Notes politics

Chapter 20: Meaning (21 Lessons for the 21st Century)

The Disney story of The Lion King reiterates mythological ideas about the meaning of life. Namely, that there is an eternal circle of life, and that it is one’s obligation to follow his destiny. Simba must not waver off his path lest he suffer painful consequences and see the collapse of his kingdom at the hands of pernicious forces.

The story that impels the individual to seek their destiny has permeated pop culture. But it is not the only story that has gained ground. There are many other stories that seek to imbue the individual’s life with meaning. In this chapter, Harari goes through these stories and tries to show us why they are merely stories.


The Fascist story claims that one’s nation is superior to other nations. Many people today think in this way despite the tragic consequences of fascism in the 20th century. We have seen what happens when a group of people find meaning in gaining supremacy for their group at the expense of all other groups.


The Crusaders lost when they tried to conquer Egypt. One of the crusaders declared that each of them should die for the glory of Christianity, but none followed suit. The rest preferred to become prisoners of war. When pushed to the limit, cooler heads prevailed and pragmaticism took precedence over religious fervour.

In the U.S, conservative Christians are typically proponents of war and guns – concepts completely antithetical to the Christian world view. This dissonance exists everywhere, where people claim to believe in something but hold contradictory views to their own belief, or when tested in the real world they deflect from the same convictions they passionately verbalize in the classroom. Or consider the religious man who considers himself pious because he attends religious ceremonies but mistreats his family and hires prostitutes.

The Liberal Dogma

The liberal story is that it is up to the individual to find his meaning. The meaning of life is not found in any book or experience but is up to the free human being to discover on his own, in a moment of epiphany. ‘The world is what you make of it’ is the prevailing dogma here. But this dogma presupposes that human beings are free to choose, but Harari notes that this is only true in a limited sense. Humans are free to choose from a possible set of actions, certainly, but they are not free to choose their desires. In other words, they are beholden to a biological reality that constricts what they can or can’t do. A heterosexual man cannot choose to be homosexual, for example.

‘No Meaning’ as a Story

Some people think that this problem is solved by finally ascertaining that ‘there is no meaning at all’ but then that becomes its own story. Imagine the man who meditates for a while and notices that his feelings are transient and fickle – that he shouldn’t take them seriously, and that they have no control over him if he simply observes them. He notices that reality exists only in the present and never in the past or the future. He is enlightened by passivity, and then suddenly he is taken by a vision where these revelations lead him on a path forward to enlighten the rest of the world. He sees the power of meditation and is inspired to spread this discovered truth to others. What was once a passive endeavor, one that was meant to isolate the individual from the contingencies of the external world turns into a mission. And this mission itself becomes the meaning of his life.  

The Reality of Suffering

The only thing that is real, that cannot be denied by anyone regardless of who they are, is suffering. To know if something is real, you simply need to ask yourself if it has the capacity to suffer. The world is made up molecules and space. Without the human being to subjectively experience reality, there would be no distinction between what is beautiful and what is hideous, there would only be the objective reality of matter. A starting point to truly identify what is real then is to take a closer look at the only human experience that is undeniably real, and that is suffering.

Harari finally warns us of a red herring. If you live in a nation where its leader talks about purity, redemption, and sacrifice to disguise real suffering, then you’re in trouble. The only real thing that exists is the suffering of individuals.

Read 21 Lessons For The 21st Century

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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