18 March 2012

Qualis artifex! Qualis unitor rerum!

One does not want to be a Luddite.  The term carries with it a wealth of negative connotations — naive idealism, impracticality, cranky judgmentalism, smelliness.  One wants to affirm with everyone else, including the mass of our right-minded brethren, that the technological world has brought with it promise and danger in equal measure.  His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI has even issued a statement (which, aside from the internet would never have been heard outside Rome) urging all the faithful to utilize technology and virtual social networks for the advancement of the Gospel.  One would like to affirm and comply.*

And yet it is difficult to believe that this latest refinement of urban civilization has done anything particularly good in comparison with its harm.  Consider the chief example of the latter: a century ago pornography was a rare thing and its consumers were clearly and generally seen as perverted.  Today a very large majority of American men are habitual consumers of smut by the age of 20.  And not simply lust-inducing nude shots of voluptuous women, but graphic and violent videos of the sort that one would never have imagined in earlier generations, when the material for such perversity was mostly absent from the culture and had to be sought out with effort.

Again this is simply the worst of it.  The internet, we remind ourselves, has also brought an unprecedented freedom of publication and massive quantities of public knowledge.  The glorious wikipedia is never out of arm's reach, ready to answer any question that could possibly occur.  Never in all of human history have so many had such information available to them.  The legendary library of Alexandria was already minuscule in comparison to any of the major research libraries of the 20th century, but even the greatest of those (the US Library of Congress) pales before the internet.  We should rejoice, it seems, that so much knowledge has been made available in our homes and now even our pockets, occupying a minute fraction of the size and weight of an encyclopedia, but with millions of times more content and far greater ease of use.

But all this extra knowledge in the air is abstracted from the real context of daily living.  In recent weeks I have consumed an inordinate amount of useless information while "browsing".  I scarcely go a day without making the rounds of my usual websites and blogs, checking facebook half a dozen or more times.  All of my closest friends are available primarily through text — short exchanges on the cell phone, comments on facebook or a variety of blogs, brief instant message exchanges.  One cannot help but think of our lives (since so many young people socialize this way) as a weird imitation of David Copperfield, who in that famous passage remarks that
From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company.
How many of our relationships have been reduced in whole or in part to a weird simulation of the 'friendship' so common between living souls and fictions?

In fact the abundance of useless information, the regularity and speed of the news cycle, of viral video transmission, of new streaming movies and TV episodes, all tends to displace the locality of one's life and interests to another place.  We deal in "memes," concepts and issues — on a national and international scale.  We worry more about who will next rule the empire than who will next have care of the community in which we dwell.  We do not know our neighbors or try to meet them, because they do not live near us in the world mediated by our pocket LCDs.  Much closer to me than anyone who lives on my street are people in New York and California and beyond.

We have discussed before — everyone has at some point — the odd locality of the "virtual world", its tendency to liberate soul from body, person from nature, self from identity, etc.  But all too rarely is it pointed out that the virutal world is a myth — that it does not exist.  The virtual world is roughly co-terminous with the nation-state, or in an expanded way with the modernized portions of the globe.  We who are members of it have taken up a double citizenship: no longer mere politai, citizens of the city, we are growing much more to be kosmopolitai, citizens of the world.  And, were we platonists, this alienation from the particular in favor of the abstract would be a sign of elevation.  The truth remains, however, that the "world at large", the nation-state, the orbis terrarum is merely construed according to the wits of man, who reckons things according to particulars.  In other words, the generality of the virtual world supervenes upon the reality of the particular.  Its reality, insofar as it possesses any, is borrowed from something outside the minds of men.  In this light the shift to cosmopolitanism should be all the more interesting.

Consider for example the efforts propagandists like Hamilton and Madison had to exert to sell the idea of the United States to its early citizens.  Consider the years of subsequent educational propaganda, of legal and martial struggles, necessary to imprint the idea that we are first of all Americans upon the people of this country, in a world where news came once a day or less, where reporting was limited to public events, where norms of decency and limitations of interest and space made it difficult to dominate the public consciousness with the tedious sensationalism of distant political activity, to promote endless speculation on everything, to constantly pour out a deluge of opinion for the masses to consume.  And consider by contrast with what ease and universality the identification of citizens as "American" is imprinted on new generations today, not to mention the catchphrases of liberal political ideology which frame public discourse and produce its petty squabbles.  Empires are built on armies and roads, but Rome would never have fallen if it had possessed a fiber optic cable network.  With this we are so much at one with (so deeply dependent on) our national identity that neither a beloved leader nor the threat of force is necessary to reduce the ordinary locality almost to irrelevance.

Today (I write as a city-dweller) engagement in one's physical locality is restricted largely to "activists" who have a worse name even than the luddites.  We flee their sanctimonious odor with a tinge of guilt, nonetheless irritated by their lack of compassion for the comfortable, the reasonably well-off, those of us who would just like to make things a little better for ourselves.  The poor, after all, will always be with us.  But, communism and cliches aside, social justice types find by fighting and feeling pain something extremely natural to the matter-form composite that is man.  They find their neighbors.  They are not tortured like the rest of us by a desire to greet and draw closer to the random passers by on the street or train platform.  They break through (if they know their business) the invisible curtains of private independence and manage somehow to establish a bond with others.

The Doctor Communis teaches that man knows himself, his humanity and essence, by abstraction from particular experience.  How ignorant must we then remain of ourselves the more immerse we are in the virtual world — which portrays man only disembodied in text and constructed images?

The internet, then, for all its apparent promise and real benefits, is a powerful tool for shaping the perceived nature and belonging of man.  I doubt that American national identity has ever been as strong as it is today.  And this shift in loyalty to the distant universal has been at the constant expense of the local and particular.  I do not know the name of any elected leader in my town.  I do not know the interests or needs of my fellow citizens.  I do know, however, a wide range of facts about the history and ideas of a number of men and women who will never know that I exist.  I know their poll ratings and travel schedules, recent faux pas, etc.  I know too much of these things, and I am always drawn to know more of them, to learn more about that TV character, etc., as is everyone else.  And in the process my habit has became the same as everyone's:  browsing, surfing, wiling away the time in a sea of amusements and distractions, in a way that has never been possible for more than a handful of (debased and vicious) people in the history of mankind.  And together with ignorance of self, the surfeit of amusements breeds an equally grievous fault in man: distractedness.

Distraction, which is the great and common enemy of prudence and temperance, causes one to lose sight of proper ends, to dispense with intentions and the right order of one's actions, and to sacrifice one good object after another  for whatever arises before one's eyes or thoughts, whatever is convenient and has the greatest immediate appeal.  This habitual distractedness of mind is properly named curiosity, a terrifying vice condemned universally in the two millennia of Christian moral instruction.  St. Bernard of Clairvaux reads Jeremiah 9:10-20 in light of this vice:
Death has come up through our windows,
Has entered our citadels,
To cut down children in the street
Young people in the squares.
Corpses shall fall like dung in the open field
Like sheaves behind the harvester
With no one to gather them.
St. Bernard comments:
And truly, O Man if you should vigilantly attend to yourself, it is extraordinary if you should ever attend to anything else. Listen, curious man, to the words of Solomon; hear, oh foolish one, what Wisdom says. With all defenses, it is said, guard your heart (Prov 4:23): so that all of your senses may keep watch over that from which life proceeds. For to what do you retire, oh curious man? In the meanwhile to what do you commit yourself? Why do you dare to lift your eyes to the heavens — eyes that sin in the heavens? Look to the earth, so that you may think of yourself. It will show you to yourself, because you are earth and will pass into the earth.
The Doctor Mellifluous goes on to explain how curiosity — the departure from one's proper concerns into the realm of the superfluous — is the root of pride, the cause of Eve's fall and the fall of the Seraphim.  Consider that this seed of vice  which caused the fall of man is now celebrated as a right and even a virtue, and is the daily habit of most members of our civilization.

Even St. Thomas, whose wisdom was encyclopedic and whose interest was in the ordering of all creation to God, contrasts the evil of curiosity with the good of studiousness.  Curiosity is a species of intemperance.  St. Thomas distinguishes six forms of curiosity, under two modes of knowledge.  First, curiosity may concern intellective knowledge: knowledge of principles, universals, causes and kinds.  This happens:
  • When less profitable study causes one to withdraw from what one is obliged by vocation or responsibility to study (students investing hours browsing Wikipedia instead of doing course work; priests cultivating knowledge of Wagnerian opera to the neglect of the Gospels).
  • When one learns from one from whom it is unlawful to learn (Wicked experimentation on humans or perverse treatment of animals, consultation of demons or the use of witchcraft.)
  • When one desires to know about creatures inordinately, without concern for their relation to God, the proper end of all knowledge.
  • When one studies beyond one's capacity, and is thus prone to error. (Neophytes theorizing on the psychological model of the Trinity, old men constructing trisections.)
Again, curiosity can concern sensible knowledge: knowledge both of tastes, touches, sights, sounds and smells, and of the individual things and people known through them.  A desire for this knowledge is wrong:
  • When it is not directed to something useful but turns one away from what is useful or pertinent.  (Facebook browsing, videos of kittens, celebrity and political gossip, tv, etc.) 
  • When it is directed to something harmful or wicked. (Pornography, prying for the sake of gossip or detraction, use of knowledge for exploitation or extortion, consumption of entertainment for the sake of sloth.)
    I hear the unsympathetic reader objecting to all this grim talk of usefulness and obligation.  Surely this is all a bunch of monastic zealotry bent on cowing the individual spirit and bringing unruly willfulness under the firm law of obedience.  After all one needs to let loose a bit!  To such a reader I offer up first of all ST IIaIIae q.167 for examination.  Note in particular the dignity and variety of his sources, and know as well that there are several times as many in the tradition.  But secondly, such an objection, built on a perceived opposition between law and freedom, has lost sight (along with the curious man) of the proper order of human action.  And so we should review this briefly before concluding our reflection.

    Every act is the act of an agent.  Every agent has a nature, which governs the motion of a thing and orders it toward its perfection or end.  Law is an ordinance of reason for the common good,  and the moral law arises from nature by divine ordinance, and thus is ordered directly to the perfection of the agents it governs.  Law is thus perfective of freedom, which tends toward the good.  It guides as much as it governs: revealing nature rather than circumscribing it.  Thus the useful and the obligatory, the proper concerns of man to which curiosity is opposed, are nothing other than the proper expressions of the harmony and beauty of actual virtue, which perfects the soul and disposes man to receive grace.

    And this helps us see how curiosity corrupts human nature.  It removes the intention of the agent from his proper end and opens him up to whatever chance and pleasing influences come along.  But of course the most common influences for the weak are the worst for the soul.  And so curiosity is the "lust of the eyes" by which man falls into the "lust of the flesh", and languishes in the "pride of life".  It abstracts man from himself and places him out in the whirlwind of distraction and sensible delights, makes him a citizen of an unreal country, and ultimately disposes him to a kind of lifeless slavery to images and illusions.  This is the internet at its best, which you probably carry around in your pocket, which you consult on an hourly basis or more, dozens of times a day.

    It is very tempting to be a Luddite.

    * Note that this year's World Communications Day message contains a beautiful reflection on the importance of silence.