If Socrates Could See Us Now: on technology without moderation

Xenophon says of Socrates that he “was not eager to make his companions orators and businessmen and inventors, but thought that they should first possess moderation. For he believed that without moderation those abilities only enabled a person to become more unjust and to work more evil.”

This is why we speak of modern knowledge but never modern wisdom.

Our modern scientific and technical knowledge allows us to create nearly anything we want; we invent not only the means to satisfy our needs, but invent our needs as well. With little sense of what constitutes a human being, we simply drift from one passion to the next in an endless ebb and flow of insatiable desires.

‘Technology will lead us to the promised land,’ it was believed. Instead, we got ever deeper levels of social degradation.

As Carl Mitcham notes in his excellent essay on Three Ways of Being-With Technology, “According to the ancients such wealth accustoms men to easy things. But… difficult is the beautiful or the perfect; the perfection of anything, including human nature, is the opposite of what is soft or easy. Under the conditions of affluence human beings tend to become accustomed to ease, and thus tend to choose the less over the more perfect, the lower over the higher, both for themselves and for others.”

This is never more evident than with drugs. Mitcham continues, “Once drugs are available as palliatives, most individuals will choose them for the alleviation of pain over the more strenuous paths of physical hygiene or psychological enlightenment.”

You don’t say.

The same is certainly true for things like social media and virtual reality. Why do the heavy lifting of actual human contact when you can cherry pick advantageous ones and snipe disadvantageous ones from behind the safety of a screen? Why subject oneself to the pain and suffering of embodiment in nature when one can live in a virtual world disconnected from one’s body, that is, disconnect from the pain and suffering concomitant with living in the mortality of flesh and blood? (I’m fairly certain the ancients would have seen the metaverse as a prison and not a playground)

Xenophon also notes that Socrates was not fond of speculating over the cosmos. He believed that “those who worried about such matters were foolish. And first he would ask whether such persons became involved with these problems because they believed that their knowledge of human things was complete or whether they thought they were obligated to neglect human things to speculate on divine things.”

In other words, if one is not able to scale the mystery of one’s self, why on earth would one think himself capable of scaling the heavens? To loosely quote David Hume, first storm the citadel of human nature and all other scientific quests will be a breeze. When it comes to natural science and technology we have indeed “gained the whole world, but forfeited the soul.” (Mark 8:36)

Speaking of self, have technological advents like hormone therapies and surgeries capable of adding or subtracting genitalia enhanced our generation’s sense of self? Never before has a generation demonstrated such bewilderment over issues of self, and it is difficult not to see a direct relation with our generation’s abandonment of the great spiritual traditions (something we have unfortunately labeled liberation).

True self-knowledge is a lifetime struggle. It is earned over a long and arduous journey; a face-forward, courageous trek through fear and doubt and loss. It is not gained at the bargain price of changing one’s outward appearance and chasing feelings of security. Today we would like to imagine that the struggle over identity is easily overcome with science and technology, but let the steep rise in mental illness of this age be our guide to the truth on this one.  

Should one be tempted to hold out in skepticism over Socrates’ belief that “without moderation those abilities only enabled a person to become more unjust and to work more evil,” as stated at the beginning of this article, simply cast your gaze over the last century. During the most unprecedented age of scientific and technological advances, together with an ever increasing retreat from an ethic of moderation, have we seen a net increase or decrease in our wars, pollution, violence, divorce, depression, anxiety, drug addiction, sex addiction, pick your social ill ad infinitum? As our science and technology has accelerated, our ability to destroy sure seems to have followed suit. One need not be fully convinced that there is a direct cause-and-effect relationship here (thought I’m not sure how), but it’s certainly an invitation to begin serious questioning.

On how to question, Socrates might have an idea or two.

Thanks for reading.

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