Machina ex Deo

Essays in the Dynamism of Western Culture

By Lynn White, Jr.

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Summary

A renowned medievalist joins a humanizing grace with insight in these studies in the history of technology and culture. Many discussions of technology treat it as though it were an autonomous force, independent of its context. White shows that for a millennium it has been an integral and major activity of the West, fostered and shaped by other forms of culture and reciprocally affecting them. He is concerned with bridging the present gap between the thinking of the engineers and that of the humanists – a mutual alienation that he considers historically unjustifiable.

Although the cleavages of change, technological and social, have indeed alienated man from his proper past in a significant way, certain indissoluble continuities survive. That engineering and science have their roots in the Greco-Roman world is well known. But that our present science and technology grew directly out of the Judeo-Christian view of reality as it developed in the Middle Ages is still not widely recognized. Tracing this continuity is one of White's major themes, persuasively developed. The Christian saw the world as a manifestation of the working of the mind of God, and his science – or “natural theology” – was an attempt to decipher God's thought by exploring the nature of his handiwork. Also, the Middle Ages introduced many technical innovations and exploited new sources of power, an active expression of the Christian belief that God had given man power and dominion over all creation. The men who worshiped the Virgin also developed water wheels to perform all kinds of tasks that had previously been done by hand; despite Henry Adams, the Virgin and the dynamo are not historically in opposition. To medieval man, the machine did indeed come from God. And our technological century stems directly from the Middle Ages and its matrix of religious presupposition.

The last chapter of the book looks ahead to one possible future by probing the psychological agonies that accompany times of rapid cultural change. Such periods of conceptual uncertainty breed mass irrationalities, a recurring symptom of which, historically, has been the public driving out of scapegoats and the hunting of “witches.” The extent to which our society. Changing largely under technological impulse, can avoid this reaction is itself uncertain. It has happened before in “civilized” times. As White notes, “There was a period in our own society when we needed witches and had them in enormous numbers. It began about the year 1300, ended somewhat after 1650, and is usually called the Renaissance.”

Hardcover

Out of Print ISBN: 9780262230322 186 pp. |

Awards

  • Winner of the 1970 Edelstein Prize given by the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT).