The nine prophets in our series were unusually prescient about this era in America.
(Illustration by The Free Press; Photos via Getty, Alamy, Miriam Berkley, and Sharon Spaulding, Dennett Family Archive)

The Lessons of the Prophets

Our series on nine late, great thinkers has concluded—but their voices continue to resonate with one another.

For the past nine Saturdays, we brought you a new series called “The Prophets,” profiling thinkers from the past who proved uncannily prescient about our current moment. As the editor of the series, I promised in its introduction to offer “people whose words, work, and life illuminated something essential about the increasingly strange times we find ourselves in today.”

We began with technology visionary Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas were so prophetic, many of you responded with comments like, “I lost count of how many times my jaw dropped reading this.” Our piece on feminist Andrea Dworkin showed how far ahead of her time she was in sounding the alarm on how pornography warps sexual development. Just days after our profile of Dworkin appeared, The New York Times published a disturbing op-ed about the epidemic of choking during sex between young people. 

When it was my turn to write an essay, I chose pioneering birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett. I was amazed that the same obscenity law she fought—and was prosecuted for in 1929—is being used by pro-life advocates trying to ban abortion pills sent through the mail in 2024.

I really appreciated the commenter who responded to the piece on our final prophet, French theorist René Girard, “Please do NOT stop this series. I find it fascinating and instructive.”

And so, today, we bring you one more piece, summarizing the lessons of the prophets. In addition to McLuhan, Girard, Dennett, and Dworkin, we featured five more soothsayers:

  • Bayard Rustin, the civil rights leader who predicted the problems of a world obsessed with identity politics.

  • D.A. Henderson, the epidemiologist who warned against closing schools in response to a pandemic long before Covid.

  • Eric Hoffer, who, seventy years ago, explained how mass movements are born.

  • Allan Bloom, who foresaw the dangers of removing liberal ideals from academia, and telling college kids that truth is relative.

  • Octavia Butler, who seemed to predict half the crises that have rocked contemporary America—from opioids to climate change.

As the series got underway, the prophets began—to borrow a favorite word of McLuhan’s—resonating with each other. Octavia Butler and Eric Hoffer both imagined a president like Donald Trump. McLuhan warned that a fully connected world would resemble a nosy, malicious small town, which he called the “global village.” Girard echoed him, writing, “When the whole world is globalized, you’re going to be able to set fire to the whole thing with a single match.” 

Neither professor Allan Bloom nor dockworker Eric Hoffer would have been surprised by the anti-Israel protests unfolding on college campuses right now. Both believed that elites would undermine the Enlightenment values they considered necessary for a free and democratic society.

And now that the series is complete, I can see many similarities between the prophets, though they lived in different times and had vastly different life experiences. For example:

  • They were not sloganeers. They plunged deeply into research, they collected evidence (often boxes and boxes of it), and they mounted complex arguments to justify their beliefs.

  • They often stood apart. McLuhan was an English literature professor before turning to tech. Bayard Rustin was a civil rights hero who advocated color blindness. Eric Hoffer was a self-educated blue-collar worker who distilled the great thinkers.

  • They had faith in their convictions, but they were not fanatics. Okay, I concede Andrea Dworkin was a fanatic—but the others were quite open-minded.

  • They did not court celebrity for its own sake. They wanted to wake people up to what they saw as opportunities and dangers ahead.

Some of the prophets were well-known in their day, but today only shimmer on the edge of readers’ memory, if at all. And I was struck, while working on the series, by how many television shows were once devoted to deep conversation with serious thinkers. It’s not that you can’t find smart content today, but in our fractured world it’s seen only by a sliver of people. It no longer exists as mass culture. 

One of the quotes I’ll remember most from our series comes from Eric Hoffer, who said, “It is much easier to be a rebel than a hardworking student. . . It is also much easier to be a hero or a martyr than to strive day in day out mastering knowledge and acquiring new skills.” 

This series has revealed that many Free Press readers are willing to be hardworking students. More than one thousand of you became subscribers after reading this series (thank you!). You have proved there is a hunger to be challenged, for writing that doesn’t just reify your prior beliefs but that makes you grapple with new (and old!) ideas. 

None of the prophet essays represent the “official” position of The Free Press, except in the sense that our official policy is to bring you the unexpected, to broaden your intellectual horizons—in a world that often seems determined to narrow them. Now, we’d love to hear what you thought of the series as a whole: write to us at And if there’s a prophet you wish we had profiled, or if you know of someone who is still with us who will be a prophet of tomorrow, please share your thoughts in the comments.

Finally, if you miss reading about the prophets, perhaps you could read the prophets themselves. We’ve compiled a list of their best work:

Emily Yoffe is a senior editor at The Free Press. You can follow her on X at @emilyyoffe.

Catch up with “The Prophets” series, and to keep broadening your intellectual horizons, subscribe to The Free Press today:

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