Trousered Apes and Materialist Magicians

Jun 19, 2019

Technology dominates our lives. Most of us walk about carrying supercomputers with more processing power than NASA had for the Apollo 11 mission. These labor-saving devices promise freedom, but we are more enslaved than ever. Eliminating communication barriers means that we may be interrupted at any moment by a call or text. Constantly dinging notifications (real or imagined!) trigger a Pavlovian response to glance at our screen. The time saved by our devices is quickly devoured as we consume the hours on social media trivialities. The promised liberation of technology, when unmoored from Nature’s telos, becomes slavery.

Even in the Information Age, wisdom is difficult to attain. Our challenge is not finding data; we drown in petabytes of it. Instead, we must navigate the deluge in search solid ground. If our only goal is literacy or Excel proficiency, we are setting students adrift on an ocean of twaddle without a guiding Polaris. As Dorothy Sayers reflects, by teaching students only to read we subjugate them to advertisers and propagandists (but I repeat myself). Without a transcendental norm, freedom of information enslaves with fads and fashions.

C.S. Lewis observes in The Abolition of Man that technology and magic both arose from the same impulse. Their practitioners were not interested in discovering truth, but reshaping and conforming reality to their own designs. Technology and magic developed as tools to gain power over nature and, ultimately, other men. Without form or telos, matter becomes infinitely malleable. There is no script; may the loudest ad-libber win. By eliminating the order of Nature, the conditioners use science to enforce their own convictions and desires.

In contrast to technocratic magic, religion and natural philosophy [science] conform man to the Tao. The world has a fixedness to which our souls incline—even when prevented. A man may lift a boulder against its “will” by a clever machine of pulleys and levers, but the moment he removes his hand, Nature falls with a vengeance; even the stones obey. Reality is not a blob of Play-Doh with eight billion hands fighting for control. Rather, it is like a tree; though diverted or bent, its trunk and limbs ever stretch toward the heavens. Freedom is living in accordance with the moral order.

Any pedagogy may be used as magic or technology to exert mastery over students. Classical education is not merely a substitution of ancient tools, replacing the car with the chariot or codex with the scroll. When we use old authors to condition students to our modern whims, we exchange one set of bonds for another. Employing Socratic discussions as a means to thunder right opinions is not teaching, but relying on outdated techniques to achieve contemporary goals. Instead, education aims to adjust our souls to the moral order. Our methods or books are not chosen for their age, but because the enduring things tend to aid in conforming us to reality. Curriculum and pedagogy are only life-giving if they prepare us for our ultimate end of knowing, loving, and enjoying God.

In spite of Lewis’ warning of a coming abolition of natural law from the human heart, can man actually become a “trousered ape”? The situation may seem dire, but Nature is partisan. The image of God is ruined and marred; it is not erased. Our knowledge of God and His law may be dim, but it is still present with us. As Augustine ruminates, the image of the Trinity is stamped across our universe. We cannot save the moral order or civilization any more than we make acorns fall or flowers bloom. Though it may appear God is asleep at the rudder, He is in the boat with us (Mk. 4:35-41) governing and sustaining the universe. We are faithful laborers; only He builds the house (Ps. 127). Christian education is a labor of faith, trusting in God’s promises and working in hope that God is pleased to take our works and crown them with blessing.

If Lewis earned his prophetic mantle with The Abolition of Man, we should also heed his warning in The Screwtape Letters. There is a step beyond the “trousered ape”: “the Materialist Magician” who worships “Forces” but ignores “spirits.” He enshrines science with mythos and establishes it as a cult. Thus, he revives the terror of the overtly supernatural while simultaneously rejecting the existence of the spiritual. The man who denies the soul yet trusts drug-induced visions or fears karma is the reverse-telepath who manipulates the mind with matter.

Let not our teaching become a revised paganism paying lip-service to the supernatural while immersed in Epicurean skepticism. Liturgies are our rites, and great books our spells. Both take on a mystical power calculated in the empirical: SAT (or CLT) scores. We may be tempted to treat technique as a force which mechanically produces our desired effect. Prayer becomes an afterthought or formality; the gospel a slogan and brand. Teaching is a natural and supernatural discipline, for we live at the nexus of matter and spirit. Let us live as embodied souls—hybrid walkers between the worlds. Christ’s words call us to remember our power, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn. 15:5). May our teaching be an act of love begun in hope and sustained by faith as we abide in Christ.

Science brings great promise. You can buy the Works of Augustine for $2.99 on Kindle—no need for a bookcase in the bathroom! When used rightly, technology aids us in conforming to God’s order, but it also carries peril. It blesses as a servant but curses as a master. We ought not to sacrifice the humanness of being present with one another, enjoying bread and wine, thumbing through uncut pages, and savoring the aroma of fellowship to the god of material progress. This was the first word engraved on Israel’s stone iPad: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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