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Man and Technique


Letters from lake Como, from the letter IX.

We propose here the concluding thesis of Guardini's famous, short and incisive essay contained in the ninth letter on technique. What in the previous letters seems a simple nostalgic outburst, in the final reflections becomes an optimistic and hopeful vision leading the reader towards the precise proposal of a "new humanization of technique". Technical progress, in itself, is certainly not a bad thing, but it becomes so when the authentically human, and therefore spiritual, dimension of man doesn’t grow in harmony with progress. It is not that technique is to be hindered; it is humanity that must develop. The human being has always to be a lord and never enslaved by what he accomplishes and produces. The task of "humanizing technique" is connected, in Guardini’s view, to the original mandate of Genesis; the commandment to dominate and subjugate the earth has, in its deepest exegetical and spiritual implications, the meaning of humanizing the earth, making it suitable for the development of human life and for the full expression of its spiritual and transcendent dimensions. 

The urgent question was this: In all that is taking place, is a life supported by human nature and fully human work possible? The old world is perishing – "world" in the broadest sense of the term, the epitome of works and institutions and orders and living attitudes. The middle of the nineteenth century was the historical turning point. (Naturally the roots go back much further.) To that world belonged a certain view of humanity that was common despite all the many and great differences. That world was sustained by human beings and in turn sustained them. Human beings created it and gave it life. They kept it alive in their hands. It was their work, expression, object, and instrument, all at the same time. That was culture,  and what we still have in the way of culture today derives from it.

But then came new events of a different type, proportion, and starting point and with a different goal. The forces on which they rested were different, and so was their relation to nature. With these new events, the old order collapsed. And those who supported it, whose blood to some extent we all carry, were homeless. Indeed, they dissolved inwardly, for the older world was through them and they through it.
The new events did not just break into the objective order as a matter of objective culture. They also and above all broke into our living humanity. The development of technology is primarily an inner human process. Hence we are homeless in the midst of barbarism. This is true when we look at things from the point of view of the past , for that is to feel our environment collapsing, and ourselves with it. It is also true when we look at things from the standpoint of what is new both without and within, for then all is still chaos.

Insofar, then, as the question consciously or unconsciously derives the idea of what is humanly valuable from the older picture of humanity, the answer must be no. The new events deprive the people of the older culture of any possibility of being. Furthermore, the process may be made gentler, but it cannot be arrested. Still, we must press the thought more deeply. Into the ancient picture of humanity and the world has burst a new and very different type of being and event. This new thing is destructive because it affects those who do not belong to it. More precisely, it is chaotic and destructive because those who do belong to it are not yet on the scene. It is destructive because it is not under human control. It is a surging ahead of unleashed forces that have not yet been mastered, raw material that has not yet been put together, given a living and spiritual form, and related to humanity. Mastering such raw materials and forces – collecting, shaping, and relating them, and thus creating a world, culture – is something that those who are oriented to the old world cannot do. They do not have the norms or concepts or power for the task. On the older plane the battle for living culture has been lost, and we feel the profound helplessness of those who are old. The battle must now be joined on a new plane. Totally technical events and unleashed forces can be mastered only by a new human attitude that is a match for them. We must put mind, spirit, and freedom to work afresh. But we must relate this new effort to the new events, the new manner and style and inner orientation. It must have its living starting point, its fulcrum, where the process itself begins.

Are the processes only variations on a common theme, or is something historically new irrupting in them? If it is – and I am convinced this is so – then we must say yes to it. I know what this yes costs. Those who are already naively saying it, and those who are able to make rapid switches, will see in the deliberations of these letters only a romantic looking back, a tie to what is past. This may give them a feeling of complacency. Yet there is a yes to what is happening historically that is decision because it springs from a knowing heart . Such a yes has weight. Our place is in what is evolving. We must take our place, each at the right point. We must not oppose what is new and try to preserve a beautiful world that is inevitably perishing. Nor should we try to build a new world of the creative imagination that will show none of the damage of what is actually evolving. Rather, we must transform what is coming to be. But we can do this only if we honestly say yes to it and yet with incorruptible hearts remain aware of all that is destructive and nonhuman in it. Our age has been given to us as the soil on which to stand and the task to master.
At bottom we would not wish it otherwise. Our age is not just an external path that we tread; it is ourselves. Our age is our own blood, our own soul. We relate to it as to ourselves. We love it and hate it at one and the same time. As we are, so we relate to it. If we are thoughtless, we relate to it thoughtlessly. If we say yes to it in the form of decision, then it is because we have had to come to a decision vis-à-vis ourselves.

We love the tremendous power of the age and its readiness for responsibility. We love the resoluteness with which it hazards itself and pushes things to extremes. Our soul is touched by something great that might well emerge. We love it, and our soul is touched, even though we see clearly its questionability relative to the value of the past age. We must be able to see very plainly what is at issue if with a fixed heart we are ready to sacrifice the inexpressible nobility of the past.

Nor is it true that what is taking place is not Christian. The minds at work in it may often be non-Christian, but the events as such are not. It is Christianity that has made possible science and technology and all that results from them. Only those who has been influenced by the immediacy of the redeemed soul to God and the dignity of the regenerate, so that they were aware of being different from the world around them, could have broken free from the tie to nature in the way that this has been done in the age of technology. The people of antiquity would have been afraid of hubris here. Only those to whom the relationship with God gave a sense of the unconditional, only those to whom the parable of the treasure hid in the field, the parable of the pearl of great price, and the saying about having to lose one's life showed that there is something for which everything must be given up, were capable of the kind of decision for something ultimate that is dominant in science today and in its search for truth even should this make life impossible, or in technology today in its pressing ahead even should this call all human being into question with its transformation of the world. Only those to whom Christian faith had given profound assurance about eternal life had the confidence that such an undertaking requires. But the forces, of course, have broken free from the hands of living personalities. Or should we say that the latter could not hold them and let them go free? These forces have thus fallen victim to the demonism of number, machine, and the will for domination.

In appropriate activity we now have to penetrate the new thing so as to gain mastery over it. We have to become lords of the unleashed forces and shape them into a new order that relates to humanity. In the last resort only living people and not the tackling of technological problems themselves can do this. There are, of course, technological and scientific tasks, but people have to perform them. A new humanity must emerge of more profound intelligence, new freedom, new inwardness, new form, new ability to give form. It must be of such a kind that it already has new events in all the fibres of its being and in its manner of apprehension. The new science may be monstrous, the economic and political organization gigantic, the technology powerful when measured by the standards of living science, economy, politics, and technology, but they are only raw material. What we need is not less technology but more. Or, more accurately, we need stronger, more considered, more human technology. We need more science, but it must be more intellectual and designed; we need more economic and political energy, but it must be more mature and responsible, able to see the details in the whole contexts to which it belongs. All of that is possible, however, only if living people first make their influence felt in the sphere of objective nature, if they relate this nature to themselves and in this way create a "world" again.

We have to create a world again out of the most monstrous raw materials and forces of all kinds. We originally confronted the task of having to assert ourselves vis-à-vis nature, which then threatened us on all sides because it had not been mastered by us and was thus a chaos for us. “Fill the earth and subdue it”; that chaos – chaos from our standpoint – was shaped into a human world.

To the extent that we did this, taking possession of the world and achieving security over against it and in it, by this creativity we have released new forces that had not yet been released by our own attitude and the form of the world we had created. These forces have increased, and now they have unleashed a new chaos. In the spiral line of history we are now over the point where the first task confronted the race, that of creating a "world." We are again threatened on all sides, this time by a chaos that results from our own creating.

We must first say yes to our age. We cannot solve the problem by retreating or simply seeking to alter or improve. Only a new initiative can bring a solution. It has to be possible to tread the path of developing awareness until we achieve an inner standard, not one imposed by external limitations. It has to be possible at the same time to attain a new inner security independent of what is burning in that awareness, an attitude of respect that supports the knowledge, a new naiveté of consciousness, an ability to believe in the midst of skepticism. It has to be possible also to dispel illusion, to see the limits of existence sharply drawn, and yet to attain to a new infinitude that proceeds from mind and spirit.

Further, it must be possible to tackle the task of mastering nature in a way that is appropriate, but also to find a new sphere of freedom for the soul, to give back true security to life, to achieve an attitude, a disposition, a new order of living, standards of what is excellent and what is despicable, of what is permissible and what is impermissible, of responsibility, of limits, etc., by which we can hold in check the danger of destruction presented by arbitrary natural forces.

We must be willing to see the older aristocracy of small numbers vanish, to accept the fact of everything in mass, to accept the fact that even among the masses each person has rights and life and goods, yet also to bring integration and to arrive at a new ranking of value and humanity.

Finally, it has to be possible to follow the technological path to a meaningful goal, to let technological forces develop with their own dynamic even though in the process the old order perishes, but out of these powers of an adult humanity to create a new order, a new cosmos.

Romano Guardini, Letters from Lake Como. Explorations in Technology and the Human Race, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), pp. 78-85, translated by G.W. Bromiley, introduction by Louis Dupré.