Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Idolatry of Artefacts

What is learned by trial and error must begin by being crude, whatever the character of the beginner. The very same pot which would prove its maker a genius if it were the first pot ever made in the world, would prove its maker a dunce if it came after milleniums of pot-making. The whole modern estimate of primitive man is based upon the idolatry of artefacts which is a great corporate sin of our own civilisation.

C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Collier (New York: 1962) p. 74. In other words, the things we make are at least as much a product of history up to us as they are a product of our intelligence or moral character; that 'primitive man' had no reliable anesthetics is not a sign that they were less compassionate, and that they had no reliable medicine is not a sign that they lacked the cognitive skills required for having reliable medicine. Our brilliance is not measured by smartphones, our rationality is not measured by wifi, and our virtue is not measured by the internet; we may, for all we can tell, be massively overtopped in all three by someone who has nothing more than basic language and fire.


  1. Richard E. Hennessey4:26 PM

    I'll offer a friendly complement: the things we make or do are at least as much a product of present-day society as they are one of our intelligence or moral character. That is why I do not believe the CEOs of our various financial, industrial, and, increasingly these days, even our educational institutions are actually earning compensation many times that of those upon whom they depend.

  2. Enbrethiliel8:25 AM


    Very nice! It's a materialist mistake to think that you can judge a culture by its technology.

    I also like the idea of connection: not just the cliche that we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before, but its corollary (which I don't think gets mentioned half as much) that our own shoulders are ultimately stepping stones for the next generations. But while there seems to be continuity where technology is concerned, there are sharp breaks in tradition when it comes to the understanding of virtue. We assume that our ancestors were as backwards about morality because they were backwards about technology, when the fact is that they weren't backwards about technology at all! No more than we are now, although we might look so in the future.

  3. branemrys7:36 PM

    I think you're right that the error is linked to the rise of materialism.

    And, of course, you're right that our ancestors were pretty much always on the cutting edge of technology! As Chesterton says, "They all were moderns in their day."

  4. Enbrethiliel12:00 PM


    This may also be related . . . Today a friend asked me why I don't like watching period dramas when I'm so interested in history, and I was able to explain that the clarity of hindsight available to me can make watching the reenactment of the past nearly unbearable. And it's so frustrating to realise that many of the people whose huge mistakes led to the mess that we're all in now never really considered the price we would have to pay in the distant future . . . because they saw themselves only as moderns and not as descendants and ancestors in a tradition greater than they were.


Please understand that this weblog runs on a third-party comment system, not on Blogger's comment system. If you have come by way of a mobile device and can see this message, you may have landed on the Blogger comment page, or the third party commenting system has not yet completely loaded; your comments will only be shown on this page and not on the page most people will see, and it is much more likely that your comment will be missed.