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Since the advent of portable devices—especially smartphones—that allow a person to view, among many good things, images (and to a lesser extent, text) of a violent and/or pornographic nature that were unlawful to be shown in any format a short time ago, a virtual industry of articles and books, written mostly though not exclusively by Christian authors, has emerged to sound the alarm of unprecedented harm being done, not only to traditions of moral virtue, but with special emphasis on the vulnerability of young people, even to the physical organ of the brain. The best of this work is very convincing: conscientious in its presentation of scientific evidence of the possibilities of physical harm, and rigorous in its scholarly mastery of ancient traditions of philosophical and theological ethics, it creates for many a self-evident case for society’s obligation to intervene to stem the flow of such images. However, amidst public debate over the ethical concerns regarding the content available on digital devices, what is not nearly as well noticed or well discussed is the possibility that great damage is being done to the human person by the sheer quantity, protean appearance, and deceptive power of images universally considered to be morally neutral.2 Perhaps because most of the ethical arguments against violent and pornographic images are made on websites and social media formats that themselves constantly bombard the reader with advertising imagery, ranging from the coarse and crude to the subtle and sophisticated, one may be given to understand that the distractions posed to the reader are a small price to pay for the quick and efficient dissemination of information vital to the welfare of society. Nevertheless, considered in light of the principles of contemplative prayer common to many religious traditions, the habitual viewing even of images considered morally neutral, and found on sites without any cause for moral censure, poses a threat to the human person precisely because it disrupts acquisition of the peace of mind that is a prerequisite for external moral agency. Even when one is not really alone, the act of viewing digital images usually takes place under conditions of virtually total mental isolation that effectively render the viewer the sole arbiter of what should or should not be seen—and does so not with explicit reference to moral norms but through the subtler requirements of the inner silence and clarity contemplative traditions consider indispensable for seeing God within the soul.
All the virtues arise from the silence and stillness of the heart.3
If our inner man keeps watch, he becomes empowered to guard the external man.4
Given the clear consensus among traditional religious leaders that individuals must guard themselves against the moral corruption of some online content, mustn’t they make a comparable warning against habitual exposure to digital images per se if, over time, such exposure diminishes the power of the soul to react spontaneously, with a spirited rebuttal that is more intuitive than rationally deliberative, against images that disturb the stillness of the heart? For, according to the teachings of at least one contemplative tradition, that of Eastern Christian Hesychasm,5 this is exactly what they do.
The habitual and excessive engagement of the human mind with digital images that once was limited to workers in the tech industry has become common to people of all ages. The workers’ obligatory isolation is now a portable solitude in which anyone can effortlessly focus the mind’s attention with an intensity and constancy that few can maintain for any other task. Such a degree of mental concentration, of course, requires no skill on the part of the viewer; rather, the gaze is held by a diffusion of digital images that, both singly and in tactical formations, evoke in the recipient such a congeries of emotions that they overwhelm the inner life of the human person.
The intellect is a biddable and guileless thing, easily ready to follow the images, and hard to hold back in its pursuit of unlawful fantasies, unless there is something to prevent it at all times, and to bridle the willful deliberations of the passions.6
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Now, there is a strange parallel that one might dare make between, on the one hand, a twenty-first-century human seeking, despite the provocations of digital images, uninterrupted intellectual communion with another mind through an article on the internet, and, on the other hand, a fourth-century monk seeking, despite what he perceived to be the provocations of demonically inspired phantasies, uninterrupted intellectual communion with the mind of God. It does not stretch the parallel to say that the internal, invisible struggle of the modern person to reject intuitively or rebut rationally images and text on the screen of a digital device is merely a technological version of the struggle of the pre-modern monk to reject or rebut the images and arguments that appear, as though under their own power, on the “screen” of his receptive mind. The analogy is grounded in the following points: that each person struggles to free his mind from hostile images that come into it from the outside; that victory in the struggle is achieved by discrete acts of rejection by the conscious, rational exercise of one’s will; that failure to reject an image actually results in the mind mixing and mingling its own affective energies with those of the image; and that the mind can come into such a thorough “agreement” with the image that it loses the power to distinguish itself from it, the intention of the former thus becoming one with the intention of the latter.
Our thoughts mix with those of the demons in the second stage; then, in the third stage, both demonic and human thoughts must reach an agreement, whereupon together they intend evil.9
In the trance of his digital visions, the viewer loses track of where he may be in the flesh; but as he moves about in his daily life, he may also lose track of who he may really be.
The power of the mind to conduct detached evaluations of other images is also gradually diminished, resulting in its habitual failure to know itself apart from the mass of images accrued in its memory. In the trance of his digital visions, the viewer loses track of where he may be in the flesh; but as he moves about in his daily life he may also lose track of who he may really be. This is no ordinary forgetfulness, but a forgetfulness of the self—the nosema, or malady of a healthy self-consciousness. In contrast, the agon, or struggle of the contemplative life, involves cultivating both a sensitivity to the presence of images “at the gates of the heart” and the healthy reflex of its spirited power in response to them. Moreover, in becoming ever-vigilant to virulent images coming in from without, the mind develops an awareness of images that have already entered unnoticed, and darkened its native intelligible light.
To the extent that we attend to the intellect we will be illumined; if we do not, we will be thrust into darkness.10
When the demons find the intellect unguarded, they enter one by one into his heart. Whichever of the eight sinful thoughts board and enter the heart, they let loose a swarm of shameful images. And in this way darkening the intellect, they call and exhort the body to the work of shameful actions.11
On the other hand,
When the intellect is protected and not allowed to receive the shapes, phantasms, and images of the dark and evil spirits, the heart by its very nature will give birth to luminous thoughts.12
One can legitimately argue that not all the images seen on digital devices are infused with malicious intent in regard to the human psyche, but it is dangerously naïve to argue that the majority of them are not designed to manipulate the viewer into thinking this way or that, or into desiring this or that, at a deep level of human consciousness. Many are so sophisticated in their design, manufacture, and modes of dissemination that they easily subvert the will of even the wariest of viewers. Very well, one may say, contemporary life has long been a game of cat and mouse between sellers and consumers, and if the consumer stays alert he can play the game to his advantage. If we concede the possibility that someone who is not among the cleverest psychologists of advertising could actually do so, the fact remains that, Q.E.D., the average consumer, in possession of the now indispensable cell phone and laptop computer, will daily be involved in a relentless struggle to maintain the integrity of his mind and will against the seductive power of the commercial content designed to elude his rational judgment.
It is very arduous and difficult not only for neophytes but for those experienced in invisible warfare and initiated in the task of struggling with images in the incorporeal space within the corporeal frame, to attain stillness of the soul against every impassioned thought.13
What is really at stake, ultimately? One might say the difference between financial success and financial ruin. But one does not have to be a fourth-century monk to believe there is something far more important than one’s money to be lost. For example, the seemingly minor irritation of one’s inability to read serious subject matter on the internet free of harassment by digital images can quickly turn into a profound psychological crisis when, without deliberation, without explanation, one turns off the device, feeling unaccountably disturbed. One has just encountered a sensitive part of the mind, something precious within oneself, precisely by suffering an appalling injury to it, accompanied perhaps with a kind of disgust belonging to no recognizable category of feelings. What just happened? Where did it come from? Usually one recovers quickly, and perhaps forms a resolution not to revisit the offending site, or simply to ignore the type of image that caused the profound disturbance; but this becomes difficult when no clear cause for the disturbance can be found in the images themselves—after all, they are morally neutral. One is left, nonetheless, with a strong feeling that one should be careful.
The great Lawgiver, Moses, or rather the Holy Spirit … in teaching us how we must begin and end this work [of watchfulness], says, “Be watchful, lest a hidden, lawless word come into your heart.” By “hidden word,” he meant the image of some evil thing, hateful to God.14
This arrow has hit its mark deep in the region of the heart, below the level of rational judgment. That one has reacted spontaneously with a spirited rejection of the invasive form, however, shows that one still has the intuitive judgment to act autonomously to safeguard one’s spiritual well-being. The immediacy of such pre-moral judgments was such that the monk conceived of them as comparable to reactions triggered by touch, or even taste.
The great value of uninterrupted watchfulness is that it allows the soul to see straightaway the images of the impassioned thought taking shape in the intellect.15
The perception of the intellect is the keen taste of things that it must discern. For example, just as our bodily taste, when it is healthy, unerringly discerns good from corrupt food, so our intellect, when it begins to be moved forcefully in great detachment from cares, becomes capable of perceiving fully the divine counsel, never allowing itself to be seized by its opposite.16
However, because it takes only a split second for the image, once seen, to lodge itself in memory, without the focused intention of a mind trained in watchfulness and the necessary aid of sincere and wordless prayer (prayer is often described as a cry from the depths, or a groaning entreaty, to God), the image will almost certainly invade some part of the viewer’s psyche, there to pursue its aim of shaping the life of the soul. The viewer, in most cases, having no reason to exercise caution in regard to images deemed morally neutral, will follow the incitements of images without restraint.
It can be argued that recent calls, mostly from young university students and tech enthusiasts, for the abolition of privacy arise from the nearly irresistible seduction of holding a power in one’s hand that can summon a virtually infinite play of digital images that, after incessant viewing, seem more real than natural phenomena. Instead of looking into the datum of their own mental space for what may be found there (other than images from without), the devotee of digital images looks neither inside himself nor even outside in the natural world, for what he sees on his screen are, in the end, signs that, despite their veneer of vitality, communicate merely the abstracted presence, the stale phantasms, of things that may or may not have a real existence. Indeed, his inability to care about, or even clearly distinguish, existing things apart from the images he sees on his devices, and subsequently in his imagination and memory, must entail a subconscious skepticism concerning his own reality, whether, that is, it is anything other than an image he can either accept or reject similarly to the way he likes or dislikes an image. But if he can conceive of no real self, he must reject the critical importance of privacy, which, however, for the monk amounts to a voluntary neglect (amelia) of the “pearl of great price,” the very source of the gift of privacy. Again, it is not the type of content that is at issue in this metaphysical crisis of the human person; rather, it is the enclosing of human consciousness, and all the word implies—feelings so personal they cannot be shared, ideas yet unformed, joys lacking a rational explanation, and so on—within an artificial world of random and disordered images, whose every movement, whose changing shapes, whose palpable demands on the viewer, and whose transparent deceitfulness become the artificial life of the human mind. The Hesychast would consider this situation the worst possible fate because these images, even the good ones, turn the mind away from seeing within its own depths visions of things that accompany its belief in the reality, first of God, and then of one’s own self. How does one know this? How does one confirm it? Ultimately, the internal riches of the soul are confirmed only by the perfect love they generate, a love so intense and so fulfilling that it precludes the desire for anything else; these riches are in contrast with the superficial, impassioned images that fragment intuitive vision, and they point unerringly to the deeper unity of the self. In popular debates on the existence of God, one does not expect to hear a defense of religion by appeal to the superior pleasure it offers compared to the sensual delights of digital viewing praised by tech enthusiasts as evolutionarily advanced forms of human pleasure. It is difficult to convey in such an argument that what is at stake for the contemplative mind is not pleasure but joy that transcends, even as it preserves, pleasure. The only thing about the transhumanist plan of the technologically altered human body that can justify the plan’s long-term aspirations is that it promises a perpetual euphoria through a carefully calibrated and putatively infallible administration of narcotics. It becomes clear that the consequence of exchanging one’s self for a multitude of self-referential, artificial images is to be reduced to deriving pleasure—we don’t speak of joy—from an alien source.
Of course, even though the majority of images (again, of the morally neutral kind) are viewed on laptops and cell phones, in an average city, one must include as image-disseminating devices the walls on buildings, subways, restaurants, sports arenas, elevators, buses, airplanes, and so on, as well as the unlikely surfaces of gas station pumps, coffee makers, refrigerators, watches, forks, and so on—virtually all of which are enlisted to serve the aims of advertising and entertainment —in other words, to manipulate and mold the consumer’s psyche. Proclamations from the tech industry routinely foretell a landscape strewn with sensors by the agency of which we will be able to see “virtual realities” virtually anywhere. Intrinsic to the idea of the “internet of things” is that no one will any longer be outside the internet, because everyone will be inside, seeing and being seen by everyone else using devices, which now approximate prosthetic organs. Because the experiences of inside and outside will then be reduced, respectively, to seeing and being seen by putative others, the notion of an “inner life,” and correlatively, that of the ultimate irreducibility of the individual to anything or anyone else, lose all meaning; but it also follows that, without the existence of individuals with individual preferences, and thus individual wills directed to some transaction or other, there will no longer be any “consumer,” the individual having become an automatic transmitter of digital information who no longer needs be the designated target of a pitch. In the meantime, however, while every effort, intentional or not, results in blurring the difference between the inner, personal world and the outer, physical world—because most of us still possess that dubious moniker of individuality, “the consumer”—we still experience the viewing of digital images in the form of silent interactions and affective exchanges taking place within ourselves. Nonetheless, we are losing the battle of images at a subliminal level because we are being routed by the sheer number and variety of their modes of deception working below the level of waking consciousness; and consequently, we are losing the battle to preserve the essentials of the classical and theological virtues and the world of natural law, in which alone they can thrive. Perhaps, in a future not so distant, it will no longer be the act of reasoning but the intuitive rejection of the digital display for the sake of one’s peace of mind that will constitute the tell-tale sign of a human being.
What is the Philokalia?
“The Philokalia is a collection of texts written between the fourth and the fifteenth centuries by spiritual masters of the Orthodox Christian tradition. It was compiled in the eighteenth century by two Greek monks, St Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain of Athos (1749-1809) and St Makarios of Corinth (1731-1805), and was first published at Venice in 1782. A second edition was published at Athens in 1893, and this included certain additional texts on prayer by Patriarch Kallistos not found in the 1782 edition. A third edition, in five volumes, was also published at Athens during the years 1957-1963 by the Astir Publishing Company.” [The Philokalia: Complete Text (Volume 1) Compiled by St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth. Translated by G.E.H. Palmer, Phillip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware. Faber and Faber, 1982, p. 12.]