“Homo Deus”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part Six. The Modern Covenant

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In response to social contract theorists, Hume once asked for the evidence and concluded that there is none and the deal may be fictional: social contract theory then died to be resurrected again by John Rawls in his work “Theory of Justice” but not as an actuality. Social Contract theory for Rawls was an explanatory hypothesis designed to explain our social and political behaviour. In the original deal that Hobbes proposed we have agreed to give up some of our freedom in exchange for the security that the nation-state offers. Harari’s deal that modern man makes is to exchange meaning for power. With Hobbes and Rawls it is clear that the parties to the deal are the nation-state and its citizens but it is not clear who the parties to the deal are that the author of the work “Homo Deus” has in mind. Power and not the truth, we know from earlier essays is what science is concerned with and insofar as the meaning is concerned, it is claimed that in pre-modern times people believed that there was a grand cosmic plan for human beings and was this plan that provided life with a meaning at the expense of power over their lives. Humans were merely strutting on the world stage like actors.

If famine, plague, and war were in the script then everyone played their parts with varying degrees of Stoicism. Humans had no control of the script, no control over famine, plague, and war. It is this powerlessness that science challenges on the grounds that the cosmic plan has no meaning. Life, it is claimed has no meaning and “the universe is a blind and purposeless process, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing”. The feeling that life is without meaning is actually a symptom of the depressive phase of the mental illness, manic depression, and we know that the Shakespearean character associated with the above words was not in a stable mental condition so this statement that the life of humans and the processes of the universe have no meaning would be somewhat puzzling if we were not familiar with the cultural phenomenon of post-modernism. Postmodernists begin by denying the truth and then they deny meaning on grounds that actually undermine their own position. To take postmodernist claims seriously we would have to believe that they were true and meaningful. If these claims were not meaningful, they could not be true and this relation between truth and meaning has been a fundamental tenet of Philosophy since the time of Aristotle up until modern times which Philosophers date back to Hobbes and Descartes. Hobbes, as we saw, wished for humans to give up their freedom which according to Kant is the source, principle, and meaning of human action and human activity. Kant would not, therefore, have negotiated any deals with the Hobbesian Leviathan.
Normally the Shakespearean character in a mental state of confusion rants and raves about the storm and the lightning and sees an adversarial meaning in the storm. If he is finally blinded and moves toward a state of calmer equilibrium and as a consequence a greater understanding of what has happened to him, it is not out of the question that he might sit and ponder his behaviour in the storm and arrive at the Aristotelian analysis that the storm is a physical process composed of the elements of earth, air, water, and fire and processes of hot and cold, wet and dry interacting with the purpose of reestablishing an equilibrium in the weather system. The storm is not a blind process: its power has meaning. Modern culture does not reject this cosmic plan. Modern science might believe this but that is a problem that science needs to address. If science has been blinded by its power then it is about time that it calm down and sit in Shakespearean fashion and ponder its future.

Harari claims that the motto of modernity is “shit happens”. This is not exactly a Shakespearean response but it does fit into the postmodernist cauldron of chaos. He then invokes a principle of freedom and insists that man can do anything he wants. Man is a powerful creature when armed with his science and his money. The economic concepts of growth and credit allowed man to trust in the future. The hubris is astounding in this account and reminds one of what happens to men of Hubris in Greek and Shakespearean tragedies. One is reminded of that almost megalomanic capitalist Cecil Rhodes gazing like the philosophers once did in awe and admiration at the heavens and instead of experiencing awe and admiration wished he could colonize the planets. Arendt discusses this example in her work “The Origins of Totalitarianism” and points out that the motto of this aspect of the modern period, namely “everything is possible” was one of the driving forces of totalitarianism. One understands why the author of “Homo Deus” refuses to learn anything from Philosophy but it is surprising to discover that even history is going to be ignored. We should also recall in this context that Harari earlier claimed communism to be a religion thereby ignoring the normative meaning of the word. Why? Because as he says man has given up meaning for power. This is not true of course but if meaning collapses then so does the distinction between truth and falsity. This, of course, is not to deny that money can be a medium which can be used to do good. If that is, man understands the ethical meaning of “the good”. Indeed not money but the cooperative intentions it unleashes may be a very important element on the road to the Cosmopolitan world Immanuel Kant envisaged. With this aspect in mind, we could perhaps suggest an alteration to Harari’s number one commandment of Capitalism. Instead of “thou shalt invest thy profits in increasing growth” an inhabitant of the ivory tower might suggest “Use capital to bring about a Kantian kingdom of ends”. There are signs that bubbling up beneath the surface of all this hubris of the modern world there is this Kantian kind of philosophical attitude emerging from the subterranean depths of our history. One of the richest men in the world, for example, Warren Buffet, relatively recently agreed to give up 99% of his fortune to “good causes”.
The threatening ecological collapse as a result of global warming is discussed and the logic of the bleeding obvious is applied when it is claimed that when the deluge or great flood comes the rich will have the Arks and the poor will pay the price. But, the author claims the poor are unlikely to support anything which reduces the rate of growth of the world economy because they see this as the only way in which the quality of their lives will improve. What about the middle class, that class which Aristotle predicted would choose the middle way between the extremes, take the golden middle road into the future? Of course, it requires an education to do the right thing in the right way at the right time in all circumstances and such an educated class surely sees the meaning of the excesses of power and money which is meant to comfort us when as Harari so poetically puts it “shit happens”. Meaning is the currency of the educated man and such a man would not engage in “the modernist deal” or regard the megalomanic obsession with power as something to be desired. The educated man reads his Greek tragedies, reads his Shakespeare and studies his history. The author likens the men of the premodern world amongst which we have to include all the philosophers and cultural figures that have created meaning for us, to lowly clerks in a socialist bureaucracy punching their time cards and waiting for something to happen or someone to do something. The businessman is the author’s hero who gets up every morning and gets on the treadmill connected to the giant wheel of growth. The businessman is running in what the author calls a “rat race” and he points to the consequences of this kind of activity:

“Every generation destroys the old world and builds a new one in its place”

This could be the motto of postmodernism which is a movement committed to the dissolution of the “old” system of values in favour of the new. We are told that humans are greedy and that greed is good. We are further told that the world needed to be turned upside down in the name of modernism whose task it was to convince human collectivities and institutions that equilibrium is “far more frightening than chaos”. It is not clear what the author means but he claims that the modern world is devoid of ethics, aesthetics, and compassion but not of morality beauty and compassion which he believes somehow has managed to flourish because of what he calls the new revolutionary “religion” of humanism. Separating humanism from ethics and uniting it with Capitalism and omnipotence is agreeably a chaotic assertion which could only be understood in a through the looking glass world where words can mean whatever you want them to mean and not only can cats smile but their smile can be separated from their bodies symbolizing the separation of biology from psychology. But the world of the postmodernist is much worse than the fictional world of wonderland because not only is it upside down it is like a landscape barren of everything human after an atomic explosion or a catastrophic tsunami. Somewhere the author realizes this is an untenable position and in the next chapter agrees that the contract can be breached and must be breached because it is impossible to establish order without meaning after the so-called death of God.