We may think the digital era introduces fundamentally new dynamics to the media ecosystem. In many ways, however, digital technologies have simply amplified the dynamics created by the Industrial Revolution: It was steam power, not binary code, that birthed the modern news industry. Henry David Thoreau was one of the most prescient prophets who warned about the effects of this dangerous abundance of news and entertainment. In Walden and, even more astutely, in his later essay “Life Without Principle,” Thoreau diagnoses the diseases to which those who too closely follow the news are prone.
Thoreau warns that the increased abundance and speed of the news threaten to fragment our attention and damage our ability to see what is really happening. This damaged vision then prevents us from responding rightly to these events. As Joseph Pieper puts it, in a parallel argument, “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” Even worse, when so many voices vie for our attention, they have to get louder and more sensational to gain a hearing. Fake news, sensationalized headlines that would be labeled “clickbait” today, and yellow journalism all developed in the 19th century. Responding to this unhealthy environment, Thoreau devoted his attention to what he called “the Eternities,” and he cautioned against the dangers of being swept up in the flurry created by the news industry.
Noting Our Habits of Attention
Drawing on biblical imagery in his “Life Without Principle” lecture, Thoreau warns that newspapers can become idols. An obsession with the distractions of the daily paper can reveal an inattention—even an infidelity—to the ongoing work of the Creator. As Thoreau puts it, “I do not know but it is too much to read one newspaper a week. I have tried it recently, and for so long it seems to me that I have not dwelt in my native region. The sun, the clouds, the snow, the trees say not so much to me. You cannot serve two masters. It requires more than a day’s devotion to know and to possess the wealth of a day.”
An obsession with the distractions of the daily paper can reveal an inattention—even an infidelity—to the ongoing work of the Creator.
Thoreau then moves from Jesus’s warning against serving Mammon to Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus, where he tells the Athenians to stop worshiping idols and instead serve God because “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Thoreau claims that the news competes with this God, offering an alternative, secular ground of being: “If you chance to live and move and have your being in that thin stratum in which the events that make the news transpire—thinner than the paper on which it is printed—then these things will fill the world for you; but if you soar above or dive below that plane, you cannot remember nor be reminded of them.” What we attend to reveals and shapes our loves, so if our attention is fixed on the thin stratum of the daily news, then we are guilty of a kind of idolatry, of misdirecting our love and even worship. As Thoreau warns, it is impossible to attend deeply to something and not be changed.
It is this transformative power of attention that leads Thoreau to a startling and profound metaphor. He claims that attending to the trivia of the news macadamizes our intellect. This is a term for a method of road construction named after its inventor, Scottish engineer John McAdam. While most roads were built on a foundation of large stones, McAdam used small, hand-broken stones to surface roads; supervisors actually measured the stones to ensure no large ones slipped through. The angular edges of these rocks would bind together and form a smooth, long-lasting surface for traffic. With that bit of background, here’s Thoreau’s description of how patterns of attention can alter our minds:
I believe that the mind can be permanently profaned by the habit of attending to trivial things, so that all our thoughts shall be tinged with triviality. Our very intellect shall be macadamized, as it were—its foundation broken into fragments for the wheels of travel to roll over; and if you would know what will make the most durable pavement, surpassing rolled stones, spruce blocks, and asphaltum, you have only to look into some of our minds which have been subjected to this treatment so long.
Thoreau weaves together several key terms in these two sentences. To begin with, profaned compares our minds to temples. Fane is the Latin word for temple, so profane literally means before or outside the temple. When we attend too closely to secular, temporal affairs, we “desecrate” our minds. Hence Thoreau goes on to say in the following sentence that we should “make once more a fane of the mind.” There are lasting, even eternal, consequences for what we give our attention to. This is why Paul instructs the Colossians to “set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2).
Our Habitual Reading
Habit emphasizes the repetitive, formative nature of attention. Thoreau’s life and writings certainly demonstrate his own knowledge of contemporary events, so he’s not advocating we hole ourselves up and ignore everything going on around us. After all, Thoreau himself helped runaway slaves, participated in abolitionist movements, and spent a night in jail over his refusal to pay a tax that would’ve helped fund the Mexican-American War. Such social engagement flowed not from an obsession with the news of the day but from his commitment to eternal, moral truths. Thus Thoreau is urging us to reflect on our habits, our patterns of attention that shape and fill our minds. What does our daily reading look like? Where do we turn when we’re bored?
Trivia is of course an indictment of the frivolous affairs that populate the news, but this word also continues Thoreau’s road metaphor. Trivia comes from a Latin word meaning an intersection of three roads, so by implication it refers to a place that is well-traveled. In English, it came to refer to things that were common, well-known, and hence insignificant.
Thoreau nods to these roots when he writes earlier in this paragraph, “If I am to be a thoroughfare, I prefer that it be of the mountain-brooks, the Parnassian streams, and not the town-sewers.” Thoreau imagines our minds as conduits or roadways for ideas, and we are responsible to choose what we want rolling down these streets. Yet when we habitually attend to trivial things, our minds turn into gravel and become susceptible to whatever ads or slogans or memes other people send spinning down our macadamized intellects.
Our minds [are] conduits or roadways for ideas, and we are responsible to choose what we want rolling down these streets.
In his lecture, Thoreau goes on to propose a two-part remedy for this condition:
If we have thus desecrated ourselves—as who has not?—the remedy will be by wariness and devotion to reconsecrate ourselves, and make once more a fane of the mind. We should treat our minds, that is, ourselves, as innocent and ingenuous children, whose guardians we are, and be careful what objects and what subjects we thrust on their attention. Read not the Times. Read the Eternities.
As Thoreau acknowledges, we have all, to one degree or another, desecrated our minds by attending to trivia, but Thoreau hopes that by (1) wariness and (2) devotion we can reconsecrate our minds and make them into temples or fanes again. If the problem is habitual attention to things outside the temple, the solution is habitual attention to things inside the temple. This is a two-part movement—it’s a movement away from (of wariness toward) the gossip and trivia of the Times and a movement toward (of devotion to) the good, beautiful, complex truth of the Eternities.
Cultivating Holy Apathy
Thoreau’s injunction to abstain from the distractions of the Times echoes the writings of the French thinker Blaise Pascal. And Pascal provides us with a more robust theological justification for Thoreau’s recommended posture. Pascal proposes that we cultivate a profound sort of apathy, a sancta indifferentia, toward the outcome of the issues we read about and advocate for. This indifference is rooted in a confidence that God is in control and in a humility about our own ability to discern the workings of Providence in contemporary events. God often accomplishes his providential purposes in ways that we do not expect, so we should not be too quick to rejoice over what seems like a positive development or to despair over what seems like bad news.
Of course the most obvious example of the unpredictable workings of Providence is the passion and death of Jesus. Jesus’s own disciples certainly thought these events constituted unmitigated bad news, and yet “we call this Friday good.” As one of G. K. Chesterton’s protagonists declares, “The cross cannot be defeated, . . . for it is Defeat.” Epistemic humility, particularly regarding the workings of Providence, requires us to acknowledge that even when our candidate loses, or when a court case is decided in a way that seems wrong, or when tragedy strikes, God is still working out his will—and he cannot be defeated. The reverse holds true as well: it may be that just when we think we are winning, we are going astray from God’s kingdom. A high view of Providence and a chastened sense of our ability to recognize God’s methods of victory frees us from worrying about whether a given event is good or bad. Even when the events of the news seem irredeemably evil, they remain under the hand of the Creator who is working all things according to his plan.
The theologian Paul Griffiths draws two implications from Pascal’s view of Providence and his recommendations regarding how we should engage in public controversies. The first is that we “should engage in controversy with a level of energy and commitment appropriate to the importance of the topic and to the degree of certitude [we] have about the truth of [our] preferred position on that topic.” We should be passionate about some issues, but our media environment tends to warp our emotional scales. We can get all worked up parsing some ambiguous tweet or imputing the worst possible motives to some public figure’s off-the-cuff comments, and at the same time, we may be neglecting far more important and substantive—but less superficially exciting—developments related to climate change, systemic poverty, or the conditions of migrant workers in our home town. Perhaps we need to conduct an emotional audit and consider which issues or news items cause us to become angry, outraged, or excited: Are we grieving over what grieves God and rejoicing over what brings him joy? Or have we become emotionally invested in trivia while growing apathetic about matters of real import?
Are we grieving over what grieves God and rejoicing over what brings him joy? Or have we become emotionally invested in trivia while growing apathetic about matters of real import?
The second implication is that regardless of the issue and the appropriate level of passion with which we advocate it, we “should have no concern for the outcome.” As Pascal writes, “We act as if it were our mission to make truth triumph whilst it is only our mission to combat for it.” We should be passionate in working for what we perceive to be the good, but we should not be upset if our cause faces setbacks or receives bad news.
Such a stance is hard to maintain in our media environment because so many news stories are framed as a kind of contest, with clear winners and losers. The media’s horse-race election coverage, breathless adjudicating of how some court decision will reshape the battle lines of the culture war, and endless parsing of the latest polls shape us to view every news story as a scoreboard update. Yet as Pascal reminds us, Christian happiness does not depend on receiving news of some temporal victory. Indeed, an obsessive focus on the metrics of victory drains psychic energy, induces mental and emotional dyspepsia, and distracts us from the good work we can do. When we trust in Providence, we are freed from emotional overinvestment in the day’s drama. Fixating on winning may be a good strategy for politicians and media companies, but it’s not a Christian way of attending to the events of our day.
The goal of sancta indifferentia is faithful action that’s not concerned with the results. Thoreau stands as a good example here: for all his talk about attending to “the mountain-brooks, the Parnassian streams,” he involved himself personally in many social and political affairs. Besides helping escaped slaves to freedom and going to jail over his refusal to pay taxes that would support an unjust war, his speech passionately defending John Brown after the failed Harpers Ferry raid changed the tide of public sentiment and galvanized support for abolition. His essay “Civil Disobedience” inspired and informed subsequent generations of protesters, including Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Thoreau’s posture of indifference to trivial dramas enabled him to discern how he should respond to the more fundamental currents of his time. As Thoreau wrote to a friend shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War,
The most fatal, and indeed the only fatal, weapon you can direct against evil, ever [is to ignore it]; for as long as you know of it, you are particeps criminis [a partner in crime]. What business have you, if you are “an angel of light,” to be pondering over the deeds of darkness, reading the New York Herald, & the like? . . . Blessed were the days before you read a president’s message.
Thoreau—like Pascal—knew that reveling in the day’s political news, news that he could do nothing about, would only distract and disturb him without improving the situation in the slightest. When we scroll through our news feed each morning to see if our side of a particular issue is winning, we betray a lack of trust in Providence. Of course this is not the only way to engage the news. We can also rely on the news to form our judgment and guide our actions in response to contingent political or social matters. Such use of the news is entirely congruent with a Pascalian holy apathy. And, perhaps paradoxically, we will be more likely to see what is really happening and discern how God might be calling us to respond if our souls are rooted in the Eternities rather than being caught up in the distractions of the Times.