeans: “As time went by, the conquest of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined.” (284)

This combination of interest in science and desire for conquest resulted in a decisive edge for nations in Western Europe, Harari argues, as they reached outward. Although empires in Asia and the Western Hemisphere produced scientific discoveries on par with Western Europe, and were more powerful than countries in Western Europe as the Scientific Revolution began, “they lacked the values, myths, judicial apparatus and sociopolitical structures that took centuries to form in the West and which could not be copied and internalized rapidly.” (282)

Thus, as Western Europeans began exploring the globe, these more powerful empires stayed close to home, and found themselves unprepared to counter Europe’s expansion onto the world scene. Harari’s analysis highlights how a society’s set of imagined orders can have dramatic, if unpredictable, impacts on its future: the same imagined orders that lead to a powerful social order locally --- for example for the Chinese or Inca empires --- can potentially become a point of weakness when a society butts up against another that grew up with a different set of imagined orders.

In Western Europe, a deep belief and faith in progress and the future accompanied the Scientific Revolution, setting the stage for the development of capitalism. Harari points out that capitalism and the Scientific Revolution worked hand in hand in the West, becoming a combination of imagined orders that strengthened one another in a powerful feedback loop as investments in science led to new discoveries that led to new technologies that gave governments the power to gain control of more resources, and so provide yet more funding for further scientific advancement.

Harari goes on to examine a number of implications that the rise and dominance of the capitalist imagined order --- with its deeply embedded requirements for continued growth and expansion --- have had on modern society.

The first has been an ever increasing use of energy and raw materials; he notes that despite constantly re-emerging fears over limits on the availability of sufficient resources, new exploitable sources have so far always been found, motivated through the feedback loop of capitalism and science. That same synergy of imagined orders has also rapidly increased productivity through the industrial revolution, of which one consequence has been what he calls a second Agricultural Revolution, as industrialization dramatically increased output of farms.

His discussion of capitalism and industrialization recalls Colin Tudge’s comment in The Time Before History: 5 Million Years of Human Impact: “the agricultural systems of the [modern] world are not actually designed to feed people” (325). The popular fiction (imagined order of a kind) of farming as meant first and foremost to feed people may perhaps apply to particular farmers pursuing their passion to produce food, and looking simply to make enough to live on, but as an industry agriculture in fact constitutes a capitalist enterprise --- intent on making profit for their owners, just as any other business.

Harari also discusses the rise of consumerism: to sustain the capitalist model of investments returning profits it has been necessary to add to the imagined order of capitalism a belief that consumerism is good and right and natural. President Bush, for example, made direct reference to this critical feature of the capitalist order during a 2006 news conference when he concluded a summary of the economic situation with the exhortation to Americans: “I encourage you all to go shopping more.”

Finally, a consequence of capitalism and consumerism, according to Harari, has been to weaken our connections to family and local community, replacing them with new imagined communities, such as the nation and, increasingly, consumer tribes, which he describes as large groups of people “who do not know one another intimately but share the same consumption habits and interests, and therefore feel part of the same consumer tribe --- and define themselves as such.” (364) He finds a silver lining in the spread of consumerism however: in the unprecedented peace since 1945, globalization has made international wars seemingly unthinkable, with each additional peaceful year allowing the development of further global connections, and so further reasons to avoid war, in a positive feedback loop.

Looking back over the arc of the history he has described, Harari introduces the question of whether humankind could be concluded to have found happiness at any particular period of its history. He qualifies this discussion by outlining the difficulties in defining happiness, concluding that there is still much to be understood about how to answer the question.  At an individual level, Harari considers whether Buddhism and other similar philosophies that claim that "the key to happiness is to know the truth about yourself --- to understand who, or what, you really are" (396), may perhaps come closest to the mark in identifying what could be considered happiness.

Throughout the text, Harari brings a balanced approach to his analysis of humankind’s history, and in particular the impacts of the constructed imagined orders that underlay it. Regarding social hierarchies, for example, he notes that they were approximate descriptions of the world, and contained inherent inconsistencies and inequalities, leaving them open in retrospect to condemnation and opprobrium. He points out, however, that they were critical structures for allowing humankind to gather in large communities, and that precisely because of their shortcomings they were in constant flux and adaptation, both due to internal tensions, and as societies with differing hierarchical orders bumped up against one another.

Similarly, in his analysis of empires, he notes that although they are currently often considered as evil, throughout history their cultural impacts have tended to remain embedded in societies that have overthrown or replaced them. He argues, in fact, that in order to deal with problems that are increasingly global in nature, the current direction is toward a single, global empire.

Harari’s imagined orders share interesting similarities with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, a word Teilhard coined, and that appeared for example in his treatise The Phenomenon of Man (my review here). Teilhard argued that the evolutionary development in humans of thought and reflection provided the necessary advantage for humankind to spread throughout the world, creating a “thinking layer” --- the noosphere --- that spanned the earth. (Teilhard created this term as a compliment to the existing, commonly known spheres, such as the biosphere.) Eventually, only Homo sapiens remained, branching out into a variety of groups worldwide. These initially independent groups then took the next step in the evolution of the nooshpere, by organizing into increasingly complex social groups, and eventually political and cultural societies.

Teilhard’s noosphere parallels Harari’s description of the development of thought in humankind, followed by its enhancement in Homo sapiens into the ability to create myths and fictions, giving them a decisive advantage, and, in the wake of the Agricultural Revolution, enabling the creation of increasingly complex social groups, and eventually world-wide political and cultural societies. Harari points out that these created societies are fundamentally different from the natural biological aspects of human existence, representing a constructed mental reality on top of our biological drives -- a formulation thus not unlike the idea of Teilhard’s “thinking layer” superimposed on the biosphere.

In another parallel, Harari’s explanation for the domination of the West’s imagined orders over the past 500 years also has echoes in Teilhard’s analysis. Teilhard pointed out five particular “foci of [social] attraction and organization, [that served as the] prelude and presage of some new and superior state for the noosphere”: the Mayan, Polynesian, Chinese, Indian and Egyptian-Sumerian civilizations. (209) Of these, he argued, it was the Egyptian and Sumerian that eventually coalesced into Western Civilization, “to produce that happy blend, thanks to which reason could be harnessed to facts and religion to action.” (211) For Teilhard, social societies were the next stage in mankind’s biological progress up the Tree of Life, and Western civilization has represented the flowering of that socialization:
The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them. (212)
This closely parallels Harari’s analysis of the advantages that the imagined orders of Western Europe proved decisive in its expansion onto the world stage in the wake of the Scientific Revolution.

It must be clearly pointed out, however, that these striking similarities arise out of wildly divergent premises for the two historians. Teilhard, a Jesuit priest who studied anthropology and other sciences, believed deeply in orthogenesis, the idea that evolution proceeds in a predestined direction toward an ever more advanced state. Thus, for him, the evolution in humankind of the ability to think or reflect, and the eventual development of the noosphere, represented predetermined steps in the development toward ever higher levels of consciousness, as did the eventual dominance of the West. Toward the end of his book The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard makes clear that he views this development as a Christian phenomenon, with a “spiritual and transcendent pole” (298) as its end point.

On the other hand, although Harari does not state it in so many words, it seems evident that he views the evolutionary changes that led to the ability of Homo sapiens to create fictions and myths as having been utterly natural, if not yet understood, developments. Certainly he makes clear his belief that a belief in God is simply one of humankind’s vast variety of imagined orders.

In the final chapter of the book, Harari looks to our future. He foresees humankind transforming beyond Homo sapiens, and describes a variety of technological scenarios that may allow us to change ourselves in fundamental ways. Ultimately, however, he seems to blanch at the power that is coming into the hands of humankind, even as we show ourselves to be ever more irresponsible and destructive.

Sapiens provides a remarkable perspective of human history, looking at it not through the rise and fall of particular empires or cultures, but rather how Homo sapiens’ unique ability to create complex and quickly evolving social and cultural structures enabled our rapid spread throughout the world. Recognizing the implications and impacts of these imagined orders on our modern world not only forces us to acknowledge an inherent arbitrariness of all of our beliefs, but to then use that recognition to enable us to break free from the tyranny of blind belief in them when a better way may be possible.


Other reviews / information:

Regarding Harari's thoughts on whether there has been a time when mankind could be considered to have been happy: the performance artist Lauri Anderson has a rather pessimistic take on it in her song The Dream Before.

Read quotes from this book here.


Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, in his 1930 essay The Revolt of the Masses (my review here), describes a synergistic development in Europe of “liberal democracy and technical knowledge” (Ortega, 52) quite similar to Harari's discussion on the positive feedback loop created by the Scientific Revolution and cultural predispositions in Western Europe that led to its dominance as it spread throughout the world.  Ortega, however, has a much darker view of the long-term impacts of that synergy on the future of civilization.


Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf