It is always the questions with the obvious answers that cause the most problems. Case in point, what if I were to ask whether you would rather live now or 200 years ago? Allowing for the exception of a troglodyte or two, every one of them would, without hesitation, say “now.” The reason seems obvious—the quality of life today is far beyond anything that could have been imagined two centuries ago. Not only do we live longer today, but we are healthier and more people have access to more wealth. Even the poor enjoy access to luxuries that only the very richest had in the past (if at all). Think for example of our access to entertainment, entertainment filled with enough depravity that only the likes of Nero could enjoy in his day. With that we realize that we may have answered the question too quickly and perhaps even looked at it the wrong way. Sure we are enjoying an unprecedented material prosperity, but man does not live on bread alone. Can we say that we are also enjoying an unprecedented spiritual prosperity? Before throwing away the key to our time machines, we should reframe the question and ask “in which time period would being virtuous easier?” Suddenly the answer does not seem so cut and dry.
The Question of Technology
We might be tempted to put the question down completely at this point. We are when we are and there is no going back. That is certainly true and the answer is only valuable insofar as it helps us in the here and now. But rather than killing investigation, it ought to motivate it. Volumes could be written on the differences in the time periods, but they could be summarized neatly in one word—technology. At least that is the main difference according to CS Lewis who wrote:
“[F]or the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both in the practice of this technique are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious—such as digging up and mutilating the dead.”
Summarizing Lewis’ point we can say that there are two kinds of men—those who subdue themselves to reality and those who will have reality subdued to themselves. We call those in the first group virtuous and the second vicious. This is a “problem” that is at the heart of man’s fallen existence. Adam’s reality was that he had a single limitation—not eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Rather than subjecting himself to this reality, Adam chose to subject reality to himself. In this regard he is no different than any one of us—sin is, at its core, an unwillingness for each of us to submit himself to reality. We are like God in many ways, but not in the way that we can define for ourselves what is good and what is evil.
This is not a new problem for sure, but what is new is that in the past the average person lacked access to the power necessary to subdue reality to his wishes. Now with so many technological solutions (techniques to use Lewis’ term) that give us power over reality, the temptation to subdue reality is much greater.
Technology and Power
Technology and power go hand in hand. This may not be as obvious as it seems when more people have access to instruments of power, but it is true nonetheless. Power in the hands of a few tends to corrupt only a few, power in the hands of many corrupts many. With technological power comes the capacity to destroy ourselves.
We may have fallen victim to the belief that an increase of power mean “progress” but that is only true when the strength of character for using that power has kept pace. We are now all like the superhero who wakes up one morning discovering he has superpowers and is confronted with whether we will use our powers for good or evil. With greater command over the world, we need greater command over the self.
Progress in technology then is only truly progress when it makes us more human. And this ought to be how we evaluate any advances in technology or our use of existing technologies. Technology may be morally neutral, but how we use it is not. Our guide as to its use is whether it leads to a more virtuous life or less, whether I am more human because of its help or less because of its substitution.
What often blinds us to seeing our use of technology more clearly is an obsession with efficiency. Modern technology, the argument goes, increases efficiency making work easier and freeing us up for higher things. But it seems that in the majority of cases the exact opposite has happened. Labor saving devices may have replaced the slave labor of the past, but these devices often have enslaved otherwise free men.
The men of 200 years ago were freer than we are today. Of that, there is no question. The average man was more capable of taking care of himself and his family without significant outside help. They could farm and hunt, they could build their homes and repair them, they knew how to navigate when lost in the woods, etc. We, on the other hand, have specialists (farmers and homebuilders) or special machines (GPS) to do that for us now. The average man 200 years ago would be far from average today.
The point is not that efficiency is bad, only that we should not treat it as an absolute value. There is value in work done with our hands and simple tools. It helps us to grow in the virtues of prudence, patience and perseverance. In other words, we are better men for having done the work, no matter how menial it seems. Labor saving technologies are only good and should only be used insofar as they help make us better men.
Another example might help to illustrate the point further. Take a simple technology that is near and dear to my heart, the calculator. Having a calculator has freed me up from doing the time consuming work of crunching numbers and enabled me to do the higher and more theoretical work in statistics. However, when doing simple mathematical calculations, I will never use a calculator because it will reduce my distinctly human ability to do this. I am somehow less human when I cannot do percentages in my head and have to rely on a calculator for a tip. The point is that when the technology actually frees us up for higher things then it is a good, but this can never be at the expense of the loss of the ability to do the lower things.
Paradigm shifts always come abruptly. We may pine for simpler times. Frankenstein is already out of the cage and is not going back in. While we may prefer to have lived in a previous age of morally better men, the reality is that we live in a technological age and we must find ways to use that power to make us better men. Virtue itself may be harder, but this also means they will be stronger.