“Archimedean Trifles”

In this essay, I want to discuss the idea proposed in a graduate course I once took that the Ancient Greeks, who had the basic intellectual cast necessary for developing higher technology, chose to deliberately restrict technological advance to the realm of defense and war, because they recognized that too much technology would lead to a mechanistic, not a humanistic, mode of living. That is, the Greeks didn’t want a high level of technology because it would have created a kind of “humanity” that for them wasn’t humanity at all.

A key passage that proves this is from Plutarch’s Life of Marcellus. In describing the Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C., Plutarch relates the details of how Archimedes, the famed Greek geometer and inventor, attempted to save the city with technological wizardry:

…The land forces were conducted by Appius: Marcellus with sixty galleys, each with five rows of oars, furnished with all sorts of arms and missiles, and a huge bridge of planks laid upon eight ships chained together, upon which was carried the engine to cast stones and darts, assaulted the walls, relying on the abundance and magnificence of his preparations, and on his own previous glory; all which, however, were, it would seem, but trifles for Archimedes and his machines.

These machines he had designed and contrived, not as matters of any importance, but as mere amusements in geometry; in compliance with King Hiero’s desire and request, some little time before, that he should reduce to practice some part of his admirable speculation in science, and by accommodating the theoretic truth to sensation and ordinary use, bring it more within the appreciation of the people in general.

According to Plutarch, Archimedes was preceded in this activity by Eudoxus and Archytas, who originated “the art of mechanics, which they employed as an elegant illustration of geometrical truths, and as a means of sustaining experimentally, to the satisfaction of the senses, conclusions too intricate for proof by words and diagrams.” Archimedes himself, who was ordinarily too busy with his abstract contemplations of disembodied geometrical formulas, was induced by his patron, King Hiero of Syracuse, to put his math to work in the real world, for the defense of the city. As Plutarch describes it, the results were nothing less than astounding:

When, therefore, the Romans assaulted the walls in two places at once, fear and consternation stupefied the Syracusans, believing that nothing was able to resist that violence and those forces. But when Archimedes began to ply his engines, he at once shot against the land forces all sorts of missile weapons, and immense masses of stone that came down with incredible noise and violence; against which no man could stand; for they knocked down those upon whom they fell in heaps, breaking all their ranks and files. In the meantime, huge poles thrust out from the walls over the ships sunk some by the great weights which they let down from on high upon them; others they lifted up into the air by an iron hand or beak like a crane’s beak and, when they had drawn them up by the prow, and set them on end upon the poop, they plunged them to the bottom of the sea; or else the ships, drawn by engines within, and whirled about, were dashed against steep rocks that stood jutting out under the walls, with great destruction of the soldiers that were aboard them. A ship was frequently lifted up to a great height in the air (a dreadful thing to behold), and was rolled to and fro, and kept swinging, until the mariners were all thrown out, when at length it was dashed against the rocks, or let fall….

Yet, these astounding mechanical contrivances were worth less than nothing to Archimedes himself, who “would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life…”.

The perspective described here should be of interest to us. A bit earlier in his narrative, Plutarch had mentioned Plato’s “indignation” against the mechanical arts, calling them “the mere corruption and annihilation of the one good of geometry,” namely, contemplation of “the unembodied objects of pure intelligence.” In the basic Platonic view of reality that predominated after Plato himself, we do not need “help” from mere matter to know the truth – indeed, mere matter can often lead us astray from the truth. Hence, to use geometry, or any kind of contemplation of unembodied truth, as an adjunct to the manipulation of physical reality is to fundamentally betray the soul’s quest for true Good. The pursuit of material things gets in the way of the pursuit of unembodied truth, and so it follows by inexorable logic that unrestricted progress in mechanical manipulation (technology) will divert the soul from the Good.

As Christians, we do not denigrate matter in this way, and so we do not want to denigrate per se the scientific enterprise or the technological tools that it produces. But at the same time, we live in a world that, unlike the world Plutarch inhabited, is the product of centuries of systematic inquiry into the physical causes of things. This systematic inquiry has generated enormous progress in terms of our ability to manipulate the conditions of the physical world with our technological devices. For us, technological devices are not “Archimedean Trifles,” but the very warp and woof of our lives.

But, I ask, is our attitude toward technology just the mirror image of the radical denigration of matter and technological progress found in Plutarch’s portrayal of Archimedes? If Plutarch was on one extreme, are we on the other? And if the answer to a question is not one extreme, how could it be the other?

At its root, the question of technology that I am asking in this column concerns its very nature. What kind of thing is technology, and what are (should be) its limits?
In the movie Jurassic Park, Ian Malcolm, a quasi-philosopher of exotic mathematical models of the world, asks of the achievement of cloning dinosaurs, “Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should.” It was perhaps in this connection that the Roman author Ovid makes the interesting point in Book I of his Metamorphoses that the “Golden Age” of man on earth was a time in which, among other things, no ships had been built, allowing men to travel to other lands and start wars with each other. Farming had also not been invented, because the earth brought forth all things naturally. Technology arose in the “Silver Age,” as a result of a change in cosmic governance and accompanying alterations in the operations of the earth. Men were forced to build houses to protect them from the weather, and to invent plows to produce food from the land.

In his Physics, Aristotle makes the remark that “art imitates nature” (194a21). The Greek word for “art” here is techne, from which we get our word “technology.” Later, he draws an analogy between art and nature such that in the same way that nature acts with a goal or purpose (telos) in mind, so too should art. If, he says, a house could have been made by nature, it would have been made in the same way that it now is by human art, and if things actually made by nature could be made by art, they would be made in the same way as nature makes them. The focal point of both nature and art is the goal, and questions about the goal of any activity are essential ones for anyone interested in living rightly.

Interestingly, Aristotle goes on to qualify his earlier remark that “art imitates nature” by saying rather that art can only “partly complete” what nature cannot do herself, and so art only “partly imitates” nature. In his Politics, Aristotle says that “nature makes nothing in vain” (1253a8; 1256b20), and he connects this with man’s endowment by nature with speech, a sense of good and evil, and his desire to be in society, to build cities, with other men.  In other words, technology is a means to an end, simultaneously a natural pursuit of man and a sort of necessary evil that man uses to relieve himself of harsh conditions in the world. Technology is oriented toward “filling the gaps” that nature leaves, so that man can live in nature with fewer troubles than he otherwise would have. Yet, at the same time, technology has brought conflict, as with the fact that the invention of ships let men travel to other lands and begin to covet – and so to fight over – the possessions of others.

Thus, the thing that Archimedes considered mere “trifles” is both a necessary good and a temptation to evil. Platonic idealists may imagine that life can be lived in pure contemplation of abstract truths, decrying the “mechanical arts” which care for the “vulgar needs” of embodied life, but even Archimedes found that the sword can be more persuasive than the pen when a Roman soldier, frustrated with the scientist’s preoccupation with an equation rather than heeding the command to surrender, simply ran him through at Syracuse. Aristotle, who also denigrated manual labor and its products as the work of slaves, was forced to admit that someone has to grow the food that the philosophers eat, make the clothes that they wear, and build the houses that they live in.

But there is something deeper that we ought to consider in this Ancient preference for a contemplative, philosophical life over a life buried in the pursuit of the “mechanical arts” and the “vulgar needs” of the embodied condition. Ancient philosophers may have been extreme in the specific ways they stated their critique, but their goal was not extreme, for it was nothing less than living “the good life,” or, a life of self-governed, responsible, virtuous behavior in community with other human beings. Part of the reason they were against vulgar mechanical standards of living was because they believed that such things dehumanized men and women. By focusing attention on gaining proficiency in things that are worthwhile only with respect to other things (e.g., learning the art of medicine solely to increase lifespan, regardless of the moral quality of the life itself), the “mechanical arts” took away from them the ability and desire to pursue things which are worthwhile in themselves (e.g., Truth, Beauty, and Goodness).

To return to the other side of the inquiry, then: have we, in our comfortable technology-soaked Modern age, just swung the pendulum in the opposite direction from Archimedes? Rather than see technology as “trifles,” do we see it as the only truly substantive thing about our lives? We are, after all, surrounded by blinking, flashing, whirring, artificial gizmos from daybreak to sundown. We can hardly imagine life without electric light switches and outlets on every wall, coffee machines, wristwatches, indoor plumbing, the rapid transit triad of “trains, planes, and automobiles,” and laptop computers (on which, somewhat ironically, I am typing this very essay about the dangers of technology!).

Our lives are regimented by mechanisms: alarm clocks, work schedules based on efficiency and productivity quotas per hour, precisely timed “periods” at school, numerical evaluation systems (grades, polls, units of electricity or natural gas used per month, etc.). In other words, our lives are fundamentally technical and mechanical, and from day to day, unless we are the sorts of people who consciously reflect on things that most people just take for granted, we do not see much wrong with it. I have had people look at me like I had a third eye in the middle of my head merely because I asked whether the phenomenon of a grocery store rigidly tracking the number of items that go into each plastic bag each hour on each register – and then penalizing the cashiers for not meeting a predefined number – is a fundamentally dehumanizing activity.

As a culture we endlessly debate amongst ourselves whether our schools can or ought to teach morality, and its linchpin, religion. As a whole culture, the cultivation of virtue is not very important to us, having been eclipsed by our utter fascination with increasing technological sophistication. Virtue, or morality, is, in fact widely considered to be relative to what makes a given individual “happy” – and no one outside of that individual has any right to question his or her concept of “happiness.”

Happiness, furthermore, is in our culture frequently confused with the mere possession of mass quantities of technological stuff. I recently saw an ad at Wal-Mart for the latest 52” High Definition flatscreen television, which quoted a customer (real or imagined, it does not matter) claiming, “This was such a good price, I bought five of them!” Lost in the glamor and glitz of the bright color ad and the logically fallacious appeal known as “bandwagon” (“everyone is doing it; so should you!”) was, of course, the deeper ethical question of whether anyone truly needs a 52” flatscreen television (regardless of the “always low price”) – let alone needs five of them. And we must not forget, Wal-Mart goes on to tell us, that with that new 52” High Definition flatscreen television, we must also get a new Blu-Ray DVD player and a 5.1 Dolby Surround Sound system (each also “always low price”), so that we can be entertained in style right in our own living rooms. We deserve it, after all.

To contemplate such examples as these and still claim that technology is morally neutral is, I think, to miss the forest of transcendent ethical truth for the trees of individual behavior. It is true enough that the greed expressed in “This was such a good price that I bought five of them!” originates in an individual’s warped heart, not with the mere existence of a 52” High Definition flatscreen television. Evil is not in the stuff, but in our hearts – which is why the Archimedean solution of simply debasing the “vulgarity” of embodied life in favor of abstract speculation is no answer, but another side of the same problem.

Nevertheless, to remain on the level of evaluation that says “technology is not evil, people are evil,” is to fail to ask larger questions such as how the existence of this whole massive interlocked complex of entertainment technology facilitates the expression of, not the repression of, the twisted desires of our hearts. If it was not televisions, our greed would focus on something else, this is true. But the specific manner in which the televisions encourage our greed is very much a question worth asking. The technological things with which we are obsessed are not at all “Archimedean trifles.”

We must learn to ask the deeper questions if we are to be wise and culturally virtuous Christians.