Sitting on the soft couch in the semi-darkness, I could see the faces of my friends illumined by the fire. As it sank and rose with the addition of fuel, the firelight on the ceiling danced in a water-like parody of flame. There were no electric lights—you never turn them on when reading the great Catholic educator and philosopher John Senior. Over the course of his two books The Death of Christian Culture and The Restoration of Christian Culture, Senior propounds modern man’s fundamental estrangement from “the real” through his abandonment of the traditional Western paradigm of reality and the embrace of nihilistic, materialistic, and technological fantasies. Part of his vision for restoring men to reality was the drastic reduction of artificial technologies that have alienated modern man from nature: hence the absence of electric lights.
Mitchell Kalpakgian writes in Seniorite vein about the lost arts of conversation and “enjoying people” in the slim but valuable volume The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization. Reminding us in the words of St Thomas that “no man can live without pleasure,” Kalpakgian asserts that the “greatest source of happiness” is “the enjoyment of persons.” In other words, communicating with, loving, and serving our fellow rational animals is at the heart of what it means to be human and fulfills our natures as social beings. Yet since the so-called Enlightenment, the value and significance of the human person has been gradually undermined philosophically, religiously, and ethically. Inability to “enjoy” our fellow humans has reached an all-time low in our own day, with the proliferation of “social” technologies which, in fact, are utterly anti-social. Rather than enhancing our relationships, Facebook, Instagram, and the like have filled them with “apathy” (pun fully intended).
Because of the multiplication of sources of pleasure “in Western societies where materialism and consumerism run riot,” no one is ever at a loss for amusement. “But in this pursuit of pleasure and entertainment, the greatest source of happiness—the enjoyment of persons—is downplayed and underestimated,” Kalpakgian writes. Increased divorce rates, declining birth-rates, and the isolation or killing off (“euthanization”) of the elderly all point to the “inability to appreciate the joy of people.” One of the fundamental issues is the way in which modern technology takes our eyes off of our fellow men, making it impossible to notice their worth and beauty.
This is an issue both of sight and speech: eye contact and conversation are inseparable components of a truly personal interaction. Kalpakgian reminds us of the comment of a young boy in George MacDonald’s At the Back of the North Wind:
Somehow when once you’ve looked into anybody’s eyes, right deep down into them, I mean, nobody will do for that one anymore. Nobody, ever so beautiful or good, will make up for that one going out of sight.
It is impossible to look “right deep down” into anyone’s eyes on Facetime, Zoom, or Skype. Not only that, the “pocket palantír” of the iPhone constantly draws the eyes away from your interlocutor if you allow it to surface in the midst of a conversation.
Conversation is an art, Kalpakgian acknowledges—a lost art:
The practice of civil conversation has also gone the way of the lost arts of letter writing, hospitality, and the enjoyment of people as perennial sources of great joy. As television and film viewing and video games and internet occupy more and more time and leisure, solitary, silent activities replace sociable, hospitable occasions.
True conversation requires both give and take, Kalpakgian continues. “The particular virtues that the art of conversation instills—the ability to listen, the willingness to please, the practice of self-forgetfulness, the habit of tact, the exploration of another’s mind, and the desire to enlarge one’s world—all suffer a lack of development.” The proliferation of “virtual learning” also compounds the problem. “An essential tool of education—dialogue—has been omitted. The pure enjoyment of a person’s voice is lost.” Instead of “bouncing from one of these four horsemen of the social media apocalypse to the other,” to quote Jared Noyes, why don’t we stop and converse? If, as Noyes pointed out recently, we need to become “renaissance men” in order to fill the void created by the abandonment of social media, surely conversation is one of the skills which we must develop. This is not inimical to fun or “having a good time.” Kalpakgian says that when “individuals consume their time on the internet and spend their hours playing computer games and watching films as their primary sources of recreation, the virtues of civility and graciousness are not habitually practiced. Fun is no longer spending time with the people who are loved and befriended but an isolated, individualistic activity that never contributes to the happiness of others.”
This is, of course, a question of friendship. It is a question of coming into contact with the “reality” of people in the sense that Senior uses “the real”: a first hand experience of what is, in all its gritty glory or bloody beauty or hair raising horror. It is the warmth of her hand, not the ping of her text which communicates the reality of affection; the glint in his eye, not the emoji that indicates the reality of agreement; the vibration of laughter, not the Facebook like that conveys amusement. “The spiritual depths in human nature foster relationships of intimacy, oneness, and communion in the bonds of love and friendship, one of life’s greatest pleasures,” Kalpakgian says on another page. It is a question of learning to appreciate the human person.
I imagine most readers of OnePeterFive do have sincere relationships with family and friends. But how often do we cultivate them? If strolling away from someone in the middle of a conversation is unbearably rude, what can we do with our phones? How often do we let our friends and family languish for days or weeks while we scroll away? Look into their eyes with both of yours. Listen to them with both your ears (not with an earbud in one of them). Above all, don’t let texting take the place of real interaction; use it to set up meetings, but once you are interacting, put it away.
“But that’s hard,” you might complain, “we can’t put back the clock. Technology is here to stay and is the only vehicle left with which to do good. My bookclub couldn’t function without it’s group chat.” We were the makers of iPhones and apps and ear-buds; of course we can determine what role (if any) they will play in our lives. The reason we can put clocks back is because they are our creations. Senior writes in The Restoration of Christian Culture,
Of course we can turn back the clock, by which I mean that technology must be re-geared to the proper dimensions of the human good – and not the other way around where people, we are told, “will adjust,” which means be engineered to fit whatever schemes technologists devise.
Wyoming Catholic College’s attitude towards technology was inspired by such sentiments of Senior, and is an example of how “turning the clock back” can in fact work. The rich conversational and social interaction created among the students of such a phone-free school continues to put Wyoming Catholic on a plane above other Newman Guide colleges.
It is possible to free ourselves from social apathy. Kindle your fire not your kindle and invite your friends over. Ready the beverages not the Bose speakers. At the end of the day, it’s as simple as putting away the “chat” and having a conversation instead. Stop texting and start talking.
Photo by Kevin Erdvig on Unsplash
Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in Renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy, and his music on youtube.