Christianity and technology.
Beginning in 1943, a small group of Christian intellectuals began to think seriously about the post-war world. The United States and Britain had talked about victory since the beginning of the War, but no one was certain, and many had grave doubts. But by 1943 victory was in sight, even if its details were not.
These Christian intellectuals included Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, C. S. Lewis, Simone Weil, and T. S. Eliot. Auden and Eliot were poets, and Lewis, an Oxford don, is probably best known for his for his children’s fiction, Chronicles of Narnia. I’ve posted about Lewis and Weil elsewhere on this blog. The relationship among these men and woman was rich, complex, and varied. Some worked together, some alone.
The problem they worried about is what sort of people the winners of this war of civilizations would become. What values could substitute for that of winning the war? Would the technological thinking that won the war destroy the values we fought for? It might, they argued, and they only thing that could stop it was an education that fosters humanity, sensibility and pity.
Weil echoes Maritain and Lewis in calling for an education that trains the sensibility and affections at least as seriously as it attends to the mind: “To show what is beneficial, what is obligatory, what is good — that is the task of education.” (p 164)
The enemy is technocracy: “it is inevitable that evil should dominate wherever the technical side of things is either completely or almost completely sovereign.” (Weil, 200-201)
It seems an old-fashioned and odd idea that a humane education in the liberal arts should be thought to be the answer to the crisis of civilization that came out of World War Two. The crisis is not that we don’t have the answers, but that the questions no longer seem important: who am I, what should I do, how should I live, and what may I hope?
I recently retired after forty years teaching ancient Greek and Medieval philosophy to undergraduates at a large state university in the United States. Most students were worried about how much their education was costing, and whether they would they get a good job. More than a few openly questioned the value of what I was teaching. Yet, in my own small way I often thought I was doing my part to preserve a tradition concerned with the issues Maritain and his companions were concerned with.
Sometimes I still think so. At other times I think the day it might have mattered is long gone, and unlikely to return. In 1943 it still seemed possible that the end of the war would bring a more humane world, and Christianity could make a difference. Interestingly, none of the people discussed here thought it would be a good idea to teach Christianity. It would be a good idea to teach the arts and literature, which help humanize us. Religion is not so much taught as learned.
The Social Beast?
Maritain, like Lewis and Weil, is concerned that the social beast–that is, mass society–will subordinate the individual in a soft and comfortable totalitarianism, one that even feels like freedom.
What Americans need to learn from Europe’s catastrophe is the danger of failing to cultivate intellectual and spiritual aspirations beyond what one’s everyday culture encourages. (p 129)
I’m a professor, but I think they are wrong. An acquaintance with the worlds of art and literature is valuable, but more important is how we live every day. The bonds of family and community are more important than the bonds of nations, primarily because they are closer. A healthy community, one which respects its members and gives every man and woman a chance to make a decent living, is more important than philosophy. Everyday life is mundane, but that’s what mundane means, and it’s OK.
The crisis in America today has only a little to do with the decline of art and literature, and a great deal to do with economic and cultural insecurity. Economic insecurity is obvious. Cultural insecurity is best seen as the loss of anything to believe in. Here religion is important, but it should not be seen as “spiritual Benzedrine for the earthly city,” as one of them put it. The job of religion isn’t to strengthen state and society, and foster loyalty among its citizens. Here C. S. Lewis is right. Everyday life may be mundane, but people aren’t.
“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.” To embrace this account of the human person, which is of course a traditional Christian one, is to decenter the world of politics—not to ignore it, but to shift it toward the periphery, to see it as among the second rather than the first things. (Lewis, The Weight of Glory, p 46; Jacobs, p 56)
Respect for our friends and neighbors, recognizing that everyone has a valued place, is the goal. I believe that Lewis’ perspective helps, but it is possible to know these things simply by living among others who act this way, and can explain why it is good to others in ways even a child could understand. Healthy communities are their own reward, generally self-perpetuating unless outside forces intervene. Economics and politics as they are currently practiced are outside forces.
And today . . .
World War Two was not a war between technocratic Nazis and something else, but between two highly developed technocratic-industrial societies. Technocracy threatens community, which is not all bad. Community itself always threatens to become closed and closed minded. But nationalism doesn’t open communities; it destroys communities. The result is citizens who feel displaced, disoriented, and devalued. It’s happening in the United States today. If fascism ever comes to America it will be called Americanism (my riff on a great quote).
We are a long, long way from fascism, and there are powerful countervailing forces. But the concerns of this small group of intellectuals weren’t about the renewed rise of fascism. They were worried about what happens when there is nothing left to fight for. They worried about a way of life that isolated the individual, making him or her vulnerable to extreme ideologies that promised belonging. Nativism is about belonging by making sure others don’t.
Finally, they were worried about a world in which religion no longer provided a counterbalance to materialism and the crowd. They were worried about a world in which men might once-again mistake themselves for gods, for no vigorous tradition remained to tell them otherwise.
They were right to be worried then, and we are right to be worried now.
I relied heavily on The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis, by Alan Jacobs. Oxford University Press, 2018. All unattributed page references refer to this book.
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. Harper, 2001.
Simone Weil, The Need for Roots. Routledge, 2002.
The image is from Marc Chagall. America Windows, 1977.