Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 459

Ellul’s work falls within the genre of studies that criticize the nature of modern technological society. Aldous Huxley, who introduced Ellul to the United States in conversations at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara in 1959-1960, said that Ellul’s work made the case he had tried to make in his Brave New World (1932). Ellul’s path-breaking analysis of the impact of technique on all aspects of society spawned a host of related studies in the two decades following the publication of his book in the United States. Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (1982) offers a penetrating critique of Cartesian-Newtonian thought, focusing particularly on what he calls the mechanistic view of life. Mihajlo Mesarovic and Eduard Pestel’s Mankind at the Turning Point: The Second Report to the Club of Rome (1974) argues, as does Ellul, that unbridled economic and technological invention are straining the carrying capacity of the world.

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Ellul emphasized the threat posed to the natural environment by technique. His warnings in this area have been echoed by countless other authors, including David Ehrenfeld, whose The Arrogance of Humanism (1978) criticizes technique’s confidence that progress is inevitable and that man can surmount any and all natural barriers to technological development. His criticism of technique is based upon his Christian faith. In this respect, E.F. Schumacher, a leading figure in the environmental movement of the 1970’s, closely resembles him. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) claims that the mad rush for technological development has reduced humanity to the level of productive machinery, and that modern industrial civilization has lost the meaning of human existence. In his words, contemporary science and education no longer provide social and moral maps that would enable humans to find the answer to life’s most pressing questions.

Ellul’s book is thus centrally situated among works that criticize the nature of technological civilization and call mankind back to values that are broader and more enduring than technique. The two main themes of his writings are the nature and influence of technique and the role of Christianity in civilization and individual existence. His work may be characterized as prophetic, in that he seeks to disturb the status quo, question what is taken as normal, shed new light on old issues, and offer new perspectives. Bringing criticism from outside the normal order of dis course, Ellul challenges the common assumptions of modern technological society.

Like that of all prophets, Ellul’s perspective has its limitations. He does not give a complete, reasoned exploration of all of his arguments. Critics have noted blind spots, overstatements, and contradictions. As “prophecy,” however, Ellul’s work has been heard as a profound critique of technological society.

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