Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 21, 2017

the factory of idols

Herewith a kind of thought experiment:

In a well-known passage from the 1559 edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes that “we may infer that the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols” (I.11.8). That’s the Beveridge translation — I’m not sure what more recent translations have, but that one has entered the English-language Calvinist lexicon, and it’s a very nice phrase: “a perpetual forge of idols.”

Here’s the Latin: Unde colligere licet, hominis ingenium perpetuam, ut ita loquar, esse idolorum fabricam. The word Beveridge translated as “forge” — a synecdoche for “the place where a blacksmith does his work” — is fabrica, which actually has a more general meaning: it’s a workshop. It’s a place where things are fabricated. The human mind is, then, a workshop that perpetually cranks out idols.

But of course the workshop is the standard site of production in a pre-Industrial Revolution economy. Things have changed since Calvin wrote of the idolorum fabricam; we’re not about cottage industries any more. Now that the powers of the human mind have been extended and amplified by the development of capitalism we have an idol factory — an increasingly efficient, Taylorite factory.

And if we continue this line of thought, we might ask what to make of the computer? The computer is, as Alan Turing theorized when he first imagined it, the universal machine; it is therefore the universal idol-fabricating device. And now that almost all of us have smartphones, everywhere we go we take our idolorum fabricam with us. The work of idol-making churns away ceaselessly in our pockets.


  • Huh. My first interest on reading this post was whether there's a workshop-focused functionalism about philosophy of mind that precedes the modern, computer-based models. A bit of stupid searching in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy shows that Hobbes is my man:

    “why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves by springs and wheels…) have an artificial life? For what is the heart but a spring; and the nerves but so many strings, and the joints but so many wheels…”.

    I wonder, though: what's the conceptual difference between a "perpetual forge" and a computer? When pressed to distinguish between the productive capacity of a machine and a computer, the ability of the computer to literally perpetually pump out it's product is part of what seems innovative.

    Perhaps, also, it's the ephemeral nature of what the computer produces. But that's also built into Calvin's metaphor -- the mind perpetually produces idolatrous ideas.

    So, I guess, where I'm led to is that the modern computer in its literal functions comes closer to the metaphorical function of a perpetual forge of ideas.

  • Michael, look for my review, coming soon, of Jessica Riskin's amazing book The Restless Clock -- it addresses some of these ideas powerfully. I do think, though, that it's interesting to consider the difference between idols made by hand (as it were arithmetically) and those made by an endlessly iterated algorithmic process. The former we may be more attached to, but we can't exchange them easily for others; the latter can't earn our complete adoration, but they don't have to because there are always new ones being extruded from the pipeline. We are serial idolaters.

  • I wonder if the difference between the two is more the fulfillment of our desire for knowledge of good and evil. Factories and industries can get us objects of desire, but since the garden the ultimate object of our desire is knowledge. The computer or more accurately, the internet, (which is in and of itself a machine of sorts), can fill this desire for carnal knowledge in a way that the assembly line never could.

  • I think you're very much correct about the fuller nature of the computer--it's bound up in the moral calculus in a completely non-neutral way precisely because it is made and used by people. It has to be weighed, not just taken for granted.

    If I may nudge back a little, I think that the idolorum fabricum is still completely in the mind. Worship cannot be foisted upon us, it can only flow out of us and so idolatry can only ever be a cottage industry. In other words, nothing is an idol until we have chosen it as a worship object. Admittedly, the primary motive behind this line of thinking is to keep the eloquent phrasing of "the perpetual forge" intact. But, I think it also keeps us from slipping off the hook for our choices.

    Certainly the industrialization of temptation/seduction/the awareness of all the ways we *could* go astray must be reckoned with. I think that's what lies at the heart of the sulfurous confluence of the smart phone, virtue signaling, and 24-hour gossip/outrage...er, news cycles. But, the very human work of sifting through the garbage to find what's worthy of worship remains the same.

    And, who knows, maybe a peasant living a thousand years ago at the complete mercy of the weather, beset by disease and lacking any effective medical treatment, and always under threat of tribal violence--maybe they were just as distracted by all the idols of sorcery and superstition and et ceteras as we are by our phones.

  • It's interesting that the word fabricate has gone from meaning "to skillfully produce something, as in a workshop," to, in its contemporary colloquial usage, "inventing or concocting something, typically with deceitful intent" [the latter definition is the first given on a Google search of the term, for what that's worth]. The contemporary pop use of the term evokes deception and conjuring--as in magic, the art of illusions. In Dr. Jacobs' conversation with N.D. Wilson, he speaks of how Francis Bacon had great respect for illusionist and of how magic was originally seen as form of technology. It's interesting how the concept of reinventing the world and the self, often in the image of one's own self, has grown with the shift in identifying fabrication--or production--with a model "scientific management" or perhaps more precisely, positivist management. This shift could itself be a consequence of the shift from viewing science as a more passive study to a more active or technological task. This could be a reason why science is more frequently, though not exclusively, seen as useful to the degree that it enables us to fulfill desires of self-reinvention--recreating ourselves in the image of, what we might think, is our truest selves which may not conform to our given created embodied being. We become icons created [By who? Ourselves, we think]in the image of who or what exactly?

  • Just for comparison, the quote from Calvin in the McNeill edition of 1960 is, "From this we may gather that man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols."

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