Technology Against Constitution
The downfall of Athens was that it used technology in a way that did not lead to the common good, but as a means to an end and conquest. America cannot follow this dangerous path.
Postliberal Perspectives is a column by Daniel Boyle, columnist at The American Postliberal! In Postliberal Perspectives, you will find a wide array of subjects spanning from political theory, aesthetics, to book reviews.
Technology has a tendency to disrupt things — it uproots traditional forms of life, specifically those that are rooted in community. Thinking more broadly about technology requires us to understand that it is ever present in our lives, especially as the Greek use of the word means “instrument.” The way we often think and use technology is in terms of weaponry. However, the Greeks, especially Athens and Sparta, were pretty effective at “war” via technology against themselves.
In this essay, Athens is an example of a regime that had morally uprooted itself because of technology. Here, technology does not mean how we perceive it today, like phones, but any instrument that aids in the completion of tasks. In Athens, military glory was tied to technology because the military, as history has proven, is the only thing that has been able to utilize technology effectively for its own ends. What this further raises, is how has technology transformed America from a traditional society to a technological empire? At the crux of the question here is that there is little to no distinction between a non-militaristic technological society and a military society in their desire for power.
In his Politics, when writing of regimes and ideal constitutions, Aristotle points out the Spartan society as a curious case because it was not a formal city, like Athens. Rather, it was more or less a region of villages and was a state completely founded as a complete military society. To further add to the peculiarity, Sparta had two kings, unlike the one that most city states had, showing just how far they went to maintain their military life and at the same time a serious domestic regime.
Thanks for reading The American Postliberal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our mission.
Aristotle, when critiquing the Spartan constitution observes that, “Their system of laws is geared only toward a part of virtue, that regarding war; this of course is useful in conquest and defense.”1 He further writes, “They were stable while at war, but started to decline once they had become supreme, because they did not know how to be at leisure and had never experienced any other training superior to that of warfare.”2
Aristotle’s insight is true of any regime, especially regimes that have worked endlessly to make itself supreme, expending people, resources, and most of all, time to be the most powerful. The Spartans set up their society as something devoted entirely to war, which, as Aristotle points out, is only good during wartime. The arcane domestic life of the Spartans though was suited only to military life — they had no time for technology to unburden their basic lifestyle or participate in other forms of virtue..
The Athenians, though, were a technological society from the start. In the buildup to the Peloponnesian War, there were patterns in the way that the Athenians spoke of their own civilization as they began to engage with neighboring city-states and far off island-states. In a speech delivered at a funeral for the fallen in the early stages of the war, Pericles, the renowned Athenian statesman, speaks of the excellence of Athenian culture and the things that made it such an attractive city.
He said, “We do not copy our neighbors, but are an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while the law secures equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized.”3 In one way, this could be seen as the end of the cultivation of virtue in a city that once excelled in the formation of the person, which had now transitioned exclusively to the acquisition of military power.
Pericles further proclaimed in the speech, “our military training is in many respects superior to that of our adversaries.”4 With those words, there is an invitation to aggression from foreign adversaries, yet it shows a desire for conquest, and only conquest. This desire for conquest then became a part of the Athenian logic; that militarization is a good in and of itself. Complete militarization is only good in the context of defense and necessary conquest. To put it simply, might had become right.
What does this say more broadly about America and the stage we are at in our own history, most importantly concerning the military and technology? For all the differences between Athens and Sparta, America continues to tend towards its own militaristic state, both domestically an internationally. Tocqueville wrote extensively of how the United States might maintain a democratic republic and the causes for one to fall. He writes:
The Americans have no neighbors and thus no great wars, financial crises, devastations, or conquests to dread. They need neither heavy taxes, nor a large army, nor great generals; they have almost nothing to fear from that scourge which is more terrible for democratic republics than all these put together, namely, military glory.5
Tocqueville understood that Americans had inherited from the original settlers those virtues that set limits on our own desires for strength and technological military domination. Those virtues he writes are, “the habits, ideas and customs which would be the best fitted to nurture a republic.”6 But how did it come to be that those came to be uprooted in favor of military glory.
Jon Askonas suggests in Compact that any technological society cannot have traditions, rather, acceleration to the next new thing is the governing logic.7 In the case of the United States, technology for the most part is developed for use in the military and then unleashed to the common market, uprooting the traditional ways of life defining pre-war and contemporary America. But in this essay lies the truth that plagues all political communities; no society lives in a complete state of homeostasis.
Pericles, in his speech, while touting excellence and military glory, was saying that Athens was the most technologically advanced of Greek societies, and this for the most part was true. However, in the context of technological change, Athens was unable to see past its function as mere weapon, and had no understanding of how to use it for things pertaining to virtuous acts. The downfall of Athens was that it used technology in a way that did not lead to the common good, but as a means to an end and conquest. America cannot follow this dangerous path.
Technology as a given and an instrument, must be used to engage more fruitfully in the world, to live virtuously, not to make things unique to humans less burdensome, especially but not limited to social activity. Technologies of war, though, should seek ends suited to the common good, not as an end in itself. In other words, technology must be used for good, but it must not cloud our judgment and continue to turn America into something it is not.
If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming a patron of our publication! Your enthusiasm and support means a lot to all of us at The American Postliberal — and we promise we’ll work hard for your investment in our project.
Thucydides, History of Peloponnesian War 2.37, trans. Benjamin Jowett, www.perseus.tufts.edu.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Gerald E. Bevan, (London: Penguin, 2003), 324.