In Victor Hugo’s tale Notre-Dame de Paris,composed in the 15thcentury, the printing press had just been developed and the Archdeacon of the great cathedral, Claude Frollo, stands outside and holds his first printed book in his hands. Its quality and potential both fascinate and trouble him. He looks from the pages of the book up to the spires of the great cathedral and says, “This will kill that.”
He wasn’t correct, of course, but the printed word challenged the church and most other 15-century institutions in remarkable ways. Yet that new technology didn’t so much kill God as take the concept of a higher being public and served to democratize the church along paths no one could have predicted.
In retelling Hugo’s story of Frollo, Canadian author Michael Harris warns that our new digital technologies could well crowd out many of those things we once held as sacred. That’s a leap in judgement similar to the archdeacon and could be just as much off the mark, but the changes of the digital revolution are upon us and there is no question as to their power to distract us from those things that are yet vital to the human condition.
It seems fitting that the summer season becomes an occasion for human beings to consider their lives and consequences of humanity in general. The prolonged days of more light, warmth, and perhaps some extra time allow to step off the treadmill for a season and reintroduce ourselves to life at a somewhat slower pace.
And on such occasions, we frequently search for deeper meaning. There’s just one problem. As with Claude Frollo, we are living in a time where things that have lasted for centuries are falling like dominos before the massive technological and economic juggernauts. Every institution is coming into question and life no longer seems as familiar and navigable anymore.
And yet most of us refuse to surrender to the pressure of the age and hold on to things that we still think matter. Things like love of family and friends, the beauty, enjoyment and protection of nature, the necessity of relaxation and reflection, and desire to become more in rhythm with earth’s gentler movements. Such things die hard, if at all, but there are new issues added to this list – the belief in meaningful employment, citizens who respect one another, a politics of gathering instead of griping, and the ever-enduring pursuit of world peace. These are real and right now they are under assault – sometimes from foreign forces, and other times they result from our own self-centred actions and words.
These things are vital to who we are and must never be permitted to perish under the speed, selfishness and materialism of the world.
Author Timothy Snyder once reminded his readers to believe in the truth once more, to fight for it, and to unearth it from all the refuse and data that has eclipsed it in recent years. In words eerily fitting to our present time, he wrote:
“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.”
Such things happen when people, individually and collectively, lose their way and their capacity to believe. Make this summer about those things which oppose these leanings towards paltriness – neighbourliness, honesty, integrity, transparency, humility, confession and service to humanity. Such values have been developed and refined over the millennia and are far too important to permit being crowded out by those things that could destroy our planet and its inhabitants. Make this summer a time of renewal of the better angels of our natures and a season of commitment to a troubled world. Don’t let them die. Let us reaffirm them in our spirits and minds this summer and prepare ourselves for the coming battles ahead by relaxing in their virtues during these warm summer days.