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: youtube.com/Fleet 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.
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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.