Archive E.J. Hutchinson Nota Bene

Against the Techno-Utopians

David Rieff has a punchy and provocative article up at Foreign Policy right now. A couple of teasers, the first because it includes a nice bit from Cicero’s De divinatione (“On divination”) 2 (though it’s not Cicero’s observation, but Cicero’s reporting of Cato’s observation) 1:

But financial manias pale (at least for those who have not bet their 401(k)s on such fanatically rosy assumptions) when compared with the techno-utopias that, at least since the middle of the 19th century, have periodically captured the collective imagination of the general public in the West – and today litter bookstores with their rah-rah optimism. Too bad few remember Cicero’s tart observation that he did not understand why, when two soothsayers met in the street, both did not burst out laughing. But if the history of utopian fantasies has taught us anything, it is that people find it hard to accept the fact of their unreality, preferring instead to hew to their hopes, whether profound, as with Marxism, or preposterous (and commercially self-interested), as with the vision of the carefully ordered futuristic cities famously laid out for a receptive public at the General Motors pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair – just as Adolf Hitler was about to blitzkrieg Poland.

The new optimism (and it is optimism of a particular kind – what Rieff calls “the optimism of fools” – rather than optimism per se against which he inveighs) treats moral and political problems as though they are merely technical, and thus has no room for religion:

But what kind of morality exactly does Sachs uphold? Not the religious kind, that’s for sure – there is literally no entry for “religion” in the index to The End of Poverty. Likewise, Gates, who through his foundation arguably is doing more to rid the world of poverty and disease than any other human being alive today, once told a reporter that “just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” For Gates, Sachs, and their legions, the emphasis on technology is the central explanatory key for why what has never been remotely possible for almost all of recorded history is eminently doable today. It’s messianic, without the Messiah.

  1. Cicero also has Cotta express the sentiment at De natura deorum 1.26

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.