In 2017, the smart set was praising Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. (Blurbs provided by President Obama, Bill Gates, and The Guardian.) In it, Harari outlines “The New Human Agenda,” or at least the agenda of a certain kind of techno-optimist seeking to re-engineer homo sapiens into homo deus.
As Harari tells the history, previously death came in the guise of famine, pestilence, or war. Humans were mostly powerless to ward off these evils, with the mighty as vulnerable as the lowly. The gods and demons, fortunes and Fates could, at best, be placated by sacrifice or supplication, but they could not be controlled. Humanity, therefore, had a tragic sense of life’s precariousness.
At the dawn of the third millennium, however, it is not so.
Humanity wakes up to an amazing realization . . . in the last few decades we have managed to rein in famine, plague, and war. Of course, these problems have not been completely solved, but they have been transformed from incomprehensible and uncontrollable forces of nature into manageable challenges. We don’t need to pray to any god . . . we know quite well what needs to be done in order to prevent famine, plague, and war—and we usually succeed in doing it.
Consider plague, the second great enemy of humanity. The people of an older Athens or Florence knew they might fall ill and die at any time, that some plague lurked, threatening their entire family or city. When pestilence did arrive, the death tolls were often enormous. Florence, for instance, lost half its population to the Black Death of the 1330s.
While epidemics killed millions well into the twentieth century, their frequency and power have receded markedly in recent decades, thanks to vaccines and new treatments. Considered in historical context, even AIDS and Ebola are relatively minor threats, with doctors and researchers progressing inexorably to their eradication. Old age or non-infectious disease will take most humans now alive, not malaria or AIDS. In retrospect, the short panic aroused by SARS or the Swine Flu seems just that: needless panic. Subsequent panics are likely similarly needless.
Thanks to our new freedom from pestilence, says Harari, we no longer consider epidemics “as an inevitable natural calamity” requiring stoic resolve and a long view. We do not see epidemics as the result of a cruel “Mother” nature or the act of capricious or wrathful gods. Rather, they are avoidable, “an inexcusable human failure” for which we will “demand the heads of those responsible.” Our outraged criticism assumes that we now have the knowledge and wherewithal to prevent plagues, and that when they occur the real cause must be “human failings rather than . . . cruel fortune.” Plagues are no longer tragedies but technical challenges; no longer to be passively borne but actively prevented. Should they occur, someone is to blame.
At the moment, evidence of such scapegoating is abundant. Trump, WHO, China, the CDC, wet-markets, this or that governor, Big Pharma, inequity, racism, the Republicans, the Democrats—it’s somebody’s fault that this has happened, for such things are no longer outside of our control. It is impermissible, for we are homo deus.
Even death is not really permitted. By this I don’t mean the new idolatry of health that transforms smoking into mortal sin and yoga and diet into sacraments. I mean the enlightened view that death is not divine judgment or metaphysical necessity but simply a glitch in the hardware. We do not die from Original Sin but from cancer or the novel coronavirus, and there are cures for those, or will be soon, or ought to be. Death, too, is a failure. Someone is to blame for death. “Every technical problem has a technical solution,” reports Harari, and we don’t need to wait for the eschaton to kill death—“a couple of geeks in a lab can do it.”
Death is optional. It persists only because someone has not (yet) chosen to solve its many forms: “Somebody somewhere must have screwed up.”
A people formed to believe that famine, pestilence, and war are avoidable human failures, and to suspect that even death can be overcome, are not a people with a tragic sensibility. Nor are they likely to live in preparation of dying, as the sages and saints have taught. It is not eternal life but living eternally that matters, and if the usual sources of death are avoidable and blameworthy, then there is a kind of sanctity to fleeing death. Not prudence, but sanctity.
This is obvious in the recent slight but real change in the reasons given for social distancing. Initially, the reason was prudential and intelligent: flattening the curve to avoid overwhelming hospitals and exhausting scarce resources such as ventilators. Quickly, though, the rationale became moralistic: to avoid asymptomatic carriers harming others inadvertently—which was perhaps a fear less of viral and more of moral contagion. Now, however, the rationale for social distancing—for weeks, months, perhaps years—has altered substantially. It is no longer the goal of protecting the health care system, or even protecting the vulnerable, but the rather more expansive goal of “stopping the spread” or “staying safe.” This is a change of kind rather than degree.
Staying safe is a feeble dream. It is impossible, and also the shallow aspiration of the enervated. It suggests the point of life is “not suffering” and reveals the anxiety undergirding and saturating the “New Human Agenda.” When plague and death are optional, and somebody’s fault, the anxiety over dying is not only the usual human fear of death but the (much greater) fear of violating the commandments of the new, ersatz religion, and earning what now counts as eternal damnation. More than a concern for human life, this has become fear of losing something akin to the state of grace.
Moreover, because the agenda relies entirely on technique rather than prudence, the citizen and the citizen’s representatives, previously thought capable of self-governance and of playing a part in government, will have their agency arrogated by the experts. Science, not politics, will be the new master discipline; models, not prudence, the guiding intellectual skill.
The new agenda hastens toward Bethlehem, and the best are full of passionate intensity for its arrival. But theirs is an intensity stricken with anxiety rather than the robust hopefulness of the older religion, and theirs is a sickness unto death.
R. J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute.