By Veronica A. Arntz
When you walk into a coffee shop, what are the sights and sounds that you see and hear? The barista masterfully works behind the counter to concoct a drink for the impatient businessman. Indie music plays overhead while an array of individuals sit at the various tables, embracing the new day. There is a low rumble of chatter, but surprisingly, most in the shop are not talking with each other. They are either buried in their computer or perpetually staring down into a small screen. The coffee shop’s potential community is disrupted by the presence of tiny machines. Rather than being filled with lively discussion and community—like the Eagle and Child pub where the Inklings met—it is filled with a noiseless roar, the roar of individuals consumed by a world of virtual chatter.
Much has been discussed recently regarding the use of technology and its negative effects on individuals, families, and communities. In a First Things article entitled “Look at Me” (May 2016), Patricia Snow writes of technology’s negative effects on children: “Students are so caught up in their phones, one teacher says, ‘they don’t know how to pay attention to class or to themselves or to another person or to look in each other’s eyes and see what is going on.’” Because of the smartphone’s immense power, students lack attention for their studies, teachers, and fellow classmates. Much like the coffee shop example, students often communicate virtually (amongst themselves and with others) while sitting at the same table.
In a New York Times article entitled “The End of Reflection,” Teddy Wayne, after listing some shocking statistics regarding the use of smartphones, quotes Nicholas Carr, author of “The Shallows,” who believes that we are experiencing the “loss of the contemplative mind.” This loss runs deeper than losing the ability to think comprehensively. The ancient philosophers believed that man should not just fulfill the mundane tasks of this world, but also consider the higher things—being, essence, the causes of the causes, and even virtue. For the ancients, to lose the contemplative mind would mean losing something central to humanity, the highest act of the rational mind.
Aristotle’s Metaphysics is a work ordered to the heights of man’s intellect. Aristotle opens this work by saying, “All men by nature desire to know.” This natural longing for knowledge culminates in the longing to know the first causes. Man desires not merely to live by experiences but also to have wisdom, which tells us the “why” of things, as opposed to merely that a thing is. How does man come to wisdom? Aristotle continues: “For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize.” The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, however, is not possible when there is practical work to be completed. As Aristotle explains, “For it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation were present, that such knowledge began to be sought.” This knowledge of wisdom is not sought for building houses, roads, or bridges. It is not sought for survival or any utilitarian ends. Rather, it is sought for its own sake, because it is good to know the why of things. This desire for knowledge for its own sake is the beginning of contemplation. Studying knowledge for its own sake is the birth of leisure.
Let us consider our own age. Most individuals have all the desirable luxuries and no longer struggle for survival. Houses, cars, clean water, constant entertainment, and grocery stores are not things that we struggle to find or maintain. Why do we have so little leisure? How have we lost the contemplative mind? We cannot hope to have true leisure if we are so involved with our smartphones that we barely look up from them, even when walking or driving. We are still in “survival mode,” in a certain respect. We remain consumed with business details and texting friends that we cannot put our phones away. I am not arguing that we should give up business or friendly communication altogether. But we must allow for time when we just are—when we simply sit in silence, without the constant nagging of our phones, tablets, or other devices. We are too involved with our work, to the point that we cannot survive without it.
In The Philosophical Act, Joseph Pieper makes two notes regarding the world in which we live. The first is that this world is comprised of relations. His second point, which our modern world often disregards, is thus: “The higher the order of being, the more embracing and wider its power of establishing relations—the greater the field of relations within its power.” Because humans are rational creatures, their order of being is higher than a worm or a pig, which means that they can relate to other rational creatures at a higher level, on the level of the intellect. We are not meant to be consumed by the “workaday world,” to the point that we can no longer engage in the act of contemplation, which is man’s highest rational act. For Pieper, this act of contemplation is philosophy brought into being by wonder. He writes, “To philosophize means to withdraw—not from the things of everyday life—but from the currently accepted meaning attached to them, or to question the value placed upon them.” The act of philosophy is to draw away from the world, the practical world in which we live, to understand the true meaning of things.
Moreover, wondering does not simply mean marveling at grand or aesthetically beautiful things. As Pieper explains, “To perceive all that is unusual and exceptional, all that is wonderful, in the midst of the ordinary things of everyday life, is the beginning of philosophy.” Wonder begins in seeing the beauty of the created world in the midst of the mundane things. To be able to marvel at the blueness of the sky, the new tulips in the spring, the height of great mountains when our world is bustling around distracted by smartphones—that is truly human. Wonder penetrates the “deep down things,” to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins. As Pieper continues, “The innermost meaning of wonder is fulfilled in a deepened sense of mystery. It does not end in doubt, but is the awakening of the knowledge that being, qua being, is mysterious and inconceivable.” Wonder recognizes the mystery of the world, the unfathomable, the invisible realities that science will never fully penetrate. In a particular way, we have lost this ability to wonder at the mysterious. When the world is at our fingertips, when we can discover all knowledge at the press of a button, there is no need to marvel at the mysteriousness of the world.
Fundamentally, because we have lost our ability to wonder, we have lost the ability to relate with others. As Pieper showed us, our world is one of relations. If all our relations are virtual, how can they be real? How can we truly know a person? The words that we say in a text or e-mail cannot fully bridge the gap between one person and another. In Plato’s Alcibiades, Socrates explains, “If the soul, Alcibiades, is to know itself, it must look at a soul, and especially at that region in which what makes a soul good, wisdom, occurs, and at anything else which is similar to it.” If a person is to know himself, he must look at other persons—indeed, he must look into their souls, into their deepest part. These souls must be good and wise, if he also wishes to become good and wise. We are social beings, and we cannot live isolated from each other. Continual virtual chatter is not sufficient for coming to self-knowledge, for contemplating one’s own journey in life. Rather, it is merely a distraction from what truly matters, which is real relations with others.
St. Thomas Aquinas explains that, because man’s mind is ordered to understanding the first cause of the universe, namely, God, he is capable of wonder. Yet modern man has rejected God, who is the first cause of the world, and in such a way, he no longer cares to wonder about that world. Certainly, there are many reasons for man’s renunciation of God, but we cannot deny that technology has made it easier. And while there could be many benefits to having a smartphone, the negatives outweigh the positives. As Patricia Snow explains, “The mere sight of a smartphone is distraction enough, both because of the possibilities it suggests to the imagination, and because fortunes have been spent making sure that its phosphorescent display attracts and hold’s man’s gaze.” Thus, for there to be a return to the act of contemplation, it is necessary to eliminate the smartphone—or, at least, ensure that we have an adequate understanding of its power so we know how to use it as a tool appropriately. It has led us to lose our attention, and it distracts us away from what really matters. Although said in the context of studying, Simone Weil’s thoughts on attention apply here as well.
Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object; it means holding in our minds, within reach of this thought, but on a lower level and not in contact with it, the diverse knowledge we have acquired which we are forced to make use of.
Because of technology, we have lost our ability to hold attention on the world around us, on others, even on God. Simone Weil points out that the attention gained in studies is to train us in our attention on God. Similarly, the attention we give to wondering at the world should train our attention given to God in prayer. Thus, it is strange that the smartphone is sometimes used as the mode of praying: how can we expect to give the right attention to God when the device used for work is also used for prayer? Consider what Cardinal Robert Sarah recently said in an address:
Perhaps it is very practical and convenient to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet or another electronic device, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer. These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God.
It is marvelous to hold a real prayer book in your hands, especially if it has ancestral significance. Think of those in medieval times who commissioned illuminated prayer books, with beautiful pictures alongside the prayers to assist in their conversation with God. Do we have the same wonder at the mysteriousness of God when praying with a smartphone as there is when praying with an illuminated prayer brook?
In the last analysis, we have two options: one, we can learn to live in a world consumed by the smartphone, or we can perhaps learn that the smartphone is not necessary for pursuing the things that truly matter, such as wonder, contemplation, and prayer. Having these devices will not allow us to regain the contemplative mind. To do so, we must remove the noiseless roar from our life and regain the silence necessary to hear the voice of God and see him in others and in the world around us.
Veronica Arntz is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology at the Augustine Institute.