All this suggests to me that if we are to escape the smothering technological cocoon, our techne today must, in a sense, be directed against itself. Our trickery must be aimed at overcoming the constraints imposed by our previous tricks. What we must outwit is our own glib, technical wit.
Or, putting it a little differently: we are engaged in a continual conversation between what you might call the frozen techne already embodied in the vast array of our external devices, and the conscious, living techne we can summon from within ourselves in the current moment. It is always disastrous for the future of the self when we abdicate the living half of this conversation, as when we yield ourselves uncritically to what we consider the purely objective promise of technology.
In Odysseus' day, techne was a conscious resourcefulness that had scarcely begun to project itself into the material apparatus of life. What apparatus existed was an enticement for further creative expression of the nascent human self. While the technology of the Greeks may seem hopelessly primitive to us, it is worth remembering that the balanced awakening heralded by Homer culminated in a flowering of thought and art that many believe has never been surpassed for profundity or beauty anywhere on earth.
Today, that balance seems a thing of the past. The powers of our minds crystallize almost immediately, and before we are aware of them, into gadgetry, without any mediating, self-possessed reflection, so that we live within a kind of crystal palace that is sometimes hard to distinguish from a prison. The question is no longer whether we can use the enticement of clever devices as a means to summon the energies of dawning selfhood; rather, it is whether we can preserve what live energies we once had, in the face of the deadening effect of the now merely inert and automatic cleverness bound into the ubiquitous external machinery of our existence.
This machinery, this inert cleverness, is the greatest threat to our future. We require all our highest powers of contriving to overcome our contrivances. In the end, the contriving not the contrivance is the only thing that counts. There is a law of human development traditionally stated this way:
Whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him. (Matt. 13:12)
It is a hard saying because it makes no sense in regard to our external possessions, where it would be pure injustice. But when you realize that it is a natural law of our inner life, the meaning becomes clear: we either grow and develop, reaping inner riches upon inner riches, or else we lose whatever we started with. For the self is a conscious power of originating; there are no external gains for the self, and there is no remaining in one place. We cannot be static selves; the only life available to us consists of self-realizings or self-abdicatings.
When Odysseus' heart laughed within him at the success of his cunning device in beguiling the Cyclops, he was rejoicing first of all in the developing awareness of his inner capacities as a centered and conscious self. He reveled in his devices because they arose from an intensifying experience of his own powers, not because he saw in them a wholly independent promise. Our crisis today is a crisis of conviction about the primacy of our conscious powers of devising. What Odysseus was gaining, we are at risk of giving up through a radical displacement of the devising self by its own devices. This is not because of any necessity, but because the devising self has hesitated, become unsure of itself. And at this moment of crisis, the Cyclopes in their might and the Sirens with their enticements confront us from every screen, every newspaper, magazine, and billboard, every mechanism for social transaction, persuading us that we are powerless to affect the technological future and inviting us to dull the pain of consciousness and responsibility by partaking of the delights and wonders that await us.
The image of the semicomatose, automatically responding figure in front of a screen is the image of the self extinguishing itself and in some ways I suppose it recalls the image of Odysseus in the dark cave of the one-eyed Cyclops. We are being asked to become Nobodies again not as a ruse devised by our awakening selves, but as a denial of ourselves. Nevertheless, the invitation toward self-dissolution is always at the same time an opportunity to seize ourselves at a higher level than ever before, just as Odysseus did in the cave. Everything depends upon our response. Odysseus managed to rouse himself. Our own choice is not yet clear.