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.”
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.