Yuval Harari’s understanding of the power of stories somehow fails to include every story’s central ingredient: metaphor.
Israeli historian Yuval Harari rose to media fame with the publication of two books — Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Homo Deus — that defined him as an oracular interpreter of the meaning of the past and a prophet of our technology-based future.
Harari studies the role that stories have played in human history. He analyses how civilizations are defined by their stories and the multiple ways in which they influence both individual behavior and social organization. Reacting to the ongoing debate around “fake news,” he claims, in his most recent book, that we have always been a “post-truth species.” What he means is that we are incorrigible producers and consumers of fiction.
He cites some examples, including “the Bible… Don Quixote, War and Peace and Harry Potter.” Aware of the possible blowback, he writes: “[S]ome people might be offended by my comparison of the Bible to Harry Potter. If you are a scientifically minded Christian, you might argue that the holy book was never meant to be read as a factual account, but rather as a metaphorical story containing deep wisdom.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An adjective to describe an invented or imagined object, event or story that carries a message whose interpretation people will perpetually disagree about
Harari’s analysis reveals a fundamental truth our cultures persist in denying: That our use of language guides our individual and collective decisions by attributing a shared sense of value to things, behaviors and events. Citing neural scans to prove his point, he provocatively tells us, “We learn to respect holy books in exactly the same way we learn to respect paper currency.”
Although evoking an interpretation of the Bible as a “metaphorical story containing deep wisdom,” Harari shows little interest in exploring what metaphors are and how they work. While examining in depth the effect of stories and shared beliefs on human culture, Sapiens, in its 500 pages, never once uses the term “metaphor.” An academic specialized in medieval history, Harari seems unaware that all the prominent thinkers and writers of that period deeply understood the complexity of metaphor and were clearly not what he imagines, the dupes of a literalist reading of sacred books.
Take the example of St. Augustine. In his Confessions, he speaks about “a diversity of truths” in Biblical texts. He warns against “giving a single true view of this question in such a way as to exclude other views.” Nearly a millennium later, Dante Alighieri insisted on the four levels of interpretation of any story, including the Bible: the literal, the allegorical (“truth hidden under a beautiful fiction”), the moral (the story’s impact on behavior) and the “anagogical” (with its “intimation of higher matters”).
Whatever one thinks about the theology of Augustine or Dante, their approach to stories reflected the general state of metaphorical awareness and the understanding of texts that existed for centuries in European culture. Despite his immense knowledge of the history of things, Harari appears unaware of the history of thought. After centuries in which metaphorical understanding in all its subtle complexity constituted the cultural norm, our modern era replaced the multiplicity and diversity of metaphor with binary reasoning, in which things were either true or false, and that’s it.
This correlates both with the rise of the Reformation’s insistence on Biblical literalism (the unique authority of the Biblical text), complemented by the emerging belief in science’s infallible objectivity — a belief that Harari sees as a convenient fiction, acknowledging that it “gave the empires ideological justification,” thus becoming the foundation of power in the modern world.
The loss of metaphoric understanding, with its openness to diversity of interpretation, marked the triumph of binary, linear thinking. In Les mots et les choses, Michel Foucault identified the civilizational shift from ternary to binary interpretation that occurred in the 17th century, referring to “three levels of language,” including “similitude” alongside the famous signifié and signifiant of modern semiology. “It is this complex interaction of elements,” Foucault tells us, “that was to disappear with the end of the Renaissance.”
So what did Harari miss when he tells us the Bible, War and Peace and Harry Potter are roughly equivalent? Harari is an exponent of postmodern culture, in which only what is pragmatically useful counts. As he says, we live in “the hope that understanding the world will make it easier to control it.”
Really? Do we?
Harari fails to perceive the qualitative distinction between types of motivation. The human authors of the Bible were motivated by the literary, allegorical, moral and anagogical significance of the stories they heard, interpreted and transmitted. Tolstoy was motivated by the nature of his craft as a novelist, which included realistic observation, a serious degree of moral reflection and the prospect of earning money while being admired among his peers for his craft as a novelist. J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter to entertain and eventually make a bundle of money. On the level of motivation, the three have very little in common.
Limited by his strictly binary thinking, Harari sees two mutually exclusive categories: fiction and truth. Fiction, he admits, serves the needs of power and will always win: “We spend far more time and effort on trying to control the world than on trying to understand it.”
Harari is the ultimate pessimist. But that can be explained by the historian’s ignorance of history.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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