The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 2

As previously discussed, Justin developed intellectually in a rather free-wheeling philosophical milieu, a ferment just prior to the emergence of the schools that would come to dominate the next few centuries, indeed the next millennium, of thought.  Consequently and particularly because of his own rather eclectic journey through various philosophical schools on his way to Christianity (more on which anon), Justin’s understanding of Pagan philosophy’s relationship to Christian revelation is striking, though we should not oversell its uniqueness.1 

At the root of his conception of prior philosophy is the prologue to the fourth gospel:2

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him: and without him was made nothing that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

John 1:1-5

What is translated here as “word” is, in the original Greek, Logos, an essentially untranslatable term.  Just to sample from the entry in Liddell-Scott, it can mean: that by which the inward thought is expressed, the inward thought itself, word, language, a statement, assertion, resolution, condition, or command, speech, discourse, conversation, the faculty of speech, a saying, tale, or story, history, narrative, reason, opinion, account, etc. etc.

In a sense, it means all those things, and then, complicating the matter, the Logos (the logos of all logoi) was a human being, Christ, who existed at a particular historical time and place, walked among us, taught, was crucified and rose from the dead.  If this strikes you as an incomprehensible mystery, good, that’s the point.

Justin is the first great theorizer of the Logos and is particularly attentive to the revelation of the Logos throughout history in the exercise of the rational faculty of those who strove to live in the light of truth.  These brilliant and blessed men were not simply wise, but, Justin tells us Christians of a sort:

He is the Word of whom every race of men were partakers; and those who lived reasonably are Christians, even though they have been thought atheists; as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus, and men like them; and among the barbarians, Abraham, and Ananias, and Azarias, and Misael, and Elias, and many others whose actions and names we now decline to recount, because we know it would be tedious. So that even they who lived before Christ, and lived without reason, were wicked and hostile to Christ, and slew those who lived reasonably.3

Justin Martyr, First Apology

The logic behind Justin’s claim is fairly straightforward: Christ is reason and wisdom incarnate, those who serve Christ are Christians, philosophers who lived in service of reason and wisdom are Christians.  Yet, its boldness is striking.  In one move, Justin has appropriated the heritage of the ancient world for the Christians, declaring them—remember this is in an apology defending the Christians against the calumnies and persecution of Rome—the true heirs to the great philosophical traditions, the truly rational ones, the true philosophers.  Simply put:

Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

What’s more we find, many of the famous claims of various philosophers were not original, but were copied directly from Moses, who Plato apparently read while in studying in Egypt:4

Plato borrowed his statement that God, having altered matter which was shapeless, made the world, hear the very words spoken through Moses, who, as above shown, was the first prophet, and of greater antiquity than the Greek writers;

Justin Martyr, First Apology

And later:

And the physiological discussion concerning the Son of God in the Timæus of Plato, where he says, “He placed him crosswise in the universe,” he borrowed in like manner from Moses; for in the writings of Moses it is related how at that time, when the Israelites went out of Egypt and were in the wilderness, they fell in with poisonous beasts, both vipers and asps, and every kind of serpent, which slew the people; and that Moses, by the inspiration and influence of God, took brass, and made it into the figure of a cross, and set it in the holy tabernacle, and said to the people, “If ye look to this figure, and believe, ye shall be saved thereby.” And when this was done, it is recorded that the serpents died, and it is handed down that the people thus escaped death. Which things Plato reading, and not accurately understanding, and not apprehending that it was the figure of the cross, but taking it to be a placing crosswise, he said that the power next to the first God was placed crosswise in the universe. And as to his speaking of a third, he did this because he read, as we said above, that which was spoken by Moses, “that the Spirit of God moved over the waters.” For he gives the second place to the Logos which is with God, who he said was placed crosswise in the universe; and the third place to the Spirit who was said to be borne upon the water, saying, “And the third around the third.” And hear how the Spirit of prophecy signified through Moses that there should be a conflagration. He spoke thus: “Everlasting fire shall descend, and shall devour to the pit beneath.” It is not, then, that we hold the same opinions as others, but that all speak in imitation of ours.5

Justin Martyr, First Apology

Here again Justin situates Christians as the true founders and thus true inheritors of the Greek intellectual tradition.  Moreover, in Plato’s misunderstanding of Moses, we see a pattern of students not understanding their teachers that would lead to philosophy’s fracturing into a multitude of competing schools that increasingly diverged from the truth: 

I wish to tell you why [philosophy] has become many-headed. It has happened that those who first handled it, and who were therefore esteemed illustrious men, were succeeded by those who made no investigations concerning truth, but only admired the perseverance and self-discipline of the former, as well as the novelty of the doctrines; and each thought that to be true which he learned from his teacher: then, moreover, those latter persons handed down to their successors such things, and others similar to them; and this system was called by the name of him who was styled the father of the doctrine.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

Philosophy thus degenerates from seekers who cared about truth but were unable to fully grasp it, to students who only admired the externally manifest virtue of their teachers, to the present day where so-called philosophers care about neither truth nor virtue and instead persecute the earnest seekers of truth, i.e. the Christians.6

The mistakes of Socrates, Heraclitus, and Plato were, unlike their descendants, forgivable, due to the limitations of their natural capacities:

For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation impacted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

It is, therefore, Christ alone who is capable of bringing philosophy to its conclusion.  Socrates, Plato, and the rest merely pursued wisdom, a wisdom that they themselves admitted lay beyond their capabilities to grasp.  The Christian, however, by virtue of Christ’s incarnation, can see and participate in the fullness of the Logos. They don’t pursue wisdom but are united with it.  Through this union all can be converted away from ignorance and demonic influence, restored to their rightful place as rulers of the cosmos along with Christ, and, as a consequence, freed from corruption and death.  This is the ultimate goal of philosophy, attained only by the Christians. 

Thus, the state of the world in which Justin writes and why they are innocent of the charges of innovation and teaching foolishness with which their (demonic) enemies slander them.  In summary:

And that this may now become evident to you—(firstly) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof

Justin Martyr, First Apology

1. An obvious comparison to Justin on this front is Clement of Alexandria, whose works I’m also hoping to re-read soon.  His catalog is more expansive than Justin’s and he seems to be more deeply rooted in the intellectual landscape of Alexandria.  There’re a ton of interesting tidbits in Clement. 

2. which is, incidentally, the most profound philosophical formulation ever written

3. Here again we see the implacable demonic opposition to the logos that so characterizes Justin’s world picture.

4. Thomas Aquinas picks up on this tradition as well: “Moreover Plato is said to have known many divine things, having read the books of the Old Law, which he found in Egypt.” (Scriptum super libros sententiarum Magistri Petri Lombardi, bk 1, dist. III, q. 1, a. 4, ad. 1)

5. We’ll speak more about Justin on the Cross in a later post

6. Remember, Justin was eventually put on trial and executed (by a Stoic philosopher no less) due to his disputes with Crescens, a cynic.

The Power of the Dog

Another by Kipling.

The Power of the Dog

There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.

Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie —
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.

When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find — it’s your own affair —
But . . . you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.

When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!)
When the spirit hat answered your every mood
Is gone — wherever it goes — for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.

We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept’em, the more do we grieve;

For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long —
So why in — Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?

Rudyard Kipling

Awake, My Soul

Awake, my soul

Awake, my soul, and with the sun
Thy daily stage of duty run;
Shake off dull sloth, and joyful rise
To pay thy morning sacrifice.

Thy precious time mispent, redeem,
Each present day thy last esteem ;
Improve thy talent with due care,
For the great day thyself prepare.

In conversation be sincere,
Keep conscience as the noon-tide clear :
Think how all-seing God thy ways
And all thy secret thoughts surveys.

By influence of the light divine,
Let thy own light to others shine,
Reflect all heaven’s propitious rays,
In ardent love, and cheerful praise.

Wake, and lift up thyself, my heart,
And with the angels bear thy part,
Who all night long unwearied sing
High praise to the eternal King.

I wake, I wake; ye heavenly choir,
May your devotion me inspire,
That I like you my age may spend,
Like you may on my God attend.

May I like you in God delight,
Have all day long my God in sight,
Perform like you my Maker’s will,
O may I never more do ill.

Had I your Wings, to Heaven I’d fly,
But God shall that defect supply,
And my Soul wing’d with warm desire,
Shall all day long to Heav’n aspire.

All praise to Thee who safe hast kept,
And hast refresh’d me whilst I slept.
Grant Lord, when I from death shall wake,
I may of endless Light partake.

I would not wake, nor rise again,
And Heav’n itself I would disdain ;
Were’t not Thou there to be enjoy’d,
And I in Hymns to be employ’d.

Heav’n is, dear Lord, where e’er Thou art,
O never then from me depart ;
For to my Soul, ’tis Hell to be,
But for one moment void of Thee.

Lord, I my vows to Thee renew,
Disperse my sins as Morning dew,
Guard my first springs of Thought and Will,
And with Thy self my Spirit fill.

Direct, controul, suggest, this day,
All I design, or do, or say,
That all my Powers with all their might,
In Thy sole Glory may unite.

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
Praise Him all Creatures here below,
Praise Him above ye Heavenly Host,
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Thomas Ken

The Weltbild of Justin Martyr, pt. 1

One of the earliest (surviving) apologetic writers of the early church, Justin Martyr was born to a pagan family in Samaria during the early second century. Seeking wisdom, he studied a variety of philosophical schools before becoming a variety of Middle Platonist–though he still retained principles from his training in Stoicism, Pythagoreanism, and the Peripatetic school–just as that philosophy was beginning to wane (to be supplanted largely by Neoplatonism, which retained much of Middle Platonism in a more systematic form and in more explicit dialogue with Christianity).

Not content with Platonism (we might see shades of Augustine here), he abandoned pagan philosophy for Christianity which he took to be the true, divine philosophy (more on his conversion to come). His spirited defenses of the faith and philosophical rabble-rousing appears to have made him a number of enemies, particularly among the Cynics. He mentions one of these, Crescens, as a particular adversary, and, likely at the instigation of Crescens, he was tried by the prefect of Rome and Stoic philosopher Rusticus sometime around 165 AD and was beheaded for his faith shortly thereafter.

I’ve always found Justin interesting, a window into a time period and a certain sort of philosophical Christianity that would shortly after be eclipsed as the Christian community grew and the aforementioned more synthesized philosophical schools gained ascendancy. Having recently completed a reread of his three extant works, the First and Second Apologies and the Dialogue with Trypho, I hope to spend a few posts exploring his worldview and theological outlook.

First up, demons!

The world, for Justin, is awash in spirits implacably opposed to Christ, and it is these demons who are responsible for the majority of the world’s ills and the most common pagan objections to Christianity. Indeed, paganism itself is a creation of demons:

For the truth shall be spoken; since of old these evil demons, effecting apparitions of themselves, both defiled women and corrupted boys, and showed such fearful sights to men, that those who did not use their reason in judging of the actions that were done, were struck with terror; and being carried away by fear, and not knowing that these were demons, they called them gods, and gave to each the name which each of the demons chose for himself.

Justin Martyr, First Apology

These demons are the product of angelic rebellion. Following the world’s creation, angels were given a supervisory role over the earth and humanity:

But the angels transgressed this appointment, and were captivated by love of women, and begat children who are those that are called demons; and besides, they afterwards subdued the human race to themselves, partly by magical writings, and partly by fears and the punishments they occasioned, and partly by teaching them to offer sacrifices, and incense, and libations, of which things they stood in need after they were enslaved by lustful passions; and among men they sowed murders, wars, adulteries, intemperate deeds, and all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations, which they related, ascribed them to god himself, and to those who were accounted to be his very offspring, and to the offspring of those who were called his brothers, Neptune and Pluto, and to the children again of these their offspring. For whatever name each of the angels had given to himself and his children, by that name they called them.

First Apology

Note, by the way, the identification of God with Jupiter. Justin doesn’t dwell on it, and in that not-dwelling reveals what must be a more pervasive understanding of Jupiter’s nature that he is so easily identified with the God of Christianity. Worth keeping in mind when thinking about the conversion of the ancient world to Christianity.

Another interesting facet of the passage is Justin’s differentiation between rebel angels and demons, the latter being the offspring of derelict angels and human women. He’s obviously drawing on Genesis 6:1-4 here, the mysterious “nephilim” passage, and it signals a sort of hierarchical demonology that Justin does not fully articulate, but would be fascinating to explore further. Does the distinction neatly map on to the god/demi-god distinction or is there more complexity, matching the similarly bewildering complexity of Greco-Roman divine genealogies? What does he make of deified ancestors (and deified emperors for that matter)? Were they the offspring of demons or rebel angels? Or elevated to divine status due to demonic subversion? It’s not clear.

Also interesting is his claim that, having been enslaved by the passions, the angels and their offspring required libations and sacrifice. The idea appears to be, and this is reinforced elsewhere, that subjugation by the passions drags us down, towards the material, while subjugating the passions elevates us to the spiritual. This pull is so strong that it degrades even angelic nature to the degree that they require earthly sustenance (here we see the seeds of the ascetic ideal that the holy man does not require, or only requires the barest bit, of material goods to sustain himself).

While the birth of some demons was a mere consequence of lust, demons also mated with human women in order to anticipate and thus thwart Christ by making stories about him seem like fairy-tales.

For having heard it proclaimed through the prophets that the Christ was to come, and that the ungodly among men were to be punished by fire, they put forward many to be called sons of Jupiter, under the impression that they would be able to produce in men the idea that the things which were said with regard to Christ were mere marvellous tales, like the things which were said by the poets.

First Apology

Justin doesn’t make this point, but I can imagine an argument that this imitation also signals the demons’ inability to truly create and the ultimate futility of their efforts to frustrate God’s purpose. For, he argues elsewhere, the stories about the sons of Jupiter, far from making Christian teachings about Christ ridiculous, accomplish precisely the opposite, demonstrating that Christians do not preach absurdity. More, demonic attempts to set up false Christs inevitably prefigure him and point to the superiority of Christ as one who embodies all the positive characteristics of these “sons of Jupiter” without their foibles.

Note also how the demons find out about Christ, from the prophets. In this hearing, they prove more perceptive than the Jews or any others not enlightened by faith, as Justin argues in the Dialogue with Trypho (the titular interlocutor is a Jew fleeing the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt). This ability to recognize Christ is also an echo of His recognition by demonic powers in the Gospels, cf. Matthew 8:28-34.

Against the demonic host are arrayed the forces of Reason. Notice that in the first passage quoted above, the fear engendered by demons, and consequently their worship, is due to a failure to rationally evaluate their claims. Elsewhere, he notes that reason allows us to overcome the moral confusion sown by evil forces. Appropriately for a philosopher who came to Christianity via rational investigation, for Justin it is the abdication of reason that grants the demonic a foothold in our minds and societies.

However, there is something deeper going on here. Reason is not a mere human faculty, but the continuous operation of the logos in creation. And the logos is, of course, Christ. This principle is central to Justin’s understanding of Christ, of history, of philosophy, and, indeed, all his thought as we shall explore. In the context of his demon-haunted world, it means that Christ has been perpetually opposed to and working against demons, through those committed to reason and the truth. Justin’s favorite example is Socrates, who he takes to be a sort of proto-Christian and proto-martyr:

And when Socrates endeavoured, by true reason and examination, to bring these things to light, and deliver men from the demons, then the demons themselves, by means of men who rejoiced in iniquity, compassed his death, as an atheist and a profane person, on the charge that “he was introducing new divinities;” and in our case they display a similar activity. For not only among the Greeks did reason (Logos) prevail to condemn these things through Socrates, but also among the Barbarians were they condemned by Reason (or the Word, the Logos) Himself, who took shape, and became man, and was called Jesus Christ; and in obedience to Him, we not only deny that they who did such things as these are gods, but assert that they are wicked and impious demons, whose actions will not bear comparison with those even of men desirous of virtue.

First Apology

Socrates emerges as a type of Christ, murdered for his opposition to demonic powers, just as Christians in Justin’s time (and, of course, Justin himself) were being murdered, and leaving behind a legacy (albeit a corrupted one) oriented toward the coming of the incarnate logos and against the demonic.

Reason also allows us to overcome the moral confusion that demons engender:

And if one object that the laws of men are diverse, and say that with some, one thing is considered good, another evil, while with others what seemed bad to the former is esteemed good, and what seemed good is esteemed bad, let him listen to what we say to this. We know that the wicked angels appointed laws conformable to their own wickedness, in which the men who are like them delight; and the right Reason, when He came, proved that not all opinions nor all doctrines are good, but that some are evil, while others are good.

First Apology

Thus, the shape of the world is made clear: it is a battleground between good and evil, freedom and slavery, reason and the demons, who wage perpetual war against the partisans of the Incarnate Word. Against these forces we must remain vigilant, attached to Christ, and always wary of their deceptions:

For we forewarn you to be on your guard, lest those demons whom we have been accusing should deceive you, and quite divert you from reading and understanding what we say. For they strive to hold you their slaves and servants; and sometimes by appearances in dreams, and sometimes by magical impositions, they subdue all who make no strong opposing effort for their own salvation.

In the next post, we’ll look more closely at the operations of the logos in history and the purpose behind its incarnation.

Moonlight Memorandum

Moonlight Memorandum

Machines are no longer
slowly combing the red earth.

There is no one left to explain
the cones in my eyes to me.

I have been given my sentence
& it is not a long one

though it does include the word
quintessential which pleases me.

Accordingly, I am no relation
to the sky but to the mechanical

dragon wrapped in tissue paper
with plastic flames poking

through. I never told you
that if I were born a suitcase

I would want a trailer
with red curtains so I could

pretend to be a lion. But being
matter-of-fact is like a meatpie in

the pocket. It is the way to go.

Matthea Harvey

I have no idea what it means, but I like it.

Small is Beautiful, pt. 6

My final post on Small is Beautiful. Other posts on Schumacher can be found here.

Schumacher includes another section, on Social Organization, that I won’t survey in detail, primarily because I found it to be the least interesting in the book. I imagine there’s quite a bit of sophistication that I missed, therefore, and don’t want to shortchange him. Schumacher was himself the director of some very large-scale and successful organizations, and he almost certainly offers quite a bit of insight into the subject. Just one more reason for you to check out the book for yourself.

The guiding principle behind Schumacher’s ideal social organization is the venerable principle of subsidiarity, that matters (politial, social, etc.) ought to be handled by the smallest, most local, or least centralized competent authority. Things generally ought to be handled by those who are closest to the situation at hand yet who have enough power to properly deal with the situation. Whenever possible, power ought not be assumed by higher powers unless absolutely necessary. In these cases, the burden of proving their unique capability to handle a given problem lies with the higher power:

they  have to prove that the lower level is incapable of fulfilling this function satisfactorily and that the higher level can actually do much better.

Small is Beautiful, 261 (emphasis his)

Moreover, when the higher power steps in, this must be recognized as an exception, not a rule. So, if a higher power is required to deal with the stresses put on a local system that outstrip that locale’s capacities, the nature of the exception and the scope of the higher power’s intervention needs to be clearly delineated and limited. For example, if the federal government is required to dramatically intervene in the governance of individual states to repair the damage, social and economic, of some natural disaster or social unrest, that intervention ought not be permanent. The aftermath of disaster is not an excuse to destroy subsidiary authority, but to support it until the crisis has passed. At which point, the higher should cede control back to the lower. The fact that this essentially never happens is one of the great problems of modern governance.1

Subsidiarity is, of course, one of the core planks of Catholic Social Teaching, and it was one of the gateways which led to Schumacher’s own conversion. So much for his discussion of social organization. Again, I encourage you to check out the whole book, he’s got a lot more to say.

We’ll thus wrap up our discussion of Small is Beautiful with some quotes from the book’s conclusion.

First, an identification of the central problem the book confronts:

In the excitement over the unfolding of his scientific and technical powers, modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man.  If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place.  Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss.  The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, not matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place.

Small is Beautiful, 313

Note, the book was published more than 45 years ago. The problem has only gotten worse.

Next, the recognition that the problem is not one of technical incapacity or inadequate allocation of resources but a philosophical and spiritual one that can only be resolved, therefore, by philosophical and spiritual transformation:

We shrink back from the truth if we believe that the destructive forces of the modern world can be “brought under control” simply by mobilizing more resources–of wealth, education, and research–to fight pollution, to preserve wildlife, to discover new sources of energy, and to arrive at more effective agreements on peaceful coexistence.  Needless to say, wealth, education, research, and many other things are needed for any civilization, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve.

Small is Beautiful, 314-5

How might we begin this spiritual transformation?

Everywhere people ask: “What can I actually do?” The answer is simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.  The guidance we need for this work cannot be found in science or technology, the value of which utterly depends on the ends they serve; but it can still be found in the traditional wisdom of mankind. 

Small is Beautiful, 318

The solution lies in the virtues:

Out of the whole Christian tradition, there is perhaps no body of teaching which is more relevant and appropriate to the modern predicament than the marvelously subtle and realistic doctrines of the Four Cardinal Virtues–prudentia, justitita, fortitudo, and temperantia.

Small is Beautiful, 316

Cultivate the virtues in yourself and seek to build the structures that will enable others to do the same. It is this, not AI, not “more education”, not “green” technology, that will save you and, with you, us.

The Waking

A quiet poem about noise.

The Waking
I strolled across
An open field;
The sun was out;
Heat was happy.

This way! This way!
The wren’s throat shimmered,
Either to other,
The blossoms sang.

The stones sang,
The little ones did,
And flowers jumped
Like small goats.

A ragged fringe
Of daisies waved;
I wasn’t alone
In a grove of apples.

Far in the wood
A nestling sighed;
The dew loosened
Its morning smells.

I came where the river
Ran over stones:
My ears knew
An early joy.

And all the waters
Of all the streams
Sang in my veins
That summer day.

Theodore Roethke

Small is Beautiful, pt. 5

An attempt to get back to writing regularly here, perhaps futile.

My last post on Schumacher was in January, so I’ve lost the thread a bit, please bear with me.

Previous posts can be found here.

One of the things I most appreciate about Schumacher is that he takes the challenge of technology seriously. The lack of serious engagement with technology is one of the great blindspots of anti-modern thought, which tends to ignore the catastrophic effects of technological advancement on the traditional world-view and the role of technology in sustaining the (otherwise unsustainable) edifice of modernity.1

If we wish to advocate for reform, we must therefore confront the challenge of technology head-on. Schumacher:

The modern world has been shaped by its metaphysics, which has shaped its education, which in turn has brought forth its science and technology.  So, without going back to metaphysics and education, we can say that the modern world has been shaped by technology.  It tumbles from crisis to crisis; on all sides there are prophecies of disaster and, indeed, visible signs of breakdown.

If that which has been shaped by technology, and continues to be so shaped, looks sick, it might be wise to have a look at technology itself.  If technology is felt to be becoming more and more inhuman, we might do well to consider whether it is possible to have something better–a technology with a human face.

Small is Beautiful, 155

Against the charge of technology being, as Schumacher describes it, inhuman and sickening, there are typically two knee-jerk responses. The first is a vague gesture towards the benefits of technology; medicine, transportation, smart phones.2 The second is an assertion of technology’s neutrality. In this defense, it is not the technology itself that is the problem, but the way we use it.

Note that these responses are inextricably linked. Both operate one step removed from the actual the problem. The (false) assumption here is that the development and operation of technology is an essentially uncontrolled process, an undirected power. Our response to technology is cast as a simple apprehension of and reaction to reality and not the product of a specific weltbild.3 Of course, this is rather obviously false as an even cursory examination (historical, philosophical, phenomenological, etc.) makes clear.

Recognizing that the technological mindset is not given, but rests upon a host of metaphysical claims, which are upon examination rather suspect, enables the possibility of questioning, discarding, and supplanting a view of the world, technological progress, and our relation to nature that, as Schumacher notes, is making us sick, spiritually and physically.

Of course, the defender of the technological mindset will challenge Schumacher’s assertion that said mind set is sickening or, if they are a bit more realistic, suggest that the spiritual and physical sicknesses technology does generate are necessary evils, “worth it” in comparison to the great benefits of technology.4

The response to this defense is simple, though difficult to accept. It is that the so-called advantages of technology in increasing productivity, health, happiness, etc. largely do not exist. While there are certainly technological achievements that have benefited man, antibiotics say, the vast majority add to our burdens, at best leading to the continual cluttering of our lives at worst actively enslaving and killing us.

I don’t have the space to demonstrate this in detail, perhaps I will write about it later.5 But, please, consider your own life : How many technologies truly make you more free, a better person, more productive? How many technologies add more responsibilities, require you to make more money to buy and maintain them, suck away all the small, still moments6 in your day, to how many are you addicted? Most importantly, how many make you a better person?

At the heart of our technological world lies a damning paradox:

The amount of real leisure a society enjoys tends to be in inverse proportion to the amount of labour-saving machinery it employs.

Small is Beautiful, 157

Moreover, the bounds of technology wrap ever tighter around us, tying us down to an endless proliferation of stuff and forcing us into an endless series of bullshit jobs to pay for that stuff (isn’t technology supposed to allow us to live lives of leisure? why in this time of supposed abundance do we work so much?).

The number of people who I’ve met who seem to do nothing at all, accomplish nothing, produce nothing. Is this what the pinnacle of industrial society looks like? Pushing paper? Why are we so miserable? This, among other things, leads to a profound sense of alienation and dislocation.

We say, therefore, that modern technology has deprived man of the kind of work that he enjoys most, creative, useful work with hands hands and brains, and given him plenty of work of a fragmented kind, most of which he does not enjoy at all.  It has multiplied the number of people who are exceedingly busy doing kinds of work which, if it is productive at all, is so only in an indirect or “rough-about” way, and much of which would not be necessary at all if technology were rather less modern. 

Small is Beautiful, 160

Schumacher’s solution: de-scaling and, most especially, technology with a human face. That is, technology that is fundamentally oriented towards humanity, that is human-scaled and human-directed–in what is perhaps the best distillation of the central thesis of the book, Schumacher writes:

Man is small, and, therefore, small is beautiful.

Small is Beautiful, 169

Technology and our relation to it ought to be designed towards helping us achieve actual happiness, eudaimonia. Of course, this requires recognizing that we have ends, that those ends are knowable and shared, that technology can inhibit or advance those ends, that there is no neutral. And this is intolerable to the modern mind.

1. The category into which I’ve assigned this and similar posts speaks to this latter point. Think of the vast amounts of energy exerted everyday to blot out the light of the stars, such a thing is only possible thanks to the tremendous technological achievements of the past two hundred years. Without the ability to exert this energy so freely, we’d be forced to consider the stars and to confront the consequences of that consideration. Technology thus acts as the instrument of our (pseudo)willful blindness to the reality of things. And where does causation ultimately lie? Do we control technology or does it control us? Do we blot out the stars because it is our wish or because we’ve given ourselves no other choice? To whom have we delegated the power of deciding?

2. they rarely gesture toward incinerated corpses in Nagasaki

3. This yet another iteration of the great modern lie, of the possibility of valueless, metaphysically neutral judgment about anything whatsoever. It is rooted in a failure to recognize that metaphysical judgments are prior to all others and cannot be bracketed.

The truth of this principle is demonstrated by the desperate hand-waving of those attempting to ignore metaphysics when confronted with the impossibility of their position. It all boils down to, “well, what if we just pretend that we can suspend judgment on, say, whether God exists?” But all we’re doing is pretending (at best, at worst, we’re deliberately obfuscating perhaps from ourselves. If, for example, the world is a creation, rather than a semi-random accumulation of matter spewed out by some purposeless cosmic explosion, isn’t that the single most important fact about the world? If God became man and died on the Cross, is not all history, all reality colored (indeed, re-created) by that moment? How can we bracket these questions, then? We must proceed under the assumption that these propositions are either true or false, they touch every aspect of our thought, our lives. We cannot do otherwise.

4. If they’re feeling polemical, as those who are long accustomed to seeing their mindset as neutral and default often are (wittingly and unwittingly), there’s often a veiled or explicit accusation of luditism embedded in their defense. “So you want us all to become Amish?” “Oh, so we should just all go back to living in mud huts and dying of the plague?” These are, of course, not actually arguments, mere emotional outbursts, and don’t truly deserve a rational response, though we received rather eloquent one long ago: “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?” 

5. If you’re interested, see for example Ivan Illich’s writings on the true cost of cars (His work on medicine is well worth reading as well) or see Kunstler on how widespread automobile usage (something possible only through the mass practice of usury by the way) and designing our living space around cars has resulted in the destruction of American communities. Or look at the correspondence of smartphones with the increasing social dissolution among younger generations. Think about what mass media has done to society, what it does to your brain, about environmental devastation, and so on and so on.

6. See 1 Kings 19:11-12

Sussex

Restarting my regular poetry posts. I’ve been reading more single-author collections lately, so they’ll likely be less variety, and I also might try to add some commentary on individual poems from time to time.

To begin again, a poem about home, which, as Kipling notes, ought to be loved even in its unlovableness.

Sussex

God gave all men all earth to love,
But since our hearts are small,
Ordained for each one spot should prove
Belovèd over all;
That, as He watched Creation’s birth,
So we, in godlike mood,
May of our love create our earth
And see that it is good.
So one shall Baltic pines content,
As one some Surrey glade,
Or one the palm-grove’s droned lament
Before Levuka’s Trade.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed Downs,
But gnarled and writhen thorn—
Bare slopes where chasing shadows skim,
And, through the gaps revealed,
Belt upon belt, the wooded, dim,
Blue goodness of the Weald.

Clean of officious fence or hedge,
Half-wild and wholly tame,
The wise turf cloaks the white cliff edge
As when the Romans came.
What sign of those that fought and died
At shift of sword and sword?
The barrow and the camp abide,
The sunlight and the sward.

Here leaps ashore the full Sou’west
All heavy-winged with brine,
Here lies above the folded crest
The Channel’s leaden line;
And here the sea-fogs lap and cling,
And here, each warning each,
The sheep-bells and the ship-bells ring
Along the hidden beach.

We have no waters to delight
Our broad and brookless vales—
Only the dewpond on the height
Unfed, that never fails—
Whereby no tattered herbage tells
Which way the season flies—
Only our close-bit thyme that smells
Like dawn in Paradise.

Here through the strong and shadeless days
The tinkling silence thrills;
Or little, lost, Down churches praise
The Lord who made the hills:
But here the Old Gods guard their round,
And, in her secret heart,
The heathen kingdom Wilfrid found
Dreams, as she dwells, apart.

Though all the rest were all my share,
With equal soul I’d see
Her nine-and-thirty sisters fair,
Yet none more fair than she.
Choose ye your need from Thames to Tweed,
And I will choose instead
Such lands as lie ’twixt Rake and Rye,
Black Down and Beachy Head.

I will go out against the sun
Where the rolled scarp retires,
And the Long Man of Wilmington
Looks naked toward the shires;
And east till doubling Rother crawls
To find the fickle tide,
By dry and sea-forgotten walls,
Our ports of stranded pride.

I will go north about the shaws
And the deep ghylls that breed
Huge oaks and old, the which we hold
No more than Sussex weed;
Or south where windy Piddinghoe’s
Begilded dolphin veers
And red beside wide-bankèd Ouse
Lie down our Sussex steers.

So to the land our hearts we give
Till the sure magic strike,
And Memory, Use, and Love make live
Us and our fields alike—
That deeper than our speech and thought,
Beyond our reason’s sway,
Clay of the pit whence we were wrought
Yearns to its fellow-clay.

God gives all men all earth to love,
But since man’s heart is small,
Ordains for each one spot shall prove
Beloved over all.
Each to his choice, and I rejoice
The lot has fallen to me
In a fair ground—in a fair ground—
Yea, Sussex by the sea!

Rudyard Kipling

Final Selections from Carter’s Traditional Japanese Poetry

Kyogoku Tamekane. On “Spring Rain,” composed when he held a poem contest at his home

On an evening
set aglow with the crimson
of plum blossoms,
the willow boughs sway softly;
and the spring rain falls.

Retired Emperor Fushimi. On “wind in the pines”

To avoid getting wet
I took cover a moment
in the shade of pines–
where the rain made me listen
to the sound of the wind

Bishop Shinkei. Winter

A pitiful sight–
that smoke rising at evening
from a brushwood fire.

His charcoal sold at market,
a man heads back into the hills.

Takarai Kikaku

Stories about ancestors
spoken on a frosty night.

In fading lamplight
dead spirits are beckoned back
into the world

Same author. Summer

Evening summer–
and gazing out into it,
a woman alone.