A headless man at a cluttered desk with glowing computer screen

New Media and the Impoverishment of Spiritual Life

by Jean-Claude Larchet
trans. Andrew Archibald Torrance

Last sum­mer, famed Ortho­dox patrol­o­gist and philoso­pher Jean-Claude Lar­chet, Ph.D. made a jar­ring sug­ges­tion at a ses­sion of the Inter­na­tion­al Con­fer­ence on Dig­i­tal Media and Ortho­dox Pas­toral Care in Crete (DMOPC18). The Ortho­dox Church should, in his view, offi­cial­ly call for Her faith­ful to abstain dur­ing fast­ing peri­ods from using the inter­net in gen­er­al and social media in par­tic­u­lar. Dr Lar­chet said, in part: “Com­plete­ly cut­ting one­self off from media of any kind dur­ing the Lenten peri­ods is an ide­al solu­tion for find­ing the hesy­chia indis­pens­able to the deep­en­ing of the spir­i­tu­al life, which is pre­cise­ly the main goal of the fast­ing periods.”

Such a call was not borne of sim­ple lud­dite ten­den­cies but rather found­ed in up-to-date research on the effects of new media on the human psy­che and soci­ety, as well as a deep under­stand­ing of the Church’s teach­ings on nep­sis (vig­i­lance) and hesy­chia. In fact, Dr Lar­chet is him­self the author of a book on this very sub­ject. Recent­ly, Holy Trin­i­ty Pub­li­ca­tions trans­lat­ed and pub­lished this work in the Eng­lish lan­guage as The New Media Epi­dem­ic: The Under­min­ing of Soci­ety, Fam­i­ly, and Our Own Soul. We offer a short excerpt from this work below expand­ing on the con­nec­tion between the harms imposed by our obses­sion with new media and the Ortho­dox Church’s teach­ings on spir­i­tu­al life. 

These selec­tions come from pp. 137, 145–153 of the print edi­tion. All end­notes have been omit­ted from this excerpt.


Only when we have their atten­tion can we hope to win their hearts and minds.
—Eric Schmidt, for­mer CEO of Google

The new media have … led to the impov­er­ish­ment of spir­i­tu­al life. More and more, they have tak­en the place of tra­di­tion­al reli­gions and spir­i­tu­al prac­tices, and at the same time they are chang­ing and part­ly destroy­ing the inner and out­er con­di­tions that favor the prac­tice and devel­op­ment of spir­i­tu­al life.


Communication: A Substitute for Communion

Through emails, text mes­sages, and social net­works, the new media are cred­it­ed with help­ing to forge rela­tions between humans, and even, espe­cial­ly through Face­book, to give them friend­ship … One might think that these ideas are at one with mod­ern per­son­al­ist phi­los­o­phy as found in Judaism (Buber, Lév­inas), or Catholi­cism (Mounier), or even Ortho­doxy (Berdiaev, Yan­naras, Zizioulas), where a per­son is defined as a being in rela­tion to oth­ers, the rela­tion­ship being the only way this can come about.

But as we saw in a pre­ced­ing chap­ter, the rela­tion­ships that are cre­at­ed through the new media are very super­fi­cial. The so-called friends of Face­book, gained at the click of a mouse, are friends but in name. It is risky to reduce one’s neigh­bor to a Face­book “friend” or a Twit­ter “fol­low­er.” As Peter Pilt has shown, this replaces the love of one’s neigh­bor, which always implies con­crete action along with effort and sac­ri­fice, with “likes” pro­duced by the sim­ple click of a mouse. In this way, Chris­tian­i­ty is replaced by what he calls “Click­s­tian­i­ty.” Pilt empha­sizes that there is a sim­i­lar risk in con­fus­ing activ­i­ty on the social net­works with spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. A car­toon shows a man who has just died arriv­ing in Heav­en. When God asks him: “What did you do with your life?,” he replies with sur­prise: “What! Didn’t you read my tweets?”

We have shown that rela­tion­ships cre­at­ed by the new media have a vir­tu­al dimen­sion. They are abstract, bod­i­less, lack­ing depth, and com­plex­i­ty. The nuances and all the visu­al and emo­tion­al rich­ness of con­crete rela­tion­ships are lack­ing. Even those con­nec­tions where the faces are present on screen can­not pro­vide the feel­ing of a real pres­ence. This is shown by the remark that users of Skype often make with­out real­iz­ing: “I miss you!”

Para­dox­i­cal­ly, such rela­tion­ships can be formed between lone­ly indi­vid­u­als who have nev­er met, and often, who would nev­er want to meet for fear of expo­sure or dis­ap­point­ment. The social media tend to replace real com­mu­ni­ties with vir­tu­al com­mu­ni­ties. Some are hap­py with this change, but it is clear that the vir­tu­al, by its very nature, has not the human or spir­i­tu­al den­si­ty of the concrete.

In fact com­mu­ni­ca­tion has become a sub­sti­tute for com­mu­nion, which, in its spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty, rests on the par­tic­i­pa­tion in one Body and one Spir­it in a con­crete community.

A Connection Competing with Connection to God

The facts show that con­nec­tion to the new media com­petes with con­nec­tion to God, which is made through par­tic­i­pa­tion in Litur­gi­cal ser­vices and through per­son­al prayer. As we have said many times, the new media eat up time. The tele­vi­sion does so and even more so the Inter­net. Through its links it entices the user to nav­i­gate fur­ther and fur­ther, cap­tur­ing his atten­tion and mak­ing him for­get the pas­sage of time. Any­one who has used the Inter­net has often found that a search that should have been quick took far longer than intended.

In this com­pe­ti­tion between con­nec­tions, the new media win hands down. In spite of all the love we may have for Him, to con­nect with God we must make an effort to with­draw from our envi­ron­ment and from our own thoughts in the widest sense (rea­son­ing, imag­i­na­tion, mem­o­ries, desires, etc.) and be vig­i­lant and atten­tive; nav­i­gat­ing the Inter­net is easy. It is enough to let one­self go to plunge into a pleas­ant world that always assuages our desires and pas­sions. More­over, there is a sense of total free­dom, where­as to relate to God with­in the frame­work of seri­ous and sin­cere reli­gious prac­tice implies per­ma­nent reg­u­lar­i­ty and discipline.

The monas­ter­ies them­selves have man­aged to escape the inva­sion of the tele­vi­sion, but find it hard­er to resist the new media. More and more monks, for var­i­ous more or less valid rea­sons, now have access to a com­put­er. More and more of them have a portable phone, which nowa­days is a device that includes all the oth­er media. In a coeno­bitic monastery, the rule may for­bid or lim­it the use of portable media; but soli­taries escape such con­trol. Many her­mits pass time on the Inter­net that could bet­ter have been giv­en to prayer, and many monks spy through that small win­dow every day on the world that they left through the front door.


Self-exposure and Overexposure: A New Terrain for the Practice of Self-love, Vanity, and Pride

The tele­vi­sion has strong­ly encour­aged the desire for media expo­sure, not only among those in pub­lic life (actors, singers, and politi­cians) but also among ordi­nary folk, fas­ci­nat­ed by the fame that comes from sim­ply tak­ing part in a tele­vi­sion pro­gram. The Inter­net, through YouTube and Face­book, allows any­one to show movies of his most triv­ial words and actions to a huge mass of users, or to boast about his wildest behav­ior, his absurd and even sui­ci­dal exploits.

The social net­works, such as Face­book and Twit­ter, and the dis­cus­sion blogs and forums encour­age self-expo­sure and even over-expo­sure. Many users of the Inter­net blithe­ly describe their most triv­ial acts. They emit a stream of con­scious­ness car­ry­ing their impres­sions, sen­ti­ments, and thoughts of the moment in com­plete dis­or­der. Through videos and pho­tos they expose their per­son­al and fam­i­ly life with­out the least mod­esty or reserve. This reveals their desire to attract the atten­tion of oth­ers to them­selves. It man­i­fests the nar­cis­sism that we have already described. One of its main expres­sions is the self­ie, a pho­to of one­self tak­en with a smart­phone, which is con­tem­plat­ed, as in a mir­ror, or post­ed on the social net­works before the pub­lic gaze. How strange that these post­ings of pho­tos or videos on the social net­works should be called “shar­ing,” when they are acts based on ego­tism, linked to van­i­ty and pride. This atti­tude is rein­forced by what fol­lows when the suc­cess of these “shares” is judged by the num­ber of “likes” they attract.

What might be seen in a child as a means of learn­ing to become con­scious of his per­son­al exis­tence is in an adult an expres­sion of untamed pri­ma­ry nar­cis­sism. Long before Freud, the holy ascetics of the Chris­t­ian East iden­ti­fied this behav­ior and gave it the name of “phi­lautism,” or ego­tis­ti­cal love of self. They con­sid­ered it to be a deep-seat­ed pas­sion, the moth­er of all the oth­ers, like van­i­ty and pride with which it is close­ly linked, and which are also among the worst pas­sions. Hid­ing behind ideas of “com­mu­ni­ca­tion” and “shar­ing” makes them even worse, for it gives them a false appear­ance of altruism.

Pride and van­i­ty are rein­forced by count­ing the “likes” received, and by show­ing that one can col­lect more fol­low­ers on Twit­ter, or “likes” from the so-called friends of Face­book than the next man. Those who use Face­book tend to show a flat­ter­ing image of them­selves, which sur­pass­es real­i­ty. Their faults are erased and their qual­i­ties exag­ger­at­ed. They even claim qual­i­ties that they nev­er had. This has a bad effect not just on them­selves, but on oth­ers who may feel put down by the out­ra­geous exag­ger­a­tion they see in the images that they take to be true. Psy­chol­o­gists have even found that it is a cause of depres­sion, which con­cords with the teach­ing of the holy ascetics who saw pride and van­i­ty as sources of sad­ness and ace­dia, two states that resem­ble what we now call depression.

The new media have found their place in that mod­ern West­ern cul­ture that Christo­pher Lasch called “the cul­ture of nar­cis­sism.” They have strong­ly encour­aged its devel­op­ment, oppos­ing the Chris­t­ian cul­ture of self-efface­ment through mod­esty and humil­i­ty and esteem of one’s neigh­bor through char­i­ty and love.

An Unfailing Source of Distraction and Entertainment

…the new media are a source of dis­trac­tion and enter­tain­ment, far beyond any­thing known in the past, since they can be per­ma­nent and lim­it­less. For­mer­ly, some­one who sought enter­tain­ment had to make a phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal effort to move to the right place and pay the price demand­ed. The tele­vi­sion and Inter­net bring it all into the home offer­ing a huge choice that requires no effort of any kind to be accessed. More­over, com­mu­ni­ca­tions through the Inter­net and smart­phones, emails, text mes­sages, tweets and Face­book alerts, require the per­ma­nent atten­tion of homo con­necti­cus, turn­ing him away from him­self and from God toward exter­nal objects that may be vir­tu­al or (half) real but are always worldly.

Destroyers of Hesychia

The new media destroy what the East­ern Spir­i­tu­al Tra­di­tion refers to as hesy­chia. In truth, this state can only be lived to the full by monas­tics. Yet all who would lead a seri­ous spir­i­tu­al life need it in some mea­sure. Hesy­chia is a way of life that requires soli­tude, out­er silence, and inner calm. These three things are indis­pens­able for spir­i­tu­al life, espe­cial­ly in one of its essen­tial activ­i­ties: con­cen­trat­ed atten­tive and vig­i­lant prayer. In con­trast, the con­tin­u­al prompts from the new media are incom­pat­i­ble with the cre­ation and main­te­nance of hesy­chia, not only in its full­ness but also for even the briefest peri­ods. It has no chance against the visu­al and audi­ble sig­nals to which most con­nect­ed peo­ple respond immediately.

Replacement of Inner Stability by Ceaseless Movement and Disturbance

Hesy­chia is also a state of inner sta­bil­i­ty that is required for prayer and that is strength­ened by it. At its high­er lev­els, spir­i­tu­al life aims for inner peace that is not mere­ly the absence of psy­cho­log­i­cal dis­tur­bance, but also that absence of spir­i­tu­al trou­ble, which is the fruit of the quench­ing of the pas­sions. This is the first aim of the ascetic life in that stage of spir­i­tu­al life that East­ern Chris­t­ian Tra­di­tion calls prax­is.

Even when it does not rise to this lev­el, spir­i­tu­al life requires and cul­ti­vates sta­bil­i­ty in life, and to this end gives great impor­tance to reg­u­lar­i­ty, which comes from dis­ci­pline and con­tributes to the mas­tery of all the faculties.

The effects of the new media are quite the oppo­site of this state. As we have seen, using them often gives rise to dis­qui­et that increas­es with use, or to dis­sat­is­fac­tion that the user seeks to assuage by always seek­ing some­thing new. They drag all the pow­ers of the soul into a con­tin­u­ous fast-flow­ing stream of dis­or­dered and dis­con­nect­ed impres­sions. Their con­tent arous­es desire, pro­vokes fears, and devel­ops the pas­sions, which are so many sources of every kind of trou­ble for the soul.

Replacing Recollection by Dispersion

Spir­i­tu­al life also requires what is tra­di­tion­al­ly called rec­ol­lec­tion, the capac­i­ty to turn all one’s fac­ul­ties inward, away from the world, there in one’s heart to unite and con­se­crate them to God in med­i­ta­tion and prayer. Rec­ol­lec­tion is the stage of prepa­ra­tion for prayer that pre­cedes con­cen­tra­tion. But as we have seen, the new media push man’s fac­ul­ties in the oppo­site sense, always out­wards toward the world. They are dis­persed by a stream of dis­cor­dant nag­ging that cuts the soul in pieces, and destroys the uni­ty and iden­ti­ty of the inner man.

The new media encour­age strong­ly two ele­ments of ances­tral sin: (1) the loss of the inner uni­ty of the fac­ul­ties, which once were unit­ed in knowl­edge of God and doing His Will, dis­pers­ing them among phys­i­cal objects and their rep­re­sen­ta­tions (thoughts, mem­o­ries, and images), or the desires and pas­sions that they arouse; (2) the result­ing divi­sion, chop­ping up, and inner dis­per­sion, which, accord­ing to St Max­imus the Con­fes­sor, “breaks human nature into a thou­sand frag­ments.” As oth­er holy ascetics have said, the intel­li­gence is then con­stant­ly dis­tract­ed, float­ing, erring, and wan­der­ing here and there in a state of per­ma­nent agi­ta­tion, quite the oppo­site of the deep peace it expe­ri­enced in its for­mer con­tem­pla­tion. The thoughts that once were unit­ed and con­cen­trat­ed become man­i­fold and mul­ti­far­i­ous, spread­ing out in a cease­less flow. They divide and dis­perse, leak­ing out in every direc­tion, drag­ging and divid­ing the whole being of man in their wake. This leads St Max­imus the Con­fes­sor to speak of: “the scat­ter­ing of the soul amongst out­er forms accord­ing to the appear­ance of sen­so­ry things,” for the soul becomes mul­ti­ple in the image of this sen­so­ry mul­ti­plic­i­ty that, para­dox­i­cal­ly, she has cre­at­ed for her­self, and which is sim­ply an illu­sion aris­ing from her inca­pac­i­ty to per­ceive the objec­tive uni­ty of beings through her igno­rance of their rela­tion to the One God in their ori­gins and their end.

Once the intel­li­gence becomes dis­persed and divid­ed among the swarm of thoughts and sen­sa­tions that it has engen­dered, all the fac­ul­ties fol­low. Stirred up and excit­ed by a mul­ti­tude of pas­sions, they pull in many direc­tions, often opposed, at once, and make of man a being divid­ed at every lev­el. This process of the fall of man, described by the Church Fathers of Late Antiq­ui­ty, con­tin­ues today faster than ever, dri­ven on by the new media. They offer such a rich and speedy flow of temp­ta­tions that they mul­ti­ply the sen­so­ry objects that attract the sens­es and all man’s fac­ul­ties; and they increase the dis­per­sion and divi­sion that aris­es when man’s fac­ul­ties are attached to them.

The Negative Effect on Vigilance and Attention, Two Essential Foundations of Spiritual Life

Although he starts from a view­point dif­fer­ent from that of the Church Fathers, Matthew Craw­ford writes in his recent book of dis­trac­tion as “the orig­i­nal sin of the spir­it.” He empha­sizes that atten­tion, on the con­trary, is one of man’s most pre­cious fac­ul­ties. It does not just con­tribute to all his var­i­ous activ­i­ties, but brings about his inner uni­ty, pre­serv­ing his iden­ti­ty in the face of the out­er world. Crawford’s philo­soph­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal views con­cord with the warn­ing of Deuteron­o­my 4:9: “Take heed to your­self and dili­gent­ly guard your soul,” and with Christ’s many injunc­tions to his Apos­tles to keep vig­i­lance (Matthew 24:42; 25:13; 26:41; Mark 13:33,37; 14:38; Luke 21:36), and with the rec­om­men­da­tions of the Apos­tles them­selves (Acts 20:28; 1 Corinthi­ans 16:13; 1 Peter 5:8). They also agree with the age-old teach­ings of hesy­chasm, the most elab­o­rate form of Ortho­dox Spir­i­tu­al­i­ty: atten­tion is essen­tial to the effec­tive­ness and devel­op­ment of spir­i­tu­al life. St Peter of Dam­as­cus goes so far as to teach: “With­out atten­tion and vig­i­lance of spir­it we can­not be saved and deliv­ered from the dev­il, who, as a roar­ing lion, walketh about us, seek­ing whom he may devour.” To estab­lish a sol­id and fruit­ful rela­tion­ship with God and build him­self up spir­i­tu­al­ly, a Chris­t­ian must be atten­tive to him­self. He needs a per­ma­nent atti­tude of vig­i­lance (nep­sis) to avoid evil thoughts (includ­ing divert­ing thoughts) and must remain atten­tive to God in undis­tract­ed prayer so as to devel­op a sol­id and fruit­ful rela­tion­ship with God, which also builds him up spir­i­tu­al­ly by unit­ing him with the One God. St Nike­tas Stethatos writes: “Whilst we are divid­ed by the fick­le­ness of thoughts and the law of the flesh rules and endures with­in us, we are dis­persed amongst the many parts which make us up and we are reject­ed far from Divine Uni­ty, for we have not drawn on the rich­es of this unity.”

Cover of The New Media Epidemic, by Jean-Claude Larchet

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About the Author

Dr Jean-Claude Lar­chet is among the fore­most liv­ing philoso­phers and authors on Ortho­dox Chris­t­ian Patris­tics. He holds a Ph.D. in phi­los­o­phy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nan­cy and a Ph.D. in the­ol­o­gy from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Stras­bourg. A teacher of phi­los­o­phy for near­ly thir­ty-five years, he is an author of over thir­ty books and count­less arti­cles whose work has been trans­lat­ed into sev­en­teen lan­guages. His mag­num opus, Ther­a­py of Spir­i­tu­al Ill­ness, and sev­er­al oth­er works have been trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish to wide acclaim.