The title of this book is ” a brief history of mankind” but there are major historical omissions that 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 that turned out to be the moral argument for universal human rights. In a chapter entitled “The Arrow of history” Harari claims that during the first millennium BC the universal thought emerged that the entire world could be ruled by a set of laws. We became aware that the world is a “we” that is no longer divided into an “us and a them”. Three universal orders emerged in this era: the economic, political and religious. Merchants, conquerors, and priests saw the wold alternately as potential customers, potential citizens, and potential believers. If this is correct this is a singularly interesting observation which would prove that this era was the birth time of globalization.
Aristotle is reputed to have claimed, (in the name of political philosophy, which does not aim at military conquest but rather emphasizes the role of knowledge of truth and the good in the flourishing life), that the Greeks “armed” with their political philosophy could rule the world. It is not clear whether Alexander the Great was attempting to instantiate this Aristotelian belief but Jonathan Lear in his work on Aristotle focuses not on belief but rather on the desire we all universally possess 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 prophet 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 that attempts to achieve an understanding of the truth and the good in all areas of activity. He also emphasized 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. 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 that Hannah Arendt described as “this terrible century” and she also argued that nationalism, capital, and military expansionism contributed to the emergence of a new form of totalitarian government based on class and race that set the world on fire. There is no mention of this aspect that religious prophets and philosophers may claim to have foreseen. Arendt quotes the story of Cecil Rhodes expressing a wish to colonize 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 Harari’s sweeping historical account. The argument presented for the new global empire is, however, occasionally philosophical with a biological twist as is instantiated by his claims in a Chapter entitled “Imperial Visions” in which it is argued that nationalism is losing ground in the twentieth century and that a universal idea of mankind including the imaginative construction of universal human rights. The existence of over 200 nation-states attempting to agree on issues of global warming and other issues of international concern will eventually result in global consensus, it is argued.
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 tyrannize minorities. We know he prophetically suggested an organization such as the United Nations where countries would participate voluntarily and cooperate for the common good. Such an organization is indeed an embodiment of the global understanding of the importance of peace in the world and vitally important 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 instantiation of 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.