“Progress” in Retrospect: Part II

May 21, 2018

Wolfgang Smith

Editor’s Note:  The second installment of a three-part critique of modernity, the following was originally published in Cosmos & Transcendence: Breaking Through the Barrier of Scientistic Belief in 1984.  Prof. Smith’s reflections prove to remain just as timely today as when they first appeared in print.

Some reflections on the subject of art may not be inappropriate at this point. The first thing to be noted is that the very conception of art has changed: the word has actually acquired a new meaning. Thus art has become “fine art,” something to be enjoyed in leisure moments and generally by the well-to-do. It has become a luxury, almost a kind of toy. In ancient times, on the other hand, “art” meant simply the skill or wisdom for making things, and the things made by art were then called “artefacts.” Strictly speaking everything that answered a legitimate need and that had to be produced by human industry was an artefact. Thus an agricultural implement or a sword was an artefact, a piece of furniture or a house was an artefact, and so too was a cathedral or an icon or an ode. The artefact, moreover, was there for the whole man, the trichotomous being made up of body, soul, and spirit; and so even the humblest tool or utensil had to possess more than simply “utility,” in the contemporary sense. That “more,” of course, derives from symbolism, from the language of forms. It is the reason why a water-pot can be a thing of immense beauty and meaning. Not that this beauty had to be somehow superimposed upon the object, like an ornament. It was there as a natural concomitant of utility, of the “correctness,” one could say, of the work. And that is the reason why in ancient times there was an intimate link between art and science, and why Jean Mignot (the builder of the cathedral at Milan) could say that “art without science is nothing” (ars sine scientia nihil).  In a word, both beauty and utility were conceived to spring from truth.

It was understood, moreover, that authentic art can never be profane. For let us remember that according to Christian teaching the eternal Word or Wisdom of God is indeed the supreme Artist: “All things were made by Him, and without Him was not anything made.”  Now it follows from the profound sense of this text that whatever is truly made, or made rightly, is made by Him. And this implies that the human artist — every authentic artist — must participate to some degree in the eternal Wisdom. “So, too, the soul can perform no living works,” writes St. Bonaventure, “unless it receive from the sun, that is, from Christ, the aid of His gratuitous light.”1De Reductione Artium ad Theologian, 21. Man, therefore, the human artist, is but an agent; to achieve perfection in his art he must make himself an instrument in the hands of God. And so the production of the artefact is to be ascribed to the divine Artificer in proportion as it is beneficent and well made; for indeed “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights”  (James 1:17).

To some extent this constitutes a universal doctrine that has guided and enlightened the arts of mankind right up to the advent of the modern age. Thus even in the so-called primitive societies all art, all “making,” was a matter of “doing as the gods did in the beginning.” And that “beginning,” moreover, is to be understood in a mythical, that is to say, in a metaphysical sense. Basically it is the ever-present “now,” that elusive point of contact between time and eternity which is also the center of the universe, the “pivot around which the primordial wheel revolves.” As Mircea Eliade has amply demonstrated, the traditional cultures have been cognizant of that universal center and have sought by ritual or other symbolic means to effect a return to that point of origin, that “beginning.” That is where man was able to renew himself; from thence he derived strength and wisdom. And from thence too, needless to say, he derived his artistic inspiration. Thus, strange as it may sound, the traditional artist works not so much in time as in eternity. His art partakes somehow of the instantaneous “now”; and this explains its freshness, the conspicuous unity and animation of its productions. No matter how long it may take to fashion the external artefact, the work has been consummated internally in a trice, at a single stroke.

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The Scholastics were no doubt heirs to this immemorial conception of art. It is evidently what St. Thomas has in mind when he defines art as “the imitation of Nature in her manner of operation”;2Summa Theologiae, I, 117, 1. for we must understand that here the term “Nature” is employed not in the current sense — not in the sense of natura naturata, a nature that has been made — but in the sense of natura naturans, the creative agent which is none other than God. The human artist thus imitates the divine Artificer; for in imitation of the Holy Trinity he works “through a word conceived in his intellect” (per verbum in intellectu conceptum),3Ibid., i, 45, 6. which is to say, through a word or “concept” which mirrors the eternal Word. Man too “begets a word” in his intellect; and this constitutes the actus Primus  of artistic creation.

It follows from these considerations that there is a profound spiritual significance both in the enjoyment and in the practice of authentic art. On the one hand, a bona fide  artefact will possess a certain charisma, a beauty and significance which no profane or merely human art could effect — not to speak of mechanized production. Such an artefact will exert an invisible influence upon the user; it will benefit the patron in unsuspected ways. But what is still more important, the exercise of his art will bring not only material remuneration but also spiritual benefit to the artist. “Manufacture, the practice of an art,” writes Coomaraswamy, “is thus not only the production of utilities but in the highest possible sense the education of men.”4Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art  (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 27. It is a spiritual way, a means to perfection. And one could even say that the practice of an art should be a normal and integral part of the Christian life: everyone should be an artist of some kind, each in accordance with his vocation. As William Blake has expressed it, “The Whole Business of Man Is the Arts… The unproductive Man is not a Christian.”

One also knows, however, that as Blake was writing these lines the Industrial Revolution was gathering momentum and the Arts were on their way out. The machine age was upon us, and that kind of manufacture which had been so much more than the mere “production of utilities” was fast being replaced by the assembly line. We know that efficiency has been increased a hundredfold and that the “standard of living” has never been so high. And we know too that the promised utopia has not arrived, and that unforeseen difficulties are cropping up at an accelerating pace. What we generally don’t know, however, is that our civilization has become culturally impoverished to an alarming degree. We are beginning to become cognizant of the ecological crisis and shudder at the reports of acid rain, but still fail to behold the spiritual wasteland that has been forming around us for centuries. We speak of “the dignity of labor” and forget that there was a time when manufacture was more than a tedium, a meaningless drudgery which men endure only for the sake of pecuniary reward. We speak of “the abundant life” and forget that happiness is not simply play, entertainment or “getting away from it all,” but the spontaneous concomitant of a life well lived. We forget that pleasure does not come in pills or via an electronic tube but through what the Scholastics termed “proper operation,” the very thing that authentic art is about. In short, what we have totally forgotten is that “The Whole Business of Man Is the Arts.”

Besides industry, of course, our culture comprises also “the fine arts,” which are there presumably to supply “the higher things of life.” Now whatever else might be said in behalf of these productions, it is clear that for the most part they are bereft of any metaphysical content. Our art ceased long ago to be a “rhetoric” and became an “aesthetic,” as Coomaraswamy has pointed out; which is to say that it is no longer intended to enlighten but only to please. It is not the function of our fine arts “to make the primordial truth intelligible, to make the unheard audible, to enunciate the primordial word, to represent the archetype,” which from a traditional point of view is indeed “the task of art, or it is not art,” as Walter Andrae observes.5Quoted by A. K. Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 55. And however sublime this “fine art” may be, it does not in fact bear reference to “the invisible things of Him” because the artist who made it was simply a man — a genius, perhaps, but a man nonetheless. Unlike ancient art it does not derive “from above,” nor does it refer to spiritual realities, or to God “whom we never mention in polite society.” As a matter of fact, in keeping with the overall subjectivist trend of modern culture, art has become more and more a matter of “self-expression,” right up to the point where the contingent, the trivial and the base have all but monopolized the scene. A stage has been reached where much of art is plainly subversive — one needs but to recall those bizarre paintings of patently Freudian inspiration which could very well have originated within the walls of a lunatic asylum! The history of modern art teaches us that the merely human, cut off from spiritual tradition and the touch of transcendence, is unstable; it degenerates before long into the infra-human and the absurd.

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There is an intimate connection between the machine metaphor as a cosmological conception and the creation of a technological society. Let us not forget that a machine has no other raison d’être  than to be used. When Nature, therefore, is viewed as being nothing more than a machine, it will as a matter of course come to be regarded simply as a potential object of exploitation, a thing to be used in all possible ways for the profit of men. The two attitudes, moreover, go hand in hand; for as Roszak points out, “only those who experience the world as dead, stupid, or alien and therefore without a claim to reverence, could ever turn upon their environment … with the cool and meticulously calculated rapacity of industrial civilization.”6Where the Wasteland Ends  (cited in n. 199 above), pp. 154–55. It is therefore not surprising that no sooner had the postulate of cosmic mechanism gained official recognition than men began on an unprecedented scale to build their own machines with which to harness the forces of Nature; in the wake of the Enlightenment came the Industrial Revolution.

But the story does not end there; for it was inevitable within the perspective of the new cosmology that man, too, should come to be viewed as a kind of machine. What else could he be in a Newtonian universe? And if man is a machine, society too is a machine and human behavior is deterministic: Newton, Lamettrie, Hobbes, and Pavlov clearly lie on a single trajectory. And these recognitions — or better said, these new premises — open up incalculable possibilities! Whether we realize it or not, the cold and rigorous dialectic of science in its concrete actuality leads step by step to the formation of a technological society in the full frightening sense of that term.

Let us consider the matter a little more carefully. To understand the scientific process we need to recall an essential idea which goes back not so much to Newton as to Descartes, and is especially associated with the name of Francis Bacon (the first of the two “archvillains” in Blake’s vision of Victorious Science). Now Bacon’s contribution resides in his perception of a universal and all-encompassing method for the systematic acquisition of knowledge. In the first place, this process is envisaged as collective and cumulative; it is an enterprise that keeps on gathering momentum. Thus “the business” of knowing should not be left in the hands of the individual but is to be carried out by teams of experts, as we would say; and significantly enough (this is its second notable characteristic), it is to be done “as if by machinery.” Here it is again: the all-conquering omnivorous machine metaphor! But this time in an entirely new key: as a methodological principle. With telling effect Bacon goes on to observe how very small would be the accomplishments of “mechanical men” if they worked only with their bare hands, unaided by tools and instruments contrived through human ingenuity. In like manner very little can be accomplished when men seek to acquire knowledge through “the naked forces of understanding.” In the mental domain, too, we need a tool, an instrument of thought; and that is just what his “novum organum” — Bacon’s famed method of science — is intended to supply. “A new machine for the mind,” he calls it. And like every machine it is there to be used for profit; truth and utility, he assures us, “are here one and the same thing.”

One can say in retrospect that whereas Bacon’s specific recipes for scientific discovery have proved to be relatively useless (as many have pointed out), his dream of a systematic and collective science in which “human knowledge and human power meet in one” has no doubt been realized beyond his wildest expectations. What has triumphed is not so much any specific “machine for the mind” but the idea of method or technique as something formal and impersonal that interposes itself between the knower and the known. And whereas on the one hand this artificial intermediary has isolated the knower — impeded his direct access to reality — it has also made possible the development of a formal and depersonalized knowledge, based upon the systematic labors of countless investigators. First came the development of classical physics and what might be termed “hard” technology. Later the modern biological sciences began to emerge, and later still the so-called behavioral and social sciences. Meanwhile the process of scientization began to extend itself beyond the boundaries of every formally recognized science and proceeded to exert a dominant influence in other domains. “Scientific knowledge becomes, within the artificial environment, the orthodox mode of knowing,” writes Roszak; “all else defers to it. Soon enough the style of mind that began with the natural scientist is taken up by imitators throughout the culture.”7Ibid., p. 31. And as the matter stands, this “style of mind” is to be encountered everywhere; it has entered into cloisters and convents. It has become a mark of enlightenment, the respected thing; “all else defers to it.” As Bacon had shrewdly seen, there are in principle no limits to the scientization of culture: given free reign, the process is bound to insinuate itself into virtually every sphere of human thought and every activity.

It is obvious to all that our outer life-styles are being drastically altered as a direct consequence of the scientific advance. What we generally fail to realize, on the other hand, is that the impact of this same development on our inner lives — yes, on the condition of our soul — is no less pronounced. To begin with, the mechanization of our work-environment, the phenomenon of urban sprawl, the rising congestion and perpetual noise, the proliferation of concrete, steel and plastic, the loss of contact with Nature and with natural things, the invasion of our homes by the mass media — all this in itself is bound to have its effect on our mental and emotional condition. Add to this the uprooting of people from their ancestral environment, an unprecedented mobility which shuffles populations like a deck of cards! Add also the other innumerable mechanisms within the technological society which tend to break down every natural division and all cultural ties. Let us add up (if we are able!) all the factors which homogenize and level out. For it must not be forgotten that people too have to be standardized, like interchangeable parts of a machine, so that the wheels of the mechanized civilization may run smoothly and efficiently.

It is to be noted, moreover, that in the course of the present century this leveling, which began with the Industrial Revolution, has entered upon a new phase due to the rise of the behavioral and social sciences. Now from a purely academic point of view it may well appear that these disciplines are of little consequence; for apart from the factual information which they have accumulated (much of it in the form of statistical data) it would seem that one can hardly speak of “science” at all. The trappings of science (fancy terms and reams of computer print-out) are there no doubt, but very little of its substance — so long, at least, as one insists that the objective verification of hypotheses, without obfuscation and fudging, constitutes a sine qua non  of the scientific process. And this deficiency is occasionally admitted even by members of the profession. There is the case of Stanislav Andreski, for example, who has offered insightful observations on such subjects as “The Smoke Screen of Jargon,” “Quantification as Camouflage,” “Ideology Underneath Terminology,” and most important of all, “Techno-Totemism and Creeping Crypto-Totalitarianism.”8Social Sciences as Sorcery  (London: Deutsch, 1972). There it is! This is just the point: if we take a closer look at these seeming pseudo-sciences we find that they too fit perfectly into the integral framework of the technological society. Here too one encounters a kind of “knowledge” which begets power. As we have already seen in the case of Freudian and Jungian psychology, a pseudo-science may not be without its “utility,” its technical efficacy. And if Voltaire could say that even lying becomes “virtuous” when it is practiced for the right end, then why (in a pragmatic civilization) should not these human techniques be deemed a science and their dogmas “truth”?

Be that as it may, the fact remains that our century has witnessed a dramatic increase in the utilization on the part of governments, industries and other powerful interest groups of methods based upon the so-called behavioral and social sciences. A well-known story about Pavlov may be recalled in this connection: it is reported that shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution the famed scientist was virtually imprisoned in the Kremlin and ordered to write a book describing in detail how behavioral methods based upon his theory of conditioned reflexes may be applied to the indoctrination and control of human beings. Whether it be true that Lenin, upon reading the book, exclaimed to Pavlov “you have saved the Revolution!” — one does know with certainty that Pavlovian methods were used extensively in the Soviet Union, and that similar techniques have also been developed and applied in the Western democracies.9See William Sargant, Battle for the Mind  (Westwood, CT: Greenwood, 1957).

However, this does not preclude the fact that the vast majority of people, be it in Russia or in the United States, are almost entirely unaware of this process and could not even imagine the extent to which it has already influenced their own beliefs and psychic make-up. As Jacques Ellul has pointed out with reference to propaganda as a specific area of human technique:

Propaganda must become as natural as air or food. It must proceed by psychological inhibition and the least possible shock. The individual is then able to declare in all honesty that no such thing as propaganda exists. In fact, however, he has been so absorbed by it that he is literally no longer able to see the truth. The natures of man and propaganda have become so inextricably mixed that everything depends not on choice or on free will, but on reflex and myth. The prolonged and hypnotic repetition of the same complex of ideas, the same images, and the same rumors condition man for the assimilation of his nature to propaganda.10The Technological Society  (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1965), p. 366.

Much the same could be affirmed, moreover, with regard to many other areas of human technique which are not simply “propaganda” in the strict sense. Thus it is only to be expected that in our kind of civilization almost every organized “encounter” — from kindergarten to post-graduate seminars — will entail an element of concealed indoctrination. As Ellul has shown, virtually all education — on both sides of the Iron Curtain — involves mechanisms of conditioning and control designed to fit the individual into the projects of the society.11Ibid., p. 347. Even our leisure is “literally stuffed with technical mechanisms of compensation and integration” which, though different from those of the work environment, are “as invasive and exacting, and leave man no more free than labor itself.”12Ibid., p. 401. Within the last decade even religious and priestly retreats have become fair game to the scientific methods of “sensitivity training”! It is the greatest mistake to think that the technological society can be “culturally neutral,” or that the celebrated “pluralism” about which one hears so much in Western countries can be anything more than a passing phase or an outright fake. “Cosmology implicates values” — to say it once more — and without any doubt the manipulation of man, the most vital “resource” of all, constitutes the ultimate technology.

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1. De Reductione Artium ad Theologian, 21.
2. Summa Theologiae, I, 117, 1.
3. Ibid., i, 45, 6.
4. Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art  (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 27.
5. Quoted by A. K. Coomaraswamy, op. cit., p. 55.
6. Where the Wasteland Ends  (cited in n. 199 above), pp. 154–55.
7. Ibid., p. 31.
8. Social Sciences as Sorcery  (London: Deutsch, 1972).
9. See William Sargant, Battle for the Mind  (Westwood, CT: Greenwood, 1957).
10. The Technological Society  (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1965), p. 366.
11. Ibid., p. 347.
12. Ibid., p. 401.