McLuhan Studies : Issue 4

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Hugh McDonald

Asceticism and the Electronic Media

Technophilia and Technophobia in the Perspective of Christian Philosophy

Technology forms our human milieu. It is our environment. As an environment it is hidden from us, and we must deliberately direct our attention to it in order to see how it affects us. Technophobia is the attitude of one who desires a return to a mythical state before technology, a return to a natural state. Technophilia is the attitude of one who sees all hope for mankind's future happiness in technical and scientific progress.

The technophobe is often called a Luddite, after the revolt of cloth-workers in England who destroyed the machinery in cotton mills that were rendering their work obsolete.[1] The technophile is often the technocrat, one who believes that industry and government should invest heavily in technical solutions to human problems. In the field of education in particular, the technophile demands that man learns to conform to the demands of new technology.

Technology in general and the electronic communications media (including all types of information technology) represent great goods, but as with any great good, they can be the occasion of great evil. It is necessary to recognize the effects of the media on ourselves as individuals and on society. As with anything that offers great attractions, it is necessary to develop an asceticism that preserves us from the abuse of technology.


A return to a state of pure nature is impossible, because, as Aristotle teaches us, man is unlike other animals in that he lives by art and reasoning.[2] Our human use of technology is, in fact, a sign that we are more than mere animals. Technology as human skill put to work is a sign of man's spirit. Man transforms the material world, elevating it by his spirit. The transformation of matter in human work has its beginning in the human spirit. It begins in man's intellect, as he conceives the plan and goal of the work of transforming the material world. Man, as possessing an intellect, is a spirit. Man is the highest of animals and the lowest of spirits, the unique creature at the boundary of the two worlds of matter and spirit.[3] Man constitutes a point of intersection between the material and spiritual order, and so he has the capabilities and powers of things in the material order, and those of the beings in the spiritual order. So, in man there is a remarkable diversity of powers, greater than that of animals or angels.[4]

If by nature we mean the merely material order, the order of things that act without intellect or volition, man cannot return to a state of nature because he was never in that state. Jean Jacques Rousseau was influential in spreading the idea of the "noble savage", as if man could exist in a condition where it was not necessary to form organized societies, or where man did not use tools of his own making to transform and exploit the natural world. The massacre of vast populations in Cambodia in the Khmer Rouge's "Year Zero" perhaps best exemplifies Rousseau's reasoning followed to its logical conclusion.[5] The Khmer Rouge believed that literacy and Western Civilization corrupted man, and that a happy society could only be achieved by erasing all the effects of civilization.

On the other hand, we cannot succeed in moving beyond nature. Man is not a pure spirit. The spirit that is man is a spirit which operates through the body. The spirit is that which informs the human body and makes it alive. The book of Genesis teaches us that man and woman are created in the image and likeness of God. The image of God in man is primarily found in man's intellect, which is what specifically sets him apart from other animals, and is the quality that makes him a member of the world of spirits.[6] In this sense, the angels are images of God to a greater degree than man, since their intellects are not impeded by the possession of a body. In another sense, man's position in the material world allows him to share and represent God's creative activity in a way that angels cannot. Human reproduction, that a human being can be the cause of another human being (together with God), is a reflection of the procession of the Persons of the Trinity. The dominion of the soul over the body, for the soul is in every part of the body, is a reflection of God's dominion over the natural world [7]. Man's work, by which he transforms the material world, is also a participation in God's creative work.[8] All human work begins with an idea in man's intellect, the existence of a form according to the mode of exemplar causality, and then this idea bursts forth in activity, and man brings the form into actual existence in the material world. In this way, man's work transforms the material world, and in a sense also spiritualizes it. The forms introduced into matter by the work of man's hands begin in the spiritual realm, since they begin in man's intellect. Man's unique relation to the material world as an embodied spirit makes him the image of God in a way that angels are not.


Although the intellectual understanding is not the act of any physical organ, the intellect of man must mature through the process of sense cognition. Without a sensory life man has no contact with reality, and the intellect remains empty. One peril of technology is in the illusion that we can transcend the limits of our bodies. In this sense, Marshall McLuhan and Bruce Powers warn of the danger of "discarnate man", where man loses contact with his body, also called "angelism".[9]

Every technology has specific and predictable effects on the user. As an instrument it will extend and amplify some pre-existing human power or organ. When one power of man is amplified, this affects the order and equilibrium that exists within man. A man who loses his sight becomes more aware of his other senses. In fact, parts of the brain which process visual data in a sighted person, are used to process the data of other senses in a blind person. When a man regains his sight, the other senses recede. Each technology requires man's attention in a new way, as it accelerates and extends a particular human faculty. This requirement of attention means that man is not only the master and creator of technology, but that there is a reverse process, whereby man becomes dependent on technology and is shaped by it.

The user of information technology finds that physical distance and physical limitations become irrelevant. It changes the way we relate to our own psycho-somatic unity, and how we relate to others. The telegraph was the first electric information technology, and it made people aware of events on other continents more quickly than they were aware of events in neighboring villages. Starting with the telegraph, our picture of the world has changed. The removal of the barrier of distance in communications has created what McLuhan called the "Global Village". In the English language, the term "village" means a small community, but also has a pleasant emotional resonance, of a place of loving neighbors. McLuhan, however, warned that the global village is not necessarily a friendly place. The removal of the barriers of distance can also worsen conflicts. The overcoming of physical limitations, and the appearance that the human body itself is obsolete, is an effect of technologies such as virtual reality and many modes of computer communications. It is part of modern life that we can form friendships and associations with people over the Internet without ever seeing them, and yet may never have spoken with our closest neighbor.

The temptation of technology has always existed. The Book of Wisdom describes the effects of idolatry, where man worships the works of his own hands.[10] The work of man's hands is something dependent upon man for its existence and meaning, and when man puts his own works in place of a superior being, or as the Supreme Being, he begins to imitate his own works, and is demeaned. The makers of idols shall become like them, with eyes that do not see, ears that do not hear. The reversal of the proper order of man to his products leads in turn to disorder in all realms of man's life.

Electric communication technology goes further than any of the previous products of man's skill. Earlier technologies extended the power of man's limbs, and with the invention of writing, man's memory in a sense could be placed outside of himself. Present communication technologies supplant man's external senses, and more recently, the internal senses of imagination and the most important, the central or common sense, which brings the various data of the external senses together into a cohesive unity. The world of information, however conceived, may appear to exist in its own right by means of electronics, and the human user becomes a mere participant in that world. This involves a process that Marshall McLuhan called auto-amputation.[11] At a biological level, the human organism seeks to maintain a state of homeostasis or equilibrium. Anything that upsets that balance is a shock to the system and the system will react in order to restore the balance. This sums up the clinical observations of Hans Selye, who formulated a general theory of disease based on stress.[12] Hans Selye's observations concern man's somatic dimension, but he is aware of the psycho-somatic unity of man. A perceived threat will result in a physical reaction as much as actual physical injury. When our ability to gather information is enhanced by technology, we are placed under greater stress, and to maintain equilibrium we must find strategies to cope with it. One strategy is to withdraw from the flood of information. Another strategy is to try and absorb it. This has two effects. One effect is that of numbness or anaesthesia. If we cannot control the speed with which information comes to us, then we become less sensitive to it. The numbing effect is auto-amputation, where we try to separate the offending faculty from ourselves. The other effect is pattern recognition. At the same time we become insensitive to the increased number of individual details, we may become aware of larger patterns. Another strategy, is to try and fight the threat to equilibrium, in this case, the increased flow of information.

In order to give a concrete example, if we watch television or travel in cars, we are able to see within a very short time, even within an hour, more individual faces that our ancestors, who traveled by foot, would see in their whole lives. Our ability to absorb new faces is limited. The driver reacts properly by focusing on the task of driving, and diverting his attention from the increased flow of details such as the faces of pedestrians. The television viewer may react by becoming numb. The faces on television no longer have an emotional effect on him. He may also feel threatened, and this, I think, is the root of the feeling that there are too many people on the earth. A traveler who goes through China and India on foot does not get the impression that there are too many people. A person in a large crowd sees perhaps twenty people around him, but a camera above the crowd reveals a crowd incomprehensible to human imagination. The widespread anxiety among people in the first world about there being too many people is an effect of them seeing thousands of faces on television, whereas someone may walk for hours on the streets of the suburbs without seeing a single person.

Thomas Aquinas was aware of the effects of the senses on the intellect. The senses are necessary to the life of the intellect, but the senses should also be properly ordered to the intellect and subordinate to the intellect. A disorder or imbalance in the sensory realm can lead to a disorder in the intellect. Since the new technologies place more demands on our senses as they extend the power of the senses, this same technology also demands new forms of asceticism.


Man as the composite of soul and matter is both an animal and a spirit, but he is not an animal nor a spirit in a qualified sense. The other animals have a kind of knowledge, as they have their external senses and internal senses such as the common sense, discerning relations between objects in space and time, and the estimative sense, which teaches the animals to seek some things and to flee others. The estimative sense consists in an entire repertoire of behaviors, and is different in the case of each animal. We may call the estimative sense instinct. Instinct also involves the appetite, not only that an animal knows that something is edible, but desires and seeks to eat it.

In a qualified sense, man as well knows some things by instinct. At the purely biological level, there is little innate practical knowledge as in other animals. Perhaps only to survive the first days of life, a child knows how to breathe and where to seek nourishment. Yet even the innate knowledge of breathing passes, and a child must learn how to breathe at a later stage.

In another sense, we can affirm that man is determined by his nature. We have no free will in our desire to be happy.[13] This determination is not a material determination however, since we have free will with regard to the means to happiness. The desire for happiness may be called a natural instinct, but it is such an instinct that indicates very clearly the spiritual nature of man. Desire or appetite only requires prior knowledge, and the happiness that man seeks is not to be found in any limited good. Since the senses can know only limited goods, the human desire for happiness is a sign of intellectual knowledge, and hence a sign of man's spirituality.

Man as an animal, however, must act in the material world. Other animals are specified by their instincts. As long as a given animal is within his own ecological niche, his instincts work infallibly. When a brute animal is within its natural environment, its knowledge operates promptly and consistently, and it finds it pleasurable to act in accordance with its instincts. This places man at a disadvantage, since if a man had to deliberate consciously before each action, he would die. Therefore, in place of instincts, man acquires habits, which allow him to act promptly, consistently and without psychological resistance in a fixed way. It would be misleading to say that a habit is a pre-conscious mode of behavior. The formation of habits requires some element of conscious reasoning. In the case of the formation of habits in children, it is the parents who are doing the reasoning. Once a man acquires a habit, the habit is like a second nature, and sometimes it is difficult or even impossible to resist.

Moral habits are ones of a general nature that are essential to a good man, regardless of culture. The four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance are cross-cultural. No society ever honors men who are fools because they are fools, thieves because they are thieves, cowards as such, or gluttons. If a hero was a glutton, or a genius was a coward, he is honored despite his vices, not because of them. Other habits regard only particular environments. Particular technical habits include language skills, professional skills, and technical skills. It is not necessary to speak in a particular way, with a particular language and accent in order to be a good man in an unqualified sense, nor does one technical skill lead to moral perfection more than another. Yet every human being starts off as a tabula rasa and is completed by the formation of habits, not only moral habits, but technical habits.

Since a habit is a fixed disposition, it specifies man. Apart from the difference of gender, the greatest diversity in human beings is not from biological determination but from their acquired habits. In the 1960s cultural critics spoke of a generation gap, a cultural difference that made it impossible for people under 30 years of age to understand those over that age. The difference was not based on mere age, but on the habits formed by a new technological environment. That technological environment was principally the one formed by television. Likewise, there is a great cultural difference between those who have acquired the habits of using computer technology and those who have not. Marshall McLuhan's contribution was to show how we could understand the cultural effects of new technology by examining the impact that printing had on culture.[14]

It is easier to examine the effects of technology on culture in retrospect. The effects upon the user of a new technology remains hidden. For example, driving a car requires a specific habitual way of focusing attention that differs from that of the pedestrian. The operator of a motor vehicle has to become more aware of traffic signs, road conditions, and the intentions of other drivers. He must also become less aware of all other things. Unless he makes a conscious effort to counteract his cognitive habits, the driver will see the world in a different way when he is not driving.


Every thing that acts acts for an end. It is easy to reduce all man's actions to the desire for happiness. The ultimate purpose of our actions is the reason for all the intermediate purposes. To understand the meaning of McLuhan's phrase "The Medium is the Message", we need to look to the philosophy of Aristotle and Thomas. Marshall McLuhan wrote in a letter to J.M. Davey, in the office of Prime Minister Trudeau:

It turns out then, that my communication theory is Thomistic to the core. It has the further advantage of being able to explain Aquinas and Aristotle in modern terms. We are the content of anything we use, if only because these things are extensions of ourselves.[15]

Human cognition is primarily and objectively aimed at knowing the forms of material things. This is the fundamental realism of human cognition. The knowledge of concepts is not the primary purpose of cognition, but it is through concepts that we know things. Only after we know things, can we then reflect and ask how we know. It is then that we become aware of the mediating role of the concept. The concept is something that necessarily lies between the object of knowledge and the judgment of the intellect. To lie between is to be a medium. There are more than one media between the object itself and the act of judgment that is the final end of knowledge or "message". In bodily sight, light itself intermediates, then the sense impression or vision in the eye, and finally an act of perceiving consciously what the physical sense is providing. In mental sight, the light of the mind making things known is a medium, as is the concept or species in the intellect, and then the mind makes a relation between the species or concept and reality in an act of judgment, as the mind acts as a mirror of reality, which is another sense in which there is a medium in cognition.[16] It is normal for these media to remain invisible during objective cognition. If someone says, "There is a fire in the building," we do not turn our attention to the mediating role of words and concepts, but to a real and impending danger, and act accordingly.

However, whenever we know something, we simultaneously know that we know. This is called concomitant reflection, which means that it is an act of reflection that always and necessarily accompanies objective cognition. It is the essential element of consciousness. Normally this reflection forms the background of cognition. We do not normally remind ourselves or others of what is implicit, as in saying "I know there is a fire" instead of "There is a fire." The mind or soul is not always aware of itself as separate or distinct from other things.[17] Self knowledge may not always exist in act (with attention focused on the soul), but, through concomitant reflection, it always exists in potency. When the soul sees its act, it sees itself. When I see myself thinking, I see myself. In this way, the medium becomes the message. This may be further extended as one moves from a knowledge of oneself as an image to a knowledge of God as Him to whose image we are created. Through the act of reflection the media themselves become the message, and so we have the seeds of McLuhan's theory of communication and its effects in the teaching of Aquinas.

Marshall McLuhan went further in saying that we are unaware of the role of the various artificial communication media without an act of reflection. The printed word "American Flag" and the flag itself are both media of communication. The printed word, however, does not evoke an emotional response in an American, whereas the actual flag, or a picture of it, does. The media of communication affect the way in which we receive the communication, and so the media themselves bear a message. We can find some precedents for McLuhan's observation in the philosophical tradition.

Plato tells a fable about the invention of writing.[18] When the Egyptian god Theuth invented writing, he presented his invention to the King of Thebes, expecting to be praised for an invention which would extend the power of memory. The king of Thebes instead said that this invention would cause men to lose their memory, since they would simply write things down and forget them. Likewise, printed words could fall into the possession of anyone, who then can repeat them and appear wise without knowing what they mean. The spoken word comes from the mind of a teacher, and where the teacher's message is unclear, the disciple can ask him. Written words, however, do not speak when we ask them questions.

Aquinas asks whether divine realities should be veiled by obscure and novel words.[19] In teaching, the teacher must see that the disciple does not learn things before he is ready. His words should be measured to help rather than hinder his students. He also has the responsibility of preventing people of bad will from receiving things which are difficult to understand. As Our Lord says, "Do not through what is holy to the dogs." In speaking it is possible to be discrete. We can say things to the wise that we do not mention to the crowds. A written book, however, can fall into the hands of anyone, and so it is not possible to preserve the truth by silence from distortion or misuse. It is possible to express difficult realities under new words, so that even if the wrong person reads the book, he will not make any progress

Aquinas also addresses the question of why Our Lord did not write down his doctrine.[20] The greatest teachers among the gentiles, Pythagoras and Socrates, did not write anything. What is heard impresses itself in the soul of the listener, and what is written is for the purpose of reading. Our Lord taught as one who had power (Mt. 7, 29), not as the scribes and pharisees. Also, the excellence of Christ's doctrine could not be contained by mere written words, as John the Apostle says that the world itself could not contain all the books that would have to be written to tell of the things that Christ did. If Christ had written things down, many would think that there is no more to his doctrine that what is contained in scripture. It could also be noted that it is not merely the number of things that Christ did and taught that cannot be contained by mere written words, but also the quality. When something happens that is utterly unlike anything else that happened, we find that the words we use are inadequate, since words evoke images drawn from common experience.

In a similar argument, Aquinas teaches us that the New Law is not a written law.[21] The Law of Moses was written in tablets, but the Law of Christ is written in men's hearts. The New Law is principally the grace of the Holy Spirit which is given to Christ's faithful. This law is nothing other than the very presence of the Holy Spirit. The things which are written in Holy Scripture are not the New Law itself, but things which dispose us to believe in the New Law, or give us specific directions to how we should use the grace which is the New Law.

McLuhan conjectures that the Protestant idea of sola scriptura was the result of the new media of the printing press. When the scriptures were passed on in hand-written documents, it was easier to understand that the document was a medium. When thousands of books could be printed in exactly the same way, this technical power so impressed people that they idolized the technology, so that the power of the printing press seemed to have more authority than the living authority of the Magisterium.

Finally, Aquinas considered the role of music in communication.[22] The same words have a different effect when spoken and when sung. Music has an emotional effect, both upon the singer and upon the listener, and so by the use of music our hearts are drawn to God. Various melodies have different effects on the emotions of those who sing and listen, a fact known to Pythagoras. The melody and mode of singing is merely a medium, but the medium itself carries a message.


The more necessary the object of an appetite for human life, the stronger will that appetite be. The stronger the appetite, the more does it require the control of reason. Asceticism aims at restoring man's internal harmony, which is called the virtue of temperance. In turn, the virtue of temperance preserves the virtue of prudence, which is the ability to make decisions correctly. Prudence requires a real knowledge of the way things were, and so requires memory, and from memory prudence comes to a correct understanding of the way things are. These are cognitive elements of prudence. Prudence also has a volitive element, which is the ability to make a decision neither too rashly, nor too hesitantly. The interference of uncontrolled appetites can obscure memory and understanding, and unduly influence the action of the will.[23]

The traditional emphasis in asceticism has been on the two appetites that are most closely related to human existence, the appetite for self-preservation, which reaches its excess in gluttony, and the appetite for the preservation of the species, which is deformed in the excess of lust. The appetite for knowledge can also exceed its proper and rational limits.

This involves a paradox. The appetite for knowledge would seem to be reason itself. How could one act against reason in trying to become more reasonable? The first consideration is that the desire for knowledge is in a sense the strongest of human desires. We may consider Aristotle's eudaimonian philosophy, his doctrine that all human action has happiness for its final cause. Happiness cannot be the mere possession of something, but implies that we know in a fully conscious way that we possess that which makes us happy.[24]. Aristotle also notes that all men by their nature desire knowledge. We do not have a desire for knowledge merely as a means to an end that is not knowledge, but we take pleasure in sensation itself. Of all the senses, says Aristotle, vision is the one that affords us the most pleasure, as it provides us with the most detail about things.[25]

How can the desire for knowledge lead us astray? St. Augustine tells the story of how his friend Alypius attended the Roman gladiatorial games, and was resolved to shut his eyes at the moment of killing.[26] He resolved that even though his friends might bring his body to the games, they could not force his mind to enjoy it. When the crowd cried with a large voice, he could not resist, but opened his eyes, telling himself that although he might look at the spectacle, he would still be above it and despise it in his heart. However, his heart was also led to enjoy the spectacle, against his resolution.

Truth is itself a good. Even the truth about an evil thing is good. The purpose of the mind is to know the truth, and the relation of the mind to reality called truth is also the first and most essential element of moral knowledge. As Karol Wojtyla wrote in 1958, when he was a professor of philosophy:

The principle that one should remain in harmony or agreement with reality, both objective and subjective reality, in one's activity, is the gauge of realism in the whole of practical philosophy, and in particular in ethics. Ethical norms are based on reality. The same faculty of reason, which in its knowing attains to reality itself, also defines the principles of activity.[27]

Anything which strikes at our cognitive relation to objective reality also diminishes our ability to act as moral agents. If the use of electric communication media, or even earlier media, such as the print media, in any way change our relation in cognition to objective reality, we are faced with a moral issue.

Marshall McLuhan was drawing from Aristotle when he observed that the consciousness existed as a proportion or ratio between sensations.[28] Aristotle cited the medical lore of his time in observing that sense stimuli are painful when compared to a neutral or non-sensory state.[29] To make this clear, when we leave a dark place, sudden light is painful to us. However, we become habituated to a certain level of sensation, and so to fall below that level, or to exceed that level becomes painful. At the most basic level, we may be habituated to a certain temperature, or a certain level of sound. At another level, we may be habituated to a certain level or quality of information within our sense data. If we are in the habit of reading newspapers every day, and then move to a foreign country or go to the wilderness, the lack of news is at first painful. After a time we adjust, and then when we return to the world of information, we initially find the abundance of reported events painful, until we readjust. Our dependence upon a constant flow of information from all corners of the world represents a problem of addiction, and I would venture to say that it may involve the same chemical mechanisms found in drug addiction.

The effects of the electronic media on the intellect through their effect on the senses can be understood through analogy to another altered state of consciousness, sleep. The intellect is superior to the senses. The lower powers of the senses are ordered to the intellect.[30] The intellect in one sense rules the senses, as the will is the appetite of the intellect. By volition, the intellect has the power within itself to turn its attention towards or away from objects presented by the senses. In another sense, the intellect in its operation is dependent upon the senses. It receives the objects of its attention at first from the senses, and the original objects in the intellect are based upon sensible thing. Thus, when the senses are not fully functioning, the operation of the intellect is hindered.[31] In various stages of sleep, the operation of the intellect is impeded in various degrees, as the external and internal senses are variously impeded. In deep sleep, the imagination does not function at all. At another stage, the power of imagination is still impeded, but partially functional, and distorted images may appear. The images are more orderly as the imagination is more functional. In lighter sleep, the common or unitive sense is partly operational, and the sleeper begins to be able to distinguish between his dreams and real things. He may sense the difference between the images of the dream and his own thoughts.[32] The sleeper may even call up other images besides the dream. A person who is memorizing something may arrange the mental images in his mind.[33] Yet even in the stage of lucid dreaming, the intellect's power of judgment in hindered. A person who tries to think in the logical steps of a syllogism, says Thomas, will always recognize upon waking that there is some flaw in his reasoning. Joseph Keogh theorized that his students who watched television actually substituted television for sleep.[34] When they were apparently thinking, the mental process was not the linear and syllogistic process of the literate person, but the child of television might watch an association of images in his mind in the same passive way that he would view television. McLuhan's primary insight was that a communication medium apart from the content of its overt messages has a definite effect on the viewer. With regard to television, McLuhan's observation was confirmed when scientists at General Electric discovered that the brain waves of a television viewer are altered in the same way by viewing television, without regard to the content. The measurable effect of television was the same whether the person was viewing programming or commercials.[35] The experiments were repeated by others who expected to disprove McLuhan's hypothesis that "the medium is the message", only to have the findings confirmed.[36] The brain reacts in the same distinctive way to television as a medium in general. The variety of content has no specific measurable effect.

Activists often express grave concern over the moral effects of the content of television and other media. They are rightly concerned about bad role models and a high incidence of violence and sexual sensuality. They are also legitimately concerned about how affluence portrayed on television can make people dissatisfied with their material condition. I recognize these as legitimate concerns, but the primary concern should be on the medium itself. The electronic media have in themselves a narcotic effect on the abuser. In a day when governments and international bodies battle the marketing of chemical substances, no one is mobilized to counteract the negative effects of the electronic media. The electronic media upsets normal community and family relations based on physical contact and proximity, leading to an ersatz community where people have the illusion of being angels. People in their relations are reduced to being pieces of disembodied information without context or substance. We do not distinguish between the use of morphine as an aid to inspiration (Edgar Allan Poe), and its use as an escape from intolerable conditions (the user in the American slum). The extensive use of such drugs is dangerous and addictive in both cases. Yet we do not apply the same prudence with regard to the media.

The level of sensation present in our lives affects our intellectual judgment. Thomas Aquinas discusses two related cases of intellectual debility arising from an imbalance in the sensory realm. The first is dullness of the intellectual sense (hebetudo sensus), which arises from immersion in the pleasures of food. The second is intellectual blindness (caecitas mentis), which arises as the result of excessive sexual pleasures.[37] The dulling of the intellectual sense stills leaves a functioning intellect. However, what a pure heart can see quickly, the dull of sense must labor to see. The intellect is lacking in penetrative power. In the case of intellectual blindness, the intellect is completely unable to consider spiritual realities.

If we extend this to the effect of the media, the media serve to provide us with greater amounts of information. This is true of the printed media, since the amount of information disseminated by books and newspapers is far more than what one could learn from conversation in a pre-literate society. It is more true of the electronic media, where we are provided not only with the entire world through symbols, but we are provided with the auditory and visual sensations of the whole world. The media would not continue to grow unless there were an immense appetite for knowledge. Such as it is today, that appetite is disordered.

If truth is a good, and even the truth about worthless or evil things is a good compared to falsehood about the same things, then how can the truth be a danger? The human mind has for its purpose to know the truth. Aristotle taught that when we know something, in a way we become that thing, and in a way we make that thing.[38] Knowledge is the intentional existence of the known object in the knowing subject, where the object forms or informs the subject as knower. Each person has but one mind, and that mind can only know one thing at a time. If we think of several things at once, it is only because we have grasped them in some unity, as in knowing a whole, we know in a confused way the parts, or in knowing a relation, we know in a confused way the things that come together in a relational unity.[39] In knowledge itself, there is an hierarchy of values. The highest value is to know God, and other values in knowledge come below that. A mind distracted by lesser things cannot know God.

We may draw some practical conclusions. First, it is necessary to become aware of the effect of any media upon our cognitive relation to reality, and its effect upon our appetites. Second, we should recognize that technology is a good thing in itself, as it is part of God's command to man that he subdue the earth, but we should recognize that if we rely on technology to solve all human problems, we are becoming idolaters. Idolatry puts man at a lower level than the idol, and the result is personal and social disorder. Third, the right use of technology means that we should also counteract its attractions. Communications technology concerns man's most basic appetite, the appetite to realize one's self through knowledge. However, the mere quantity of information may distract us from knowledge which is of true value. The most dangerous attitude is that of one who sits in front of the television set or computer terminal without a critical attitude. Since the machine is on, he takes up a passive and receptive stance. The Christian practices of fasting and abstinence are perhaps easy compared with consciously limiting of our use of the media, yet that is required for mental and moral health.


[1.] The Luddites were named after a legendary character Ned Ludd, known as King Ludd. Whether or not King Ludd actually existed, the Luddites, skilled English textile workers who lost employment due to the spread of machinery, destroyed the machinery that they blamed for their misery. The revolts, from 1811 to 1816, ended when they were quelled by force and prosperity returned.

[2.] Aristotle, Metaphysics I, i. 980b 25-30.

[3.] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles II, 68: Et inde est quot anima intellectualis dicitur esse quasi quidam horizon et confinium corporeorum et incorporeorum, inquantum est substantia incorporea, corporis tamen forma.

[4.] Aquinas Summa Theologica I, 77 a.2 c.: Est et alia ratio quare anima humana abundat diversitate potentiarum: videlicet quia est in confinio spiritualium et corporalium creaturarum, et ideo concurrunt in ipsa virtues utrarumque creaturarum.

[5.]Ponchaud, François. Cambodia: Year Zero. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978.

[6.] Aquinas Summa Theologica, q. 93, a. 2.

[7.] Aquinas Summa Theologica q. 93 a. 3, c.

[8.] Pope John Paul II, Laborem Exercens, #25.

[9.] Bruce R. Powers and Marshall McLuhan, The Global Village: Transformations in World Life and Media in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1989. ch. 1 "The Resonating Interval".

[10.] Wisdom, 14-15; Psalm 115.

[11.] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media, McGraw-Hill, 1964, ch. 4, "The Gadget Lover".

[12.] Hans Selye, Stress without Distress, J.B. Lippincott Co. New York, 1974.

[13.]Summa Theologica q. 19, a. 10 c.: Respondeo deicendum quod liberum arbitrium habemus respectu eorum quae non necessario volumus, vel naturali instinctu. Non enim ad liberum arbitrium pertinet quod volumus esse felices, sed ad natural instinctum.

[14.] Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, University of Toronto Press, 1962.

[15.] Letters of Marshall McLuhan, selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corrinne McLuhan, William Toye; Oxford University Press, 1987. The Thomistic and Aristotelian ground of McLuhan's work is treated briefly in Brigid Elson, In Defence of the Human Person: The Christian Humanism of Marshall McLuhan, in The Canadian Catholic Review, May, 1994.

[16.] Aquinas De Veritate q. 18, a.1 ad 1.

[17.]Aquinas, Summa Theologica q. 93 a.7 ad. 4.; see also, Aquinas Expositio super librum Boethii de Trinitate, q.1 a.3.: Thomas teaches that the media in cognition are not in themselves, apart from other objects, open to direct inspection. No one understands that he understands unless first he understands something else which is intelligible. We cannot know about the light of our mind unless first we are seeing something else in that light.

[18.] Plato, Phaedrus, 274-275.

[19.]Aquinas Expositio super librum Boethii de Trinitate, q.2 a.4.

[20.]Aquinas, Summa Theologica III q. 42, a.4.

[21.] I-II q. 106 a.1.

[22.]II-II q. 91, a.2.

[23.]see Joseph Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues, University of Notre Dame Press, 1966.

[24.] cf. Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, III, c.xxv-xxxvii; Summa Theologica I-II q. 1-4: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Bk. X.

[25.]Aristotle,Metaphysics, I, i. 980a 22-980b 1.

[26.] Augustine, Confessions VI, viii.

[27.] Fr. Karol Wojty_a, Elementarz Etyczny (An Ethics Primer) Kraków 1979, Znak, a collection of articles that appeared in the Tygodnik Powszechny (Catholic Weekly( in 1957-58. My translation.

[28.] Aristotle, De Anima, II, ix-x. 422 a. 20 - 424a 35; McLuhan, Understanding Media, ch. 4 "The Gadget Lover".

[29.] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, VI, xiv. 1154b 6-10.

[30.]Summa Theologica I, q. 65. a. 2.

[31.] I q. 84, a. 8 ad 1.

[32.] I q. 84 a. 8 ad 2.

[33.] Aristotle, De Somniis, I 458b 15-20.

[34.]cf. Who Was Marshall McLuhan, ed. Barrington Nevitt and Maurice McLuhan, Comprehensivist Publications, Toronto, 1994, p. 63.

[35.] Letters of Marshall McLuhan, ed. Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, William Toye, Oxford University Press, 1987: Letter to Hugo McPherson, Proffersor of English at McGill, 1970.. In the letter McLuhan refers to findings that were later published in Journal of Advertising Research, vol. II, no. 1, Feb. 1971, "Brain Wave Measurement of Media Involvement".

[36.] cf. The Global Village, ch. 3 "Plato and Angelism".

[37.] Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II q. 15 a. 1-3; q. 46. a. 1-3.

[38.] Aristotle, De Anima, III, v-vi. 430a 10-20.

[39.] Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I q. 84 a. 4.

Hugh McDonald [], born in 1956 in Canada, is Master of Arts in Philosophy, graduated at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland). He is currently devoted to the translation of some philosophical works of the Lublin School of Philosophy, teaching at Niagara University and philosophical reflection.

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