We all wear Gyges’s Ring in the Digital Age. In Plato’s Republic, Gyges discovers a magnificent ring making him invisible, which he uses to seduce the queen, kill the king, and usurp the throne. When Cicero examined Plato’s allegory, he perceived the Ring’s corruptibility and intertwined it with his discussion of ethics versus expedience; Cicero determined our honor must always overshadow the “illusion of utility.” Plato and Cicero challenge us to reflect: can we remain just with such power? It is a timeless question, and as pertinent today as in antiquity, since our Rings are our smartphones.

While smartphones possess some benefits, every tool has a dark side—a hammer can build or bludgeon. Besides the hazardous rewiring of our neural pathways (e.g. ringxiety) and the erosion of deep literacy, the principle detriment smartphones provide is unmitigated fuel for the most deadly sin: pride. Above all others, it is for this reason we relish our idolatrous relationship with our smartphones because they grant us with a false sense of omnipotence. But they demand our submissiveness. Thus, we carry them everywhere, including our bedsides…even under the sheets. Tethered evermore.

In addition to smartphones granting us effortless access to cyberspace’s vast, yet often tawdry, information, and social media’s exhibitionistic vortex (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), they also feed our outward self-centeredness whilst alone, walking our dogs, or amongst others. Phubbing (snubbing someone for our smartphones) is normative. Compassion for our neighbor rots and hubris blooms, yet it is a Promethean temptation we cannot resist because smartphones endow us with what Gyges, and each of us, desire: Power.

The Libido Dominandi

St. Augustine would easily comprehend our disordered synthetic relationships with our smartphones. He possessed supreme insight into the human condition and experienced firsthand the inordinate flaw within our fallen nature: the libido dominandi (lust to dominate). We relish control and the power our smartphones endow, but it is a two-way street. We desire to dominate and be dominated. Today, as Robert Cardinal Sarah declares, we are “accustomed to permeant background noise, which sickens yet reassures” us. Succumbing to the libido dominandi plunges us into the “region of dissimilarity,” where Augustine found himself submerged.

Fra Angelico, Conversion of St. Augustine, c. 1430

The libido dominandi withers our charity and humility. We cling to the last rung of St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s ladder of descent: we rationalize and defend our sins. Augustine confirms, “to discover the character of any people, we have only to examine what it loves.” We are what we love; it defines us. What are we to do against our smartphone dependence and its power over us? Enter Fr. Bernard Lonergan.

Lonergan’s Project

Although Lonergan never wrote a treatise on technology, peppered throughout his Collected Works are his warnings on the topic; even as early as 1942, he was leery of our “materialistic, antitraditional tendency,” one aggrandized by technology’s rapid advances. Illustrating Lonergan’s concern well, Neil Postman noted the “ecological” change television had on America: it was not America plus television, but a new America—paralleling the smartphone’s impact. Four years before he died in 1984, Lonergan remarked, “All my work has been introducing history into Catholic theology.” By history he meant mankind’s totality. This represents Lonergan’s project, which was attempting to place the humanities (i.e. theology and philosophy) into dialogue with the ever-advancing sciences.

Lonergan witnessed (and anticipated further) our intellectual development overrunning our moral development. Indeed, there is a stark contrast between intelligence and wisdom. Lonergan recognized that unchecked materialistic possession and our diminishing relationship with God “darkens the mind and weakens the will.” Throughout his life Lonergan strived to conjure a formulaic rebuttal to compete with technology and science, however, he understood, as Augustine did, that the libido dominandi lurks within each of us. Lonergan realized his project’s answer was simple: it was a matter of choice. “One becomes oneself by one’s choices,” concluded Lonergan. These choices include even the most minuscule decisions we take for granted. Every action is a moral action. Most important for Lonergan, as Augustine noted, was where we direct each choice.

God’s charity alone defeats pride, which endows us with humility—the essential virtue that imbues us with happiness when we put our neighbor before ourselves and discern our faults when we do not. Lonergan’s project reaffirms God’s transcendent truth does not require updating, it is immutable and impervious. But humility is habitual. Each of us needs to find our way home to Him, and we cannot accomplish life’s most essential task with our smartphones. The choice is ours. Lonergan concurred with Augustine’s thoughts above: we are what we love…where will your focus reside?

The views expressed in this essay belong entirely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Lonergan Institute staff or the values of Boston College.