What Hath Benedictine Monks to do with the Mammon of Capitalism?

I just started rereading a book we read in undergrad worldview class back in 1998; the book is the late Neil Postman’s Technopoly. He makes an interesting observation about the invention of the clock and capitalism/mammon. He is noting how there are unseen consequences to the development of technology that can be both good and bad; I like the way he interprets how the clock was turned into a bad as it was put into the service of worshiping Mammon rather than the living and Triune God (which was its original intent). He notes:

But such prejudices are not always apparent at the start of a technology’s journey, which is why no one can safely conspire to be a winner in technological change. Who would have imagined, for example, whose interests in and what world-view would be ultimately advanced by the invention of the mechanical clock? The clock had its origin in the Benedictine monasteries of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The impetus behind the invention was to provide a more or less precise regularity to the routines of the monasteries, which required, among other things, seven periods of devotion during the course of the day. The bells of the monastery were to be rung to signal the canonical hours; the mechanical clock was the technology that could provide precision to these rituals of devotion. And indeed it did. But what the monks did not forsee was that the clock is a means not merely of keeping track of the hours but also of synchronizing and controlling the actions of men. And thus, by the middle of the fourth century, the clock had moved outside the walls of the monastery, and brought a new and precise regularity to the life of the workman and the merchant. “The mechanical clock,” as Lewis Mumford wrote, “made possible the idea of regular production, regular working hours and a standardized product.” In short, without the clock, capitalism would have been quite impossible.” The paradox, the surprise, and the wonder are that the clock was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God; it ended as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to the accumulation of money. In the eternal struggle between God and Mammon, the clock quite unpredictably favored the latter.[1]

While this is noting a negative in regard to the mechanical clock, it doesn’t emphasize the various positives the clock has also brought. Nevertheless, I thought the juxtaposition was an interesting one, and one that we all live under the weight of in our daily lives for good or ill. It illustrates how a medium can be used for good or for bad; in this case the mechanical (now digital) clock served to help revolutionize society as a whole—in such a way that we couldn’t even imagine living in a world without one that is regulated by the Almighty Clock.

[1] Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 14-15.

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