Notwithstanding some minor grumblings from romantic cultists and other eccentrics and faddists, the modern technological conquest of Nature has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its intellectual founders. The poverty and material deprivations suffered by our ancestors, and by most of Mankind for most of history, are largely eradicated, at least in the West, and, in principle, there is no reason why such benefits could not be extended to the whole of the human family, ushering in a new age of global peace and prosperity. But what was the secret of this remarkable success? Many great minds have applied themselves to this question, and the consensus position appears to be that at some point, the decision was made to abandon contemplation – be it of unchanging Ideas, the One, or of the cosmos - as the highest form of knowledge and activity. There is wide divergence of opinion as to the cause of this decision, but I for one would like to put forward one that seems most probable.
Building somewhat on Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 address at Harvard University, let us agree that the medieval West had, as its highest goal and type, the contemplative life, and that the existing material infrastructure of the day was insufficient to realize this ideal. And, indeed, reading some of the surviving examples of literature from the day, it is obvious that the contemplative ideal had become wedded to a most severe asceticism. The intellectual origins of this particular turn of events is a topic beyond the scope of this present consideration, but can easily be located in the unsuccessful attempt to fuse the Classical contemplative ideal with the ascetic mystical contemplative disciplines of monastics and hermits within Christianity.
But to return to the diagnosis, we note that the establishment of a mystical discipline as the supreme goal and summum bonum of human life is not likely to be popular, nor, indeed, could such a project prove sustainable in the long run. Like the Athenian Stranger, the medieval contemplatives came to value human beings too cheaply because of their dazzling vision of the divine. When the intellectual elite of an age devote themselves so wholly to a misguided, unnatural vision of human perfection, when they so abstract from one aspect of Man’s existence as to deny it its legitimate claims and dignity, folly and worse are sure to follow. Perhaps the medieval ascetic idealism is yet another instance of the incompatibility of certain types of human excellence, or a cautionary tale to encourage future generations to avoid extremes, and to always seek the mean. Solzhenitsyn goes on to observe that the reaction to the excesses of the medieval ideal issued in a sort of inversion of the previous ideal.
By way of elaborating, let us suppose that Solzhenitsyn, given sufficient time and space, would have argued something along these lines: To attempt to establish the extraordinary attainments of a small minority of spiritually-gifted persons as the model and end of all human actions and to so organize the social and political structures of the day as to deny the body its dignity and its rights must issue in failure. The life of the cloister cannot be the life of the world, and this is in no way casting aspersions upon the cloister or the world beyond it, but is rather a frank and mature recognition of the frailty and limits of human beings.
However, the recognition that Man lives in this world and that dwelling here creates the need for certain arrangements so as to accommodate this material nature does not require that these accommodations become the sole purpose of human life, or that Man’s nature is fully satisfied in the security and welfare of physical being. To simplify somewhat: the observation that we have stomachs and must eat does not mean that we are to devote ourselves exclusively to food preparation and eating.
And yet, this was the turn that the West took in the periods referred to as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (two misleading names if ever there were, for the West was surely not dead in the medieval period, any more than the mind of Man was in darkness before the birth of modern philosophy). In rejecting the asceticism of the medieval ideal, the West unfortunately also rejected the contemplative ideal altogether, thereby throwing out the baby with the bathwater. If we are to measure science on the basis of technological fruits, then hands down, the Moderns win.
Aristotelian science can lead to the timeless contemplation of the Divine, but it cannot make any concrete recommendations for serious improvement to, for example, agriculture, medicine, or weapons technology. Nor, by the way, did Aristotle raise such claims for his science. Indeed, what we have come to call metaphysics was, for Aristotle, the highest science; the investigation of the causes of all Being and beings must necessarily, on Aristotle’s view, be a science higher than the one concerned with doing and making. So, in a sense, the moderns play a rigged game, comparing their sciences to those of the ancients. This is not to deny that there is much truth to their criticism of the ancient sciences, and much in which the moderns can take justifiable pride. The overall quality of human life is significantly improved by the techno-scientific “conquest of nature.” The facts of scarcity, as the ancients saw them, are largely viewed now as a simple failure to apply the appropriate methods to the material problems. But then, achievements such as these were hardly the point of Aristotle’s sciences, as the Aristotelian epistemological schema would have identified what passes as modern science as a sort of techne or the knowledge associated with a doing or a making, and consequently of a necessarily lower order than sciences of Being. If I might be forgiven for waxing Heideggerean, the modern, manipulative sciences (technology) have forsaken Being for the sake of beings, or better, for the sake of becoming. More on this later, though.
The true distinction, however, between the ancient sciences and the modern technological sciences is to be found not so much in the method – for surely even the ancients engaged in some variety of observation and experimentation – but rather in the ends at which these sciences aim. On the classical/medieval model, the end of science, of the highest type of science, is the endless contemplation of the One, the True, of imitation of the Divine “thought thinking itself.” It is for this purpose that the mind of Man came into being, with other purposes being purely adjunctive to this goal. As Aristotle said, the state came into existence for the sake of living (that is, the satisfaction of Man’s material needs) and aims at living well (the support of contemplation and philosophy, the most appropriate and self-sufficient of human actions).
The moderns, however, truncated this vision. They agree that the state (that is, the organization of human beings united by purpose, language, geography, and other factors) came into existence for the sake of living, and agree that it exists for the sake of living well (on their view, the more abundant enjoyment of material goods). This remarkable psychic surgery was effected by the simple expedient of denying the existence of any ends or purposes higher than the satisfaction of Man’s physical needs and desires. That is, they looked away from the Divine toward the purely human, and willfully neglected the former in favor of the latter, a sort of inversion of the Athenian Stranger’s momentary lapse.Whittaker Chambers expresses the thought underlying this change in focus in the words of the serpent of Eden: “Ye shall be as gods.” Mr. Chambers reminds us that this is Man’s second oldest religious faith, and we would do well to remember this in our examination of the modern world.