A Light from the East: ancient perspectives on modern technology

One of the most urgent questions of the 20th and 21st Centuries is as to whether the exponentially increasing rate of technological advancement is something to be welcomed or feared. Similarly, one may wonder whether such advancement is neutral, or whether it reflects the values of society. Finally, one may wonder if such technological revolution is simply a continuation of man’s ingenuity, or if it represents some kind of fundamental break with tradition. Ironically, these questions are in no way new. More than two and a half millennia ago, thinkers in the East wrestled with similar questions over the benefits and drawbacks of human artifice. Therefore, in order to begin to answer the pressing questions of contemporary technology, one must first look to ancient China. 

The original critics of technology were the ancient Taoists, a school of thought founded by the quasi-mythical Lao-Tsu, which preached a return to natural simplicity some five hundred years before Christ walked the earth. The Taoists were suspicious of any and all human artifice, which they perceived to lead to human selfishness and vice. The core text of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, councils the wise one to “keep [men] without knowledge and without desire, and where there are those who have knowledge, to keep them from presuming to act (on it). [for] Where there is abstinence from action, good order is universal.” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

This jarring prohibition springs from the Taoists’ veneration of the order and harmony which they perceived in nature: what they called, the “Tao.” This Tao and the harmony it represents is inherently universal and impersonal: “Heaven is long-enduring and earth continues long. The reason why heaven and earth are able to endure and continue thus long is because they do not live of, or for, themselves.” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching) Any action man takes is inherently against this universal order, because it imposes his personality and therefore his selfishness upon the order, no matter how well-intentioned it is. In the words of the Tao Te Ching, “When the Great Tao ceased to be observed, benevolence and righteousness came into vogue. (Then) appeared wisdom and shrewdness, and there insured great hypocrisy.” (Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching)

Overall, any attempt by man to innovate upon the way of nature is doomed to fail for the Taoists, because it involves the prideful attempt of an individual to reorder the universal harmony of all things.

Directly opposed to the Taoist school of thought was the school of the Confucians, also founded around 500 BC by Kung-Fu-Tse (Confucius). The Confucians, in contrast, saw the harmony of nature as something to be imitated and upheld through human ingenuity; one writing affirms that, “What Heaven has conferred is called Nature; an accordance with nature is called the Way (Tao); the regulation of this Way is called Instruction.” (Kung Ji, The Doctrine of the Mean) Similarly, another Confucian work, The Great Learning, affirms that, “All must consider the cultivation of the person the root of everything.” Confucians, it seems, saw that man’s ingenuity is as much a part of nature as the rest of him, and that to act and innovate is in fact the natural way for man to harmonize with nature.

While these two schools of thought seem diametrically opposed, they actually agree on several fundamental points, and together hold many lessons about man and nature for the modern world. The most important insight they share is that there is in fact an order to nature, an order which man ought to imitate and which he by his own actions has the ability to pervert. This insight was shared by Romano Guardini in the early 20th Century in his various attempts to make sense of advanced technology which make up his work Letters from Lake Como. Here, he contends that “riding on the tractor is different from following the plow.” Here, he distinguishes between human artifice that he considers in accord with nature and artifice which is opposed to nature. While the plow is still subject to natural forces and the natural order of things, the tractor proceeds by its own source of power, and can disregard such an order. He also gives an example in the way of watercraft. On the one hand, he considers the sailboat, which harnesses the natural force of the wind in order to sail. On the other hand, he gives the examples of a motorboat, a steam ship, and even an ocean liner, which operate on artificial sources of energy and can effectively disregard the forces and patterns of nature; “it is so large that nature no longer has power over it; we can no longer see nature in it (…) Mark you, something decisive has been lost here.” Thus, the last question can be answered first: modern technology, inasmuch as it seeks to conquer the order of nature, represents a fundamental break with tradition. Armed with such technology, man’s power is not limited by an objective and intrinsic natural order but instead may reform it according to his own desires.

Consequent upon this distinction is a second fundamental lesson Taoism and Confucianism have to teach modernity: that action and artifice are more connected than modern man supposes. Both represent an imposition of man’s own ideas and order upon the order of nature; because they reflect the dispositions and values of their source, neither human action, nor human art can be neutral. The values behind them therefore have profound effects upon their society. Both have the ability to cause or destroy societal harmony, because both are public and both have influence that goes beyond the individual. At the moment the presence of technology in everyday life is more than more than ubiquitous; rather, it is so pervasive that it goes unnoticed. Therefore, this simple truth bears meditating on: just as actions are teachers, so is technology a teacher. 

The ultimate question, of whether or not modern technology ought to be embraced, depends ultimately upon what kind of values it instills within society. In the view of the Taoists and Confucians, as well as Guardini, modern technology as it is currently conceived of cannot instill anything good, for its first premise is to reject the order of nature. This order, as they contend, is no less a moral order than a natural one. To eliminate it is not only to remove man’s limits but to remove man’s conscience. If they are right, then there is no further room for debate: the next great advancements in modern technology must be received with the utmost trepidation.

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