Christianity and the History of Technology, Part Four

This is the third in a series of posts discussing the work of a handful of scholars exploring the historical relationship between Christianity and technology. Firstsecond, and third post. 

George Ovitt’s The Restoration of Perfection: Labor and Technology in Medieval Culture, published in 1987, provides the first book length treatment of the major themes advanced in White’s thesis. Ovitt, who in his preface pays appropriate academic homage to White, sets out to explore more fully the claims made on behalf of Christian faith and practice in relation to medieval attitudes toward technology. Ovitt’s analysis is also deeply influenced by Max Weber and Lewis Mumford’s application of Weberian insights to Benedictine monasticism. Finally, Ovitt also tests the alternative claims made by Jacques Le Goff in his 1980 evaluation of medieval attitudes toward labor and technological development. Against White’s thesis, Le Goff argued that shifting theological attitudes toward labor and technology followed upon rather than instigated transformations in economic and material conditions.

In addition to his evaluation of prior scholarship, Ovitt also contributes a chapter on the medieval and Christian roots of the notion of progress. The notion of progress becomes another important semantic net that catches significant elements of the relationship of religion and technology. Ovitt concludes that early Christian writers, and their medieval heirs, acknowledged material progress and human sovereignty over nature, but these were linked inextricably to moral progress and “the striving for sovereignty over the more intractable self.”

Notions of progress, in other words, were not yet, as they later would be, reduced to or considered equivalent to technical progress. In this, as in countless other ways, the Western medieval church took its cue from Augustine whose view of the mechanical arts can best be labeled as ambiguous.

Turning specifically to the claims advanced by White and Benz, Ovitt chooses to test them by conducting an extensive review of the medieval period’s hexaemeral literature, i.e., commentaries on the six days of creation. His review of this literature leads Ovitt to substantially qualify both Benz’s claims regarding the image of God as craftsman and White’s suggestion that Christian theology sanctioned a rapacious posture toward nature.

Ovitt finds that while there is ample evidence of the portrayals of God as craftsman in the hexaemeral literature of the Latin Church, it is balanced by the continued portrayal of God as a detached and transcendent Creator — a portrayal shared with the Eastern Church — which appears just as frequently as the image of God as craftsman. Additionally, Ovitt suggests that when the image of God as craftsman is employed, it often suggests that as the finished products of the craftsman’s hand are often put to uses contrary to the craftsman’s intentions, so too the work of God’s hands, namely humanity, often rebels against the intentions of the Creator.

Regarding, White’s thesis, Ovitt follows earlier critics in questioning whether, on the one hand, White has adequately described the biblical data and its theological elaboration, and, on the other, whether such a direct, causal connection could in any case be reasonably drawn between a religious perspective and the cultural consensus. Ovitt’s research additionally suggests that the more common depiction of humanity’s relationship to creation is better understood as one of custodianship or stewardship rather than unbridled exploitation. Moreover, Ovitt points out that the idea that nature exists to be used by human beings does not by itself explain the uses to which it is put. Ovitt approvingly cites Mumford’s suggestion that it was not until Francis Bacon’s introduction of “‘a power-hungry technical mentality’ that the West took off on the self-destructive course it now follows.”

Moreover, if we look for the “direct result of the medieval Christian ethic of domination” we find “a long-lived tradition of craftsmanship and subsistence farming” — “democratic polytechnics,” in Mumford’s terms, rather than “authoritarian megatechnics.”

The “really significant question for the histoiry [sic] of technology” in Ovitt’s view, “is not what Christianity taught about the domination of nature, but what Christianity taught about the domination of human beings by other human beings.”

And with this Ovitt turns to consider medieval social and education systems, specifically the practice of labor in the monastic orders and the place of the mechanical arts in medieval classifications of knowledge. Regarding the former, Ovitt indeed finds that the monastic tradition, in both its eremitic and cenobitic manifestations, upheld the fundamental dignity and spiritual usefulness of labor. Moreover, Ovitt finds the Rule of St. Benedict to be the most “effective reconciliation” of the spiritual needs of the individual and the economic needs of the community. Most importantly, he concludes that contrary to the later logic of capitalism, the significance of labor did not reside in “its products or uses of technology and invention quantitatively as a means of enhancing productivity,” rather it resided in the “process of labor” which was aimed at personal holiness and communal self-sufficiency.

Ovitt reasonably concludes that a Weberian analysis of monasticism’s role in incubating incipient capitalism as well as fostering a peculiarly Western enthusiasm for technology should be balanced by the spirit of Augustine’s prayer — “O Lord, I am working hard in this field, and the field of my labors is my own self” — which expressed the dominant medieval priorities.

In his survey of medieval classifications of knowledge, particularly that of Hugh of Saint Victor in the twelfth century and Thomas Aquinas’ in the thirteenth, Ovitt finds a generally positive estimation of the mechanical arts even while they retain the lowest rank among the various arts. In his estimation, more than their admission into the theologians’ classifications of knowledge was needed to generate the particular enthusiasm for technology that would come to distinguish Western society. What was needed was the decoupling of “labor, and labor’s tools from the realm of the sacred and the control of theologians” and a renewed interest in judging technology by its products rather than its effects on the spiritual lives of its users.

This would be achieved, ironically, by the Gregorian Reform movement originating within the church which sought to clarify the respective roles of the church and the state. In so doing, the church sanctioned a three-fold division of society including those who ruled and fought, those who labored, and those who prayed. This division tacitly endorsed the separation of labor from the purview of the church and created the space for technology to evolve apart from moral and spiritual constraints or considerations. Contrary to White, then, Ovitt suggests that Christianity’s chief contribution to the evolution of distinctly Western attitudes to technology may have been its stepping out of the way as it were.

Ovitt’s study significantly complicates the historical arguments made by Benz and White as well as Ellul’s earlier summary of Christianity’s relationship to technique. The total picture is on the whole more ambiguous than the work of any of these scholars would lead readers to believe. Medieval attitudes toward nature, labor, and the mechanical arts were on the whole positive but hardly enthusiastic. More importantly, Ovitt convincingly showed that technical considerations were, as one might expect, consistently subordinated to spiritual ends as demonstrated by the Benedictine’s willingness to lay aside labor when it became possible to commission a lesser order of lay brothers or even paid laborers to perform the work necessitated by the community. Ovitt’s work has appropriately taken its place beside that of White as a major contribution to the scholarly exploration of the relationship of medieval Christianity to Western technology. If we are to find the sources of western enthusiasm for technology it is necessary to begin with medieval Christianity, but after Ovitt’s thorough work it is no longer possible to end there.

(Next up: Susan White on liturgy and technology and David Noble on “the religion of technology.”)

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