From Steam Engines to the Singularity: How the Technological Spirit of (Classical) Liberalism Remakes Man in its Own Image

by Deion A. Kathawa*

“God blessed them, saying: ‘Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it.  Have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.’ ”

–Gen. 1:28

“For just as in affairs of state we see a man’s mettle and the secret sense of his soul and affections better when he is under pressure than at other times, so nature’s secrets betray themselves more through the vexations of art than they do in their usual course . . .  I also think that it does not matter much for mankind’s well being [sic] what abstract opinions you hold about nature and the principles of things . . .  On the contrary, my object is to see whether I can really lay firmer foundations for human power and prestige, and to extend their bounds yet wider.”

–Francis Bacon

In the last few years, a debate about the desirability and sustainability of classical liberalism—the West’s regnant governing ideology—has migrated from obscure corners of the internet into the edges, at least, of the general public’s consciousness.[1]  Since, much ink has been spilled assessing whether various sorts of “post-liberal” systems[2] are compatible with what many take to be classical liberalism’s core—and highly desirable—features: “constitutionalism, the rule of law, rights and privileges of citizens, separation of powers, the free exchange of goods and services in markets, and federalism.”[3]  But because those things “are to be found in medieval thought,”[4] we are free to retain and refine them while simultaneously identifying and rejecting classical liberalism’s errors and excesses.[5]  At its core, “[classical] liberalism is constituted by a pair of . . . anthropological assumptions that give liberal institutions a particular orientation and cast: 1) anthropological individualism and the voluntarist conception of choice, and 2) human separation from and opposition to nature.”[6]  These assumptions are properly understood as “revolutions in the understanding of human nature and society.”[7]  And yet, relatively little effort has been expended to trace and understand the effects of classical liberalism’s second core feature—i.e., Man’s alienation from the natural world, driven by a technological mindset—on the human soul.

I propose that to truly understand this dimension of classical liberalism, and how we might begin to reverse its impact, we must “begin at the beginning.”[8]  That is, we must first understand: (1) how God’s command to mankind in the Garden of Eden to have dominion and to exercise stewardship over Creation transmogrified into a libido dominandi, an overweening desire to dominate nature for our own material advantage; and, relatedly, (2) how our innate thirst for knowledge of the Good—God Himself—was perverted into something baser, narrower, and more instrumental and fleeting—merely securing “the relief of man’s estate.”[9]

So, we begin with Francis Bacon, the 17th century English philosopher and statesman, and the avatar of classical liberalism’s technological mindset—one that aims to overcome our material deficiencies and limitations through ruthless, rational control of nature, and one in which “nature” is conceptualized, for the most part not consciously nowadays, as meaningless matter.[10]  However, we cannot understand Bacon’s impact until we understand that of liberal modernity’s godfather: Niccolò Machiavelli.[11]

For Machiavelli, the driving force behind our actions ought to be necessity: seeing the verita effettuale,[12] the effectual truth of things, i.e., the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be, and then acting accordingly to secure congenial outcomes—even if that means transgressing Christian morality.[13]  Machiavellianism is thus both a rejection of Platonic idealism—an effort to drag us back down into the Cave, a lowering of our moral gaze—and an assault on the Catholic Church’s anthropology, ethics, and metaphysics. Machiavelli wrote at a time when the Church’s perceived spiritual authority had waned and was about to be further undermined by Martin Luther’s devastating revolt in 1517.[14]  This gave the “teacher of evil”[15] an opening to found “new modes and orders”[16]—an alternate understanding of reality.

Bacon seized upon Machiavelli’s project and applied it to technology.[17]  The fruits of this paradigm shift—“the passing away of one world and the coming-to-be of another”[18]—are all around us.  Man’s control over nature has never been more obvious, complete, or marvelous.  We with ease fly around the world, consume without a second thought exotic foods about which our ancestors could only dream, enjoy millions of hours of robust digital entertainment, communicate with anyone instantaneously, live comfortably in once-lethal climes, and cure deadly diseases.

We also, however, pillage the environment, produce obscene amounts of addictive pornography, are on the cusp of putting millions out of work through various forms of automation, and can, in an afternoon, annihilate our species with nuclear weapons.  Thus, our technological prowess is a double-edged sword that has far outstripped our moral faculties.  In this way, to use a trite metaphor, we are like a toddler who has stumbled upon his father’s loaded handgun.

But technology per se is not malum in se; rather, the danger lies in our relationship to man-made tools and processes—i.e., how our mindset affects what we build, yes, but also what we do with what we build.  This must be so; otherwise, we would need to be prepared to question Christ the carpenter, Who used hammers to build tables.[19]  In fact, I submit that it is right and good for Man’s intellectual powers to ease his traversal of this “vale of tears” because doing so properly actualizes God’s command to our first parents to “subdue” and “[h]ave dominion” over the earth and all that is in it.  The real task, then, is to discern precisely which technological developments are of God—because they are in accord with human flourishing and the common good—and which are, at bottom, expressions of our pride and should therefore be rejected—because it was only in becoming “liberal men” that we discovered them.  And we know that this is the relevant inquiry because, ceteris paribus, we agree that a world where we are adequately fed and have the benefits of modern medicine is better than a famine-wracked and disease-ridden one.[20]

However, our inability to recognize the line that separates good from bad technology, to make technology serve and ennoble rather than enslave and debase us, threatens our very existence in ways subtler—but no less dangerous for that subtlety—than a fiery, nuclear holocaust.  We can see this quite clearly in assessing our societies’ crazed response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which, stunningly, is ongoing more than a year after the first lockdown was instituted in the United States.[21]  To eradicate this threat to our physical well-being, we shuttered the country and suspended activities necessary to human flourishing and the common good: birthday parties, weddings, visiting relatives, dinner parties—in a word, play.[22]  And for what?  It would seem the mere appearance of safety—because not even full, airtight lockdowns could have stopped the spread of the virus.[23]  That should have been blindingly obvious to everyone, including the public-health “experts,” but it wasn’t, and so we acted out our blind faith in our absolute control over the natural world, consistent with Bacon’s worldview.  Thus far, thankfully, reality has reasserted itself; even President Biden has conceded, though only after he had taken up residence in the White House, that “there’s nothing we can do to change the trajectory of the pandemic in the next several months.”[24]

But I fear that we will not be able to count on such welcome, back-to-sanity pendulum swings for much longer.  Up to this point, science has largely been focused on achieving increased “health” for human beings as they have long existed,[25] not on transforming human beings themselves.  But no longer.[26]  Our mastery over nature via our technology has birthed twin “trans” movements—transgenderism and transhumanism—that attack a foundational reality: embodied humanness.  Thus, many have understandably likened these movements, focused as they are on the body, to one of the earliest heresies faced by the Church—Gnosticism—and have attacked them on those grounds.[27]  However, Gnosticism is not the right hermeneutic by which to understand, criticize, and resist these modern phenomena.

Rather, they are better understood as offspring of classical liberalism’s technological gaze, which has alienated Man from the natural world; that is, we should understand them as by-products of the classically liberal desire to exercise rational, domineering control over the natural world.  In other words, they are the result of a worldview that is closed off to the supernatural. Because we have lost our reverence for nature-as-gift, we instead see material reality as something to be subordinated to our materialistic prerogatives.[28]  And because we no longer conceive of ourselves as anything more than material creatures inhabiting a material world—one which is often deadly to our (physical) well-being—we have decided that the only logical thing to do is to overcome it—and ruthlessly so.  Our intense fear of the world around us causes us desperately to cling to the comfort of screens rather than to God and His sacraments because the former are amenable to our learned overreliance on sensory data while the latter require faith in things unseen.[29]  And for modern Man, tragically, “seeing is believing.”[30]

So, because pain, infertility, an internal sense of “gender identity” (irrespective of biological sex), unborn children, hired laborers, or desire to engage in non-marital sexual encounters seem to stand in the way of “health,” they must be destroyed, disposed of, embraced, transcended, or otherwise made to serve us.  The noble desire to relieve Man’s estate by progressively more powerful technological means carries within it seeds of a tyranny so powerful that it threatens to eliminate Man as he has long understood himself, namely, as a sexed, embodied creature, born in community and radically dependent on others.[31] These radical “trans”-techno movements—marked by their cross-hormone therapies, surgical interventions, wild fantasies of uploading people’s consciousnesses into computers after their bodily deaths, and fervent desire to meld with the Singularity—are not zombie Gnosticism but, rather, the apotheosis of the Enlightenment-era lust for technological domination of nature—homo sapiens very much included.[32]  Ultimately, the goal is to transcend humanity altogether, our fleshly, intransigent givenness—and the “intolerable” limitations it implies.[33]

But that goal has not been realized.  At least not yet.  The wave of technologizing “liberation” that we have unleashed—liberation from material wants and from many earthly dangers—has turned ‘round to enslave us. If we are not careful, we will be effaced from the earth completely.[34]  We have created an idol, and the reason that God forbids idolatry[35]—beyond just the fact that He alone is worthy of our worship—is because idols invariably ensnare, debase, and, ultimately, destroy us.  And while our attraction to this particular idol—technology—is understandable given that it has done us enormous collective good,[36] it is nonetheless foolish to think that the only way to have achieved 21st-century levels of material progress is to have prostrated ourselves before this strange, modern-day golden calf.[37]

Made in the imago Dei and with a divine command to steward Creation, but grievously wounded by the Fall, we have aspired to stride about the world and control it as gods, to put into practice Marx’s somewhat obscure adage: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”[38]  In our immense pride, ratified and given form and effect by classical liberalism, in jealously trying to imitate God’s sovereign power over all things visible and invisible[39]—most precisely, in trying to be “like gods”[40]—we have, predictably, distorted ourselves.  Soon, we will no longer recognize ourselves.  Tragically, we have lost the virtue of hope, grounded in faith in Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, and have instead yoked ourselves to a false vision of “moral progress,” actualized by ever-expanding, and dangerous, techne over nature[41]—an idol of the heart’s gaze which now, just as in Eden, tempts us with self-deification[42] but, necessarily, death.[43]

* Deion A. Kathawa is an attorney who hails from America’s heartland.  He holds a J.D. from the University of Notre Dame and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.  For their helpful feedback on earlier drafts, I thank Andrew Beddow, Suzanne Beecher, Timothy Bradley, Alex Ehler, Judah Maxwell, Justin North, Hailey Vrdolyak, and Garrett Ziegler.

All biblical citations are to the New American Bible.

Bacon, Novum Organum, Bk. 1, Aphorisms 98, 116, trans. Graham Rees and Maria Wakely (Oxford 2004).  Cf. Carolyn Merchant, The Violence of Impediments: Francis Bacon and the Origins of Experimentation, 99 Isis 731, 732 n. 2 (2008).

[1] IASC News, Barack Obama Recommends Why Liberalism Failed, Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (December 2018, 2018),

[2] For a primer on a particular post-liberal—though the author would probably call it “pre-liberal”—political arrangement, see Pater Waldstein, O.Cist, What is Integralism Today?, Church Life Journal (October 31, 2018),  As to whether, as an orthodox Roman Catholic, I am bound to confess that an “integralist State” is desirable and/or theologically necessary, I must confess that I have not made up my mind, in large part because I harbor some reservations about the project’s orientation and commitments—namely integralists’ seeming lack of concern for representative government, specifically republicanism; for a corrective, see, e.g., Waller, Quirks in the Neo-Integralist Vision, Church Life Journal (February 4, 2021),  At present, my own view is probably something like the following, see Klavan, A Shot in the Arm for Liberalism, American Mindset (February 26, 2021), (arguing that “liberalism of the original sort was what you might call a secondary philosophy.  That is, it was a philosophy for how to live once the old truths were taken for granted.  After all the religious wars had been fought, after Aristotelian virtue ethics and Christian charity had guided the formation of that “moral and religious people” which John Adams celebrated, then the West could proceed within the parameters of that consensus to ask, ‘how then shall we live?’  This was never intended to serve as an answer to the deeper questions—‘what is man?’ ‘how shall he be saved?’—because the answers to those questions were considered, very broadly speaking, to have been agreed upon.”).  All of that being said, however, what I can say without hesitation is that I recognize the force of the integralists’ position, rendered all the more compelling given the ready evidence of the present order’s decay.  Even so, I remain, at present, quite fond of the system of republican self-government bequeathed to us by our Founders, refined and saved by Lincoln, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and actualized by the Constitution; moreover, I do not think America is “classically liberal” in the sense her detractors assert she is—at the very least based upon the degree to which classical political philosophy influenced the Founding.  See Richard, The Classical Roots of the American Founding (Ch. 3) in The American Founding: Its Intellectual and Moral Framework, Robinson and Williams, eds. (2014); see also Stewart, Virtue at the Origin: The Classical Foundations of the American Republic, Public Discourse (March 6, 2021),  Nonetheless, our relationship to nature is clearly broken, and I believe that rupture can be traced back to “classical liberalism”—and regardless of whether there is a “necessary transition from classical liberalism (understood to be good) to progressive liberalism (understood to be bad).”  See Vermeule, Some Confusions about “Classical Liberalism,” Progressivism, and Necessity, Mirror of Justice (June 15, 2018), (expounding on that point).

[3] Deneen, Unsustainable Liberalism, First Things (August 2012), (Deneen, Unsustainable Liberalism).

[4] Id.

[5] And besides, there is no reason to think we must accept either all of classical liberalism or none of it—because politics is the art of public prudence, not some elaborate mathematical theorem that hangs all together or not at all.  In other words, we need not throw out the baby with the bathwater; like normal people, we can choose to keep the baby, even without some airtight, perfectly-internally-coherent theory as to why—and, importantly, despite various purists’ shrieks to the contrary.

[6] Deneen, Unsustainable Liberalism, supra note 3.

[7] Id.

[8] Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (1865).

[9] Bacon, The Advancement of Learning, Bk. I (1605), available online at

[10] Or, “an inert mechanistic mass without inner teleology, a mere object for arbitrary manipulation by human power.” See Pater Waldstein, Religious Liberty and Tradition III, The Josias (January 2, 2015),

[11] Conversations with Bill Kristol, Harvey Mansfield on Niccolò Machiavelli and the Origins of Modernity, YOUTUBE (Dec. 6, 2015), (from 31:21–31:46) (noting that Bacon was alone among his peers in even daring to cite Machiavelli, which he did—approvingly so).

[12] Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VX (1532).

[13] See, e.g., Machiavelli, Mandragola (1526) (detailing the story of a young man, Callimaco, who wants to have sexual relations with a young, beautiful, and chaste woman, Lucrezia, who is married to an older man, Nicia; she and Nicia cannot have children, however, and the lesson Machiavelli wants to impart is as straightforward as it is subversive: The upright path is one of failure, but if one is daring enough to choose the immoral path—adultery—then everyone wins, for Callimaco gets to possess his love, and the married couple gets a child).

[14] Of course, Lutherans specifically and Protestants more generally are of the view that Luther’s cry of, “Here I stand, I can do no other . . .” was both necessary and salutary—not a “revolt.”  It is a view to which they are entitled.  But as a Catholic, I do not share it.

[15] Dubbed thusly by political philosopher and classicist Leo Strauss.

[16] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy 5 (1531), available online at

[17] This essay explains how classical liberalism came to express a technological mindset. However, the problem probably runs deeper than Bacon and Machiavelli, with its source in the heart of Man which has been wounded by Original Sin. See, e.g., Kass, Farmers, Founders, and Fratricide: The Story of Cain and Abel, First Things (April 1996), (noting that, post-Fall, there at least two primordial orientations that Man has toward his lot, namely, to be like Cain the farmer, who seeks to possess and have mastery over the earth, or to be like Abel the shepherd, who is humbled before forces beyond his comprehension or control and grateful for their beneficence).

[18] Hanby, A False Paradigm, First Things (November 2018),

[19] But see Barnes, Christians Shouldn’t Use Smartphones, Medium (January 31, 2019), (“The followers of Jesus Christ are supposed to be free from the machinations of earthly principalities and powers.  The use of the smartphone [and other, similar technology] seems to be the symbol and sacrament of increased, unnecessary dependence on earthly power. For this reason, I do not think that Christians should use smartphones.”).

[20] Leibovitz, Against Convenience, Tablet (August 10, 2018), (“It’s one thing to wish away the dozens of automated interactions that have replaced face-to-face conversations and that have robbed us of so much of our sense of community; it’s another to decide which of these actually liberate us from needless labor and give us the time to pursue loftier goals. The village well was likely a swell place of gathering, but no one laments the advent of running water.”).

[21] But see Whitcomb, Texas governor lifts state’s mask mandate, business restrictions, Reuters (March 2, 2021),

[22] Various, Mini-Feature: The Importance of Play, American Mindset (January 25, 2021), [shortened URL].

[23] On the FAQ page of the “Great Barrington Declaration”—a statement by leading infectious-disease epidemiologists and public-health scientists arguing for “focused protection” of the vulnerable against COVID-19 rather than crushing lockdowns, see Drs. Martin Kulldorff, Sunetra Gupta, and Jay Bhattacharya, Great Barrington Declaration (2020),—the following question appears: “Do lockdowns have a successful history against infectious diseases?”  The answer provided is: “Basic epidemiological theory indicates that lockdowns do not reduce the total number of cases in the long run and have never in history led to the eradication of a disease.  At best, lockdowns delay the increase of cases for a finite period and at great cost.”  The underlying view that causes those in our public-health “expert” class to doubt that obvious truth is, basically, that human beings are essentially chess pieces to be manipulated by the diktats of well-meaning government technocrats rather than free persons who act in accord with their moral education and retain the ultimate authority, free of experts’ meddling, to decide questions of their common life.  See, e.g., Klavan, You Can’t Tell Me What to Do, American Mindset (March 17, 2021), (as to a plumber who told you that you should wallow in your own filth because of a blocked toilet, you “would fire that plumber, and rightly so.  No matter how much knowledge he has which [you do] not, [you] ha[ve] authority to say whether his knowledge is producing the results it should.  [You are] the last word in [your] house on good and bad results—not the expert. . . .  Expertise has no authority to tell flourishing it is misery, or misery that it is flourishing. To do so is a gross perversion of the sciences and an affront to human dignity.”).

[24] President Biden, Remarks by President Biden on the American Rescue Plan and Signing of Executive Orders, White House (January 22, 2021),

[25] Yuval Levin, The Moral Challenge of Modern Science, The New Atlantis (Fall 2006),

[26] See, e.g., Fr. Pacholczyk, The Foxes and the Henhouse, Catholic Sentinel (January 10, 2020), (“a Chinese scientist . . . employed a new technology called CRISPR/Cas9 to produce the world’s first gene-edited babies.  [He] made genetic changes to two little girls, Lulu and Nana, when they were early-stage embryos, attempting to modify a receptor for HIV to confer resistance to a possible future infection from the virus.”).

[27] See, e.g., George, Gnostic Liberalism, First Things (December 2016), (Gnosticism, as “[a]pplied to the human person, . . . means that the material or bodily is inferior—if not a prison to escape, certainly a mere instrument to be manipulated to serve the goals of the ‘person,’ understood as the spirit or mind. . . .”).

[28] Properly understood, Man’s dominion extends to “all operations which he exercises by his intellect and will, by his external senses, and by his power of locomotion, for these are subject to his free will.”  But it does not include dominion over his body, whose internal senses, sensitive appetite, organs, and vegetative faculties are not within his control.  Only God has independent, absolute, and universal sovereignty over all created things because He creates and sustains them in being.  See Grenier, Thomistic Philosophy (vol 3, Moral Philosophy) 186-187 (1949), available online at

[29] Heb. 11:1 (“Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.”).

[30] An older, better way of knowing posits the converse: “believing is seeing.”  That is, what we believe about the world causes what we see to take on this significance or meaning rather than another.  See, e.g., Fish, Why We Can’t All Just Get Along, First Things (February 1996),

[31] See generally MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals (2011).

[32] Lest anyone fall into the trap of thinking that the Enlightenment—marked by its cold, calculating rationalism—bears all the blame for this development, I submit that even Romanticism, which followed on its heels, is not innocent.  For what began as a no-doubt welcome aesthetic-emotional reaction ultimately fed into and re-enforced the Enlightenment-era lust for domination.  See, e.g., Tausz, Revolution of the Self: A Conversation with Carl Trueman, First Things (November 25, 2020),

[Q:] You end your fourth chapter, on the nineteenth-century Romantic poets, with a provocative line: “While he would no doubt have retched at the thought, William Wordsworth stands near the head of a path that leads to Hugh Hefner and Kim Kardashian.”  What role do Blake, Shelley, and Wordsworth play in the evolution of the modern self?

[A:] In their individual ways they each hold to the notion that man is born free and yet corrupted by society and its mores and must therefore recover that inner voice of nature in order to be authentic.  And art in all of its forms—poetry, painting, music—is a means by which the poet can help his audience reconnect with that inner voice.  Here they touch on something very important: Aesthetic experience does shape our moral sense, how we imagine the moral order.  Today it is pop culture that shapes that moral sense.

[33] Brague, Necessity of the Good, First Things (February 2015), (“Today, the dreams—or nightmares—of a posthuman endpoint of history are deeply rooted in the desire modern man feels to escape the passivity of his birth, . . . that [which] can’t be turned into a project or enterprise, that can’t be made good.”).

[34] Salisbury, New Optimism Ignores our Potential for Catastrophe, Palladium (November 13, 2020), (arguing that “while our material well-being has generally improved, it has come at the cost of us bearing an unprecedented degree of risk that, in the extreme, threatens to unravel the entire human endeavor.”  That is, Man’s position is like that of Damocles: “our material abundance is undermined by a sword hanging precipitously over us: a sword that is becoming increasingly detached as the day progresses.”).

[35] See Exod. 20:1-6.

[36] See generally

[37] See Exod. 32:7-8 (“With that, the Lord said to Moses, ‘Go down at once to your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, for they have become depraved.  They have soon turned aside from the way I pointed out to them, making for themselves a molten calf and worshiping it, sacrificing to it and crying out, “This is your God, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” ’ ”).

[38] Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845), Thesis XI, available online at

[39] Matt. 8:23-27 (“The Calming of the Storm at Sea”).

[40] Gen. 3:5.

[41] See Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (2007) § 17.

[42] “The Lord God gave man this order: ‘You are free to eat from any of the trees of the garden except the tree of knowledge of good and bad.  From that tree you shall not eat; the moment you eat from it you are surely doomed to die.’ ” (Gen. 2:16-17).

[43] “For the wages of sin is death.” (Rom. 6:23a).