The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

April 24, 2019

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Wendell Berry, Virtue, and Technology
Patrick Deneen - 04/03/08

This essay was first delivered as a lecture at Berry College on March 26, 2008.

We live in the Age of Technology. It will surprise no one to state this obvious fact. Everywhere technologies are the mark of modern life. Transportation, science, engineering, entertainment, finance, warfare, communication, sports, art, medicine—and the list could expand almost without limit—every sphere of human life is influenced, even shaped by the modern technologies that continually change and in turn change us and the way we live. No other age has seen such a rapid and profound transformation of their way of life in the course of only several generations. Some of us can still remember an age without computers or the internet—not to mention cable television or cell phones—while the grandparents of many of us can still tell tales of an era before automobiles, telephones, even, for some, electricity. Within the span of a human lifetime our world has been transformed, and would be largely unrecognizable to the grandparents of the oldest person alive today.

However, if we reflect for even more than a moment about the role of technology in human life, we will realize that human beings have always been the technological creature. Consider the phrases of this ode from the play Antigone by Sophocles, written in 442 B.C.—nearly 2,500 years ago:

Numberless wonders (deina)
Terrible wonders walk the world but none the match for man–
That great wonder crossing the heaving gray sea,
       Driven on by the blasts of winter
On through breakers crashing left and right,
       Holds his steady course
And the oldest of the gods he wears away–
The Earth, the immortal, the inexhaustible–
As his plows go back and forth, year in, year out
       With the breed of stallions turning up the furrows.
And the blithe, lighthearted race of birds he snares,
The tribes of savage beasts, the life that swarms the depths–
       With one fling of his nets
Woven and coiled tight, he takes them all,
       Man the skilled, the brilliant!
He conquers all, taming with his techniques
The prey that roams the cliffs and wild lairs,
Training the stallion, clamping the yoke across
       His shaggy neck, and the tireless mountain bull.
And speech and thought, quick as the wind
And the mood and mind for law that rules the city–
       All these he has taught himself
And shelter from the arrows of frost
When there’s rough lodging under the cold clear sky
And the shafts of lashing rain–
       Ready, resourceful man!
       Never without resources . . .
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