This week, besides starting a new job, I also started digging into Alan Jacobs’ The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. It has me thinking a lot—not just about the questions of humanism and the technological milieu which are the concern of the book itself, but also about how those concerns intersect in important ways with those very concerns.
In particular, I keep thinking about the role of the scholar-teacher-writer in our world: the person who (like Jacobs!) dedicates her life to reading deeply and widely, and also to communicating the fruits of that labor to others. Jacobs does a wonderful job painting a picture of his five protagonists that is simultaneously deep enough and concise enough (and beautifully-written enough!) to be thoroughly illuminating without being dense or unapproachable. The book shows the fruit of broad and thorough research, of deep thought, and of hard work at conveying that thought well.
Mulling on that this morning, it occurred to me that there is a way in which Jacobs and others do a kind of thinking-for-others, thinking-for-us: not in the sense of thinking in our stead or on our behalf, but in the sense of thinking for our sakes.
Although Jacobs’ book and blog offer moments of hope here and there, he seems increasingly pessimistic about the future, especially as regards what even by the middle of the 20th century Niebuhr, Ellul, and others were describing as our “technical age.” (There was considerable variation in how that phrase was used: Niebuhr seems to have meant it as a simple description, but for others it came to be quite pejorative, and so it largely remains.) Most of the serious tech critics working today—among whom I include people like Nick Carr, Shannon Vallor, and L. M. Sacasas—range from deeply concerned to outright despairing in their outlook.
Jacobs captured what seems to be the basic sentiment in a recent post about blogs and newsletters:
Facebook is the Sauron of the online world, Twitter the Saruman. Let’s rather live in Tom Bombadil’s world, where we can be eccentric, peculiar perhaps, without ambition, content to tend our little corner of Middle Earth with charity and grace.
That is: we cannot stop Sauron or Saruman; indeed, we have already lost. As one of Tolkien’s other characters put it:
Could [Sauron] be defied by Bombadil alone? I think not. I think that in the end, if all else is conquered, Bombadil will fall, Last as he was First; and then Night will come.
Bombadil’s life was beautiful and charmed, but also doomed. The blogs and the newsletters and the rest of the indie web may be lovely, but they will fall to Facebook and Twitter in the end.
This is the basic conclusion of 1943, too. In the final paragraph, Jacobs argues that “the reign of technocracy had [by the end of World War II] become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts”: another allusion to Tolkien. In the same scene in The Lord of the Rings I quoted above, Gandalf says that if Sauron regains the Ring, “his victory will be swift and complete: so complete that none can foresee the end of it while this world lasts.” The choice of phrase is no accident. Sauron, in this telling, won: the best efforts of Jacobs’ protagonists not withstanding. There was no Fellowship of the Ring. Bombadil’s little land will be drown in the same darkness everything else did. (Tolkien himself seems to have had a view not so different from this: against the charge that The Lord of the Rings was an allegory for the second World War, he noted in such an allegory the Fellowship would have done precisely what Sauron expected and seized the Ring and its power.)
Jacobs, Carr, Sacasas, and their predecessors in Ellul, McLuhan, Postman, and others have good reason to doubt a real rejection of the supremacy of technique—the mastery of the environment, culture, and the self by way of technology and bureaucracy. The critics are all good enough judges of human character to see the truth: we humans will nearly always choose the quick and easy path if it is offered to us. Nor are they wrong about the victory of technique so far. We are deep in the thrall of solutionism, and our Silicon Valley masters are all the more eager to apply technological “solutions” to our every want and need—including mortality. (I am well aware of the irony of the fact that I write this literally from Silicon Valley, newly in the employ of one of the second wave of Silicon Valley successes.)
Is the moment for resisting technologism past? Is no credible future in which solutionism is no longer god? Have we already lost? Maybe. But I don’t think so. If the skeptics’ hypothesis is wrong, then the counsel it would give wrong as well. And Jacobs’ own work is one part of why I still hold out hope.
Tolkien himself saw that neither the wisdom of his elves and wizards nor the courage of his men and dwarves nor the strength of his simple and sturdy hobbits to overcome the darkness. But even so, The Lord of the Rings is not a novel of despair. In a strange providence, the seeds of evil’s destruction are inherent in evil itself. Frodo fails: in the end he succumbs. But the quest does not fail—because the counsel of the wise and the sturdiness of the simple and the folly of the wicked all work together in ways that surprise even the Very Wise. That the heroes of the story had little reason for confidence of success did not excuse them from trying. More, although their efforts were in the end insufficient for victory, they were not therefore unnecessary for victory.
I am not sure I should label Jacobs or Carr or Sacasas or Vallor (or even Postman or McLuhan or Ellul) as our own “Very Wise”: they would all cringe to be so described, I think. Even so, they have a role to play that is not so unlike Gandalf’s and Galadriel’s and Elrond’s: keeping us hobbits on the right road and encouraging us when our courage flags.
Sacasas’ site offers, epigrammatically, this line from McLuhan:
There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.
If McLuhan is right (and I think he is!) then Jacobs’ book is an antitote to the very inevitability it proclaims. The person who does the hard and often thankless work of thinking for others’ sake makes possible, and keeps possible, that contemplation of what is happening. The work that a scholar-teacher-writer does—of slowly pushing open some doors (even if they manage to open those doors only a little wider over their whole long lives) and of showing the folly of walking through other doors (no matter how wide open those doors are, or how long they have beckoned)—is undoubtedly insufficient to the task of setting the world right again. That work is not therefore fruitless: indeed, it is necessary, and it is one good reason to be of good hope.
There is a longer essay brewing here—so keep your eyes open: you will likely see parts of this note in another form in the future!