Christopher Dawson on Technology and the Demise of Liberalism

RUSSELL HITTINGER

I must admit that in previous readings of Dawson's work, I was not persuaded by the critical, if not apocalyptic remarks he made about technology.

Christopher Dawson
1889-1970

Having accepted the Stillman Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard, Christopher Dawson arrived in New York City on September 30, 1958. He summarized his impression of the new world in this way:
No one from the Old World can land at New York without being immediately impressed by this spectacle of gigantic material power....There is nothing like it in Europe or I think anywhere else. It seems to mark the coming of a new age and a new civilization....But viewed in the perspective of history it is a very strange and surprising thing. The ancient Egyptians built pyramids that were even greater than the skyscrapers of New York, in terms of the human effort expended, but they were for the tombs of God-Kings. The relatively poverty stricken peoples of medieval Europe erected vast cathedrals and abbeys, but these were the expression of their common faith and their hopes for eternity. But to-day we build temples greater than the Egyptian pyramids or the Gothic Cathedrals and they are dedicated to toothpaste or chewing gum or anything that anyone wants... [1]
One might suspect that these were the grumpy remarks of an Englishman who was born in 1899, in a 12th century Welsh castle. But Dawson was only preparing his audience for a far more serious evaluation of the culture. Modern technology, he went on to say, is a “Frankenstein” that increases governmental power and decreases individual liberty. [2] Of course, this was a time in which Americans thought rather well of themselves. But Dawson contended that the ideology of the Cold War distracts our attention from the fact that the democracies and the totalitarian regimes converge in at least one important respect: namely, that they are planned societies, organized around technology, and governed by technocratic elites. [3] Dawson concluded by insisting that “the ultimate issue for modern civilization” is the recovery of a humanism sufficient to withstand “the disintegrating and dehumanizing influences of technology.”[4]

It would be a mistake to attribute Dawson’s remarks about technology to his aristocratic dislike of Gotham, and to his even deeper antipathy for the managerial class. I say that it would be a mistake, because such remarks were not mere obiter dicta. In fact, Dawson’s criticism of the technological society is one the most persistent themes in his books and lectures. From his first published work Progress and Religion (1929), to the lectures given during the twilight of his career in America, he was emphatic in the judgment that the chief enemy of culture is not liberalism or the other secular religions of progress, but technology. The secular religions of progress which arose during the 18th and 19th centuries expressed an older humanistic culture, going back at least to the Renaissance. These ideologies defined progress in humane terms. They envisioned perfections which belong or ought to belong to individuals: e.g. enlightenment, benevolence, justice, and rights. In Dawson’s estimation, however, liberalism was a transitory and relatively brief phase of culture, lasting less than a century. It was a mere bit player on a stage controlled by larger forces, which measured progress in terms of an array of tools, not the least of which are the methods of the managerial class. This class that represented to Dawson what St. Paul meant when he spoke of the “Cosmocrats of the Dark Aeon”—that is, of rational powers which make use of things below reason to conquer and rule the world of man.

I must admit that in previous readings of Dawson’s work, I was not persuaded by the critical, if not apocalyptic remarks he made about technology. But the thesis that technology is the basis of secular culture, and that liberalism was but a transitory phrase en route to technocracy, was argued so forcefully, from the beginning to the end of his career, that we ought to take stock of what he had to say.

This afternoon I will revisit Dawson’s thought on this subject. First, I will give a Dawsonian definition of liberalism. In particular, I want to mention why Dawson thought that liberalism was a humane culture, and why we should fear, rather than gloat over its demise. Second, I will discuss his thesis that technology is the real basis of secular culture; that liberalism failed to control technology, by failing to assign to the machine some end beyond a merely materialistic idea of progress and well-being. Third, I will take one technology, as a case in point illustrating Dawson’s thesis. II

Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding, there is no precise definition of liberalism, either in ordinary speech or in professional scholarship. Liberalism can denote institutions and cultural practices, as well as ideas and theories about those institutions and practices. In the 19th century, especially in the Anglophone world, liberalism first denoted a set of ideas about how the legal system ought to be reformed, particularly the system of criminal law. Liberals like Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argued that the penal code should reflect enlightened principles of social utility rather than the moral taboos and passions of public opinion. Reform of the penal system was the pivotal idea for a broad ranging set of reforms concerning child labor, mandatory education, women’s suffrage, and economic markets. In all of these areas, and in many more, the liberal called first for legal, and then for full-scaled institutional reforms which separated the coercive force of law from the customary notions of morality. The liberal believed that the individual, emancipated from the public force of religion and custom, is the engine of cultural, economic, and even religious creativity. (No doubt, Pope Pius IX had all of this in mind when he declared in 1854 that it is “an error to believe that the Roman pontiff can or should reconcile himself to, and agree with progress, liberalism and modern civilizations.”) [5]

It would be impossible to give a definition that captures (at a proper level of detail and complexity) all of the different aspects and phases of liberalism. Rather than define it, I will read a single passage from J.S. Mill’s On Liberty (1859). If this text does not capture the soul of liberalism, then I suspect that nothing will. Mill wrote that:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but also to commence new practices and set the example of more enlightened conduct and better taste and sense in human life. This cannot well be gainsaid by anybody who does not believe that the world has already attained perfection in all its ways and practices. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike; there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth; without them, human life would become a stagnant pool. Not only is it they who introduce good things which did not before exist; it is they who keep the life in those which already exist....There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of those beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional...there would be no reason why civilization should not die out... [6]
Mill went on to add the following thought:
The progressive principle...whether as the love of liberty or of improvement, is antagonistic to the sway of custom, involving at least emancipation from that yoke; and the contest between the two constitutes the chief interest of the history of mankind [7] ....Europe is, in my judgment, wholly indebted to this plurality of paths for its progressive and many-sided development. [8]
This, I propose, is the genuine article. Liberalism was not a theory of democracy. Liberals of all stripes, from Mill to de Tocqueville, feared the leveling effects of democracy, egalitarianism, and mass public opinion. Nor should liberalism be equated with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, for liberals championed the spontaneous genius, who more resembled the artist than the scientist or the philosopher. In this regard, it should be recalled that Liberalism arose during the period of Romanticism. Nor should liberalism be equated with the scientific rationality of the industrial revolution, for liberals also feared the alliance between democratic opinion and the machine. Indeed, in On Liberty the machine is almost always the metaphor for the anti-liberal principle.

The idea of the free market of economic exchange was actually a small piece of a much larger metaphor of the free market of ideas, of what Mill called “experiments in living.” For the liberal, the state and its rule of law had the limited role of providing only the skeletal structure of procedures which facilitate the liberty of individuals. Liberals contended that the state should not have the role of central planning or management. Adam Smith, for example, observed that the legislator “seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chessboard. He does not consider that...in the great chessboard of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own...” [9] It was a chief tenet of the liberal creed that society must defer to this individual “principle of motion.” The liberal believed that any social order worth living in, will emerge in unplanned ways, as a result of individual creativity.

Of course, liberals devoted themselves to a plethora of reform movements which used coercive power to change the law; but, at least in theory, these reforms were not supposed to dictate, from on high, the results of individual liberty; rather, they were meant to remove cultural and societal impediments to liberty.

Liberalism was truly a new and awesome idea of how culture ought to be reproduced. It was to be reproduced not by custom and habit, not by central management, but pell-mell, by spontaneous individual choices. For the liberal, individual liberty is the goose that lays the golden egg. Of course, liberalism never was purely embodied in any nation or political party — and history clearly teaches the liberals could not resist using governmental power to make the goose lay the egg. But here, we are speaking of liberalism as an ideal; and, as an ideal that captured the imagination of the educated classes of the West, it was different from other secular religions of progress (e.g. Marxism) precisely because it eschewed the idea that progress is dependent on the coercive apparatus of Caesar.

Dawson was very respectful of liberalism. In a number of his books, he depicted it as a secularized version of Augustine’s doctrine of the two cities. In the City of God, St. Augustine depicts two cities. On the one hand, there is the civitas terrena, which because of self-love is always dying, and therefore cannot be an agent of progress. At best, the earthly city can maintain a kind of external order of justice. On the other hand, there is the civitas dei, temporally embodied in the Church. This city, bound together by charity rather than coercion, is the agent of progress. As Dawson writes, Augustine’s theology deprived “the state of its aura of divinity,” and “for all its unworldliness, first made possible the ideal of a social order resting on the free personality.” [10]

Again, to quote Dawson:

It is only in Western Europe that the whole pattern of culture is to be found in a continuous succession and alternation of free spiritual movements; so that every century of Western history shows a change in the balance of cultural elements, and the appearance of some new spiritual force which creates new ideas and institutions and produces a further movement of social change. [11]
Of course, this sounds very similar to passage we read earlier from Mill’s On Liberty. [12] The liberal vision of history and culture, Dawson explained, took over from Christendom not only its universalism, its sense of a spiritual purpose higher than the state, but also its dualism—although now it is the Church that is “the liberal equivalent of the powers of darkness, while the children of this world have become the children of light.” [13] Dawson called liberalism a “sublimated Christianity” [14] —a humanitarian Christianity, relieved of the burdens of the supernatural and ecclesial authority. But he argued that liberalism was not relieved of the archetypal pattern of western culture; it only changed the dramatic cast of the story.

It should be emphasized that Dawson did not begrudge liberalism its virtues.

— It advocated limited government, and taught that nothing of lasting value can take place behind the back of the moral effort of the free individual. [15]

— Despite its more or less explicit doctrine of individualism, liberal culture embodied a kind of humanitarian idealism. [16] Cruel penal codes were reformed, famine and disease were combated, education was mandated. [17]

— And despite its doctrine of emancipation from custom, in the golden age of liberalism (Victorian England, and America at the turn of the century), the family thrived as an independent social unit. Though sentimentalized and privatized, the family was at least somewhat protected from the forces of government and the market. [18]

— It developed a system of economic markets, which Dawson said was a “vast cooperative effort” requiring “a very high degree of social discipline and organization.” [19] Moreover, like the older pattern of Christendom, liberal culture was trans-national, trans-ethnic and trans-racial. Like the Christian missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries, who took the religious seed of European culture to all the continents, liberalism also had international aspirations. The domestic reforms of liberal culture were exported internationally.

Thus, Dawson dreaded the passing of liberal culture, for its demise deprived the West of a cultural pattern that had persisted for nearly two millennia. In The Judgment of the Nations, he wrote that “Christians have no reason to look on the defeat of this spirit with complacency or indifference...[for] these [liberal] ideas are not empty abstractions. They are the foundations of human life; and when they are undermined, the whole edifice of civilization is dissolved...” [20] IV

According to Dawson, liberalism was “transitional and impermanent,” lasting for less than a century. [21] What took its place was what Dawson called “the planned society,” [22] which aspires to reproduce culture by means of technology. Technological order, he claimed, is “now the real basis of secular culture.” [23] The only thing it shares with liberalism is the faith in a progress that is merely temporal and this-worldly. In all of the other relevant respects, the new order is the opposite of liberalism. Where liberals had faith in individual liberty and creativity, the technological order bespeaks necessity and uniformity; where liberals wanted to break the monopoly of the state, the technological order guarantees that only the state can mobilize the forces necessary for basic human undertakings. But the most important point is that liberal culture was still humanistic; despite liberal ideas, most people continued to live in the fashion of what C.S. Lewis called “old western man.” Real secularism, according to Dawson, could not emerge until technology made it possible for most people to live without the ideals and practices of the older western order. Modern science changed the way that the educated class conceived of the world; but technology changed the way people lived.

Now, it must be said that by technology Dawson did not mean science, which is simply the effort to understand the natural environment. Nor did he mean merely the tools of applied science, e.g. steam engines, computers, etc. Rather, he meant the systematic application of tools to culture, especially to those areas of culture that had always been reproduced by humanistic activity, e.g. sexual intercourse, family, religion, and economic exchange. In short, by technology, Dawson meant the practice(s), via an interlocking set of technologies, of treating culture in the same way that the tool treats the natural environment. And this is simply another way of saying that the tool is no longer an instrument, but rather the measure of the humane world.

Modern technologies are not only “labor saving” devices. A labor saving device, like an automated farm implement or a piston, replaces repetitive human acts. But most distinctive of contemporary technology is the replacement of the human act; or, of what the scholastic philosophers called the actus humanus. The machine reorganizes and to some extent supplants the world of human action, in the moral sense of the term. [24] Hence, the policy of mutual assured destruction supplants diplomacy; the contraceptive pill supplants chastity; the cinema supplants recreation, especially prayer; managerial and propaganda techniques replace older practices and virtues of loyalty, etc. Therefore, it is important to understand that Dawson’s criticism of technology is not aimed at the tool per se. His criticism has nothing to do with the older, and in our context, misleading notion of “labor saving” devices. Rather, it is aimed at a new cultural pattern in which tools are either deliberately designed to replace the human act, or at least have the unintended effect of making the human act unnecessary or subordinate to the machine. Of course, Dawson did not live to see the emergence of “virtual reality” technology, but he would have recognized it as part (perhaps the culminating part) of the continuum of technologies that he had in mind.

Consider, for example, the following remark written in 1870 by a British officer in the Indian Civil Service:

Railways are opening the eyes of the people who are within reach of them....They teach them that time is worth money, and induce them to economise that which they had been in the habit of slighting and wasting; they teach them that speed attained is time, and therefore money, saved or made....Above all, they induce in them habits of self-dependence, causing them to act for themselves promptly and not lean on others. [25]
What is most striking about this statement is that the machine is regarded as the proximate cause of the liberal virtues; habits of self-dependence are the effect of the application of a technology. The benighted peoples of the sub-continent are to be civilized, not by reading Cicero, not by conversion to the Church of England, not even by adopting the liberal faith, but by receiving the discipline of trains and clocks. The machine is both the exemplar and the proximate cause of individual and cultural perfection.

The quote is also interesting because it supports Dawson’s notion that liberalism was unable to impart liberal culture to non-western peoples. (I cannot think of a single non-western culture that was liberalized in the 19th or 20th century). Rather, the liberal imparted to these peoples Western technology: principally, military and managerial techniques, as well as the technologies of mass culture, especially those related to the entertainment industry and to propaganda.

It is worth mentioning that John Dewey’s most popular book, Reconstruction in Philosophy (1920), was based upon his lectures in Tokyo, Peking, and Nanking. Dewey preached abroad what he preached at home: namely, that the main purpose of the human mind is not truth, but praxis; we think not so much to know, but to change our environment, especially the human environment. Above all, Dewey taught that we must have the audacity to think and to act beyond the limits of traditional habits and customs. Yet, as Americans discovered in 1941, the Japanese did not become liberals; rather, they became armed to the teeth. And even after we imposed a liberal constitution on Japan after the War, it was a mere legal template laid over a modern technological society. In fact, post-war Japan was the first industrial society to sponsor abortion and contraception. Dawson believed that liberalism weakened the immune systems of traditional cultures; and indeed history itself testifies to the fact that rather than moving from Confucianism to liberalism, they moved straight-away to the ideal of the social engineer. They become modernized, and adopted the economic, social, and military imperatives of the machine.

Today, across all of the different political cultures, technology is required for the state’s administration, for its military security, its propaganda, its markets, indeed for its very legitimacy. Governments rise and fall on the basis of their success in supplying the population with the technological means to achieve temporal happiness. The older liberal ideals of limited government, individual creativity, of an autonomous private sphere more or less immune from centralized planning are violated whenever the technological imperative dictates otherwise.

In this respect, liberalism everywhere failed to hold the line. It did not control the erosion of local liberty by nation states, but rather on its cultural watch the individual became dependent on government in ways that would have been unimaginable by despots of the old regime; local liberty became nothing more than a euphemism for a different sector of the nation state’s administration. It did not check the ideology of planned economies; rather, in what may be the cruelest irony of all for the liberal, the term liberalism became synonymous with the state managed economy; in all of the western democracies today, the “liberal” party stands for a state managed economy. It did not succeed in its cultural mission of creating societies based upon freedom and persuasion, but rather succumbed to the militarization of state, and to the creation of new police powers and systems of surveillance.

Dawson held that liberal culture paved the way for the technological order by separating the private and the public spheres, leaving the latter defenseless against the new technologies. [26] It was the ideal, and to some extent, the practice, of liberalism to prohibit the state from acting for substantive moral and religious ends. The public sector was enlisted to facilitate what seemed, at first, to be relatively non-controversial, even “neutral” ends: e.g. security from enemies abroad, and material well being at home. These ends do not seem to dictate to the individual any particular version of the good life. Left to his own private discretion, the individual seemed to remain his own “principle of motion.”

It is easy to understand why the liberal would regard technological order as something that leaves liberal values intact. Technology is not an ideology, or a religion; it is not a person, or even an institution. Nor does it have any inherent cultural properties; for we see that technology can be transferred from culture to culture, working just as well in Cambodia as in Cleveland. But, of course, modern technology is not neutral. In The Judgment of the Nations, Dawson explained that the spiritual elements in the Liberal culture were not strong enough to control the immense forces which had been released by the progress of the applied sciences and the new economic techniques. The advent of the machine, which was in a sense the result of the liberal culture, proved fatal to the liberal values and ideals, and ultimately to the social types which had been the creators and bearers of the culture. [27]

The new technological order exacted as its first price the liberal, who it made obsolete (the Hillary Clintons of this world only pronounce a humanitarian benediction over the work of the social engineer); but the technological order exacted as its ultimate price the traditional humanistic culture, of which the liberal was bearer. By 1942, Dawson concluded that this transition was complete, and that for any foreseeable future, irreversible.

There are a myriad of examples which could be cited to illustrate why this conviction about the neutrality of technology is mistaken. But I will give one specific example, that happens to be one that Dawson himself discussed in an essay entitled “The Patriarchal Family in History” (1933): namely, the problem of contraception. I will focus on contraception for three reasons: (1) Quite apart from any issues of moral theology (and I have no intention here of engaging in any moral homiletics on the subject), contraception is a civilizational issue because it bears upon the basic cell of society, the family; (2) Contraception provides an especially vivid example of how a technology can completely re-organize a cultural order, from its system of justice, to its economic markets, to its religious institutions; (3) It is a case in point for how liberalism does not define or control, but only rationalizes technology; by rationalize, I mean that liberal rhetoric only hands out permission slips, as it were, for bringing the individual under the dominion of technology.

Contraception has a long history, which I cannot rehearse in detail here. But I will pick the story up during the golden age of liberalism, which in this country would be the late 19th century. In the last decade of that century, the Massachusetts legislature passed an anti-contraceptive statute, which read, in part, as follows:

whoever sells, lends, gives away an instrument or other article intended to be used for self-abuse, or any drug, medicine, instrument or article whatever for the prevention of conception or for causing unlawful abortion, or advertises the same, or writes, prints, or causes to be written or printed a card, circular, book, pamphlet, advertisement or notice of any kind stating when, where, how, of whom or by what means such articles can be purchased obtained, or manufactured or makes any such article shall be punished... (MA c.272, section-21)
In 1917, this statue was interpreted by the MA Supreme Court in Commonwealth v. Allison (1917):
[its] plain purpose is to protect purity, to preserve chastity, to encourage continence and self restraint, to defend the sanctity of the home, and thus to engender in the State and nation a virile and virtuous race of men and women.
Such statutes were passed by several state legislatures, consisting for the most part of secularized Protestants. Anti-contraceptive laws were but one facet of a larger reform movement that tried to protect the family, and women in particular, from the disintegrating forces of industrialization and the mass market. For example, laws were passed which held industry to higher standards with respect to female employees—precisely because they were mothers or prospective mothers. The Mann Act (1910) made it a felony to transport or to aid the transport of a woman in interstate commerce for the purpose of “debauchery.”

The point I want to make is that even during the hay-day of laissez faire, the principle was well established, and often followed, that technology ought to be subordinated to society’s moral interest in the family. With respect to contraceptives, it was a matter of common sense that, if widely distributed, they would undermine the principal cell of society. Writing in 1933, Dawson did not find it necessary to invoke any specifically Christian, much less Catholic, principles when he said that contraception “must lead inevitably to a social decadence far more rapid and more universal than that which brought about the disintegration of ancient civilization.” [28] The patriarchal family, he noted:

requires chastity and self-sacrifice on the part of the wife and obedience and discipline on the part of the children, while even the father himself has to assume a heavy burden of responsibility and submit his personal feelings to the interests of the family....for these very reasons the patriarchal family is a much more efficient organ of cultural life. It is no longer limited to its primary sexual and reproductive functions. It becomes the dynamic principle of society and the source of social continuity. [29]

In 1930, Anglicans broke ranks with nearly the whole of Christian tradition with a declaration at the Lambeth Conference that permitted use of contraceptives by married couples, for grave reasons. Though the Anglicans greatly weakened the moral case against contraceptives, the Lambeth statement was exceedingly “conservative” and cautious by our standards today. The fact remained, that until the 1960’s, no one claimed fundamental rights to have contraceptive sex; nor did anyone seriously challenge the authority of the state to pass morals legislation of this sort.

What changed? Was society more liberal in the 1960’s than it was at the turn of the century? The change took place primarily because of a technological advance. The progesterone pill was developed in the late 1950’s, and shortly thereafter was marketed in the United States. The technological characteristic of the pill was crucial: orally administered, requiring no surgical procedure, it was seemingly a pill alongside other pills. Significantly, it was marketed as a birth-control pill rather than as a contraceptive. In a technological society, the word “control” signifies a responsible act. And because it was not a barrier method, even Catholic physicians urged that the pill was not a contraceptive.

Although barrier methods of contraception had been known about for decades, it was only after the introduction of the progesterone pill that there was any significant movement for a reform of the law. In 1965, in “Griswold v. Connecticut”, the Court found anti-contraceptive laws to be unconstitutional. In fact, the Court went so far as to invent a new, fundamental right of privacy. But what was especially interesting about the case is that although this new right was justified in the name of individual liberty and marital privacy, it actually emancipated manufacturers and physicians. The Connecticut statute had not only prohibited the use of contraceptives, but had made criminally liable “[a]ny person who assists, abets, counsels, causes, hires or commands another to [use contraceptives]...” The litigant in the case was not a married couple, suing over governmental intrusion into the sacred precincts of the bedroom; rather, the appellant, Dr. Buxton, was a professor at the Yale Medical School, who also served as Medical Director for Planned Parenthood. In other words, the rhetoric of individual liberty was mere window-dressing for a liberty of the manufacturers and purveyors of the pill, who allied themselves with the managerial class. This became undeniably clear in a 1977 case, “Carey v. Population Services”, when the state of New York’s ban on the distribution of contraceptives to minors was challenged, and found unconstitutional. Here, the Court said that “[r]estrictions on the distribution of contraceptives clearly burden[s] the freedom to make such [reproductive] decisions.” Thus, what began rhetorically as a solemn right of married couples against the state became in reality a right of social engineers to accustom minors to the new standards of technological hygiene.

In “Roe v. Wade”, of course, the Court extended the right of privacy to abortion. Once again, it is interesting that the Court used the rhetoric of individual liberty to make more palatable a decision addressed chiefly to the technological elites, which in this case were medical professionals. Before writing his opinion, Justice Blackmun visited the Mayo clinic, where he learned that anti-abortion legislation only had the goal of protecting women from incompetent medical procedures. Thus, the emergence of safe abortion procedures removed the rationale of those laws. The moral and legal orders, in other words, are to be defined by the efficiency of modern medicine. Indeed, the trimester scheme, which defined legal personhood in terms of “viability,” did not really designate ontological properties of the fetus, so much as to align fetal development with a medical schedule. (It is tantamount to the idea that someone riding on Metro-North is a traveller, not by dint of being on the train, but by virtue of whether he gets off at Pelham or New Rochelle).

In “Roe”, Justice Blackmun spoke in almost sacred terms not of the woman’s liberty, but of her relationship to the physician. But even more to the point was the companion case, “Doe v. Bolton” (1973), which effectively secured a right to abortion on demand by defining the idea of maternal health so broadly as to justify virtually all third trimester abortions. In the “Doe” case, the Court struck down any criteria other than the individual physician’s “best clinical judgment” as the standard for undertaking the abortion procedure. “Roe” and “Doe” did not directly emancipate women, but emancipated their physicians—first from the police powers of the state governments, and then from their own hospitals and peer review boards. In the name of individual liberty, the multi-million dollar industry of the clinic was brought into being.

Twenty years later, in “Planned Parenthood v. Casey” (1992), the Court reconsidered the constitutionality of “Roe”. Admitting that the decision had dubious constitutional credentials, the Court was remarkably candid about why it cannot be overturned:

Abortion is customarily chosen as an unplanned response to the consequence of unplanned activity or to the failure of conventional birth control...for two decades of economic and social developments, people have organized their intimate relationships and made choices that define their views of themselves and their places in society, in reliance on the availability of abortion in the event that contraception should fail. The ability of women to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation has been facilitated by their ability to control their reproductive lives.
The key is the word “unplanned,” for it indicates that human activity is to be regarded in the same fashion as impersonal nature. Like lightening, floods, and tumors, the event of pregnancy follows a line of causality independent of a truly human act; hence, it needs to be brought under the control of a technology. The Court frankly admitted not only that abortion is practiced for the most part as ex post facto birth control, but that the practice has become a necessity.

In other words, the increments of legal emancipation track the increments of technology, and the increments of technology are recast as kinds of social necessity. In order to make room for what was, in itself, a relatively small part of the pharmacological revolution, the entire legal and moral order of the polity was changed: (1) the Bill of Rights was reinterpreted, to make what was once homicide at criminal law a fundamental right at Constitutional law; (2) all common law pertaining to the responsibility of husbands over wives and children was summarily struck down; (3) divorce laws were changed; (4) professional associations of physicians and lawyers changed their by-laws to condemn any opposition to this continuum of technologies; (5) churches changed their moral theologies to accommodate the separation of sex and procreation; (6) public school curricula changed, and indeed new cabinet offices invented for the purpose of habituating even pre-pubescent children to the use of the technology; (7) even a conservative writer like George Will, who authored the book Statescraft As Soulcraft, now recommends Norplant patches as a remedy for the breakdown of the family in the inner city.

No culture would permit its basic institutions and practices to be so dramatically changed simply by the dictate of individual liberty, or for that matter, as a rationalization for sexual pleasure; the remarkably rapid nature of these changes can be understood only if we realize that the technological order is regarded as a necessity. And, as the ancient legal dictum put it, “necessity knows no law.”

I am not so naive as to suggest that this one little device, swallowed with a glass of water, is the efficient cause of all of these troubles. The pill was received in the post-WWII suburbs, in which an array of technologies (chiefly the automobile) made possible a form of family life functionally independent of paternal authority. But the pill does give an especially vivid example of how the humane elements of a culture are reinterpreted to render technology immune from the direction of any higher principle. Even justice turns out to be the right of individuals to have equal access to the technology. The separation of sex from procreation, and the separation of procreation from the social roles and social virtues of motherhood, are not the result of feminism; rather, feminism is the result of these increments of technology. (The same can be said for homosexual parents. It is not merely coincidental that cultural and legal approbation of the homosexualist family followed after the contraceptive pill, and after the development of the in vitro technologies which reproduce human life independent of any particular social form).

Edmund Burke wrote that:

To complain of the age we live in, to murmur at the present possessors of power, to lament the past, to conceive extravagant hopes of the future, are the common dispositions of the greatest part of mankind.... Such complaints and humours have existed in all times; yet as times have not been alike, true political sagacity manifests itself in distinguishing that complaint which only characterizes the general infirmity of human nature, from those which are symptoms of the particular distemperature of our own air and season. [30]
As an historian of culture, Dawson tried to provide this discernment. He insisted that: “The problem that faces us today is, therefore, not so much the result of an intellectual revolt against the traditional Christian morality; it is due to the inherent contradictions of an abnormal state of culture.” [31] The late George Grant said that technology is the “ontology of the age.” [32] Although Dawson himself never used these exact words “ontology of the age,” they convey his fully considered judgment of the state of modern society.

The modern religions of progress, including liberalism, were religiously heterodox expressions of the older Christian and humanistic culture. Liberalism could be understood in older, more familiar categories. Technologism, however, is something brand new. In the face of the technological society, the culture forming mission of Christianity will have to begin from scratch—but begin at a much lower level than did the missionaries of the dark ages, who brought the vestiges of high Roman culture to the barbarian peoples of northern Europe. The Venerable Bede and St. Boniface, however, did not have to teach those Celtic and Gothic peoples the rudiments of culture itself. It was a dark age, but it was dark, Dawson said, “with the honest night of barbarism.” [33] The terrifying thing about modern barbarism is that it is not only more culturally primitive than barbarians of old, but it is immeasurably more powerful, prosperous, and ruthless. [34]

Born in the waning Victorian liberal culture, Dawson lived to see its demise. By the end of his career, Dawson seemed to understand that the new culture is something for which there is no history, for it has no precedent. Perhaps the verdict is still out on the Islamic states, who are attempting to preserve a traditional religious culture even while embracing the necessities of modern technology. But everywhere else, traditional cultures have folded under the technological order. I cannot think of a single success story of a society preserving its humanistic culture against technology. Even the Catholic Church, which has longer experience than any institution in dealing with bad governments, with human frailty, with heretics and ideologues of every stripe, nevertheless seems deeply perplexed at how to deal with a people who are convinced that their everyday well-being depends upon the technological order—on what the Encyclical Veritatis Splendor calls the “all intrusive culture.” [35]

St. Boniface instructed the pagans not to worship a tree, for which he was martyred. But what is the proper address to the technological society? To give up the contraceptives, but keep the microwaves? To use machines in moderation? The difficulty in even formulating the issue accurately indicates the perplexing nature of the problem. Abstractly considered, most technologies are not in themselves designed for morally wicked ends; the distinction between proper and improper use is always relevant. But we are not speaking abstractly. Rather, we have investigated the problem of an ensemble of technologies with their corresponding cultural habits. Whereas the moralist will examine human choices one by one, focusing upon the particular act, the cultural historian is interested in cultural habits and institutions; for these trace out the actual and imaginative bounds of men and women as social beings. It is in this latter respect that the problem of modern technology is something more than the moral problem of individual choices. As any parent who has tried to discipline the television watching habits of his children can attest, the moral effort of picking and choosing when and where to “plug in” does not adequately represent the full nature of the problem. George Grant has correctly pointed out that we cannot understand the novelty of our technological society until we appreciate the extent to which it is a “package deal.” [36]

At least for me, it indicates that Dawson was on the right track when he called our attention to the dominion of technology, and why it has changed the nature of the game. As a cultural historian, Dawson understood that the core of a culture is found once we locate the thing that the culture would never relinquish, or even imagine itself relinquishing. I submit that in our case it is not individual liberty, or sex, and certainly not religion. It is not even the machine. Rather, it is the machine insofar as it promises an activity superior to the human act.

Endnotes:

  1. America and the Secularization of Modern Culture (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1960), p. 12. Back to text.
  2. Ibid., 21. Back to text.
  3. Ibid., 18-19. Back to text.
  4. Ibid., p. 25. Back to text.
  5. Syllabus of Errors (1854), #69. Back to text.
  6. On Liberty (Indianapolis: Hackett edit.), p. 61-2. Back to text.
  7. Ibid., p. 67. Back to text.
  8. Ibid., p. 69. Back to text.
  9. The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie (Oxford, 1979), VI, 2.17. Back to text.
  10. Enquires into Religion and Culture (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1933), p. 62. Back to text.
  11. Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Doubleday, 1958), p. 21. Back to text.
  12. It is obvious that there is a profound difference between the old dualism of the Christian way of life and unregenerate human nature on the one hand, and the new dualism between the revolutionary ideas of liberalism...but there is a certain relation between the two, so that it is possible to maintain that the whole revolutionary tradition is a post-Christian phenomenon which transposes a pre-existent psychological pattern to a different sociological tradition. Understanding Europe (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1952), p. 28. Back to text.
  13. Dynamics of World History (LaSalle: Sherwood Sugden, 1978), p. 355. Back to text.
  14. The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p. 31-2. Back to text.
  15. America and the Secularization of Modern Culture (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1960), p. 20. Back to text.
  16. The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p. 105. Back to text.
  17. Progress & Religion (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1992), p. 207. Back to text.
  18. America and the Secularization of Modern Culture (Houston: University of St. Thomas, 1960), p. 17. Back to text.
  19. Progress & Religion (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1992), p. 206. Back to text.
  20. The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p. 31-2. Back to text.
  21. Progress & Religion (Peru, Illinois: Sherwood Sugden & Co., 1992), p. 97. Back to text.
  22. The Judgment of the Nations (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1942), p. 113. Back to text.
  23. America and the Secularization of Modern Culture (Houston: University of St. Thomas, p. 10. Back to text.
  24. That is to say, techne is a substitute for praxis. Back to text.
  25. Cited in Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1989), p. 226. Back to text.
  26. Liberal culture sought to avoid the danger of complete secularization by insisting on the preservation of a margin of individual freedom, which was immune from state control and to which, in theory at least, economic life was subordinated. And within the zone of individual freedom, religious freedom was the ultimate stronghold which defended the human personality. But the progress of mechanization and the social organization which it entails, has steadily reduced this margin of freedom, until today in the totalitarian states, and only to a slightly less degree in the democratic ones, social control extends to the whole life and consciousness. And since this control is exercised in a utilitarian spirit for political, economic and military ends, the complete secularization of culture seems inevitable. The Judgment of the Nations , p. 107. Back to text.
  27. The Judgment of the Nations, p. 106. Back to text.
  28. “The Patriarchal Family in History,” Dynamics of World History p. 165. Back to text.
  29. Ibid., p. 159. Back to text.
  30. Thoughts on the Present Discontents (1770). Back to text.
  31. “The Patriarchal Family in History,” Dynamics of World History, p. 163-4. Back to text.
  32. Technology and Justice (Notre Dame: Univ. Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 32. Back to text.
  33. Christianity and the New Age (Manchester: Sophia Instit. Press, 1985), p. 3. Back to text.
  34. The Judgment of the Nations, p. 10. Back to text.
  35. VS, #88. Back to text.
  36. Technology and Justice (Notre Dame: Univ. Notre Dame Press, 1986), p. 32. Back to text.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT >

Hittinger, Russell, “Christopher Dawson on Technology and the Demise of Liberalism,” in Christianity and Western Civilization. Christopher Dawson’s Insight: Can a Culture Survive the Loss of Its Religious Roots? Papers Presented at a Conference Sponsored by the Wethersfield Institute New York City, October 15, 1993 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 73-96.

Reprinted by permission of the Wethersfield Institute.

THE AUTHOR

Russell Hittinger is a Warren Professor of Catholic Studies and research professor of law at the University of Tulsa in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Copyright © 1993 Ignatius Press




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