The human condition, transcending the material, and the perils of "technique": Kahlil Gibran and Jacques Ellul in dialogue
Also, welcoming Sophia Margaux, and a chance to win "Uncivil Mirth" a Princeton University Press book by Ross Carroll!
Happy New Year! I’m excited to continue learning with and alongside you in 2022.
Here’s what to expect in this week’s CR issue:
Welcoming Sophia Margaux Hélène Hudson, now 10 days old
Kahlil Gibran and Jacques Ellul in dialogue
BOOK GIVEAWAY: Uncivil Mirth, recently published by Princeton University Press, and special gift of CR swag!
Welcoming Sophia Margaux
We are beyond thankful to introduce you to our daughter, Sophia Margaux Hélène Hudson, now 10 days old. She was born in the early morning hours of December 29, 2021. We could not be more in love. We’ve cherished every moment of getting to know her and welcoming her into our family.
Her brother—our son Percival James, nearly two—has been a most adoring companion, alerting us to her every need. He loves caring for her and letting us know exactly what he thinks she needs—especially when he hears her cooing.
Before Sophia was born, I could not imagine loving another human being as much as I love our son. But our hearts have melted and expanded a million times over in these early days of her life.
As passionate as I am about the work I do with my writing and speaking, being a parent is the best, most joy-filled, most meaningful thing I’ll ever do. Everyday, I think to myself, Surely it doesn’t get any better than this!
And then, amazingly, with each new childhood milestone and change, it does!
Sophia is the Ancient Greek word for “wisdom,” while Margaux is in honor of my grandma Margaret, who passed away just two months before Percival was born (Margaux is also a name of French origin that means means “pearl”). I’ve written about my grandma Margaret’s remarkable life in prior CR issues, and you can read more here:
Hélène pays homage to my paternal grandmother, Helen, who passed away in 2006. Hélène is etymologically linked to the Greek word helios, or sun, and means “light,” “torch,” and “bright.”
Our hope and prayer is that Sophia’s life—like the pearls of wisdom itself—can, in the days and years to come, shine brightly and illuminate our dark and confused times.
Holding her, a newborn, in our arms, I can’t help but be filled with awe and appreciation for the fragility and the nobility of human life.
I'm reminded of Blaise Pascal's reflection on humankind, noted in his Pensées:
Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him: a vapor, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him.
We enter 2022 with hearts brimming with gratitude.
Transcending the material: Jacques Ellul and Kahlil Gibran in dialogue
Jacques Ellul—French philosopher and author of The Technological Society—and Kahlil Gibran—the Lebanese author of The Prophet, one of the bestselling books of all time—are two of the most important, influential, and under-appreciated thinkers of the 20th century.
Interestingly enough, they were both on January 6—Gibran in 1883 in Bsharri, Lebanon; Ellul in Bordeaux, France, in 1912.
(I meant to craft and send this issue two days ago, on January 6th, but with a newborn, reality foiled my ambition!)
It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on these two thinkers.
Though they come from different times, different parts of the world, and explore different themes, the work of each man forces us to grapple with important questions related to the human condition.
Their work also reminds us of the importance of the eternal and the immaterial to leading a rich, meaningful existence—an essential counterbalance to our era that prizes the temporal and the carnal.
Both thinkers, furthermore, were influenced by their Christian faith—Ellul was a Reformed Christian, Gibran a Maronite Christian. And while both men were devout, they also each aspired for ecumenicism, focusing on ideas and questions common to all people in all times and all places. Their focus was the breadth human experience, raising and offering answers to questions essential to living life well.
Interestingly, a final—and far less consequential—similarity between these two writers share is their publisher: Both of their most famous works—The Prophet for Gibran (1923), and The Technological Society (translated into English and published in 1964) for Ellul—were published by Alfred A. Knopf.
Because of their interest in foundational questions related to human life, both thinkers make important contributions to The Great Conversation—the iterative dialogue that thoughtful people across time and place have been engaging in about questions of origin, meaning and destiny.
For all these reasons, and more, these gentleman are worth our time today.
Kahlil Gibran, prophet of counterculture
For as famous as Kahlil Gibran and his book The Prophet are, I confess that I had never heard of it before I found it on my bookshelf one day several weeks ago.
I picked it up and asked my husband what it was about. I opened it and saw that his high school speech coach had given it to him, sharing that it was one of the most meaningful books in his life. My husband also said that he enjoyed it. Intrigued, I read it.
It was only after reading it that I wanted to learn more about it, and discovered how popular it has become. The Prophet has been largely omitted by most “canons” and lists of great works of literature. Cynically, this could be because the author Kahlil Gibran, is Lebanese, and creators of non-Western backgrounds are far too often overlooked.
Or, it could be because the people that put together such Great Books lists are skeptical of things that are too popular and commercially successful. As The Prophet is one of the best-selling books of all time, with tens of millions of copies sold since its initial publication in 1923—Gibran’s famous work certainly fits that bill.
All that to say, it’s entirely possible that you have read this book and found it life changing, found it cliche, or have never heard of it at all! I thought it worth exploring here at Civic Renaissance because of its enduring popularity over the last 100 years, and because of its engaging exploration of the human experience.
The Prophet is a work comprising twenty six prose poems that explore different facets of the human condition—suffering, love, commerce, marriage, children, beauty, religion, death, and more.
He began working on the book in 1912, but he didn’t send it to his publisher until almost a decade later.
I love what he said about why he took his time with the work:
I kept this manuscript for four years before I delivered it over to my publisher because I wanted to be sure, I wanted to be very sure, that every word of it was the very best I had to offer.
As someone writing a book myself—I actually just received a set of manuscript revisions last month—Kahlil Gibran’s words set a high, inspiring bar!
Born in Lebanon, Gibran and his family moved to Boston when he was young and settled in a home for new refugees. At the settlement house, his talent for painting was discovered by a well known artist and critic, who then introduced him to other influential people in Boston’s artistic scene.
He studied art in Paris, where he got to know the creative luminaries of his day, including William Butler Yeats, Carl Jung and August Rodin, all of whom he met and painted.
The Prophet offers words of wisdom that seem to cut through human difference and speak to people in all walks of life. From the The Beatles and John F. Kennedy to Gandhi, countless people from all backgrounds and levels of society have been nourished by Gibran’s work.
As noted, Gibran was a Maronite Christian. But, having lived in a time of religious and political tumult in Lebanon, he was passionate about finding ways to bridge divides and remind people of our fundamental shared dignity as human persons.
To this ecumenical end, Gibran enjoyed integrating insights from other faiths and philosophical traditions in his work. He was, for example, influenced by the Islamic and Baha'i faith traditions, as well as European classical artistic and philosophical schools.
The Prophet begins with a gentleman—someone Gibran describes as “the chosen and the beloved”—preparing to leave the mythical town of Orphalese for his home. Before he leaves, the denizens of Orphalese plead with him to share his wisdom on leading a meaningful life.
Then a woman said, Speak to us of Joy and Sorrow.
And [the Prophet] answered:
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears…
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that has given you joy.
Side note: Gibran’s insight here is reminiscent of a story Socrates tells about the relationship between pleasure and pain in the Platonic dialogue the Phaedo—also a manifesto about the importance of the immaterial amid a world that values the corporeal. In reflecting on his recent, unjust conviction and death sentence, Socrates speculates about the nature of pleasure and pain. “It would make for a good fable from Aesop!” Socrates quips before telling the story: “God wanted to stop their continual quarreling, and when he found that it was impossible, he fastened their heads together; so whenever one of them appears, the other is sure to follow.”
Socrates says that pleasure and pain are apparent opposites, but are also two sides of the same coin. This is why we often experience them together—as someone who loves spicy food, I can attest to this! But Socrates is also getting at a deeper insight into the human experience: Often, after we have endured great suffering, the good things in life—perhaps the simple pleasures we took for granted before—are that much more delightful.
Further, on giving, the Prophet says, “You give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.”
On eating and drinking, Gibran writes, “Would that you could live on the fragrance of the earth, and like an air planet be sustained by light. But since you must kill to eat, and rob the newly born of its mother’s milk to quench your thirst, let it then be an act of worship.”
And on work, the Prophet states,
All work is empty save when there is love; and when you work with love you bind yourself to yourself, and to one another, and to God…
Work is love made visible. And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy. For if the bread you bake with indifference, you bake a bitter bread the feeds but half a man’s hunger.
In each poem, Gibran encourages his readers to see beyond what is in front of them, and to infuse each day with an eternal and transcendent meaning. For this reason, Gibran has often been compared to Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other members of the Transcendentalist movement—a philosophical wave that emphasized cultivating the divine and beautiful in our everyday endeavors.
There is a reason that Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet has stood the test of time. It speaks to something that each of us intuitively knows to be true—or at least something that many of us want to be true: that there is more to this world than meets the eye, and that our lives and everyday endeavors have meaning beyond the acts themselves.
Gibran’s masterwork, written in elegant, poetic fables, is both elevated and elevating. It encourages people to look beyond what is, and to reflect on what could be—both in ourselves and in the world around us.
Jacques Ellul, gadfly of modernity
Like Gibran, Jacques Ellul grew up in a home that was relatively poor and deprived of many material possessions. And like Gibran, this likely formed Ellul’s thinking about remaining detached from things, and the centrality of ideas and the immaterial.
Though poor, Ellul had a happy upbringing. Born in Bordeaux, he wanted to be a naval officer, but his father convinced him to study law instead.
He studied at the University of Bordeaux and the University of Paris, and among his greatest intellectual influences were reformed theologian John Calvin, Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, German philosopher Karl Marx, German theologian Karl Barth, and German sociologist Max Weber.
One day, while translating Goethe’s Faust, Ellul describes having “a very brutal and very sudden conversion,” experience.
He suddenly sensed that he was in the presence of something astounding and overwhelming—something, or someone, that permeated his very essence. Ellul was convinced that he had been in the presence of God, and throughout his life he maintained that the Christian faith should be grounded in the teachings of Christ and Scripture—any denomination or church that placed insufficient emphasis on these things received his criticism and scorn.
He was eventually removed by France’s Nazi-backed Vichy government from his position teaching law in Strasbourg. And as a Christian in the Reformed tradition, his religious and ethical convictions led him to oppose Vichy as part of the French Resistance during World War II. As part of these efforts, Ellul helped to warn Jewish families of their impending arrest and deportation, and helped them get to places of refuge with other families in Bordeaux.
Beginning with France’s liberation in 1944, Ellul served as Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux, but he served in the position just two years: His brief stint in public life affirmed his skepticism about political office being an efficacious tool of social change.
Ellul’s most famous work is his book translated in English as The Technological Society, first published in French in 1954 under the name Technique: The Wager of the Century. It was translated into English ten years later in 1964 and popularized in America by Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World.
The Technological Society critiques what Ellul calls “technique”—the specter and bane of modern society. He writes, “In our technological society, technique is the totality of methods rationally arrived at and having absolute efficiency (for a given stage of development) in every field of human activity.” In valuing protocol and efficiency in every realm of human, Ellul says, we overlook and undermine many important aspects of the human experience.
As the Greeks might have put it, we are obsessed with techne, knowing and making, and we’ve lost sight of episteme and sophia—knowledge and wisdom.
So much of modern life—our workplaces, our schools—are fixated on technique and protocol. Metrics. Output. Minutes in the office or classroom. Grades. Test scores. “Measurable outcomes.”
We are focused on skills and specialization, and seem to lack any interest in instilling wisdom or in cultivating the humanity, hearts, and minds of people today.
In criticizing technique, Ellul is pointing out our overly mechanized, impersonal, and technological world—one that that can be at enmity with our very humanity, as Huxley powerfully depicts in his famous novel.
But Ellul’s concern is about far more than technology. Ellul is concerned that in our fixation with specialization and technique, especially in our modern universities, we’ve lost a holistic vision of the human person—and have thereby imperiled the education required to cultivate truly whole persons.
And on this score Ellul is again in good company.
Socrates said that techne could be good only when deployed with sophia. Many years later, C.S. Lewis, a contemporary of Ellul, echoed this idea in his famous essay, The Abolition of Man: technique that is not guided by wisdom has the potential for disastrous consequences, including the very abolition of mankind itself.
For Ellul, technique and the modern “cult of efficiency” comes at the expense of thinking holistically and globally. Have you ever been encouraged to “Think globally, act locally?” Ellul actually coined that phrase: He wrote in his Perspectives on Our Age, “By thinking globally I can analyze all phenomena, but when it comes to acting, it can only be local and on a grassroots level if it is to be honest, realistic, and authentic.”
He was worried, however, that our current era’s ethos— defined by focus on “practical” vocations and areas of study, such as the STEM disciplines, business, or marketing—inhibits us from either thinking globally or acting locally, and from cultivating our humanity, too.
As we’ve explored at length here at Civic Renaissance, in contrast to the overly specialized modes of study that are so common today, the liberal arts and the humanities offer a holistic approach to education, the purpose of which is to cultivate our humanity, our freedom, and our flourishing.
As Ellul wrote in The Technological Society:
Technique has penetrated the deepest recesses of the human being. The machine tends not only to create a new human environment, but also to modify man's very essence. The milieu in which he lives is no longer his. He must adapt himself, as though the world were new, to a universe for which he was not created. He was made to go six kilometers an hour, and he goes a thousand. He was made to eat when he was hungry and to sleep when he was sleepy; instead, he obeys a clock. He was made to have contact with living things, and he lives in a world of stone. He was created with a certain essential unity, and he is fragmented by all the forces of the modern world.
In short, when we focus on what we can measure in human life and experience, we miss many important aspects of what it means to be human.
Ellul wrote, “Technique has taken over the whole of civilization. Death, procreation, birth all submit to technical efficiency and systemization.”
In my second book, I plan to use my experience at the U.S. Department of Education—and the way in which it embodied the cult of efficiency so prevalent in our modern world generally, and to our approach to education in particular—as a jumping off point to explore how to revive true education in our lives today.
There is so much more I could say about both Gibran and Ellul. Their lives and oeuvre are rich and textured—and vitally important for us to remember today.
I hope this introduction to their lives and some of their ideas has piqued your interest, and that you are encouraged to keep learning about them and reading their work!
Have you encountered these thinkers before? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them.
What do you think of their ideas on the human condition, the perils of “technique,” and the cult of materialism in our modern world? Are you compelled by their arguments? Do you disagree? Send me your thoughts!
Are there other thinkers and creators that you think we should explore here at Civic Renaissance? Send me your favorite artists, creators and intellectuals that could be good candidates for future CR issues!
You can reach me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
GIVEAWAY: Uncivil Mirth - from Princeton University Press
I’m thrilled to partner with Princeton University Press to give away FIVE copies of Uncivil Mirth: Ridicule in Enlightenment Britain to members of the Civic Renaissance community.
This book explores the importance of ridicule to the work of social reformers and philosophers in pursuing important social and political goals, including toleration and the abolition of slavery.
The book’s argument—that sometimes ridicule and incivility is necessary to pursue greater aims—maps on well to the core argument of my book on civility, forthcoming from St Martin’s Press. As regular readers may remember, the principal argument of my book is that there is an essential—but insufficiently recognized—difference been civility and politeness. People use these terms interchangeably, but they are in fact very different.
Politeness is a technique. It is manners and etiquette. It is the form of an act.
The Latin root of politeness means “to smooth” and “polish”—and that’s exactly what politeness does: it focuses on appearance alone.
Civility, by contrast, is a disposition. It is the motivation and substance behind an act. Civility, I argue, is about fundamentally recognizing and respecting the common humanity of others. And sometimes, truly respecting others can involve conduct that seems impolite!
For example, telling someone you disagree with them and engaging in robust debate isn’t always polite—but it is deeply civil.
The word “civility” is linked to the Latin word for “citizen,” “city,” and “citizenship.” Civility is the conduct befitting a member of the civis. It is thus civility, not politeness, that we need for a free and flourishing community—especially a democracy such as our own.
If you’re interested in seeing how these ideas play out in the context of 18th Century Britain, this book, Uncivil Mirth, is for you! Learn how figures such as David Hume, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, and many others used biting words and wit to bring important ideas to the fore, instead of allowing notions of “polite” conduct to obscure their true beliefs.
Write to me at email@example.com with the word UNCIVIL MIRTH in the subject line to be entered.
Happy New Year, and thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!
I’m so grateful you are here.