A sharp, engrossing book for open-minded readers.

THE SECRET TEACHERS OF THE WESTERN WORLD

A writer on esoteric and occult subjects looks at the people who influenced Western thought through theories of a “living, intelligent universe through which [individuals] could participate through…[the] imagination.”

In his latest book, Lachman (Aleister Crowley: Magick, Rock and Roll, and the Wickedest Man in the World, 2014, etc.) uncovers the esoteric or “secret” knowledge that underlies Western philosophy. He suggests that two bodies of knowledge coexist together like the left and right sides of the brain: traditional Western philosophies focus on “ ‘facts’ that can be grasped by the senses and proven by measurement,” whereas esoteric ones focus on knowledge of “the invisible and intangible.” The author examines the work of such pre-Socratic thinkers as Thales and Pythagoras and sets their ideas in the context of Greek, Egyptian, Roman, and early Christian history. These lesser-known philosophers, along with more celebrated ones like Plato, were all to some degree concerned with explorations of gnosis, the inner experience of spirituality that could potentially lead everyone to “share equally in the divine.” In the centuries to follow, medieval Christian fraternities like the Cathars and Rosicrucians turned to Gnosticism to challenge established Christian dogmas. As Renaissance Europeans turned away from God and toward science to explain reality, esotericism took on the role of the “unconscious” mind in a world growing increasingly dependent on rational explanation. Yet as Lachman shows, esoteric knowledge persisted, especially in the face of social, political, and economic uncertainty, and could be found in the work of poets as diverse as Dante, Goethe, and Blake. In the modern era, esotericism re-emerged as part of so-called New Age knowledge and practices involving, for example, tarot and astrology. The author’s conclusion—that the time has come for a synthesis of traditional and esoteric forms of knowledge—is fascinating. But where the author is most successful is in how he manages to make basic concepts in esoteric philosophies and history lively as well as readable.

A sharp, engrossing book for open-minded readers.

Pub Date: Dec. 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-399-16680-8

Page Count: 528

Publisher: TarcherPerigee

Review Posted Online: Oct. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics,...

HOW DEMOCRACIES DIE

A provocative analysis of the parallels between Donald Trump’s ascent and the fall of other democracies.

Following the last presidential election, Levitsky (Transforming Labor-Based Parties in Latin America, 2003, etc.) and Ziblatt (Conservative Parties and the Birth of Democracy, 2017, etc.), both professors of government at Harvard, wrote an op-ed column titled, “Is Donald Trump a Threat to Democracy?” The answer here is a resounding yes, though, as in that column, the authors underscore their belief that the crisis extends well beyond the power won by an outsider whom they consider a demagogue and a liar. “Donald Trump may have accelerated the process, but he didn’t cause it,” they write of the politics-as-warfare mentality. “The weakening of our democratic norms is rooted in extreme partisan polarization—one that extends beyond policy differences into an existential conflict over race and culture.” The authors fault the Republican establishment for failing to stand up to Trump, even if that meant electing his opponent, and they seem almost wistfully nostalgic for the days when power brokers in smoke-filled rooms kept candidacies restricted to a club whose members knew how to play by the rules. Those supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders might take as much issue with their prescriptions as Trump followers will. However, the comparisons they draw to how democratic populism paved the way toward tyranny in Peru, Venezuela, Chile, and elsewhere are chilling. Among the warning signs they highlight are the Republican Senate’s refusal to consider Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee as well as Trump’s demonization of political opponents, minorities, and the media. As disturbing as they find the dismantling of Democratic safeguards, Levitsky and Ziblatt suggest that “a broad opposition coalition would have important benefits,” though such a coalition would strike some as a move to the center, a return to politics as usual, and even a pragmatic betrayal of principles.

The value of this book is the context it provides, in a style aimed at a concerned citizenry rather than fellow academics, rather than in the consensus it is not likely to build.

Pub Date: Jan. 16, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5247-6293-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Crown

Review Posted Online: Nov. 13, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2017

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Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

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21 LESSONS FOR THE 21ST CENTURY

A highly instructive exploration of “current affairs and…the immediate future of human societies.”

Having produced an international bestseller about human origins (Sapiens, 2015, etc.) and avoided the sophomore jinx writing about our destiny (Homo Deus, 2017), Harari (History/Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) proves that he has not lost his touch, casting a brilliantly insightful eye on today’s myriad crises, from Trump to terrorism, Brexit to big data. As the author emphasizes, “humans think in stories rather than in facts, numbers, or equations, and the simpler the story, the better. Every person, group, and nation has its own tales and myths.” Three grand stories once predicted the future. World War II eliminated the fascist story but stimulated communism for a few decades until its collapse. The liberal story—think democracy, free markets, and globalism—reigned supreme for a decade until the 20th-century nasties—dictators, populists, and nationalists—came back in style. They promote jingoism over international cooperation, vilify the opposition, demonize immigrants and rival nations, and then win elections. “A bit like the Soviet elites in the 1980s,” writes Harari, “liberals don’t understand how history deviates from its preordained course, and they lack an alternative prism through which to interpret reality.” The author certainly understands, and in 21 painfully astute essays, he delivers his take on where our increasingly “post-truth” world is headed. Human ingenuity, which enables us to control the outside world, may soon re-engineer our insides, extend life, and guide our thoughts. Science-fiction movies get the future wrong, if only because they have happy endings. Most readers will find Harari’s narrative deliciously reasonable, including his explanation of the stories (not actually true but rational) of those who elect dictators, populists, and nationalists. His remedies for wildly disruptive technology (biotech, infotech) and its consequences (climate change, mass unemployment) ring true, provided nations act with more good sense than they have shown throughout history.

Harari delivers yet another tour de force.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-525-51217-2

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: June 27, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2018

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