Phone in Hand

“And wicked men seek for people with whom to spend their days, and shun themselves; for they remember many a grievous deed when they are by themselves, but when they are with others they are disposed to forget.” Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, IX

The wicked find it hard to live with themselves. They shun being alone, and seek forgetfulness through distraction in the company of like-minded people.

Even if we are not wicked, Aristotle’s rather stark reflection still speaks to us. To the extent that we have wicked tendencies, or perform wicked actions, we too will shun the silence of being alone. Fleeing the challenge of self-encounter, we seek forgetfulness.

Aristotle sees men as avoiding solitude through keeping company with like-minded people; presumably he did not imagine how the practices and gadgets of our culture could aid and abet this avoidance. Today’s technology, perhaps most incarnated in the ‘smart phone,’ opens a whole new realm of flight from self and from remembrance. It encourages and enables our disposition to forget, as with unprecedented ease we turn away from what is at hand to what is in our hand. While digitally connected we avoid the being-alone that might occasion self-reflection, even while we are not actually with any people. Here is a lone-liness and forgetfulness of new depth.

To remember is to cling to life. He who remembers—including his own hurts and failures—is he who can seek healing. But to forget is to smolder, burn, and finally to die–in exile from our selves, and from others.

Aristotle warns: to the extent that we are sick we will be inclined toward forgetfulness. Especially luring will be forgetfulness-inducing distractions. In this way, technology that in itself might be neutral can become for us an instrument of dehumanization. To ignore this danger, focusing only on the technology’s neutrality or its usefulness, is to expose ourselves to great peril.

Aristotle (384-322 B.C.), student of Plato, tutor of Alexander the Great, has been considered by many to be the greatest ancient philosopher. The Nicomachean Ethics is his main moral treatise.

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