The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Kingdom of Christ

This is the text of a homily given at Evensong in the Anglican parish of St. Aidan in Winnipeg on Sunday November, 24th, 2013, the Feast of the Reign of Christ The King. The Scripture readings were Zechariah 9: 9-16 and Luke 19: 11-27

We who belong to countries that share in the culture and civilization that is commonly called Western have a very linear way of thinking about time. We conceive of time as a current which flows from a source in the past, through the present, towards a destination in the future. Philosophers have posited various destinations towards which they have suggested history is moving. Karl Marx said that history was moving towards a state of universal communism. More recently Francis Fukuyama argued that a universal, American-style, democratic capitalism was the “end of history”. What these philosophies do not acknowledge is that the Western way of thinking about time and history that made their ideas possible is due to the influence of the Christian faith. Christianity teaches that history began with Creation, was diverted from its original end by the Fall, was redeemed by the Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is moving towards a final destination, the Kingdom of God.

Apart from Christian divine revelation the idea of time and history as moving in a straight line would not make much sense. The natural world suggests that time has a circular shape. Think of the basic units by which we measure time. A day, in the language of the ancients, is the time it takes for the sun to complete its journey through the sky from the east to the west. In the less picturesque language of the modern scientific worldview it is the period of time it takes for the earth to rotate on its axis. It amounts to the same thing and in both cases it is a circular motion. Likewise a month is the time it takes for the moon to complete its cycle of waxing and waning – or to revolve around the earth. Similar remarks could be made about the year. The seasons are a cycle to which man has attached great significance from earliest times, seeing in them a picture of the cycle of life, from birth in spring, through growth in summer, to maturity in fall, and finally culminating in death in winter, from which the cycle begins again with the rebirth of life in the next spring.

The spiritual conclusions that pagan faiths, enlightened only by natural revelation and not by special revelation, drew from what they observed in nature, were often false, such as the doctrine of the transmigration of the soul through reincarnation. Sir James Frazer, the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Scottish anthropologist, in his notorious The Golden Bough, compared the various myths in which a god dies and is reborn in some way. This myth appears in one form or another throughout Mediterranean and indeed world mythology. It is ordinarily associated with fertility rituals and mysteries. It is clearly a symbolic representation of the natural cycle, of life, death, and rebirth. Frazer tried to explain away the gospel account of the death and resurrection of Christ as yet another version of this meme. C. S. Lewis, the Christian apologist whose death, fifty years ago, was overshadowed by the somewhat more spectacular death of a less interesting persona of whom we have all heard a great deal this weekend, that occurred on the same day, demolished Frazer’s argument by pointing out that Christ’s death and resurrection, unlike that of Osiris or Dionysus, took place not in some “other place” outside of time, but in actual history, in an identifiable place, at an identifiable time. Since the natural cycle of which the pagan mythology was a symbol, was itself used by Christ in the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel as a picture of His own redemptive work, Lewis argued, the Gospel was true myth. Jesus was and is the reality, of which the earlier myths were mere shadows.

The Christian Church, in developing its liturgical calendar, harmonized the Christian faith’s teleological history, with the cyclical time observed in nature. The Christian year, like any other calendar, is built around the seasons of the cycle of life. Its major festivals take place around the winter and the spring solstices. Its seasons ebb and flow with the rhythms of life. The significance, however that it assigns to days in the calendar is drawn from events of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, which are arranged in the order of linear time so as to reenact and remember these events each year. It begins with Advent, a four week period of anticipation that leads up to Christmas, the festival of the birth of Jesus Christ, the celebration of which continues until Epiphany, the feast of the visit of the magi. In Lent we have a period of penitent reflection leading up to Holy Week, which starts on Palm Sunday with the reenactment of Christ’s triumphant entry into Jerusalem and ends in the celebration and remembrance of the Last Supper, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday, respectively. Ascension Day and Pentecost, commemorate the anniversaries of the ascension of Christ and the sending of the Holy Ghost.

Today is the last Sunday in the Christian calendar. It is the feast day of the Reign of Christ the King. This is a very new addition to the Christian calendar. The feast day was created by Pope Pius XI in 1925, at a time when the nations of the world were falling prey to the personality cults of Mussolini and Lenin, to remind the world of Him Who is king of kings, and lord of lords. It was originally assigned to the last Sunday before All Saints Day, i.e., the last Sunday in October. The Roman Catholic Church reassigned it to the final Sunday of the Christian Year in 1970, after which it was adopted by other liturgical denominations, including our own.

I am not ordinarily a fan of innovations, particularly those of the twentieth century, but in this case I think this was appropriate and unusually well thought out. For this addition to the calendar makes the liturgical cycle culminate in a celebration of the kingdom of Christ – the end towards which Christianity says history is moving, thus completing the harmonization of linear and cyclical time, in the Christian year.

The kingdom of Christ is what the Jews called the kingdom of God or the kingdom of heaven. It was a Jewish concept before it was a Christian concept. It is the kingdom God promised to Israel through the Old Testament prophets. It was to break another cycle, a less healthy one, the cycle of sin, repentance, restoration, and apostasy told in Old Testament history. The gospel that Jesus preached was that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”, and the kingdom was the subject, in one way or another, of virtually every sermon He preached, and every parable He told. There are many aspects to the kingdom. It is the reign of Christ from Heaven after His Ascension to sit on the right hand of His Father. It is the Reign of Christ in the heart of the believer and collectively in His earthly body the Church. It is also the coming future kingdom that will be manifested upon earth after the Second Coming.

Some today are skeptical of the latter aspect of the kingdom. They think that the spiritual and invisible aspects are all that there is and that the prophesies of the kingdom were all fulfilled in the first century.

This brings us to the parable told in the reading from Luke’s gospel today. According to Dr. Luke this parable was told by Jesus immediately after His encounter with Zaccheus the tax collector in Jericho and just before His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This timing, as we are about to see, is crucial to understanding the parable.

This parable is unusual in that it joins two separate stories in one. One of those stories is quite familiar because it is very similar to another parable that Jesus told only a few days later in the Olivet Discourse as recorded by St. Matthew in the twenty-fifth chapter of his gospel. This is the story about the man who goes away, entrusts his money to his servants, then comes back to see how they had used the money.

The stories are not absolutely identical in each telling. A different monetary unit is used in each. In the Luke parable it is minas, in the Matthew parable it is talents. The Matthew parable is the source of our English use of the word “talent” to refer to a gift or ability, based upon the common interpretation of the parable as meaning that at the Last Judgement, men will be held accountable for how they have used the abilities with which they have been entrusted in this life. This interpretation comes from the fact that in Matthew’s parable, the talents are divided unevenly among the servants in accordance with their abilities as judged by their master. This is not the case in the parable recorded by Luke, where the minas are divided evenly among the servants. In Matthew’s parable, the unfaithful servant buries his talent, in Luke’s he hides it away in a napkin. In Luke’s gospel, the other servants respond in shock when the nobleman takes the coin away from the unfaithful servant and gives it to the servant who had made the largest profit, and make a kind of mildly worded protest at this taking from the poor to give to the rich. This is not found in the parable in Matthew, although the nobleman’s response, which could be paraphrased into current idiom as “the rich will get richer, and the poor will get poorer”, is. Needless to say, neither parable is likely to be the favourite parable of those of our brethren who have been deceived by socialism. Otherwise it is basically the same story.

It is the other story, that is joined to this one in the Gospel of Luke, that I wish to focus on. It is a very interesting story, given as the reason for the journey the rich man takes into the far country. He goes there to receive a kingdom. Those, over whom he is to be made king, reject his authority and send representatives after him saying, in the language of the old King James, “we will not have this man to rule over us”. So when he returns, in addition to sorting out the financial doings and misdoings of his servants, he has to respond to this rebellion, which he does by rounding them up, and having them executed for their treason.

What makes this part of the parable so interesting is that Jesus was telling His audience a story that, with one crucial difference, is identical to an episode of history with which his audience would have been well familiar. King Herod the Great, the king who had ordered the slaughter of the innocents after the visit of the magi, had himself died shortly thereafter, naming his son Herod Archelaus his successor in his will. The throne did not automatically go to Archelaus, however, he had to journey to Rome to receive it from Augustus Caesar. As brutal a man as his father, he was not popular, and there was widespread opposition to his rule. He had 3000 of his opponents slaughtered at Passover, before departing for Rome, and when he arrived, Josephus tells us that a delegation of about 50 Jews and Samaritans arrived at approximately the same time, to plead with Caesar not to appoint Archelaus. Caesar did appoint Archelaus the ethnarch over Judea but ten years later removed him from office for his misrule.

The crucial difference between the story Jesus told, and the history to which He was alluding, is that Archelaus was a wicked and brutal king, whereas the king in Jesus’ story, who represents Jesus Himself, was a just king, hated by wicked subjects. Flipping the story around like that was not likely to endear Him to the crowd – especially after He had just befriended Zaccheus, a despised tax collector. So why did He do it?

Dr. Luke provides us with the answer, in verse eleven. They were getting close to Jerusalem, and His disciples thought that the kingdom would immediately appear. Indeed, His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday takes place immediately after this. The point of this parable was to tell His disciples that when they saw prophesy being fulfilled before their eyes, the prophesy we heard in the earlier reading from Zechariah about His riding into town on a donkey, that they should not think that He would establish the kingdom then and there. Rather He would be going away to be crowned king, to return later to judge the works of His servants, and to put down opposition to His reign.

The full significance of this only gradually dawned on His disciples. Soon after telling this parable, He rode into Jerusalem to shouts of Hosanna. When, a few days later, in response to His prophecy that “not one stone of this temple will be left unturned”, they asked Him “when shall this be, and what shall be the sign of thy coming”, they showed by so asking that they recognized that despite His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday, His coming as king was yet to come. They assumed that the prophesy of the destruction of the Temple was referring to His Second Coming. After His Ascension into Heaven, they expected that His Second Coming to put down His enemies and establish His kingdom would happen immediately, within their lifetimes. Only after the destruction of the Temple forty years later, did the Church realize that what the disciples had thought to be a single question was actually two, concerning two distinct events, and that they would have to wait yet further for the Second Coming of Christ. Today, the Church is waiting still.

We should not allow the passing of two thousand years cause us to doubt the Second Coming and the future full manifestation of the kingdom. It is still an article of orthodox faith that “He will come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead, Whose kingdom shall have no end”. It is appropriate, therefore, that as we prepare to begin again the Christian cycle of worship again with the season of anticipation of the coming of Christ, that we end the old cycle with a celebration of that kingdom to which all of sacred history leads. May our reflections upon the reign of Christ, this final Sunday of the old Christian year, inspire us to wait with the watchful anticipation enjoined upon us by Scripture, for the coming of the King.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Man and Machine: Part Four

The True Lesson of the Holocaust

In 1943, a French history professor who was a socialist, pacifist, and member of the resistance movement in occupied France was arrested by the SS, beaten and interrogated, and sent to Buchenwald, and later to Dora, where he was held until the end of the war in 1945. After the war he resumed teaching, and in 1949 published a book about his experiences in the concentration camps. (1) He followed that up with another book, a year later, in which he strongly criticized the published recollections of other camp inmates for containing inaccuracies and exaggerations. (2) From then, until the end of his life in the late 1960’s, he would write several other books in which he attempted to debunk other historians of the war and criticized several aspects of what had come to be the conventional historical account as being false.

Between the World Wars, a new school of American historians, the most famous member of which was Charles A. Beard, achieved distinction for its re-examination and re-interpretation of history. One member of this school, a professor of history at Columbia University, argued against the then-orthodox view that Germany was solely to blame for the First World War. This professor, like his friend and colleague Beard, was a classical liberal who opposed the growing support in American liberalism, and particularly in the Roosevelt administration, for Wilsonian interventionism and internationalism. As World War II approached, he argued that the Roosevelt administration was determined to drag the United States into another European war, and spoke out against this. (3) After the war, he read the French author’s writings and arranged for English translations to be published in the United States.

Meanwhile, a British autodidactic historian had become an international bestselling author for his first book, a 1963 volume about the Allied firebombing of Dresden. This was the first of many books about World War that were both popularly received and showered with critical acclaim. He focused his research upon the war, and especially the Third Reich, writing biographies of several of the German and Nazi leaders, including his magnus opus, a two-volume biography of Hitler that was released in 1977 and 1978, and was praised by Sir John Keegan as being “certainly among the half-dozen most important books on 1939-1945.” (4) While this historian did not make the same claims in his books that the French and American historians mentioned above had made, he made other controversial assertions and later accepted invitations to speak at conferences organized by those who accepted the accounts of the previously mentioned historians.

Then, in the 1980s, the Canadian government put two men, a Canadian born high school history teacher, and a German born graphic artist who ran a publishing house on the side, on trial for disseminating that French professor’s views. The former was charged under the “hate propaganda” provision that the Trudeau government had added to the Criminal Code, the latter under an older law against spreading false news. The critically acclaimed British historian, asked to testify at the trial of the graphic artist, was banned from Canada. He would later be arrested in Austria and sentenced to prison for his interpretation of history. A French professor of literature was also invited to testify at the trial and back in France would be beaten and hospitalized by thugs, and stripped of his academic position for his acceptance of the same interpretation of history. In the United States a small research institute and publishing firm was bombed by terrorists for the same reason, and back in Canada other terrorists plastered Toronto with maps to the graphic artist’s house and instruction on how to make a primitive bomb. The house was eventually subjected to an arson attack and early in the new millennium the graphic artist, who had relocated to the United States to live with his wife, was arrested by American immigration, turned over to Canadian authorities, ruled to be a danger to our national security in a closed hearing that violated all the fundamental principles our justice system was built upon, then deported to Germany where he stood trial and was sentenced to five years in a German prison for expressing his views on history in Canada.

Surely we all agree that it is morally outrageous that men would be subjected to terrorism, violence, and government persecution for advocating an alternative view of history. Would you still agree if I told you that the men of whom I have been speaking were, in order of first mention, Paul Rassinier, Harry Elmer Barnes, David Irving, James Keegstra, Ernst Zündel, and Robert Faurisson, and that the small research institute/publishing firm was the Institute For Historical Review? How about if I told you that the history they questioned was the conventional account of the Holocaust? Would you still agree that it is morally outrageous that they be subjected to violence and persecution for advocating an alternate view?

The fact that many people would not agree – or would at least hesitate in agreeing and try to qualify their agreement – demonstrates that the historical occurrence known as the Holocaust is more than just a historical occurrence; it is also a religious dogma. Suppose you were to challenge the conventional history of the United States by claiming that Clint Eastwood was actually president from 1981 to 1989 instead of Ronald Reagan. You would undoubtedly be ridiculed as a nut, but it is highly unlikely that you would be made the target of terrorist violence or subjected to state persecution. That is not the way we customarily treat people who are in error on a point of history, even if the error is huge and ludicrous. That is, however, the way the men mentioned above have been treated. Their dissent from conventional history is treated, not as an error, not as something worthy of ridicule, but as something morally reprehensible and requiring punishment. It is only the rejection of dogma that is considered to be evil, not dissent from history. (5)

Indeed, the very name given to the historical occurrence suggests its elevation to the status of dogma – holocaust is the Greek term for a sacrifice completely consumed by fire, a burnt offering. People like Rassinier, Zündel and Faurisson are called “Holocaust Deniers” by those that would deny them the protection of the rights and liberties enjoyed by others. This term indicates the nature of the offence – the denial of established dogma – for which they are to be stripped of this protection. It is not very informative about the content of what these men claim, nor is it intended to be. (6) Having committed the grievous sin of “denying” the chief dogma of the age, their words contain a moral contagion from which the general public is to be protected, and if a member of the populace wishes to know what these men said that warrants this kind of treatment, they are to be directed not to the contaminated words of the “deniers” themselves, but to the experts who have appointed themselves to the role of protecting both the dogma and the public from the deniers.

My purpose here is not to argue that the holocaust revisionists are right, or that their version of the events of the Second World War is closer to what actually happened than the conventional history. (7) Nor am I trying to make the point that religious dogma is bad. Religion is a basic element of social life. It is the community of worship, and it is the community at worship, and as such performs the function suggested by its Latin root, of binding the community together. Dogma, a core set of beliefs that is collectively held, authoritatively established, dissent from which estranges one to one degree or another from the community, is essential to that function. My point is not even that dogma should not be enforced by the means used against the revisionists, disgusting and distasteful though I find those means to be.

No, the point I wish to make out of all of this is that the Holocaust should never have been made into a religious dogma because as a religious dogma it is being used to teach all the wrong lessons. The Holocaust, like the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union, Red China, and other Communist states, is a product of the Modern Age. The goal of the Modern Age, when it is thought of as a long-term project, was two-sided. It was about the bending of nature and all of creation to the will of man through science. It was also about the emancipation of the will of man from traditional constraints. The scale on which the Holocaust was conducted, and the means by which it was carried out, were made possible by the science and technology of the age of progress. The decision to commit murder on that scale is a decision made possible by the emancipation of the will. The manner in which it was carried out, with all the cold, technical, efficiency of a machine, demonstrates just how much modern technolatry can turn man into an imitation of his own soulless creation, the machine. The lesson to learn from all of this is that we need much of what modern man was willing to give up to obtain the wonders of science and technology to keep us from becoming cold, soulless, machines. Instead, the new secular religion that has elevated the Holocaust into dogma, teaches the exact opposite lesson, that man needs to further throw off the “shackles” of the past, and embrace completely a future of reason, progress, and technology.

Like Judaism and Christianity, the new, unofficial, state religion of what used to be Western civilization, is built upon a special kind of history, or a special view of history, that is usually called by the German word Heilsgeschichte.

Heilsgeschichte, which literally means “salvation history”, is history in which God is the primary figure, working in and through the events of history to accomplish His purpose, the salvation of His people. In the foundational Heilsgeschichte of Judaism, God called Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans and into the land of Canaan and promised to make a great nation out of his descendants. When those descendants, whom God had brought down to Egypt to escape a famine, had grown to become a people, they were enslaved and oppressed by Egypt’s Pharaoh. God delivered them from that slavery, raising up Moses to lead them out of Egypt into the wilderness of Sinai, where God entered into a covenant with them, in which they agreed to be His people, and He agreed to be their God. If they were faithful and obeyed Him, they would dwell in the land He had promised them in peace, if they were faithless and disobeyed, they would be driven from the land. The central redemptive act in this Heilsgeschichte was the exodus and especially what transpired on their final night in Egypt, when the destroying angel struck down the firstborn in every house in Egypt, passing over the Hebrew homes which had been marked with sacrificial blood. This event is remembered and celebrated every year in the Jewish Passover. It was, not coincidentally, on the Jewish Passover, that the central redemptive act in the Christian Heilsgeschichte took place.

The Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians call the Old Testament, contain promises and prophesies that God will again rescue His people in a way that will overshadow the exodus, that He will send them a deliverer greater than Moses, to establish His kingdom on earth, and that He would then make a newer and better covenant with them, in which He would write His laws upon their hearts rather than tablets of stone. The Christian Scriptures teach that these promises and prophesies have been fulfilled in the Christian Heilsgeschichte, that Jesus Christ was and is the promised Messiah, that the salvation greater than the exodus was accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, and that the New Covenant has been established by His blood. Christ’s death and resurrection, together comprise the central event of the Christian Heilsgeschichte, the crucifixion having been understood from the time of the Apostles to be the ultimate act of atonement that the Day of Atonement prefigured, the sacrifice to end all sacrifices that effectively takes away the sins of the world, the true Passover of which the original was a shadow.

Throughout Christian history various “theories of the atonement” have been put forward by theologians. These are explanations of how Christ’s death accomplishes man’s redemption. Although there was no consensus on the matter in the Patristic period, a popular theory that arose during that time was the ransom theory, that Christ’s death was a ransom paid to someone, usually thought to be the devil, who was holding man captive. Anselm, the eleventh century Archbishop of Canterbury was not satisfied with this theory, and so he offered the, well, satisfaction theory of the atonement as an alternative explanation. This theory considers man’s sinful rebellion against God to be an insult to the honour of the Sovereign of the universe, requiring that honour to be satisfied. Christ’s death offers to God that satisfaction. A modification of this theory was the penal substitution theory, taught by the Protestant Reformers, which is closely related to their concept of forensic justification. According to this explanation, the sins of man were transferred to Christ, Who paid the legal penalty for those sins, so that God could in turn transfer His righteousness to the sinner who believes in Jesus, declaring him to be just.

Another theory of the atonement is the moral influence theory of the atonement that was taught by Peter Abelard in the twelfth century. According to this theory, the atonement works through the positive example of the humility and love displayed by Christ, which inspires others to follow that example and change their lives. Outside of liberal circles this is generally considered to be the weakest explanation of the atonement but it is of particular significance to our discussion because the Holocaust is to the Heilsgeschichte of the new religion what the atonement is to the Christian and the way it is supposed to operate is best explained as a backwards version of the moral influence theory. Whereas in the moral influence theory of the Christian atonement it is the good example of the Victim that brings salvation by inspiration emulation, in the inverted version of the theory that is the Holocaust it is the bad example of the perpetrators that brings salvation by inspiring shock and horror and turning people away from the evils that brought it about.

As Judaism was built upon the foundation of God’s historical deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and as Christianity was built upon the foundation of God’s redemption of the world from sin in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, so the new state religion of what used to be Christendom is built upon the foundation of the idea that in the Holocaust the depravity and perversity of prejudice and hatred was manifested in such a way as to make mankind collectively declare “never again.” (8) While many Western governments have banned the teaching of Christian doctrine in state sponsored schools, all children in Western countries are now catechized in the lessons of the Holocaust from an early age. The new faith has erected sacred monuments all over the Western world. One is currently being constructed at the Forks in the heart of Winnipeg, the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, a horrendous and hideous eyesore of postmodern architecture scheduled to open sometime next fall. The European Parliament and most European national governments have passed laws protecting the tenets of the new religion. Inquisitions have been created to root out and punish heretics. Some of these, like the Canadian Human Rights Commission are official institutions, formally established by the state with government powers. Others, like the Anti-Defamation League, are private institutions.

The regime that historically perpetrated the Holocaust exemplified several different kinds of evils. It was, for example, noted for suppressing dissent and silencing critics of the regime. Clearly, however, these are not among the evils to which “never again” applies. People have been given heavy fines and even sentenced to prison for expressing disagreement with the conventional history of the Holocaust while books putting forth arguments for why that history should be revised have been taken off library shelves, stopped at the border, and presumably burned. So some of the evils of the Third Reich are now actually committed in the name of the Holocaust and its lessons, against those who dare to dissent from the new faith!

If the new state religion of the West teaches that the Holocaust is an act of redemption that has superseded both the Jewish exodus and the Christian atonement and that it has done so by horrifying the world with the consequences of evil, the evil from which the world is thereby supposed to be delivered would appear not to include every kind of evil or even every kind of evil associated with the Third Reich. This means that it must be a specific evil or a specific set of evils. We do not have to look far to discover what that specific evil is, for it is emphasized every time a moral lesson is drawn from the Holocaust. The evil in question is prejudice.

There is a reason the teachers of the new religion have focused on prejudice over such other evils of the Third Reich as the evil of the police state or the evil of suppressing dissent. Prejudice is the faculty of the human mind that forms conclusions when the grounds for making a purely rational judgement are lacking. In the absence of such grounds, the mind forms its conclusions from information accumulated in the home and in the community from the opinions and actions of those we love and trust and who are closest to us. Since nobody can live their entire life based entirely upon purely rational judgments, prejudice is a necessary human faculty and is not intrinsically evil. It can err and be corrupted – but then so can reason. In its worst form prejudice is a dislike for other people over differences such as race and religion that hinders one from treating such people with justice. While this latter kind of prejudice is what the teachers of the new religion focus on when they condemn prejudice, their prejudice against prejudice arises out of the basic modern desire to see human life and the world in general organized according to patterns drawn up by pure reason. Thus they make the Holocaust into a warning, not just against corrupted and perverted prejudices, but against prejudice in general, and of all forms of thought that are neither modern nor strictly rational. They view ideas, sentiments, opinions, and feelings, formed in the home and drawn from tradition and culture with suspicion as the kind of thing that led to the Holocaust, and look to educational institutions administered by the state to root these ideas out and implant correct, rational, modern thought into young people.

This is exactly the wrong way of looking at it. Mankind was not made to live in a world built upon pure reason and he would find such a world, could it be built, which of course it cannot, to be utterly unlivable. It is natural for a man to be prejudiced in favour of the people he is closest to – his family, friends, neighbours, relatives, countryman over people who are strangers to him and there is nothing wrong with this prejudice so long as we remember that we have a basic duty to treat all men with justice and common decency. Nazi racial doctrine, far from being an exaggerated form of this prejudice, was instead the product of the modern era, of modern science, and of the modern unleashing of the will to power. The Nazi concept of race was the modern scientific concept. Traditionally, when a man spoke of his race he meant his immediate line of ancestors, not a large category of mankind, transcending national boundaries, and differentiated from other men by a shared set of physical characteristics. The latter concept was generated by the modern scientific compulsion to classify and to categorize everything. The Nazi idea of life as a struggle between the races for survival and domination is Darwinian.

Even Nazi anti-Semitism was a product of modernity and not merely a survival into the modern era of negative thoughts and feelings pre-modern Christians may have had towards the Jews based upon the longstanding mutual mistrust of Christians and Jews towards one another. As Dr. Jacob Neusner explained, anti-Semitism was a new phenomenon, and not the same thing as “casual bigotry, mere dislike of the unlike, let alone theological animus or a spiteful form of politics”, none of which could have caused the Holocaust. He wrote:

A political philosophy formulated in the world of late 19th-century Germany and Austria, anti-Semitism formed the ideological foundation of political parties and served as the basis for public policy. It provided an account of life and how the Jews corrupt it. It offered a history of Western civilization and how the Jews pervert it. It formulated a theory of the world's future and how the Jews propose to conquer it. (9)

There is a certain irony in the fact that by insisting that the Holocaust demonstrates the need for us to adapt a more rationally ordered, modern way of thinking, the new religion of the West is actually demanding that we embrace even further the kind of thinking that made the Third Reich and the Holocaust possible.

There is a lesson to be learned from the Holocaust, for those willing to learn it. The lesson is not that that we need to abandon prejudice for pure reason and embrace a modern way of thinking. If anything it is the exact opposite of that. The lesson contained in the Holocaust is a warning about the dangers of modernity, the dangers inherent in combining the pursuit of power through technical efficiency with emancipation from traditional constraints upon the exercise of the will. This is a lesson that can only be learned by placing the Holocaust in its proper historical context and not by elevating it out of that context and into the realm of Heilsgeschichte.

The Third Reich was an extremely modern regime that strove to re-organize German society, industry, government, and military the top down in order to maximize technical efficiency. It is this aspect of the Reich that her remaining apologists like to emphasize – “Hitler made the trains run on time”. It was notably on display early in the Second World War when the Germans used the Blitzkrieg tactic to quickly overrun their enemies.

Germany had been striving for technical efficiency long before the National Socialists came to power. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Francis Bacon wrote a treatise outlining a new methodology for learning about nature and the world. (10) He believed that the knowledge thus obtained would be the means for obtaining control over nature and the world. (11) Putting his ideas into practice, Great Britain obtained tremendous wealth and power over the next couple of centuries. The desire to emulate these achievements lay behind the nineteenth century unification of Germany, her industrialization, and her early twentieth century imperial ambitions. That this desire for scientific knowledge, technical efficiency, and the wealth and power that came with these things had entered into the German soul and become a national dream, was symbolically represented in literature as early as Goethe’s Faust.

Goethe himself was a representative of an earlier type of German civilization, one with roots in classical antiquity and medieval Christianity, that made the transcendental universals of goodness, truth, and beauty its ends, rather than science, technology, wealth, and power, and which found its highest expression in literature, music, and art. Today, looking back upon this civilization, it is often asked how the people of Bach, Haydn, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven could, less than two full centuries later, have chosen a gang of murderous, power worshipping, thugs as their government. Part of the answer must be Original Sin, that human depravity that is always there, just beneath the surface of even the highest of human civilizations, waiting to break forth in barbarism. The rest of the answer, however, is to be found in the Mephistophelean temptation of technical efficiency and the power it brings.

In Adolf Hitler and his cronies, the Germans found someone who promised both the final fulfilment of their century old dream of industrial wealth and empire and revenge for the humiliation that had been unjustly inflicted upon them by the victorious Allies after the First World War In power, the National Socialists set out to deliver on those promises. If technical efficiency is the use of scientific knowledge of nature and the world to make these most completely serve the will of man, the Nazis, who recognized no moral or other constraints upon that will and saw the efficient exercise of that will as essential to winning the struggle against other races, were more prepared than any other government to make full use of that efficiency. It is appropriate that the most memorable piece of Nazi propaganda, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film about the Nuremberg Rallies of the previous year, was entitled The Triumph of the Will.

In the Holocaust, you see the ultimate example of technical efficiency in service to a will that itself recognizes no limitations and no Master. The decision to terminate the existence of millions of people is made, an effective plan for doing so is drawn up, the means to carry out the plan is devised, and the system, from the railways that carried the prisoners to the concentration camps, to the gas chambers that killed them, and the ovens that disposed of the bodies, is put into place and set in motion, as one giant factory of death. Apart from the modern way of thinking and doing things, the subordination of nature to the will of man, and the emancipation of the will of man from the transcendental order of things, no amount of prejudice or even bigotry could have brought about the Holocaust. Furthermore, as the history of the Soviet Union and other Communist nations, whose ideology, whatever their practice, was officially egalitarian, shows, the combination of technical efficiency with an unfettered will, will produce large scale human atrocities apart from any official racial doctrines or hatreds.

It may have occurred to you that this modern way of thinking is exactly what our own liberal, democracies, have in common with Nazi Germany and the Communist powers and that if anything, it has grown even stronger in the decades since the Second World War. But don’t worry about that. Our governments would never allow themselves to become cold, soulless, machines and always treat people with justice and humanity.

Just ask Ernst Zündel.

(1) Crossing the Line.
(2) The Lies of Ulysses
(3) He died in 1968. His friend, libertarian economist and historian Murray N. Rothbard, wrote a detailed obituary that appeared in the final issue of Left & Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought and can be read here:

(4) John Keegan, The Second World War, (New York: Penguin Books, 1989) p. 596.
(5) Sometimes this point is disputed by the claim that the revisionists are motivated by a desire to rehabilitate National Socialism. The Nizkor Project, for example, on its main website asks “Given the evidence why do people deny the Holocaust?” They then answer the question with a quote from the National Socialist White People’s Party “The real purpose of holocaust revisionism is to make National Socialism an acceptable political alternative again.” While clearly this is true in the case of the NSWPP themselves, it is absolute nonsense to suggest that such was the motivation of Paul Rassinier and Harry Elmer Barnes. Rassinier had been a leader of the Libération-Nord, the French resistance movement against the Nazis, and among his anti-Nazi activities prior to his capture by the Gestapo, he smuggled Jews to safety in Switzerland. Harry Elmer Barnes was a classical liberal, i.e., what would today be called a libertarian. Neither man possessed the slightest sympathy with National Socialist ideology and it is libelous to suggest otherwise. Barnes was a noted Teutonophile and if anything clouded his reason it was this. It is dishonest to equate a love of German culture and the German people with sympathy for the policies, practices, and ideology of the Third Reich, however. Teutonophilia is common, if not universal, among holocaust revisionists. John Sack, an American author, journalist and war correspondent of Jewish ethnicity and moderate, centrist political views was invited to address the conference of the Institute for Historical Review in 2000. He went, and in February 2001 his account of his experiences there was published in Esquire under the title “Daniel in the Deniers Den”. As he told the story, he went there prepared to encounter a conference full of hateful anti-Semites but found no trace of hatred or anti-Semitism. In his words “All in all, the deniers that day and that weekend seemed the most middling of Middle Americans. Or better: despite their take on the Holocaust, they were affable, open-minded, intelligent, intellectual. Their eyes weren’t fires of unapproachable certitude and their lips weren’t lemon twists of astringent hate. Nazis and neo-Nazis they were certainly not.” What did he think was their motivation? “Most deniers, most attendees in their slacks and shorts at the palm-filled hotel, were like Zündel: were decent people who, as Germans, had chosen to comfort themselves with the wishful thinking that none of their countrymen in the 1940s were genocidal maniacs” You can read Sack’s essay, which was selected by Stephen Jay Gould for republication in Best American Essays 2002, here: My own impression of every holocaust revisionist that I have ever met has been in accord with Sack’s assessment.
(6) The phrase “Holocaust Denier” suggests that the person to whom it is applied claims that the entire history of the Holocaust was faked just as some people claim that the moon landing was faked. In fact, what they actually claim is that the total number of Jews killed was significantly less than six million and that wartime concentration camp conditions were the primary cause of death, rather than a systematic plan of racial extermination.
(7) Nor is my purpose to explain where and why they are wrong. My thesis concerns the moral lessons that have been drawn from the Holocaust and how they differ from the moral lessons that ought to have been drawn from the Holocaust.
(8) I have used terminology drawn from the history of Christian theological reflection upon the atonement to describe the role of the Holocaust in the new religion that has replaced Christianity in what used to be Christendom. Today, in former Christendom, questioning the sacred number of six million, for the victims of the Holocaust, will usually produce a stronger emotional response, even among those who purport to be faithful, believing, and practicing Christians, than, a denial of the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. There has been much discussion of the theological significance of the Holocaust among the theologians of Judaism who, obviously, conduct their discussion using Jewish theological terminology. Dr. Emil Fackenheim, who escaped from the Third Reich to Britain, moved to Canada after the war and became a rabbi, and eventually made aliyah to Israel towards the end of his life, said that a 614th Mitzvah (commandment) had arisen out of the Holocaust, i.e., to remain faithful to Judaism and God, and so deny Hitler any posthumous victories. Other rabbis believe that the Holocaust requires a radical, reworking of Judaism’s picture of God, perhaps along the lines of the “God is dead” and “process theology” movements among liberal Christian churches. Most relevant to our discussion here, are the observations that distinguished academic rabbi Jacob Neusner has made regarding the role of the Holocaust in American Judaism. In the preface to his American Judaism – Adventure in Modernity: An Anthological Essay, (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1978) he said that the “story of Holocaust-and-redemption, destruction and rebuilding, or death and resurrection (to use the appropriate religious terms)” had become “the central myth of American Jewish consciousness over the past ten years”. It had not figured much into American Jewish consciousness in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he said, but the 1967 War had changed that when a large number of American Jews perceived the nations of the world as having reneged on their promises to Israel, believed the destruction of Israel and the Jewish people to be imminent, then, when Israel triumphed, regarded it as divine redemption. Dr. Neusner was less than impressed with the changes that the new Holocaust-and-Redemption theology brought to American Judaism. He believed that it had led Jews to embrace things that they had traditionally been sceptical of such as messianism and political salvationism. “Judaism, in its theologians’ eyes’”, he wrote “is a religion of the present and the future, affirms life and looks not to Auschwitz but to Sinai. But the Judaism of Sinai was not much heard from. Hitler was represented as a negative symbol, rather than Moses as a positive one. So Jews were told to be Jewish not because God has called them into being, but in order ‘to spite Hitler’”.
(9) Jacob Neusner, “Sorting Out Jew Haters”, Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, March 1995, p. 40.
(10) Sir Francis Bacon, Novum Organum Scientiarum, 1620.
(11) Sir Francis Bacon, New Atlantis, 1627. The purpose of Salomon’s House, the institution of research and learning depicted in this utopian novel, is “the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Man and Machine: Part Three

They Have Brains, and They Think Not; Hearts Have They, and They Feel Not

Their idols are silver and gold, even the work of men's hands.
They have mouths, and speak not: eyes have they, and see not.
They have ears, and hear not: noses have they, and smell not.
They have hands, and handle not; feet have they, and walk not: neither speak they through their throat.
They that make them are like unto them; and so are all such as put their trust in them.
(Psalm 115: 4-8,from the Great Bible Psalter in the Book of Common Prayer)

Man began to measure time, by noting the position of the sun in the sky. He improved his time-telling technique with the invention of tools such as sundials and hourglasses. In the Middle Ages he invented a device that would not just assist him in measuring time, but would actually keep track of time for him through its own internal workings. It would, as long as it was maintained properly, operate on its own. This device is the clock. As man’s technology advanced in the Modern Age, he developed more machines that could be turned on and would then proceed to do what they were designed to do with little-to-no further input from man. Their function is built into them and, apart from a breakdown of some sort, will be fulfilled each time they run.

These machines accomplish their function without thinking about it. Rational thought is still a property of living human beings, and not of machines. Future situations where this is no longer the case is one of the staples of the dystopic side of the science fiction genre. Usually, the scenario involves the machine gaining sentience and turning against its maker. Since science fiction is a pop culture expression of the modern spirit, the spirit of the age in which man turns his back on his Creator and attempts through his conquest of nature to build a new world in accordance with the values he has chosen, it is fitting that it would express such fears that man’s creation would in turn do the same, much as the Titan king Saturn in ancient mythology feared that his son would rise up to depose him, the way he had deposed his father Uranus. Perhaps the first example of the expression of this fear is Mary Shelley’s early nineteenth century science-horror novel Frankenstein, although it is not a machine, but life in a monstrous creature, that Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates. The idea of robots with artificial intelligence, rebelling against mankind was such a popular theme in early robot fiction, that Isaac Asimov deliberately set out to do the opposite, to depict robots incapable of turning against a mankind and the popular fear of the robotic as irrational. Probably the best known example of the sci-fi meme of machines that turn against man is to be found in director James Cameron’s 1984 film The Terminator and its various sequels and spinoffs. This film depicted an assassin cyborg, sent back in time from a future where a military computer system Skynet had gained consciousness and declared war on humanity.

A scenario in which machines gain consciousness and turn against their creators is not the only way in which a future different from the present status quo of thinking human beings and unthinking machines can be depicted. The other alternative is to present a future in which mankind has lost the capacity for rational thought. To a limited extent, this scenario is used in stories which depict a general populace that is oppressed by being prevented from perceiving the world as it is, whether through the brainwashing of a police state as in George Orwell’s 1984, or living out their lives in a simulated reality generated by now dominant machines, as in the Wachowski Brothers’ popular The Matrix trilogy. This scenario is more fully utilized by Pixar Studio’s 2008 computer animated film WALL-E, in which, the earth having become a giant garbage dump, mankind has gone on an interstellar cruise, leaving robots such as the title character to clean up his mess. The cruise spaceships take care of all their passengers needs and schedule their daily routine so that they live out their lives in a kind of pleasure-induced trance.

Fanciful, as the scenarios depicted in these works of fiction are, the ideas contained in their general themes, the idea of machinery taking over the world and the idea of man himself becoming more like an unthinking, unfeeling machine, are worth reflecting upon. Do these represent valid concerns about the direction in which modern technology is taking us?

The question is a legitimate one. Originally tools were invented by man to assist him in doing his work, to lighten his load. In the Modern Age man began to develop machines that would not so much assist him as do his work for him. Initially, the work machines were invented to take over from men was mostly physical labour. As far back as the Renaissance, however, Blaise Pascal had invented a functioning calculator that could perform simple arithmetic. In the twentieth century, this branch of technology, that of machines that do mathematics, solve problems, and otherwise take over tasks for which man used his brain instead of his hands, really took off. Computers began as large machines, used for military purposes and by scientists for calculation in their research, but within decades of their invention smaller, personal models for use in the home were invented, and by the end of the century portable “laptop” models were available. As the size of computers shrank, the number of functions they could perform increased, and in the last few decades computer technology has been incorporated into all other kinds of technology and into every aspect of our lives. Telephone communication is now mostly done through small, mobile, telephones with built-in computer functions allowing access to the internet and all sorts of other functions. Automobiles now have built-in computers that remind you of things you may have forgotten, that inform you when your car needs maintenance, that help mechanics diagnose problems, and which in some cases help you plan your route and even park your car for you. Everything from agriculture to medicine is computerized these days.

The incorporation of the computer into so many different aspects of our lives has inevitably and radically altered the way we live them and the societies in which we live them. While these changes have enriched our lives in many ways, there are also many ways in which they are cause for concern. The more we build machines to do our work for us, the more we become dependent upon those machines. The more dependent upon machines we are, the more serious is the difficulty we will find ourselves in if those machines break down or if for some other reason they are not available to us and we must again do the work for ourselves. This is a danger that gets progressively worse because the more collectively dependent upon machines we become, the less likely we are to pass on to future generations the skills and know how necessary to do the tasks that machines do for us. When we start to rely upon machines to do tasks that are part of rational thought, like making calculations, solving logical problems, or even making decisions, we run the risk of allowing our very thought processes to atrophy. If you doubt that is the case, then observe what happens at the till of a coffee shop or grocery store when the computer system crashes and the person behind the till is required to calculate your change manually.

If through the development of robotic and computer technology which performs an ever increasing number of man’s mental tasks for him man is creating machinery after his own image, the surrender of these tasks to the machine and allowing of our own mental powers to atrophy would seem to be making man ever more like a machine. This is not the only way in which this is true. As we develop our technology through modern science, we increasingly organize our societies according to the principles of technology, and human existence becomes more and more mechanical.

As Jacques Ellul put it about sixty years ago “No social, human, or spiritual fact is so important as the fact of technique in the modern world.” (1) While Ellul meant something more than just the mechanical by “technique” – he meant every application of reason towards the goal of efficiency – the mechanical is certainly included and in explaining why technique is more than machine, he wrote “the machine is the most obvious, massive, and impressive example of technique, and historically the first…Technique certainly began with the machine. It is quite true that all the rest developed out of mechanics; it is quite true also that without the machine the world of technique would not exist.” (2) As a principle of social organization, the technical is radically different from anything that had preceded it. It meant that all of society would now be directed, not towards a vision of the Good, such as that represented in the culture of the countryside and organic community or that represented in the laws and civilization of the city, but towards maximum efficiency to be achieved by knowledge and reason harnessed in the service of the will to dominate.

If technique became the primary principle of social organization in a kind of technical revolution and if technique began with the machine which remains the most impressive example of technique, it follows that a society completely touched by and organized by technique could to some degree or another be described as mechanical. Owen Barfield, in a book we will shortly take a closer look at, said of the machine “The whole point of a machine is, that, for as long as it goes on moving, it ‘goes on by itself’ without mans’ participation.” (3) While obviously a human society in which man does not participate is a contradiction in terms, when Barfield says that a machine moves without man’s participation he is speaking of man as someone external to the machine. The men in a society that has become mechanical are not analogous to the man who owns a clock but to the gears and cogs within it. In saying that a society has become mechanical we are saying that the society has been organized so that to a certain degree the motion within it men within it, including that of the men who live within it, has become automatic, determined by routines and patterns established by planners with technical efficiency as their end. That human activity ought to be in harmony with the natural rhythms of life, which are instead interrupted and trampled upon by technical efficiency is a theme that runs throughout the writings of poet, novelist, essayist and farmer Wendell Berry. Surely the best word to describe activity that is out of sync with life and driven by ends to which such harmony is irrelevant, is mechanical.

That the more man becomes dependent upon the machine the more like the machine he becomes himself and that the more dependent upon technology human society becomes the more mechanical it becomes itself is something that was predictable long before the modern experiment. The basis of the prediction is right there in the eighth verse of the one hundred and fifteenth Psalm quoted in the epigram to this essay. “They that make them [idols] are like unto them; and so are all such as put their trust in them.” Modern man has made idols out of his machines and technology, and having put his trust in these idols, has come to resemble them.

The idols of which the Psalmist wrote, were images made of stone or metal that represented the various deities the pagan nations worshipped. The making and worship of idols was a practice forbidden to the Israelites in the second of the Ten Commandments. The point of the psalmist’s mockery of pagan idolatry is that man-made idols, rather than being the hosts of powerful deities, are just lifeless images. The craftsmen who built them gave them the appearance of having mouths, eyes, ears, noses, hands and feet, but these were merely appearances. The idols were dead stone, dead metal, and by making and putting their faith in them, men became like them, killing their spirits by focusing on these idols the attention and worship due to the true and living God, thus cutting themselves off from the Source of life.

The idols men build today are in one sense more impressive than statues of Chemosh, Ba’al, Moloch, Dagon and Astarte. They are designed to actually do things, from moving goods and people to calculating complex equations. It is not just hands and mouths, modern man has given his idols, but brains and hearts as well, in the computers that direct their functions, and the sources from which the power that keeps the machines in motion circulates. Yet despite this greater resemblance to living beings, it is still just an artificial imitation. To paraphrase the psalmist, they have brains and they think not, hearts have they, and they feel not. Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, modern man has been unable to give life to his creation and in transferring his faith from God to the machines his science has enabled him to build and the techniques his reason has enabled him to devise, he has again broken his connection with the Source of his life, and come to resemble his moving but lifeless creation.

There is another aspect to the idolatry in modern science and technology that is worth contemplation. Earlier I had quoted Owen Barfield’s remark that the point of a machine is that it moves by itself without man’s participation. This remark was made in the context of a paragraph in which Barfield was arguing that the machine is the model by which the modern mind conceives the universe. In the next paragraph he explained that this is not how science itself conceives of nature, but rather the conception that science has created in the minds of ordinary people. This is part of a larger argument that modern man, by confusing his conception of the world with the world as it is in itself, is committing a form of idolatry.

This argument is part of a book entitled Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, which out of all of Barfield’s books is the one most likely to be remembered today. (4) The book begins with a discussion of the Kantian difference between things as they appear and things as they are in themselves. The difference, of course, is that the way things appear always involves the interpretations of our senses and minds. What is called “post-modern” thought has taken this difference and run with it in a most unhealthy direction, but the argument Barfield made is very different. Noting that the appearances involve a collective interpretation – whether an individual perceives things correctly or wrongly is generally judged by holding his interpretation up to the standard of the collective perception – Barfield argued against the positivist belief that ancient man and modern man live in the same world but that modern man’s perception, understanding, and explanation of that world is better, more in line with the world as it actually is, than the ancients. Instead, he argued, it would be more accurate to say that ancient and modern man do not live in the same world, because the world they live in is the ever changing world of appearances. Man’s role in generating this world of appearances, he called participation, and the way man participates in the world of appearances and even his recognition of his own participation, changes with his thoughts through time. In earlier eras man recognized that the world they saw, was something in which they participated themselves, as did the unseen that lay beyond the appearances. In the modern, scientific era, recognition of man’s participation has been pushed back to a second and even third degree of awareness, whereas recognition of the reality of anything beyond the appearances other than that which appears in scientific hypotheses is mostly absent.

The difference between the ancient and the modern perception of the world is not, Barfield therefore argued, that primitive man sought the same kind of understanding that modern science seeks but through a less developed mythology that “peopled the world” with spirits. Rather the modern perception has come about through a change in thought about the nature and purpose of science.

Plato, Barfield reminded us, recognized three levels of knowledge – the first and lowest being sensory observation, the third and highest being intellectual perception of the divine ideas, with geometry or mathematics as the intermediate level. What we call science today corresponds with the second level. The purpose of scientific hypotheses was to “save the appearances” (5), i.e., to provide a working explanation of what is observed in the first level of knowledge. This working explanation was understood to be man’s own creation and not to be confused with the truth, or the world as it is.

This understanding has largely been lost. The knowledge obtainable by science, Barfield explains by analogy, is “dashboard knowledge” rather than “engine knowledge”, i.e., a knowledge of how to drive a car rather than knowledge of its internal workings. (6) Sir Francis Bacon understood this when he declared knowledge to be power. There may still be an understanding of this among scientists themselves. Plato and Aristotle, however, believed that a knowledge of truth, of the permanent, unchanging, reality beyond the world of appearances was also accessible to man and with the evaporation of this belief, the idea that scientific hypotheses themselves can explain the reality beyond the appearances became the vogue among scientists and among the general public this became the idea that the explanations of scientific hypotheses are the reality beyond appearances. Since scientific hypotheses are themselves part of the world of appearances, the confusion of scientific hypotheses with the world as it is, the idea that nothing other than scientific explanations lie beyond the appearances, is a form of idolatry, Barfield reasoned, because it is an attribution of ultimate reality to what is merely an image.

On a somewhat similar note Simone Weil wrote:

Idolatry comes from the fact that, while thirsting for absolute good, we do not possess the power of supernatural attention and we have not the patience to allow it to develop. Lacking idols, it often happens that we have to labour every day, or nearly every day, in the void. We cannot do so without supernatural bread. Idolatry is thus a vital necessity in the cave. Even with the best of us it is inevitable that it should set narrow limits for mind and heart. (7)

The cave she refers to is Plato’s, i.e., Plato’s allegory illustrating the difference between the realm of appearances as opposed to the realm of true Forms. Those who see only things as they appear in the physical realm, Plato said, were like prisoners chained in a cave, who see nothing but shadows cast from a fire behind them upon a wall, and mistake that for reality. Surely nobody in the history of the world could be better described as “in the cave” than modern man who in his positivism has rejected the metaphysical and theological, and sees nothing beyond the appearances than the scientific explanations he devises for them, who mistakes what Barfield’s most famous student and friend, borrowing from the same Platonic allegory, called “the Shadowlands” for the ultimate reality.

If we consider this alongside what we have already discussed about modern man’s having made idols out of his machines it would appear that modern man is engaged in multiple, related, layers of idolatry. First he made idols out his images of the world and his scientific explanations of them, then, with the power over nature his science obtained for him, he created machines, to do his will and to do his work for him, upon which he became dependent and in which he placed his faith, turning his machines into idols too.

The more man’s technology advances, the more of an idol he makes it. The more of a technolator he becomes, the more mechanical his life and society becomes, and the more he begins to resemble his own soulless, lifeless, creations.

(1) Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964), p. 3. This is a translation by John Wilkinson of La Technique ou l’enjeu du siècle, completed in 1950 and published in Paris by Librairie Armand Colin in 1954.

(2) Ibid.

(3) Owen Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry (New York and London: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957, 1965), p. 51.

(4) Barfield himself is probably more likely to be remembered today for his association with C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien and Charles Williams than for his own writings.

(5) This phrase, translating the Greek sozein ta phainomena (σῴζειν τὰ φαινόμενα), was borrowed by Barfield from the commentary by Simplicius of Cilicia on Aristotle. It is more frequently rendered “saving the phenomena”. Barfield preferred the translation appearances because the transliteration phenomena has taken on weaker connotations.

(6) Barfield, p. 55.

(7) Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), p. 109, a translation by Arthur Wills of La Pesanteur et la grâce, first published in Paris by Librairie Plon in 1947. Weil died in 1943. This book is not something she wrote for publication, but was posthumously compiled from her notebooks by her friend Gustave Thibon.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Man and Machine: Part Two

Science Falsely So Called

This summer I re-read The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri’s fourteenth century, three-part epic poem. The poem begins with the author-narrator, lost in the woods, beset upon by wild beasts, when he is rescued by Virgil, the Roman poet. Virgil tells him, that he has come back from the underworld at the request of Beatrice who, having obtained this special grace for Dante, had sent Virgil to be his guide through the lands of the dead. In the first part of the poem, the Inferno, Virgil guides Dante down through the circles of hell, from limbo at the top, where virtuous pagans who lived without the grace of baptism exist without torment or hope, to the prison of Lucifer at the heart of the earth. In the second part of the poem, the Purgatorio, Virgil guides Dante up the seven terraces of Mount Purgatory, located on an island in the Southern Hemisphere. On each terrace, the redeemed are purged of one of the seven deadly sins. Finally, at the top, they arrive at Earthly Paradise, the Garden of Eden, which is as far as Virgil, who represents pagan reason and virtue can bring him. There, the mysterious Matilda meets them and brings Dante to Beatrice, the symbol of divine love and wisdom, who guides him for the rest of his journey in the Paradiso, through the abode of the blessed in the celestial spheres and into the very presence of God.

I confess that I have always found the first part of this poem to be the most interesting and have read the Inferno far more often than I have read either of the other parts or the Divine Comedy as a whole. I suspect I am not alone in this either. For some perverse reason the sufferings of the damned seem more interesting than the joys of the blessed. This time was no different and in the twenty-sixth canto of the Inferno something caught my attention.

At this point in the story, Virgil and Dante are approaching the very bottom of the pit. They are in the Malebolge, the eighth circle of hell in which fraud is punished. To get through the Malebolge to reach the ninth and final circle, the circle of traitors, they have to pass through ten ditches and in the eighth of these they encounter the false counsellors, the liars, who are encased in tongues of fire. Among these they find Ulysses, the king of Ithaca, whose wiles and tricks helped the Greeks to win the Trojan War. He was the hero of Homer’s Odyssey but not thought highly of by the Romans, who saw themselves as the heirs of Troy. He speaks to Dante and tells the story of his final voyage. After the events recounted in the Odyssey, his love for his family proved insufficient to “overcome in me the zeal I had, To' explore the world, and search the ways of life, Man's evil and his virtue” (1) and so he set sail again, this time to the west, past the pillars of Hercules, out into the ocean where he spotted a mountain, “loftiest methought Of all I e'er beheld.” (2) This was Mt. Purgatory, and when he attempted to approach it, a whirlwind from the island struck his vessel, whirled it around in the waves three times, then sank it on the fourth.

As I read this story this summer, certain lines ran through my head. “It may be that the gulfs will wash us down/It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles”. These lines occur towards the end of a poem that I committed to heart some time ago, “Ulysses” by Victorian Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. (3) I was astonished to realize the connection between the two poems in which the same story is told from such remarkably different standpoints, but it is undeniable. Tennyson’s poem begins with a restless Ulysses, after his return to Ithica, begrudging the dreariness of his existence and “how dull it is to pause to make an end/To rust unburnished, not to shine in use” while his spirit was “yearning in desire/To follow knowledge like a sinking star/Beyond the utmost bound of human thought.” He praises his son Telemachus, “to whom I leave the scepter and the isle” and then, in the final stanza of the poem Ulysses reveals that he is at the port, addressing his mariners as the “vessel puffs her sail.” He commands the crew to set out, for “my purpose holds/To sail beyond the sunset and the bath/Of all the western stars until I die”. There is only one version of the story of Ulysses prior to Tennyson’s poem that includes this voyage, a version the divergences of which from the classical myth are followed by Tennyson, and which is clearly Tennyson’s source. The voyage that Tennyson’s Ulysses is about to set out upon is the one Dante’s Ulysses recounts in hell.

This puts Tennyson’s poem into a rather interesting new light. Tennyson’s Ulysses has generally been understood as a sympathetic, admirable, noble, and heroic character. This is certainly how I had always read him. Throughout the poem, the Ithican king joins recognition of age and the inevitability of death with a determination to seek life, experience, and knowledge and set his will against fate, culminating in the famous, oft-quoted concluding lines in which he declares that though ”We are not now that strength which in old days/Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;/One equal temper of heroic hearts/Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” In popular culture, these lines are often quoted as a statement of defiance, on the part of a hero fighting against seemingly unbeatable forces. Literary critics, have often seen in the spirit of Tennyson’s Ulysses, a personification of Victorian England herself and the driving will behind both her Empire and her scientific discoveries and achievements. It would not a huge leap to extrapolate from this an interpretation of Tennyson’s Ulysses as the embodiment of what Oswald Spenger identified as the Faustian soul of modern Western civilization – the rejection of limitations and the striving for the infinite.

Yet that very term “Faustian” brings us back to where Tennyson borrowed the story from in the first place. Spengler’s Faust, was Goethe’s Faust. Goethe had taken the old legend and re-shaped it, turning the lecherous old scholar who sells his soul for youth and worldly gain, into a noble figure, a flawed tragic hero who makes a bad bargain to attain unlimited, knowledge. In the end, having won his bet with the devil by finding happiness in doing good, the soul of Goethe’s Faust is snatched by the angels from the clutches of Mephistopheles and brought into the presence of God. In a sense, Goethe’s reinterpretation of the Faust legend is similar to Tennyson’s reinterpretation of Dante’s Ulysses. In both reinterpretations, a character who in the original brings about his own destruction through arrogant foolishness is made into an example of a noble spirit, who defies chance and fate in pursuit of knowledge, who is to be emulated and who embodies the modern scientific spirit of nineteenth century Germany in the one instance and Victorian England in the other.

When a story is reinterpreted like this, the person doing the retelling feels that they can bring to light something in the story that had previously been neglected or overlooked. Perhaps, however, it is the older stories that can shed a light on elements of the newer. If Goethe’s Faust and Tennyson’s Ulysses represent the spirit of the scientific age, perhaps the way these characters are depicted in earlier versions of their stories, like Dante’s Inferno, and the fate that awaited them there, contains an insight into modern science that has been lost along the way.

Science is a word that comes to us from the Latin word scientia which simply meant knowledge, the very thing which Goethe’s Faust and Dante and Tennyson’s Ulysses, were seeking. Any sort of knowledge, whether it was knowledge of the natural world, practical knowledge of how to do things, or philosophical and theological knowledge, was originally considered to be a science. Today, we ordinarily limit the use of the word science to the physical or natural sciences, knowledge of the world of matter and energy. Even the so-called social sciences, like psychology and sociology, fall under this category because they treat human behaviour as a phenomenon of the physical world, produced by natural forces and processes, and to be studied according in the same way in which a chemist studies chemical processes or a physicist studies bodies and motion.

Why is it that we now reserve the word science for methodically precise, systematically organized, knowledge of the physical world?

This usage reflects a judgement that modern man has made, the judgement that this kind of knowledge is either more important than all other kinds of knowledge or the only true kind of knowledge that there is. This same judgement is also reflected in the way modern man has devoted so much of his energies to amassing this type of knowledge at the expense of all other types.

On what basis did modern man make this judgement? Was he right to do so?

The true believers and advocates of modern science would say that the judgement is true, that what we now call scientific knowledge is the only true and/or important kind of knowledge, that modern man was right therefore to judge it to be so, and that modern man arrived at this recognition of scientific knowledge as the only knowledge by dedicating himself to the pursuit of truth.

I disagree. Modern scientific knowledge’s chief appeal to man is clearly its usefulness to him. By means of modern scientific knowledge man can harness the forces and processes of the universe and make them serve his bidding. This is, in fact, how man has used this knowledge. He has put the power of wind, water, steam, fossil fuels, and even the energies that bind the atom together to work for him. Surely this, and not some high and noble search for the truth, is the real motivation behind modern science.

The idea that modern science has truth as its aim is actually quite laughable. Premodern man built his civilizations on the idea that truth, beauty, and goodness were real and absolute, that they were out there for man to seek, to strive for, and to find and that it was in the striving for these that man developed the virtue and character in which true happiness lies. Modern man rejected the absolute and transcendental in favour of substitutes for these that he chooses and creates for himself. As George Grant put it “’values’ are supposed to be the creations of human beings and have, linguistically, taken the place of the traditional ‘good,’ which was not created but recognized.” (4) That modern man has done exactly the same thing with beauty is evident in much of what has been produced under the label “art” in the last century. (5) “Truth” too, is treated by modern man, not as something that is, but as something for man to decide upon, choose, and create for himself.

Science’s esteem with modern man comes primarily from its usefulness to him not its ability to tell man the truth about himself and the world he lives in. Often modern man fails to distinguish between the two and believes that because science can do and has done so many things for him that it can therefore be relied upon as an authoritative source of true knowledge about the universe. Truth does not necessarily go together with usefulness, however, as the history of science shows.

Throughout history man has used scientific hypotheses to invent techniques and devices that have been very useful to him. That same history is the history of the constant replacement of old hypotheses with new ones. A hypothesis is devised, tested, taken to be valid, from that hypothesis a useful invention is created, and then at a later date the hypothesis is overthrown and replaced with a better one. That the hypothesis later proves to be false did not prevent it from being useful. Usefulness and truth are therefore quite separate qualities indeed.

In fact, one of the most important ideas put forward in the philosophy of science in the twentieth century, is the idea that a scientific theory is to be distinguished from non-scientific theories, by its falsifiability. For a theory to be falsifiable it must be vulnerable to evidence that will show it to be false. A theory that can accommodate or adjust itself to all possible evidence cannot be disproven. Such a theory, Sir Karl Popper argued, is not scientific because it is not falsifiable. Popper’s idea challenged the older idea that to be scientific, a theory had to be verifiable, i.e., capable of being demonstrated to be true.

Popper did not mean by this, of course, that to be scientific, a theory had to be false. One could perhaps reason to that conclusion by arguing that for a theory to be falsifiable, it must be false, because a theory that is true cannot be genuinely proven to be false, but it is potential falsifiability as opposed to invulnerability to falsification even before the evidence is assessed that Popper had in mind. Nevertheless, by insisting that a scientific theory be falsifiable, i.e., vulnerable to evidence that can overthrow it, Popper drove a further wedge between the ideas of scientific usefulness and scientific truth.

It would seem, however, that a far better criterion of demarcation for what is meant by science in the modern sense of the word, is neither verifiability nor falsifiability, but usefulness. All the information science gathers, the hypotheses it develops, and the experiments it runs, have as their end the bending of nature to man’s use.

Man observes that some substances in nature have the property of being fire-resistant. He studies these substances, gathering information, in an attempt to figure out what makes them fire-resistant. Is this to satisfy his curiosity? No, at least not primarily. It is because he wishes to transfer the property of fire-resistance to other substances, to protect objects he considers to be valuable from the threat of fire.

Man observes that the water running down a river and over a waterfall is moving with a tremendous force. He figures out that force can be made to turn a turbine in a generator that can provide electricity for an entire region. He observes the forces that hold subatomic particles together and realizes that by splitting the atom he can release that power, either to destroy his enemies in an explosion, or to provide yet another source of electric power. He observes that birds and insects fly through the air, studies the processes by which they do so, and devises an artificial means of transporting himself through the air.

That is the nature of modern science – to observe nature, and the forces and processes at work within it – so as to use those forces and processes for his own ends, to control them, to replicate the effects he wishes to replicate, to prevent the things he wishes to prevent, all with the purpose of improving his own existence.

The ends to which man puts the control over nature he obtains through science may be good or bad in themselves, and they are often good – alleviating suffering, lightening the burden of work, etc. In the entire enterprise of modern science viewed as a whole, however, there is more than a hint of that arrogance and presumption that brought Dante’s Ulysses to his destruction. In their Journal, Edmond and Jules de Goncourt told of a prediction made in 1869 by chemist Pierre Marcellin Berthelot that within a century through chemistry and physics, man would have unlocked the secrets of the atom and harnessed its power. Also present was physiologist Claude Bernard who predicted that man would be able to manufacture human life. The Goncourts, wrily added their own prediction, that when all of this had been accomplished, God, with white beard flowing, would come down from heaven, swinging a set of keys like an innkeeper, and say “Closing time, gentlemen”. (6) Today, the first two predictions have come true, and while God has not yet shut us down, the Goncourts’ prediction that He would was surely a response to the human arrogance contained in the other predictions. Today, man in his arrogance has, through his mastery of the atom, given himself the power to destroy both himself and the world in which he lives. Perhaps we have not avoided the shutdown the Goncourts predicted, but are merely living in a moment of temporary reprieve of sentence.

Modern man, in his arrogance, accounts this science which gives him control over the elements and to a degree control over fate and chance, the only true knowledge. Yet, as we have seen, science’s usefulness to man in securing his control over nature has no necessary connection with truth. At one time, knowledge and truth were inseparable concepts, and if a person “knew” something that later proved to be untrue we would say “he thought he knew…..” because the knowledge he thought he had was not true knowledge, not being in line with what was actually true. Science gathers facts about the world, to be sure, but these are to science, what trees are to a papermill, its raw materials. The mere accumulation of these facts is not science and would not produce the results that impress and dazzle modern man. It is through the processing of these raw materials, the developing and testing of hypotheses, that science produces the results that man desires, and these hypotheses need not themselves be true to provide the results. Although this methodology has usurped the name of knowledge for itself, it is questionable whether it deserves to bear it at all.

Usefulness, is science’s primary selling point, yet even if we were to draw up a category of “useful knowledge”, science would not comprise the whole of it. This point was made by British philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his 1947 essay “Rationalism in Politics”. (7) Although the main argument of that essay was that the rationalism that has permeated all of Western thought since the Renaissance has converted political thinking into ideology, a streamlined and inflexible modern substitute for tradition, in making this argument he had to explain his terminology and in explaining rationalism, he described it as a system of thought that reduced all knowledge to what he called “technical knowledge”. “Technical knowledge”, he said, was the kind of knowledge that can be written down and learned from a book, the kind of knowledge that can be systematically ordered into a series of steps. This is not the whole of knowledge, Oakeshott argued, and explained that even in something as simple as baking a cake, there is what he called “practical knowledge”, which cannot be written down and learned through a book, but which has to be learned through experience and can only be passed on from one person to another through a kind of apprenticeship, where the learner works alongside the teacher. While “technical knowledge” and “science” are not interchangeable terms the concepts do overlap and much that Oakeshott said about “technical knowledge” can be said about modern science, especially when we consider the co-penetration of knowing and making that George Grant argued was so aptly described by the term “technology”. (8)

If modern science is not even the whole of useful knowledge, how much less is it the whole of all knowledge whatsoever. One year after the Cambridge Journal first published Oakeshott’s “Rationalism in Politics”, the University of Chicago Press published an important book by the university’s English professor, Richard M. Weaver Jr., that was entitled Ideas have Consequences. (9) This book was an attempt by Weaver, a Christian Platonist, (10) to understand the origins of the barbarism which seemed to have overtaken Western Civilization, leading to the creation and the use of the atomic bomb. Weaver traced the decay back to the nominalism of William of Ockham in the fourteenth century. Whether in a realm of their own, as in Plato, or innate in the realm in which we exist, as in Aristotle, the real existence of universals had been fundamental to classical and early Christian thinking. Nominalism denied the reality of the universals, teaching that they were just names invented by man for his own purposes. This, according to Weaver, set in action a chain reaction of ideas that reduced reality to the material, nature to the mechanical, and man to the rational, producing modern science, rationalism, positivism, logical positivism, etc.

It was more than just one bad idea leading to another, however. The nominalist rejection of the universals, initiated a retreat away from the perception of God and the higher spiritual truth at the centre of reality. This produced both a social disintegration, because civilization had been built around the spiritual centre of reality and a corresponding fragmentation of knowledge. From classical antiquity, Weaver pointed out, civilized men had been suspicious of specialization in knowledge, because it led to a lop-sided, unbalanced, worldview and an partially developed, and hence deformed, mind. Modern science, however, requires an ever increasing degree of specialization. The retreat from metaphysics, theology, and a balanced, integrated, synthesis with God at the centre, to modern scientific specialization, saw the replacement of the philosophic doctor, at the pinnacle of medieval learning, with his secular successor the Renaissance gentleman, and finally the modern scientific specialist who represented a far greater break with the previous two. Weaver recognized where the appeal in the new specialized knowledge lay:

Knowledge was power. The very character of the new researches lent them to ad hoc purposes. It was soon a banality that the scholar contributes to civilization by adding to its dominion over nature. (11)

The specialization that produced this power and dominion, Weaver argued, was no true knowledge. It required an encyclopaedic study of minute, peripheral details, while neglecting as less certain, and less real, the more fundamental truths that lay at the centre of reality, and held it all together. This both generated dangerous obsessions, and made projects like the atomic bomb project possible by keeping specialists so focused on the details that they failed to see the big picture of where their research was leading them. (12)

All of these are good reasons for considering modern science to be a part, and a small, lesser part at that, of true human knowledge. Knowledge is, of course, a good thing in itself, something to be desired and sought after. It is not the highest good, however, and when it is pursued in the wrong way, it can have unfortunate results, including potentially the destruction that awaited Dr. Faustus in the original version of the legend, and Ulysses in Dante's telling of his story. When the pursuit of knowledge is combined with human arrogance, made subservient to the human will to dominate, and joined to a rejection of the higher truths that make an integrated, complete form of knowledge possible, what ensues scarcely deserves the name of knowledge at all, and is perhaps best described by the words of St. Paul to Timothy as rendered in the King James Version “science falsely so called”. (13)

(1) Dante, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto XXVI, 95-100, 1819 translation by Rev. Henry Francis Cary.

(2) Ibid, 130-131.

(3) Tennyson completed “Ulysses” in 1833. Like the much longer “In Memorian A.H.H.” which took him almost two decades to complete, his immediate motivation for writing “Ulysses” was the death of his friend and fellow poet Arthur Hallam. It was published for the first time in 1842, in the second volume of the collection of poems he published that year, his third collection of verse to see print.

(4) George Grant, “The Computer Does Not Impose on Us the Ways It Should Be Used”, first given as a Massey Lecture and broadcast on CBC Radio in 1975, published for the first time in 1976, and included in William Christian, Sheila Grant, ed. The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), pp. 418-434, this particular quote being found on page 427.

(5) To be fair, the idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is much older than the Modern Age, and there are plenty of examples of pre-modern art that can not exactly be described as “beautiful” in the traditional sense.

(6) Edmond de Goncourt, Jules de Goncourt, translated and edited by Lewis Galantière, The Goncourt Journals 1851-1870, (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 273.

(7) Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism and Politics”, first published in Cambridge Journal, 1947, republished as the first essay in Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and other essays, (London: Methuen, 1962). The part of the essay that I am referring to can be found on pages 7-11.

(8) George Grant, “Knowing and Making”, address to the Royal Society of Canada in 1975, published in The George Grant Reader, pp. 407-417.

(9) Richard M. Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948). My review of this book can be found here:

(10) As was George Grant.

(11) Weaver, p. 57. Bold represents italics in original.

(12) Ibid, pp. 59-66.

(13) 1 Timothy 6:20

Monday, November 4, 2013

Man and Machine: Part One

The Cost of Modernity

Throughout history, man has used tools or instruments to achieve his ends and to make his work lighter, quicker, and more efficient. A tool may be something that man finds in nature and co-opts for his own purposes. A man, for example, might, wishing to break open a hard-shelled nut, pick up a stone he finds lying around and use it to crack the shell. A tool might also be an instrument that man has designed and fashioned to serve his needs. Desiring to cut down a tree and chop it up into fuel for a fire, he may fit a sharp blade into a handle to make an axe.

At one time the making and use of tools was thought to be the trait that distinguished human beings from other animals. This is no longer the case because study and observation of the animal kingdom has revealed that that some other animals are capable of using and even making simple tools. Most often these are simple weapons, such as sticks used as spears or clubs. The point is that we now know that the making and use of tools per se, is not solely the property of our own species.

Of course, man’s capacity for making and using tools is a lot greater than that of any beast. Chimpanzees have the greatest tool-use capacity of any animal other than man. (1) They can make several different tools and can even make some very simple, compound tools. Even still, they do not come remotely close to man’s ability to create instruments to help him in virtually any task, to redesign his existing tools to make them better serve his purpose, and to create increasingly complex machines to perform larger and more complex tasks.

In what aspect(s) of human nature lies this ability?

One aspect of human nature that immediately presents itself as the answer to that question, and which in fact is an indispensable element of man’s capacity for making and improving tools, is his reason. Reason is the ability to evaluate ideas and facts, relate them to each other, and draw valid conclusions from them. Through reason, man is able to anticipate problems he will face and needs that will arise. By using his reason, man can deduce what the effect of a particular action will be and to calculate the ultimate effect of arranging actions in a series. He can also reason in reverse and thus figure out the steps necessary to achieve a desired effect. Thus reason allows him to prepare to deal with anticipated problems and needs. These are among the various functions of reason that contribute to the development of tools.

Essential as it is, human reason is an insufficient explanation. Science is also indispensable to the process of tool development and science utilizes several other human faculties in addition to reason. The chief of these is man’s ability to obtain and to store knowledge. Science originally just meant knowledge or, in a slightly narrower sense organized knowledge. Today, in the English speaking world, science has two meanings. It can refer to a very specific kind of knowledge, the systematic knowledge of the physical world. It can also refer to the methodology by which that knowledge is obtained. This methodology involves the use of the faculty of observation and the faculty of reason. Man accumulates raw data about the physical world around him through observation, and then uses his reason to form explanations of that data and to devise experiments to test those explanations. Apart from this methodology and the knowledge of “how things work” obtained by it, man could never have built the things he has built or devised the tools to have helped him build it.

Although there was an epistemological debate among philosophers a few centuries ago in which reason and science were pitted against each other as opposing paths to truth, a debate that still recurs from time to time, reason and science are clearly mutually dependent upon one another. Reason is itself a part of the scientific method and needs the information accumulated through science to be of any use.

There is a third human capacity which is even more fundamental than reason or science. Apart from this capacity science, in the modern science of the term, would be virtually impossible. This is the human ability to receive from those who have gone before him, the knowledge that previous generations have accumulated, to add to that bank of knowledge, and to pass it on to future generations. We have a term that we use to refer to both the use of this ability and to that which is handed down through the generations by means of it. That term is tradition.

Were it not for tradition, each generation of men would have to make the same rational deductions as the previous generation from scratch. Apart from tradition, men would have to make the same basic scientific discoveries every generation and would never be able to build upon what has been done previously. Without tradition man would be forever reinventing the wheel.

Modern man does not like to acknowledge tradition’s fundamental importance to human thought, science, and the invention and development of human equipment. This is because modern man, who lives in an era that has seen an unprecedented explosion in the invention and development of tools, has staked everything on the hope that the development of technology will continue indefinitely, (2) while adopting the idea that the path to the future lies in the rejection of the past.

Note that I said modern man has pinned his hopes on the development of “technology”. The word tools does not really adequately describe what mans instruments, devices, and contraptions have evolved into in the Modern Age. The Greeks used the word mekhane (μηχανή) for various inventions, such as cranes, engines of war, and theatrical devices. The literal meaning of the word was contrivance, i.e., something contrived or thought up as an artificial means to an end. This word has come down into modern language as the word “machine”. Five hundred years ago it still had its classical meaning but in the Industrial Revolution it came to be used to refer to a contraption that had moving parts driven by water, steam, or some other non-human source of power. The word most commonly used, however, to embrace everything man has invented to accomplish his purposes, is technology. (3)

While man has been making and improving his tools since the beginning of human history, in the last five centuries, the period known as the Modern Age, his technology has grown exponentially. This occurred in several bursts of creativity, starting with the Renaissance of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the period of European cultural renewal and scientific discovery and invention which launched the Modern Age, and including the two Industrial Revolutions in which the power of water, steam, coal, and eventually electricity were harnessed allowing man to greatly increase his production of food and other commodities and his ability to transport himself and these goods. Another burst of creativity began in the twentieth century and which has yet to run out, the burst which has produced today’s rapidly evolving communications and information technology, which has sent men into space and given us laser surgery, and accomplished so many other amazing things.

The men of the Modern Age, as we noted earlier, are loath to acknowledge that they are at all dependent upon tradition for the benefits of modern technology. The Modern Age is the age of progress and modern men pride themselves on being progressive and forward thinking people, who have set their back to the past and their eyes upon the future. According to the founding mythology of the Modern Age, tradition was a chain that held men back in darkness and superstition until man, reason, and science were liberated by the “Enlightenment”.

That viewpoint is in many ways utter nonsense. We have already seen how tradition is itself an essential part of any reasoning or science that wishes to build upon what was done in the past rather than to be continually starting over from scratch. Furthermore, the elements in the Western tradition that the “Enlightenment” mythology maintains were holding reason and science back, are in fact foundational to the principles of the scientific method. The idea that man can by observing the world around him, figure out the principles by which the world operates, presupposes that there is an order in the world to be observed, which itself is far more consistent with the idea that that order was put there by the God Who created the world, than with either the idea that it just happens to be or that it came into being on its own. Thus the basic principles by which empirical discoveries were made in the Modern Age were laid down by Christian scholars such as the Franciscan friar Roger Bacon, back in the supposed darkness of the Middle Ages.

Now an objection might be raised that the fact that this massive explosion of technology took place in an age which adopted an anti-tradition philosophy tends to support the idea that tradition held reason, science, and technology back. This is an important objection which needs to be carefully considered. I do not think that it can negate my point that apart from tradition, man’s ability to receive the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of past generations, and pass it on to future generations, neither reason nor science could function. Is it possible that tradition both facilitates and constrains science?

Yes, in fact that is the case. There is one sense in which it is correct to say that tradition holds back science. The bank of accumulated human knowledge and wisdom that is passed down through the generations as tradition includes moral knowledge which places constraints upon the human will. In traditional ethics, the end of human activity and of the organization of human society is declared to be the Good, and particular human behaviour is either praised and encouraged as being right or denounced and discouraged as being wrong according as it contributes to or detracts from the Good. Man’s desires, passions, and appetites, unconstrained, pull him away from the Good, and so man must rule his passions with his will. Man’s will, however, will also move man away from the Good if itself unconstrained by moral limitations. Whether in classical pagan or Christian formulation, this basic traditional ethics was foundational to all pre-modern Western civilization.

It may not be apparent at first how all of this relates to science and technology. Think about how and why man invents tools. He first of all desires to do something. Let us say he wants to keep rain from falling on his head. He then decides that he will do that thing. Next, he figures out a way of doing it, and then invents the instrument, in this case an umbrella, that will help him achieve his end. The whole point of inventing the tool, and of obtaining the knowledge necessary to invent it, is to accomplish the end that he has willed. Science and technology serve the will of man and are therefore themselves limited by what man wills. Limitations placed upon man’s will are therefore also limitations on science and technology.

Here we see how tradition, apart from which there could be no science and technology, also limits and constrains science and technology. It is also apparent why the Modern attitude towards tradition would correspond with an explosion in science and technology. The spirit of the Modern Age is one of rejection of constraints upon the will. Several Modern philosophers regarded the will as the fundamental fact of human existence. (4) Modern thought has so equated freedom with the rejection of constraints upon the will, as to make the classical Athenian and Christian concepts of freedom, a good compatible with moral limits on the will, virtually incomprehensible to modern man.

This brings us to the moral dilemma of modern technology.

Modern technology presents us with a moral dilemma but it is not one of the simplistic questions that are immediately evoked by speaking of a moral dilemma of modern technology. It is not a question of whether technology or even modern technology is good or bad. Nor is it a question of the right uses of modern technology versus the wrong uses. It is rather a question of cost, of the price modern man has had to pay to obtain the blessings of modern technology and whether those blessings are worth that price. (5) That this is the true dilemma should already be apparent in what we have discussed. If the rapid growth in the invention and development of technology in the Modern Age is due to that age’s having rejected traditional moral constraints upon the exercise of man’s will this renders the other two questions moot for the criteria by which to judge these questions lies in man’s knowledge of the Good, which is precisely what was given up to obtain the technology. This is the cost of modernity.

A little under a century ago, a book came out, written by a then unknown German teacher, philosopher, and historian named Oswald Spengler. (6) In that book, Spengler objected to the standard modern view of Western history as moving in a linear direction through three ages – classical, middle, and modern. In his view history was the story of cultures, spiritual communities that lived and died like any other organism, in a cyclical pattern, each having its own soul. The souls of these civilizations he classified into types according to the symbols by which they understood the world and the ideals for which they strove. For the classic Greek and Roman civilizations, for example, he used the term Appollonian as it had been expounded by Nietzsche to characterize the souls of cultures that strove after beauty and order. (7)

Spengler used the seasons of the year to designate the stages he saw in the life-cycle of a culture-civilization and he argued that Euro-American Western civilization, which he dated back to the tenth century, was in its winter. Hence the title of the book, Der Untergang des Abendlandes, which means The Decline – or Twilightof the West. It is not Spengler’s prediction of the imminent collapse of Western civilization and the rise of a new Caeserism that is relevant to our discussion, however, but his interesting characterization of the soul of Western civilization. Since the essence of modern Western civilization is the rejection of limits and the pursuit of the infinite – Spengler identifies the West’s prime symbol as “pure and limitless space” – he dubbed the Western soul-type “Faustian”.

This term, of course, comes from the legend of Faust, the scholar who, bored with his academic pursuits, strikes a deal with the devil. The legend has been told and retold many times, in books, plays, and operas, but the version that Spengler was alluding to is the nineteenth century play by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Whereas in earlier versions of the story, youth, worldy pleasures, and supernatural power are the temptations to which the scholar succumbs, in Goethe’s rendition it is the somewhat higher goal of infinite knowledge that is Faust’s chief desire. This is the whole point of the comparison made by Spengler in assigning Faust as the soul type of Western man.

Note, however, that while Goethe’s Faust may be a nobler fellow with higher goals than the character who appears in earlier versions of the story such as Christopher Marlowe’s, the price he agreed to pay was exactly the same – his very soul. (8) Is this also the price that was required of modern man for all the benefits of modern technology?

I don’t think that it is stretching the metaphor too far to ask that question. Since the dawn of time, man has invented tools to accomplish his ends. Where did these ends come from? Some arose out of practical necessity. He needed food, water, clothing and shelter to survive and so directed his activity towards providing himself with these things. It was in pursuit of a different set of ends altogether, however, that he built his higher civilizations. Men perceived a need for justice, and so built cities and enacted laws. Men yearned after beauty and so they created art. These things are not physical necessities but spiritual. Man’s spirit yearns for them the way his body craves food and drink. The highest of these is the Good. The greatest accomplishments of pre-modern higher civilizations were achieved in pursuit of these spiritual ends, which pursuit involved submission to them as external authorities and judges. If modern man’s technological advances were made possible by the liberation of his will from all traditional constraints then he seems to have purchased those advances at the expense of what lay at the heart of his earlier civilizations. If that cannot be described as the selling of the soul what can?

We now come to the question of whether the benefits of modern technology were worth paying this cost. It may seem like we are addressing this question at the point where we have just answered it. After all, did not the highest of authorities once poignantly make the point that nothing was worth this price by asking “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (9)
Against this, however, there is an argument to be made and, for those of us who enjoy and depend upon the advantages modern technology provides, it is a strong and compelling one. This argument takes the form of a question and it is simply this: would you, who live with the comforts and conveniences of a reduced workload, extended leisure time, electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter, motor vehicle transportation, and modern communication and information technology, be willing to give all that up and live without it? Or for that matter, would you who live in the age of antibiotics and anesthesia, laser surgery and robotic prosthetics, and all the other advantages of modern medical technology, be willing to take your chances in a world without them?

Most people, we can safely assume, would answer no to both of those questions. The modern mind finds it very difficult to comprehend the idea that the men of previous ages might have possessed something that modern man has given up and that this something might actually be more important to human fulfillment and happiness than the things modern man has which previous ages did not have. Modern men look at those, like certain religious sects, who to varying degrees have opted to live without the benefits of modern technology, as objects of wonder and sources of amusement. (10)

Herein lies the strength of the argument. We would not be willing to give these advantages up and most would laugh at the very idea of it. Since we are not willing to live without those advantages, we clearly value them over anything that man has given up to obtain them, and hence for us they are clearly worth the cost. (11)

This argument is not as ironclad as it first appears, however.

Consider what would happen if we were to take the argument’s question, remove the examples of the positive benefits of modern technology listed and substitute the following: nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, industrial pollution, antibiotics-resistant superbugs, killer bees, computer viruses and identity theft we would expect the opposite answer. Some of these were intentionally invented by modern science in the same way that the positive examples were, others are unintended consequences, but they are also the products of modern science and technology. If we were to ask the question again with these inserted, I suspect we could expect the opposite result, i.e., that most people would say yes, they would gladly be willing to live without these things. Clearly modern science and technology has given us something other than an unmixed bag of blessings.

If that were the only thing that could be said against the argument it would not be worth saying for the discussion would degenerate into cherrypicking the positives and negatives of modern technology and setting them against each other, which would be a pointless exercise. There are two other points that need to be made against the argument.

The first is that it rests upon an assumption which we have already refuted, namely, that the blessings of modern technology are to be attributed solely to modern reason and science. Although modernity does not acknowledge it, reason and science, even modern reason and science, could not accomplish anything apart from tradition. This is the great paradox of modern science and technology. On the one hand, its achievements would not have happened had modern man not radically broken with the traditions of previous ages. On the other hand, they could not have happened had modern man not built upon the achievements of previous ages contained in that same tradition.

My point is not that we ought to take the results of modern science, divide them into positive and negative, and attribute the positive results to modern science’s continuity with past ages and the negative to its break with the past. My point is that science is not something that man came up with in the modern age. Science was transformed in the modern age, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse, but modern science, in however many ways it differs from the science of earlier ages, could not have just come into existence on its own, without that earlier science.

There is another assumption behind the argument, and that is the assumption that the answer to the question of whether modernity was worth the cost paid for it is determined by what we wish and will. This is the second point – that this very assumption is itself the problem with modernity.

Think back to the origins of modernity. In the traditional understanding, good and evil, right and wrong, were not what man decided they were, they were what they were. Man’s responsibility was to seek and to serve the Good, rather than whatever he happened to desire. He was to use his will to rule over his own inner desires and was to submit his will in obedience to the Good.

The Modern Age was born out of rebellion against this understanding. Against the traditional understanding, modern man declared that the good was whatever he decided it was and that he had decided that the highest good was the freedom of his will from traditional constraints, and that his liberated will was best put to use in pursuing whatever he desired.

The reason this produced an explosion of science and technology is because the freedom man had declared for his own will translated into slavery for all the rest of creation. Man’s emancipated will was the will to dominate all he surveyed, and just as a country at war will conscript all of its resources into serving the war effort, so modern man mobilized all of his reason and knowledge towards achieving the desired human control over all of nature. This is the essence of modern science. (12)

When you organize all of your resources towards achieving your goals you can accomplish an awful lot. When man mobilized all of his intellectual resources to the end of bending and transforming the world around him to serve his will he accomplished the wonders of the modern world. Much of what he accomplished would be considered good even by the traditional understanding of that concept. Man’s will, emancipated from traditional moral constraints, was now enslaved to his own inner passions and appetites, (13) but not all human desires are bad. Man desired to prevent and reverse blindness and invented laser surgery as a means to achieving this desire. That this desire and its accomplishment are good by the traditional understanding is evident in the first words Jesus offered to the messenger of John the Baptist as evidence that He was the Messiah “the blind receive their sight”. (14)

The problem is not with the good things we have accomplished through modern science and technology. The problem is with what we have become through liberating our will and appetites from traditional constraints, bending and transforming creation to serve our will and appetites, and making even good and evil, right and wrong, into our servants, by declaring good to be what we decide it is rather than what it is.

To illustrate, consider a barren couple, who desire to have a child but have been unable to conceive. Their own parents are all eager to be grandparents, they can provide children with a good home, and are heartbroken over their inability to produce a child. The modern scientist comes along and tells them that through the miracle of the technology of in vitro fertilization, they will now be able to have a child. Undoubtedly, the desire is a good desire, and the end is a good end. To achieve that end hundreds of extra fertilized embryos have to be produced. Science has a use for those embryos, however. Research on embryonic stem cells can potentially help scientists develop cures for chronic conditions and perhaps even regenerate limbs. These too are good desires and good ends.

Now think about that for a second. To achieve the first good desire, the blessing of an infertile couple with a baby, we have to produce large numbers of human lives (15) knowing that they will never develop into mature, adult human beings. In other words, we have turned human life into a product to be manufactured, the manufacturing of which produces a surplus beyond what we can use. Since we have that surplus anyway, and can accomplish other good things by subjecting it to scientific research, we reason we should go ahead and do so, thus turning manufactured human lives into laboratory rats. Yet many in the modern world in which we live see no problem with science going ahead and achieving these good ends through these means. (16)

We cannot bend and transform nature and the world to serve our will without also bending and transforming ourselves in the process, and when we refuse to acknowledge the rule of good as it is over our own will, but insist upon making good be what we decide it to be and making our own will and desire the final judge over everything, we transform ourselves into something very ugly and inhuman indeed.

(1) Christopher Boesch and Hedwige Boesche. 1990. “Tool use and tool making in wild chimpanzees.” Folia Primatologica, 54:86-89.

(2) This is part of what French Calvinist Jacques Ellul called “the technological bluff” in his volume of that title, first published in French in 1988, the English translation of which by Geoffrey W. Bromiley was published by William B. Eerdmans of Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1990. In his foreword Ellul wrote “The bluff consists essentially of rearranging everything in terms of technical progress, which with prodigious diversification offers us in every direction such varied possibilities that we can imagine nothing else…And when I say bluff, it is because so many successes and exploits are ascribed to techniques,…because technique is regarde in advance as the only solution to collective problems…or individual problems…and because at the same time it is seen as the only chance for progress and development in any society.” (p. xvi)

(3) Ellul did not use the term this way. He used “technique” to refer to “the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity” and “technologie” to refer to the systematic study of the same. His English translators do not always follow his usage. John Wilkinson’s translation of his 1954 La Technique, for example, was published in English by Alfred A. Knopf of New York in 1964, under the title The Technological Society. It is from the latter that the definition of technique is taken. Canadian philosopher George Grant, who was much influenced by this book, disagreed with Ellul’s usage, and made the case that technology was the best possible word to describe the phenomenon. Formed by the combination of the Greek words for art (in the sense of that which is made) and science (in the sense of that which is known), technology, Grant argued, denoted a combination and absolute co-penetration of making and knowing which was unique to modern times. Examples of this argument can be found in his 1975 lecture to the Royal Society of Canada “Knowing and Making”, published on pages 407-417 of The George Grant Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988), compiled and edited by William Christian and Sheila Grant, in his Massey College lecture “The Computer Does Not Impose On Us the Ways It Should Be Used”, found on pages 418-434 of the same volume, and in “Thinking About Technology”, a re-worked version of the same lecture, published as the first essay in his Technology and Justice (Toronto: Anansi, 1986) on pages 11-34.

(4) Examples include Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818) and Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the Will to Power.

(5) The thought that such blessings would come with a price tag attached is foreign to modern thought, despite modern man’s resemblance to Oscar Wilde’s cynic, who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. It is well to keep in mind the Spanish proverb George Grant was fond of quoting “take what you want, said God, but pay for it.”

(6) The first volume of Der Untergang des Abendlandes, with the subtitle Gestalt und Wirklichkeit, was published in Munich by C. H. Beck’sche Verlagsbuchhandlung in 1918. The second volume, subtitled Welthistorische Perspektiven, was published by the same company in 1922. The English translation by Charles Francis Atkinson, was published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York under the title The Decline of the West. The first volume of the translation, Form and Actuality, came out in 1926, and the second volume Perspectives of World-History in 1928.

(7) Nietzsche, in his first book The Birth of Tragedy (1872) characterized the two sides in the struggle between chaos and order, as Dionysian (after the god of wine and revelry) and Appollonian (after the god of light and beauty). The ancient Athenians, he believed, had created a balance between the two by imposing the Appollonian order of dramatic dialogue on the Dionysian music of the chorus in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles, a balance that was promptly destroyed in the New Tragedy of Euripides and by the rationalism of Socrates.

(8) I say “agreed to pay” because Goethe altered the ending of the story. In the original legend, based loosely upon a sixteenth century alchemist who blew himself up, the story ends with Faust being torn to pieces by demons and his soul dragged down to hell. Goethe’s version ends with the redemption of Faust.

(9) Mark 8:36


(11) It is worth pointing out here, what George Grant noted about “values”, that they are the modern substitute for the Good. Whereas the Good was, values are chosen, created, and made. The concept is Nietzschean in origin, although, as Grant ironically observed, many who would hate to see themselves as followers of Nietzsche, have borrowed it. See Grant’s Time as History (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), his essay “Nietzsche and the Ancients: Philosophy and Scholarship”, the fourth essay in Technology and Justice found on pages 79-95, and the excerpts from his 1964 talk “Value and Technology” found on pages 387-394 of The George Grant Reader.

(12) As George Grant put it “the modern unity of the sciences is realized around the ideal of mastery”, Technology and Empire: Perspectives on North America (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1969), p. 116.

(13) That allowing oneself to be led by one’s appetites enslaves rather than truly liberates, is where Athens and Jerusalem meet, having been taught by Plato and Aristotle in the former, and by Jesus Christ and St. Paul in the latter.

(14) Matthew 11:5

(15) When a human sperm fertilizes a human egg resulting in a zygote, the result is immediately both alive – growth through cell division and replication begins immediately – and human, possessing a full set of human chromosomes marking it as human and belonging to no other species. A human embryo is indisputably a human life.

(16) As the previous notes will indicate,my thinking on this subject has been heavily influenced by George Grant. His 1986 Technology and Justice, which begins with the essay “Thinking About Technology” ends with two essays co-written with his wife Sheila, “The Language of Euthanasia” and “Abortion and Rights”, addressing two ways in which human life is degraded in the modern technological society.