Recently I’ve been complaining about technocratic society. I’ve also emphasized how deeply rooted its problems are. But if I’m right on the latter point, what good does complaining do? Can we really repeal the modern world?
People agree that the present and past are radically different. The differences appear at all levels.
At the most abstract level, the modern age substitutes quantity for quality, and subjective for objective values. Modern expertise, for example, has to do with technical training, numerical analysis, and preferred outcomes rather than experience and wisdom. So it favors statistics over fundamental realities, consumer preferences and polling data over the good, beautiful, and true.
The basic approach has been useful in some very important ways. The emphasis on quantity has made it possible to conquer nature by breaking it down into its simplest components, studying them mathematically, and using the resulting knowledge to design very effective devices and procedures. And the emphasis on subjective valuations is basic to present-day economics, politics, and understandings of morality. These provide a unified understanding of man and society that has guided extremely effective institutions like the modern state and business corporation.
But the success comes at a cost. The emphasis on subjective valuations—on treating “what I prefer” as the meaning of “what is good”—makes it hard to see what life is all about. Treating “do what you feel like doing” as the ultimate guide to conduct, subject to certain practical considerations, hardly brings out man’s greatness. The problem can seem a theoretical one, but it’s basic, and its practical consequences, from drug use to family dissolution and general cynicism, become more and more severe as habits and attitudes from more religious times wear off.
Another result of modern technological society is that practical life has been mechanized and industrialized. There are fewer skilled blue collar and agricultural workers today, and people throw things away rather than repairing them. Fewer people cook as a basic part of life, however popular cooking classes and celebrity chefs may be. Far fewer grow a significant part of their own food. And they very rarely make their own clothes, except occasionally in a small way as a hobby, let alone provide their own shelter. All those things are done by machines and specialists.
These changes have meant a radical decline in craftsmanship, everyday human competence, and ordinary common sense. We become specialists who know a lot about a little but find it difficult to function outside our narrow field. The result is that people today believe that they can’t do anything without special training. A recent example: a local church needed someone to look after small children during the service. Instead of asking for a volunteer or hiring a mom or older sister, they thought they needed someone with formal qualifications as a preschool educator.
That kind of outlook lines up with other changes in how people live. Traditional, natural, and informal arrangements like marriage, family, kinship, local community, and particular inherited culture have been replaced by market and bureaucratic arrangements governed by formal standards like money, certified expertise, legal grants of authority, and defined hierarchies and procedures.
The result is that people eat fast food, children are raised in daycare, fewer of them live with both parents, leisure time has become screen time, support for political self-government is dropping, and young people are becoming socialists, because they can’t imagine that anything useful or sensible can happen unless professionals organize and supervise it.
These developments have gone with radical changes in moral ideals. Older social arrangements, together with standards like loyalty and chastity that supported them, are now thought to violate the freedom, equality, and universality that social technology seems to promise. It’s considered irrational and oppressive to look to the older ways for guidance, and depriving them of practical effect is thought a fundamental requirement of social justice.
I’ve often complained about the consequences of these changes, but what exactly should we do about them? The suggestions I’ve made have been mostly rather general and abstract. Some have involved intellectual and social independence, including refusal to sign on to mainstream secular causes. I’ve also noted that advanced modern society is ultimately doomed, because technocratic ways of thinking tell us so little about human beings.
That may be encouraging, but it doesn’t answer practical questions, and for all of us there is the question how to carry on day-to-day life here and now. I’ve talked about that a little. More needs to be said, so I will make a start even though people’s situations differ and others can speak on the issues better than I.
To deal with our circumstances we need to look at how they affect us. For example, absorption in electronic media and the virtual worlds they create separates us from reality and from other people as they actually are. So we should limit our use of them. Even publications that generally favor lifestyle liberalism are coming to recognize that young people shouldn’t have smartphones. Their parents should set an example by avoiding addiction themselves.
They should also select electronic entertainment carefully and sparingly. Some is good, but it’s rarely all that good. It tends to encourage passivity, and the world in which it submerges us is for the most part radically and sometimes pointedly anti-Catholic. Saint Paul says that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Cor 15:33). So why enter that world? The Church accepted the Greek and Roman classics because of what’s good in them, but Netflix isn’t Homer, and the Church also rejected the things the Romans actually watched for entertainment: gladiatorial contests, chariot races, and the general run of Roman theatrical productions.
If we do the same, what should replace screen and earbud time? It’s a big world, so there are lots of possibilities. It’s good to know your neighbors and cultivate friendships. If we want to turn our lives and the world around, we need to find other people who want to do the same. Parish and community engagement can have drawbacks, since people aren’t perfect, but we should all do something for those we live among.
In a more private setting, reading books is more active and delivers more content than scanning headlines or soaking ourselves in pop culture. Making our own music and reading plays aloud with family and friends is more active yet. Many people find traditional hobbies engaging. And hiking, camping, amateur natural history, or even just taking a walk puts us in a world in which there is no propaganda and we can hear ourselves think.
And then there are the practical and economic issues. There’s a growing need for Catholics to find ways of making a living that don’t require participation in evil. Paul could make his living as a tentmaker without burning incense to Caesar or hiding his beliefs. Employees of large companies and other institutions are becoming less and less free to do that today. So maybe we should learn trades and become plumbers, electricians, auto mechanics, and so on. The pay isn’t bad, and there seems a lot less spiritual slavishness than in white collar occupations. Nothing’s guaranteed, and even bakers and photographers have recently fallen into the hands of heresy hunters, but we can only do our best.
We also need to restore as much as we can of the practical functions of the home. Specialization and the cult of the expert are destroying human competence and self-government. We need to reverse that, and home and family are the obvious school of such things. Homeschooling grows ever more advisable, and instantly makes the household a far more serious enterprise. So do homemaking, gardening, do-it-yourself, home-based business, and the other ways people provide for their needs by engaging directly and practically with the world around them.
Such activities also save money, which means freedom. Reducing wants has the same effect—why be a slave to a bigger house and car?—and it’s educational as well. The French historian Jules Michelet said that “he who knows how to be poor knows everything.” He had a point. Wealth lets you be stupid, but it takes thought and skill to make a little go a long way.
The most basic point, though, is that we can only replace one authority by another. Modern man makes himself the authority and tries to reconstruct everything accordingly. The result is the current war against nature, history, tradition, and normal human connections like the family. People find them oppressive, because they didn’t invent them themselves.
That war will inevitably fail, so in spite of its triumphalism modernity is neither invincible nor eternal. But nature, history, and so on are not adequate authorities in themselves, any more than the human will is. To accept them as legitimate we need to see them as more than brute facts the world has thrust on us but as part of something larger. In the long run, that means supernatural faith, together with a community that is its bearer. There can be no tradition, natural law, or escape from the black hole of modernity without that. For that reason, among many others, extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
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