“Sapiens, A brief history of humankind”(Yuval Noah Harari) Critique and Commentary from a Philosophical Perspective(Aristotle, Kant, and Wittgenstein) Part three

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The title of this book is ” a brief history of mankind” but there are major historical omissions which probably relate to a) a limited view of the role of Philosophy in our History and b) a limited view of philosophical politics. The Ancient Greek contribution to ethical and political universalism is mysteriously conspicuous by its absence in this account as is the Kantian account of the universalism and objectivity of the moral law which turned out to be the moral argument for universal human rights. The following quote illustrates this point:

“The first millennium BC witnessed the appearance of three potentially universal orders, whose devotees could for the first time imagine the entire world and the entire human race as a single unit governed by a single set of laws. Everyone was “us” at least potentially. There was no longer “them”. The first universal order to appear was economic:the monetary order. The second universal order was political: the imperial order. Te third universal order was religious:the order of universal religions such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam. Merchants, conquerors and prophets were the first people who managed to transcend the binary evolutionary division “us vs them”, and to foresee the potential unity of humankind. For the merchants, the entire world was a single market and all humans were potential customers. They tried to establish an economic order that would apply to all, everywhere. For the conquerors, the entire world was a single empire and all humans were potential subjects, and for the prophets, the entire world held a single truth and all humans were potential believers. They too tried to establish an order that would be applicable for everyone everywhere.”

Aristotle is reputed to have claimed, in the name of political philosophy, which does not aim military conquest but rather emphasises the role of knowledge of truth and the good in the flourishing life, that the Greeks “armed” with its political philosophy could rule the world. It is not clear whether Alexander the Great was attempting to instantiate this Aristotelian idea but Jonathan Lear in his work on Aristotle focuses not on belief but rather on the desire we all universally posses to understand our world. Lear argues that this is the telos of rational human activity. If he is correct, it is a short step to propose that this might be the basis of all human and political activity everywhere. Knowledge and understanding of the truth and the good are not the primary concern of merchants or conquerors but it is the concern of prophets even if the approach of the latter very often clashes with philosophical ideas of justice. We are all familiar with the Platonic dialogue “Euthyphro”in which Socrates contested an action done in the name of the “holy” arguing that it was “unjust”. There is, in the desire to understand, a concern with abstract knowledge that we will not find in the activities of merchants working in their markets or conquerors building their Empires. Socrates began a tradition in Philosophical reasoning which attempts to achieve an understanding of the truth and the good in all areas of activity. He also emphasised the perception and understanding of differences between for example fact and fiction, myth and religion, the wealthy life vs the examined life. This spirit was again embraced fully by Kant in his Enlightenment Philosophy in which knowledge of human nature, ethics,and political philosophy are central concerns in the formation of the idea of the Cosmopolitan citizen. The interesting question to ask is why Harari in a work on mankind chooses to ignore such an important part of the history of mankind in this work. It might even be the case that the philosophical view of universalism is the most important mechanism driving the world in its global or cosmopolitan direction. The kingdom of ends for Kant was neither a market nor an empire nor a purely religious phenomenon, although we find that in Kant’s kingdom there is room for a belief in God grounded not in mythology but in ethical understanding and reasoning.

In a section entitled “The New Global Empire” there is some historical comment on nation-states but not as much as one would have expected. It is correctly pointed out that mankind has spent most of its time living in Empires. The nation state is a relatively recent phenomenon and Harari also rightly takes the position that the signs are that we are heading in the direction of a new global empire. Nationalism exploded in our faces during the last century which Hannah Arendt described as “this terrible century” where she argued nationalism, capital and military expansionism contributed to the emergence of a new form of totalitarian government based on class and race which set the world on fire. There is no mention of this aspect which religious prophets and philosophers may claim to have foreseen. Arendt quotes the story of Cecil Rhodes expressing a wish to colonise the planets as an illustration of the excesses that drives capital searching for investment and men searching for their fortunes. This aspect of capitalisms insatiable desire for greater and greater accumulation is not mentioned in this sweeping historical account. The argument presented for the new global empire is however, occasionally philosophical with a biological twist:

“As the twenty first century unfolds, nationalism is fast losing ground. More and more people believe that all of humankind is the legitimate source of political authority rather than the members of a particular nationality, and that safeguarding human rights and protecting the interests of the entire human species should be the guiding light of politics. If so, having close to 200 independent states is a hindrance rather than a help”(231)

Pragmatism and instrumentalism also makes an appearance:

“….The appearance of essentially global problems such as melting ice caps nibbles away at whatever legitimacy remains to the independent nation states. No sovereign state will be able to overcome global warming on its own. As of 2014, the world is still politically fragmented, but states are fast losing their independence. Not one of them is really able to execute independent economic policies, to declare and wage wars as it pleases or even to run its own internal affairs as it sees fit…States are obliged to conform to global standards.. “(p231-232)

Philosophers would in this context refer to global understanding and the importance of knowledge of the truth and the good in naming the underlying mechanisms of the global transformation we are witnessing. These are the tools of the progress we are now seeing after the terrible twentieth century and its economic and political excesses. After excess comes the inevitable return to the golden mean, Aristotle would argue. Kant specifically claimed that this progress away from excesses was not toward a world government because such a government would inevitably be tyrannical and be forced to tyrannise minorities. We know he suggested an organisation such as the United Nations where countries would participate voluntarily and cooperate for the common good. Such an organisation is indeed an embodiment of the global understanding of the importance of peace in the world if Progress is to continue unhindered. But we should also bear in mind that this march of progress is a slow affair and we should not expect the ethical and political notion of a perpetual peace in the world in the next one hundred thousand years. The golden mean is even in historical terms a long way beyond the historical horizon and unfortunately in this work we get no indication of the time scale for the emergence of the new global empire or the reasons why states feel obliged to conform to global standards.