The more I think about the colloquial catchphrase, “Don’t be a tool,” the deeper it seems. The most troubling and comprehensive critique I’ve heard of modern technology is that it less makes us masters than masters us. Humans are, bit by bit, becoming slaves to their machines, and that this would occur has been foreseen for at least a century and a half:
“Man has mounted science, and is now run away with. I firmly believe that before many centuries more, science will be the master of men. The engines he will have invented will be beyond his strength to control.
— Henry Brooks Adams, 1862
Likewise, the most concise and thorough critique of the modern state is that it does not foster self-sufficiency but rather makes us more and more dependent on it. Similarly with the rise of corporations and corporate jobs, and the whole modern economy. Power has been removed from the individual family and their homestead, the individual pastor, the individual thinker, and been placed in Global Markets, Mega Churches, and Big Science.
The modern world is making us ever more tool-like.
There are ways to prevent this. There are tools for not being a tool. And they are all very ancient. Passed on generation-to-generation, these tools have been propagated in books and kept alive in pockets where the corrupting influence of civilization has had less sway. Today, it is very hard to find such pockets, but they are there, and fortunately we have better access to classic books than ever before. In this post I’d like to take a brief survey of these anti-tool tools:
“And if, on the other hand, wisdom and folly are really distinguishable, you will allow, I think, that the assertion of Protagoras can hardly be correct. For if ‘what appears to each man is true to him,’ one man cannot in reality be wiser than another.”
—Socrates (in Plato’s Cratylus)
The death of reason is the great unsung catastrophe of modern life. I describe this in detail in my previous posts on logic (Part I, Part II). In essence, our very conception of what reason is has degenerated. Now, we think of it as “science”: a mixture of mathematics and experimentation done primarily by experts. Where we want to be logical, rather than thinking it through for ourselves we find a “study” so we can give numbers and statistics: “data.” While all of this has something of logic in it, it is degenerate because it lacks the independent and self-sufficient criticality that makes logic logic. It is worth quoting Aristotle again on this point:
"[T]he science which knows to what end each thing must be done is the most authoritative of the sciences, and more authoritative than any ancillary science; and this end is the good of that thing, and in general the supreme good in the whole of nature." (Metaphysics 2, 982b, W.D. Ross trans.)
Far from having or respecting any notion of supreme good, we now rely on a hodge-podge of specialty sciences, each referring to another or to a set of special experiments, none of them capable of binding our vast knowledge into any cohesive system of rationality. Even if the writings of ancient philosophers such as Aristotle contain many outdated facts, they each constitute an example of something we have forgotten: a worldview bound together into a relevant and self-sufficient whole by use of logic – logic as the tool, not the master.
To remember this art again would be to free ourselves from our intellectual dependence on aimless, bureaucratic science on the one hand, and pure unstructured relativism on the other, and give us back Logic as a form of individual strength, and not subservience.
“We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail …”
—Aristotle (Metaphysics 2, 982a)
Closely related to logic is the class of mental tools that are facts, known as knowledge or science. Notice the ambiguity in the term “science” – which can mean either methodology or knowledge. As science also carries bureaucratic connotations, we should generally prefer the term knowledge.
The biggest blow to modern knowledge has come from the Internet. Where before we relied on our memories, or on books that could be possessed by individuals, now we rely primarily on distributed data in the form of websites which we visit but do not possess. As such knowledge is passing out of individuals’ hands and becoming a property of our infrastructure. But for our knowledge to be integrated in any deep way with our logical faculties, for this synthesis to become a true science in the ancient meaning of the term, knowledge must be carried primarily in the mind. It is one thing for books to have replaced memorization as a means of passing knowledge. The death of memorization may mean that we will never be as fully whole as the Greeks were. But it is another thing entirely to allow our machines to index and recall information for us, and we must do everything we can to preserve the information-integrating processes of our own minds, if we are to continue to have minds at all.
“Self-sufficiency is not attained by riches.”
The entire modern myth of Progress rests on the exact reverse of Boethius’s aphorism, the false notion that, as Harvard economist Amartya Sen puts it “Development is freedom.” He uses this notion to argue that all we need to do to improve life in the third world is to make them more prosperous like us. We can see the falsity of this idea simply by following Boethius’s 1600-year-old reasoning concerning wealth and happiness: “If riches cannot eliminate need [which they never do] but on the contrary create new demands [which they always do] what makes you suppose that they can provide satisfaction?” This is just as true when stated in terms of “development.” A developed country has more needs. It uses generally 5 or 6 times more resources than an “undeveloped” country. The United States has one of the least efficient agricultures in the world, not in spite of its technology but because of it.
What we have lost, as many organic farmers have argued, is craft. We have replaced individual knowledge with mechanical processes. This hardly needs to be pointed out. Food production and consumption has become mechanized as never before. Not long ago, just a couple of generations back, it would be considered strange for a country-dweller not to know how to churn butter, slaughter a pig, or harvest wheat. Today it is less and less common, even for a country-dweller, to butcher their own animals, make their own bread, or even cook their own food.
We may have gained a vast amount of knowledge on a societal level, but what we have lost on an individual level is even vaster. Candle-making, soap-making, carpentry, metal-working, and basically all other country crafts are now kept alive only by a few isolated communities and craftsman.
And with the decline of these arts has come the decline of all fine art as well. Vegetables are mass produced; so are stories. Television has done as much to destroy craft as factory farming. We would rather buy food than grow food. We would also now rather buy music than play music. “Who has time?” All arts and crafts are inefficient. In both the decline of country crafts and the decline of fine art, there is a common culprit—our new love for science, mass production, and efficiency.
The decline of poetry and the fine arts is obvious from several different perspectives. Today, the ideal of the intellectual life is the scientist, who is completely objective and nothing to do with art. But the old ideal was the “man of letters,” a writer of poetry, essays, books, and letters who was equally expected to be able to write verse or music as mathematical equations. When ideals contract and are weakened in this way, the whole system of education follows suit. For decades now at the universities, the humanities and fine arts have declined as much as the agricultural arts. Everything is giving way to specialized, vocational, and industrial sciences.
We need to bring back poetry, art, and all other crafts. We need to bring back the ecosystem, the wild garden of the mind.
Assert your freedom. Value time over money. Learn crafts. Practice crafts. Create.
“He who works his land will have abundant food, but he who chases fantasies lacks judgment.”
Given that Progress is a fantasy, and that urbanity is given to chase it, pursuing a rural way of life is the most prudent way to prepare yourself and your descendants to prosper come what may. To throw your lot in with perpetual economic growth, and let yourself be entirely dependent on both your corporate job and far-away factory farms for sustenance, is a poor bet. Better to at least learn the basics—gardening, poultry, a few staple crops such as potatoes—and then even if you don’t yet have the time to entirely support yourself, when hard times come you will be much readier than average.
A homestead is an ideal place to raise a family. Children learn the value of work, and how to work. There is a great variety of work to be done and crafts to be learned. They will learn where food comes from. More food can be fresh and unprocessed. You get more fresh air and “probiotics,” because there is less reason to be confined indoors consuming mass media. You can live closer to nature, and learn about it by interacting with it. Tradition and traditional values are more in demand. Money, popularity, and consumer goods are less in demand. Even if you lack the land or skills to achieve this ideal fully, any step in this direction will only bring that much more psychological and bodily health.
Don’t be a corporate tool: be self-sufficient.
5. The Classics
“He who cannot draw on 3000 years of history is living merely from hand to mouth.”
You almost never encounter a great person who does not have their list of classics that helped make them who they are. Any book that has helped form great people, and has done so consistently over several generations, may safely be called a classic. It’s a book worth knowing. Reading a classic will help raise your quality of life and the quality of your thinking. A book worth knowing will help make you a person worth knowing.
The deeper you go into the classics, the deeper you will become as a person. Contrast this with academic learning. The deeper you go into any subject and the longer you spend studying, the more specialized and the less relevant to most people you will become. Applying academic philosophy to the world, and sharing it with people, is very difficult to do the more you read it. Applying Plato to the world, and sharing him with people, is very difficult to avoid doing the more you read him.
The world’s best education costs almost nothing. On the other hand, university educations are becoming more expensive, and we are going further into debt paying for degrees that are becoming less valuable. And the notions taught at universities are becoming more and more progressive (as if this were progress) and more politically so. The classics themselves are read less than ever, for the paltry reason that most were written by white men with very conservative views relative to today, as if being white, male, or traditional were an automatic refutation. On the contrary, we live in an extremely liberal society, relative to other times and places. So it is unavoidable that reading literature from other times and places will expose us to the special weaknesses of our liberal worldview. Again, once we’ve disposed of the idea of perpetual progress, we can come to understand that the future is likely to be very like the past, that this flowering of liberal civilization we’re experiencing has a great deal in common with the liberal civilizations of Athens, Rome, the Mayan Empire, Babylon, and countless others that have all grown decadent and declined. The notion that Western civilization alone is immortal is nothing more than a pretty piece of propaganda for making us its tool.
Free yourself from the chains of partisan politics and progress-worship. Read the classics and learn to think outside the matrix of our surprisingly provincial self-worshipping modern culture.
“Companions the creator seeks and not corpses, nor herds or believers either. Fellow creators the creator seeks …”
“The scholar sits down to write, and all his years of meditation do not furnish him with one good thought or happy expression; but it is necessary to write a letter to a friend, and, forthwith, troops of gentle thoughts invest themselves, on every hand, with chosen words.”
“Emerson with his essays has been a good friend and cheers me up even in black periods: he contains so much skepsis, so many ‘possibilities’ that even virtue achieves esprit in his writings.”
“Communion and friendship and orderliness and temperance and justice bind together heaven and earth and gods and men …”
During my years in academia I taught courses and attended conferences, I had seminar discussions about papers and wrote responses, I critiqued and published. But none of this ever reached the depth that my conversations have had over email, or over beer, or on a long walk with a friend.
In the institution, where the context is professionalism, the politics of the institution reigns. In informal settings, where the context is friendship, truth reigns.
“The mind I love must have wild places, a tangled orchard where dark damsons drop in the heavy grass, an overgrown little wood, the chance of a snake or two, a pool that nobody fathomed the depth of, and paths threaded with flowers planted by the mind.”
“The wisdom of a learned man is the fruit of leisure; he must starve himself of doing if he is to come by it.”
— Sirach 38:25
The ecology of the soil is surprisingly like the ecology of the soul. Overwork either one, and you kill it.
Amish and organic farmers alike understand the principle that the cheapest and most efficient way to build soil is to do nothing and let nature take over. It is called leaving a field fallow. In traditional Mayan culture, it was understood that when you cleared an acre of forest, you could plant crops profitably for two years, but you would have to leave it fallow again for 5-20 years before it could be used again. In the Old Testament, Leviticus requires that you leave your fields fallow for 1 year out of 7, and this is called the Sabbath Year, in analogy to the weekly Sabbath, the day of rest, contemplation, and leisure.
If you leave the land free and unused (not a tool), it will pursue an equilibrium state, every species proliferating as fast as it can until a maximally stable diversity is achieved. Nutrients are transported from high-density areas to lower-density areas. Coalitions of species are formed that can successful repel invasive organisms. Everything happens according to God’s law alone, and a perfect state of primal wilderness is approached, though this process can take centuries or more to reach completion.
The human mind is the same. Forces seeking to usurp it and make it a tool are manifold in modern society. Political parties seek to limit its opinions to those that will let it vote correctly. Propaganda by major news outlets is their preferred tool for plowing and planting your brain, but also increasingly blogs, social media, universities, and even public schools as well. We should distrust anything with a political bent. Media corporations also use propaganda (euphemistically called “advertisements” or “television shows”) to put you in the correct frame of mind to buy their products. Increasingly, the media’s complex of tools have merged with the political complex, because they share the goals of making people (1) less stuck on traditional ideals so that their minds will be (2) more pliable and (3) more dependent on the media for validation.
Some media is okay, in limited doses. Our identity as a culture is now crucially dependent on it, and unless you have a basic knowledge of popular culture, you lack Western culture period. But it would be much better to give up all television watching and news reading, and only read classics and letters from friends, than to do the reverse.
If they are not to be mere tools, but to aspire to the wholeness of wilderness, both our minds and our fields need fallow time. Do not overwork the land, do not overwork the spirit. Leave plots fallow; leave hours contemplative.
“… a fool’s eyes wander to the ends of the earth.”
We see provincials as “backwards” for good reason. They are good at preserving their way of life. And contrary to modern urban bias, this is a good thing.
Typically we use doublethink here. On the one hand we lament the loss of cultural diversity, the disappearance of the Native Americans, and the Westernization that is imperialistically destroying old cultures elsewhere around the world. Yet we do not even let ourselves pass down our own cultural diversity, let alone generate new diversity.
It is easy to forget that every society, every tribe and nation and ethnic minority around the world, all came from the same primeval tribe. We are all cousins. And all this diversity didn’t spring from nothing. It sprang from local adaptation--from a closeness to nature and the land and God—that is being lost.
Ecosystems are generated by diversification. Creativity is impossible as a tool of empires. Flourishing freedom only occurs outside Babylon, where the waters run free, the trees may grow to full height, and you know your neighbors well enough to love them as yourself.
In the modern Western world, village life is almost extinct. Most has been forgotten. There is not much community to join. But we should try to remember, because the time will come, when the ends of the earth are stripped of their treasures, when the empires have fallen and their chains rusted away, that we will again recognize the kind farmer next door as the greatest treasure of all.
9. Liberal Education
“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”
—C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man)
“For we are not speaking of education in a narrow sense, but of that other education in virtue from youth upwards, which makes a man eagerly pursue the ideal perfection of citizenship, and teaches him how to rightly rule and how to obey. This is the only education which, upon our view, deserves the name; that other sort of training, which aims at the acquisition of wealth or bodily strength, or mere cleverness apart from intelligence and justice, is mean and illiberal, and is not worthy to be called education.”
—Plato (Laws I)
I’ve mentioned that public schools are increasingly used as platforms for political propaganda. I’ve also mentioned that they neglect the classics. To round out my critique it only needs to be pointed out that the logic of public education only makes sense where the parents lack any education themselves. The average public school student, if they’re lucky, will receive maybe 20 minutes of one-on-one instruction with the teacher per day. And the amount of time actually spent learning, by any means, is somewhere in the 10-30% range. You have a single teacher for 30 students. For a six-hour day, that’s 12 minutes per student. And where these students are spread across a spectrum of levels and abilities, you are lucky if more than 1/4 of the content of instruction is relevant to what you need to learn. And what about this remainder of the day spent in school, the majority where there is no content of interest and no teacher guidance? Rest assured the student is being taught by peers no wiser than themselves.
Teachers deserve our admiration. They do a great deal for our children with very little. I owe a lot to the teachers I’ve had over the years, from elementary through graduate school. The weakness of our public education system lies not in our teachers, but in the design of the system itself, in the daunting mathematics of the task we are giving them.
The mathematics of homeschool is much more encouraging. Spend just an hour with your child each day and you’re already giving them three times more attention than even the best of their teachers could. Teach them self-study and help them find books and resources, and you will be sure that close to 100% of their study time is spent actually learning. The ratio of adult influence to peer influence will be, even for a family of six, five times better. And with a mixture of ages, the older children can learn by teaching, and the younger have that many more teachers.
But do homeschool children enculturate and socialize properly? I think they do. Studies confirm that they are generally better adjusted. (See my full critique of public school and the university system.)
For two thousand years in the west, the most admired form of education was a “liberal” one. That means, rather than being trained for a vocation, you’ve read the classics of western literature and surveyed every field of knowledge from a philosophical, value-based point of view, with the aim of gaining a coherent world-picture. Recall that this aim is also the ultimate goal of Logic, properly characterized. So now we have come full-circle, and we see that the aim of becoming a free, open, and rational mind is best achieved by the intellectual independence given by a liberal education, rooted in the classics, sheltered from corporate and political propaganda, and given the leisure and fallowness to grow into wholeness and self-sufficiency.