Tutor Pens Book on Technology, Ethics, and Ancient Greece
April 13, 2020 | By Anne Kniggendorf
St. John’s College tutor Claudia Hauer says that for quite some time, she’s been concerned with a rising technocracy taking over the Aristotelian teleological ways of being human. “It’s kind of a Cartesian notion that we need to be technocrats; we need to improve the quality of human life through technology,” she says.
After giving several lectures at the college on Thucydides, Herodotus, and the Iliad, she decided to write a book in an attempt to show people the richness of the Greek process of figuring out how to be human in the face of war. In September she’ll release Strategic Humanism: Lessons on Leadership from the Ancient Greeks (Political Animal Press), a book of six essays having to do with variations on her lectures, the Greek tragedies, and Aristotle—though the essays aren’t necessarily limited to each topic. A few of the chapters’ titles cast wide nets: “Power of Language,” “From Democracy to Tyranny,” and “Greek Humanism and the Cartesian Revolution.”
Hauer, who’s been a tutor at St. John’s in Santa Fe since 1994, began splitting her time between the Great Books and the Air Force Academy in 2010. Much of the thinking for her new book comes from the training she’s designed for Air Force cadets as future military leaders.
At the Academy, Hauer teaches ethics courses. In her Ethics in Technology class, she leads her students on a tour through the Cartesian Revolution and introduces them to a pre-Cartesian model—that is, a teleological or Aristotelian model of thought. She wants them to see the post-Cartesian turn toward computational thinking and the engineering of things so that they can understand where they are today in relation to technology. She contends that our current position was several hundred years in the making.
Descartes’ philosophical separation of mind and body isn’t necessarily problematic, Hauer says, but what’s become problematic is the notion that technology necessarily improves the quality of human life, which really only means the physical quality of life that comes from improvements in medicine and devices. That idea is a weighty one to ponder when it comes to warfare. For those who are physically remote from combat—as members of the Air Force often are—and lead others to “fight” with advanced technology, the distinctions about these improvements are important to tease out.
A real improvement to quality of life “has to address the ways we live out our lives in time and space, and I think all that is coming to haunt us today,” Hauer says. “People have a very high quality of life in the first world and yet a lot of anxiety and a lot of sense that they’ve lost their identity, and notions of the sacred have kind of dropped out of everyday life.”
A “return to the Hellenic” might be needed to restore some balance, Hauer suggests in her collection, particularly now that the divide between military and civilian is sharper than ever before. She says she doesn’t mean simply turning our backs on technology, but a return to the Hellenic “in the sense of reminding ourselves that a kind of pretechnological way of being could be very therapeutic as an antidote to the modern predicament.”
A partial cause of the military-civilian divide, Hauer says, is that many civilians may not have a sense of what the military is fighting for in Iraq and Afghanistan. She suggests that strategists should think about how to justify these conflicts for the sake of narrowing that divide, and act accordingly if they’re unable to do so.
Those civilians who do take time to consider the current conflicts, Hauer says, have a hard time identifying a cause that’s worth the lives of troops, so they aren’t able to rally behind the fighters. To make matters murkier, much of the fighting is accomplished via remote technology (albeit with guidance from those on the ground). Ultimately, she maintains that leaders must prioritize strategy and ethics, not technological might, when it comes to conflict.
Strategic Humanism urges the reader to consider that a technological solution might not be appropriate for every challenge, particularly in matters of combat. Hauer hopes both future leaders and interested civilians will see the limitations of technology and shy away from relying on it for the purposes of strategy.