Cogs in the Machinery

Michael Metzger

While the invention of the printing press did a lot of good, we often fail to recognize what it undid. Fleet Foxes might. “Helplessness Blues” captures one consequence of the printing press – a tenfold increase in unipolar depression in the Western nations.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1450. It was beneficial in many ways. But Neil Postman warns that we “see only what new technologies can do and are incapable of imagining what they will undo.”1 What did printing press technology undo?

Before Gutenberg’s day, books were few and manuscripts were treasured. Learning involved listening to teachers certified by respected institutions. Rabbis (teachers) had to be 30 years old and vetted by Jewish institutions (Jesus didn’t begin his public ministry until he was 30). Individuals had authority when institutions certified them. The invention of the printing press began to unwind this confidence in institutional authority.

As printed books proliferated, reading became individualized. Individuals began to assume they could learn on their own, figuring out the meaning of a text. Confidence in institutional authority waned. Within a few years, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses (1517). What made Luther remarkable, Joshua Foa Dienstag writes, “was not so much his views about God as his views about humans, their capacities, and their right to judge in their own cases.”2 He appealed to individual conscience over institutional authority.

This opened a “Pandora’s box,” writes Richard Popkin.3 The moral of the tale is the box cannot be closed. Two centuries later, in 1729, Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy was published, explaining how the force of gravity that pulls an apple from a tree also binds the moon to the earth. Suddenly there seemed to be a “glorious benevolence and astounding beauty” in the cosmos that was evident to all apart from submitting to any institutional authorities.4

Forty years later, England’s Royal Academy was founded (1768). It’s credo: Nullus in Verba; “Take no one’s word for it; see for yourself.” It was a society looking to the Greek philosopher Horace’s beacon: ex fumo dare lucem, “to turn darkness into light.” Royal Academy members saw themselves as enlightened, pondering all new ideas while skeptical of “received wisdom” – truth that is passed down through institutions. The Enlightenment was born, a philosophy declaring it “was more convincing to rely on one’s own reason that to cite a prior authority.”5

This became the Puritans’ beacon. When the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was asked where the church was visible before Luther, he said it was visible not in congregations “but in sundry individual members who were persecuted by the church of their day.”6 This became the normative American religious experience that William James noted, one free from any “institutional form.”7 It’s Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 comedy “Modern Times” depicting the Little Tramp as a helpless cog in the machinery.

Now some are seeing the downside to autonomy. There is a tenfold increase in unipolar depression in the Western nations over the last half century. Martin Seligman, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, sees four causes.

The first is “rampant individualism that causes us to think that our setbacks are of vast importance and thus something to become depressed about.”8 Birthed in the Enlightenment and borne by rejecting institutional authority, it furthers “the idea that people should be free agents, unhindered by the demands of church, state, or social convention” Seligman says. The other three causes are the self-esteem craze, the “postwar teaching of victimology and helplessness,” and “runaway consumerism.”

When you listen to “Helplessness Blues,” you sense Fleet Foxes seems to get this. The lyrics reflect the angst of autonomy. The solution? Be a cog in the machinery. It’s a song about how being part of an institution might be a better way to change the world.

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me.

If you want to enjoy the entire song, go to: Foxes – Helplessness Blues Music Video

In his autobiography Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis gives his friend Owen Barfield credit for calling out his “chronological snobbery, the uncritical acceptance… that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”9 The printing press contributed to making us feel that institutional authority is obsolete. Now we reap the bitter fruit. Fortunately, a few, including Fleet Foxes, are beginning to think institutionally. They prefer being a cog in the machinery serving something beyond me. Kudos.

Follow me on Twitter: @Metzger_Mike

1 Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (New York: Random House, 1993), p. 5.
2 Joshua Foa Dienstag, “Reflections on Sheilaism,” The Hedgehog Review 2.1 (Spring 2000).
3 Richard Popkin, The History of Skepticism: From Savonarola to Bayle (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003,), p. 5.
4 Craig Nelson, Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations (New York: Viking, 2006), p. 36.
5 Nelson, Thomas Paine, p. 33.
6 Sacvan Bercovitch, The Puritan Origins of the American Self (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975), p. 11.
7 William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, in Writings, 1902-1910 (New Haven: The Library of America, 1987), p. 34.
8 Gregg Easterbrook, The Progress Paradox: How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse (New York: Random House, 2004)
9 C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando: Harcourt Brace Modern Classic, 1955), pp. 200.


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  1. Stimulating, as usual Mike. Community is to the challenge to come together as individuals, as parts of a body, functioning as a whole. Each of us being living books, as chapters, in the whole. Autonomy does not by default break loyalty to a network.

  2. In addition, depression can exist as an illness like any other. It is myopic to believe it is simply a symptom of certain parameters and circumstance. Poverty of spirit through disconnect of authority, self-empowerment,family interaction and community interaction does not by necessity imply illness.

  3. Thanks for consistently causing my head to do the dogging-head tilt; today is no exception.

    The post leads me to ask whether institutions are meant to serve mankind or is mankind meant to serve institutions?

    I get the point that throwing off institutions can have consequences, but I am puzzled by the example of Martin Luther who was a strict institutionalist (if there is such a word).

    Did not Martin look to the institution of the Church as an authority for the answers he hoped to find?

    And when he discovered what he yearned to find, did he not desire to reform the institution rather than have a life separate from her?

    After all, the 95 these that was nailed to the door was written in Latin for the purpose of scholarly discourse within the bounds of the institution, which Martin persevered in doing. And for much of Martin’s position he leaned upon the institution (e.g. Augustine).

    Could the events of Luther be viewed more as the rejection of an individual by an institution rather than the other way around?

    Now Calvin on the other hand… hardly the institutionalist Luther was and perhaps part of the reason why they didn’t get along.

    The other examples from the post of throwing off institutions resonate.

  4. Gerard: Excellent points. I would say Luther is an example of the Law of Unintended Consequences.Yes, he was a proponent of institutions, but a the Diet of Worms, he cited his own authority to support his argument.

  5. But, too, the rabbi Paul, in addressing the debate over diet and seasons, says “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Luther reacts to a corrupted institution, and the boomerang is real. There are no substitutes to checks and balances, served by honest institutions, and exemplified in the biblical terms for the body of Christ.

  6. Mike,
    You seem to imply that institutions are somehow operating out of a benign governance model when in fact they may or may not. Given that the Church in Rome had in fact become corrupt, and had veered away from the purity of the gospel, it could be argued that God raised up Luther to challenge the institution of the Church to help purify the institution from the outside. I’ve heard someone say that problems can’t be solved by the organizations that have created them and that they need outside jesters and sages to challenge the status quo. How is this situation any different?

  7. Pete: Not any different. Again, it seems that Luther was unaware of the Pandora’s Box he was opening – for his followers, many of whom overthrew almost any respect for institutional authority. These are issues that evolve over centuries. By the time of the early 1800s, you have faith traditions stridently opposed to any institutional form of religion, popularized in today’s parlance as being opposed to “organized religion.”

  8. I agree that being “Cogs in the machinery” is better than trying to be a machine. Think about how many times we refer to exceptional people in various fields as “machines.” Tiger Woods and Nick Saban come to mind…

    For a machine to be a compelling picture it has to have a good product or motive. Institutions, wrecked by the Fall have the same problem that individuals do, our motives and therefore our products are shoddy.

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