In his sweeping and masterful opus, From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, Jacques Barzun identifies “primitivism” as a persistent theme in the West over the past half millennium:
The longing to shuffle off the complex arrangements of an advanced culture recurs again and again. It is a main motive of the Protestant Reformation, it reappears as the cult of the Noble Savage, long before Rousseau, its supposed inventor. . . . [H]ow does the historian know when Decadence has set in? By the open confessions of malaise, by the search in all directions for a new faith or faiths. . . . To secular minds, the old ideals look outworn or hopeless and practical aims are made into creeds sustained by violent acts: fighting nuclear power, global warming, and abortion; saving from use the environment with its fauna and flora; promoting organic against processed foods, and proclaiming disaffection from science and technology. The impulse to primitivism animates all these negatives.
The impulse Barzun describes springs from an observation, an instinct or an inchoate sense that at some point in the past something went terribly wrong. A turn back to what came before, or movement onto a different path, would therefore represent an improvement, giving rise perhaps to a sign showing us how we are intended to live. Barzun’s examples are predecessors of the current “simplicity” initiatives and the movement to eat locally grown produce. In the specifically American instance, from Thoreau at Walden Pond to the Southern Agrarians to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail today and the “back to the land” sustainable agriculture ideas of Wendell Berry, the theme is a familiar one.
The underlying notion in Barzun’s theme manifests itself not only in the primitivist search for alternative lifestyles or offbeat theologies. Perhaps the broadest and most intellectually rigorous example, not of primitivism but of a thinker who believes something has indeed gone wrong, can be found in the work of Alasdair MacIntyre, the distinguished philosopher whose 1981 book After Virtue traced the anti-virtuous nature of the large, modern state back to the deterioration of political and philosophical thought since the Enlightenment. MacIntyre argues for the rejuvenation of small communities, if not to replace completely the state then at least to permit a good life of classical excellence and truly human relationships to exist within it.
Another thinker who made an intellectually serious, yet much more popularly accessible, effort to describe what went wrong and what to do about it was E.F. Schumacher. In this centenary year of his birth, it is well that we should free him from what one Schumacher admirer calls the clot of countercultural amber in which the collective American memory has embedded him. He deserves better than that.
Born in Bonn, Germany in 1911, Schumacher trained as an economist in Great Britain and the United States. Returning from the United States before World War II to Britain, he worked for John Maynard Keynes, served on the British Control Commission, which steered postwar German economic reconstruction, and for twenty years advised Britain’s National Coal Board.
Schumacher was, then, an experienced man of the world but, like MacIntyre, he was strongly influenced by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas and by Catholic social teaching. After a period of early skepticism, both men entered the Catholic Church as adults. In a sense, MacIntyre has pursued the philosophical aspects of the “what went wrong” question while Schumacher focused on the economic and material implications, though both explored the question across the domains of philosophy, politics and economics. The work of both men, too, provides an intellectual scheme to explain and support the common notion that institutions—governments, corporations, even charities—are now grown too big, too distant and too complex to be of real service to humans, and that they are run by people who have forgotten (if they ever knew) the purposes of a good life and the virtues necessary to such a life. These institutions and those who steer them, in fact, can seem to be very dangerous.
Schumacher’s most famous book was Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973). Filled with references to Gandhi, Buddhism and a Paul Ehrlich-like view of natural resource depletion (though focused more on energy and fossil fuels, Schumacher’s own area of expertise), it was in some ways a book redolent of the ephemeral post-1960s moment when it was written. But Schumacher’s purpose in assembling such eclectic sources is more transcendent. He aimed to gather whatever wisdom might be common to all of them and to his own Christianity in contending with what he saw as the pervasive spiritual crisis of our time. This gave Small Is Beautiful a spiritual tone missing from otherwise similar kinds of plaints, such as Kirkpatrick Sale’s Human Scale (1980).
Schumacher began his book by describing “one of the most fateful errors of our age”: “The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production.” The belief that we have designed an economic system that produces not just material abundance but true happiness, and that we can control all that is wrong in the world through applied economics, Schumacher feared, embodied the sin of hubris and advanced the abuse of scarce natural resources and the environment.
One chapter of Small Is Beautiful is titled “Buddhist Economics.” As if to demonstrate that Schumacher’s work has a lasting appeal, a currently popular book with a similar call for different economic priorities is the celebrated Thai Buddhist Sulak Sivaraksa’s The Wisdom of Sustainability: Buddhist Economics for the 21st Century (2009). But amidst other chapters with titles like “The Greatest Resource—Education”, “The Proper Use of Land”, and “Nuclear Energy—Salvation or Damnation?”, Schumacher combines his analysis of the metaphysical and ethical sources of the problems he observes with their practical outcomes. He does this because he accepted no artificial, narrowing boundaries between natural or “hard” science—deemed exclusively legitimate by contemporary standards—and other forms of human understanding deemed unreliable or subjective, and thus irrelevant to politics and economics. Indeed, the best way to understand Schumacher’s thought is to grasp his grounding in epistemological traditionalism melded with an openness to eclectic sources.
Schumacher identified six 19th-century ideas that he believed drove the intellectual tenor of our times: evolution as an automatic process and its application to all aspects of reality; competition and survival of the fittest; “the [Marxist] idea that all the higher manifestations of human life, such as religion, philosophy, art, etc. . . . are nothing but ‘necessary supplements of the material life process’”; the competing but equally materialist Freudian interpretation that such higher manifestations are merely the “dark stirrings of a subconscious mind”; relativism as “denying all absolutes, dissolving all norms and standards, leading to the total undermining of the idea of truth in pragmatism”; and “the triumphant idea of positivism, that valid knowledge can be attained only through the methods of the natural sciences.”
These ideas, wrote Schumacher, collectively “claimed to do away with metaphysics [but] are themselves a bad, vicious, life-destroying type of metaphysics.” Schumacher cites intellectual historian Etienne Gilson’s description of the result: “[M]etaphysics and ethics had to either be ignored or, at least, replaced by new positive sciences; in either case, they would be eliminated. A very dangerous move indeed, which accounts for the perilous position in which western culture has now found itself.” He continues, this time relying on R.G. Collingwood:
The Patristic diagnosis of the decay of Greco-Roman civilization ascribes that event to a metaphysical disease. . . . It was not barbarian attacks that destroyed the Greco-Roman world. . . . The cause was a metaphysical cause. The “pagan” world was failing to keep alive its own fundamental convictions, they [the patristic writers] said, because owing to faults in metaphysical analysis it had become confused as to what these convictions were. . . . If metaphysics had been a mere luxury of the intellect, this would not have mattered.
This passage can be applied, without change, to present-day civilization. We have become confused as to what our convictions really are. . . . . Our reason has become beclouded by an extraordinary, blind and unreasonable faith in a set of fantastic and life-destroying ideas inherited from the nineteenth century. It is the foremost task of our reason to recover a truer faith than that.
Anticipating precisely the thesis of MacIntyre’s After Virtue, Schumacher wrote:
In ethics, as in so many other fields, we have recklessly and willfully abandoned our great classical-Christian heritage. We have even degraded the very words without which ethical discourse cannot carry on, words like ‘virtue’, ‘love’, and ‘temperance.’ The task of our generation, I have no doubt, is one of metaphysical reconstruction.
Armed with an education that neither invents new truths nor merely reverts to old formulations, we would, Schumacher believed, be able to navigate better the difficult course through the many dilemmas we face politically and economically. Schumacher disparaged the superiority of the pure economic type. Sounding far more like a philosophic conservative than an avatar for the counterculture, he pleaded that in dealing with the contradictions and tensions of the world we needed wisdom that only the traditional virtues, such as prudence and temperance, can furnish. Most fundamentally, expressing the idea from which the book’s title is drawn, Schumacher decries “an almost universal idolatry of giantism.” He did not reject all large organizations. Indeed, he noted that if instead of the idolatry of giantism we were seized with the idolatry of smallness, we would need to correct that as well. His solution was balance in scale, matched to the purpose of the organization, with constant adjustments based more on a sense of human judgment than on precise calculations.
As to his more specific prescriptions, Schumacher knew well what he opposed: nuclear power, manufacturing processes that demanded large quantities of fossil fuels, and massive social engineering schemes. He was often less specific about what he would do instead of these things. He told us to plant trees and to help the poor gain self-reliance. He called especially for “intermediate technology” that would allow capital to be spread out more evenly than was the case in large Western economies forty years ago. Such technology would be usable in workplaces “where people are living now” to inhibit the tendency toward urbanization. It would be cheap enough to be widely distributed, simple enough to minimize the need for highly specialized skills and adaptable to local resources.
Schumacher’s ideas derived at least part from the distributivist movement popular in the early 20th century among English Catholics like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc. These men saw the value of smaller communities and rued the inhumanities of concentrated capital. Distributivists also rejected socialism as inhuman and strongly favored private property rights; their objective was rather to make everyone a capitalist with his own means of production. It was a set of ideas that would have been compatible with those of Edmund Burke or Thomas Jefferson.
Small Is Beautiful
is a strange blend of many features: an insistence that something has gone wrong intellectually and morally, an effort to draw wisdom from diverse sources to plumb the problem, a philosophical and theological spine of classical and Judeo-Christian thinking, some dire forecasts that have not been borne out, and some specific prescriptions that may or may not still have value. As such, the book can come across as a 1970s tie-dye of environmentalism, fascination with Eastern philosophy and religion, and traditionalism. Many of the debates Schumacher commented on, such as nuclear power, continue. The intermediate or appropriate technology movement has faded (an early aficionado was then-and-now California Governor Jerry Brown, and another was Mr. “Soft Energy Paths”, Amory Lovins), though some of its elements are prominent in contemporary arguments about sustainability.
But Schumacher’s analysis of the intellectual roots of our situation, his widely shared view that much has in truth gone wrong over the past two or three centuries, and his emphasis on judgment and moderation rather than universally binding strictures of economic or political problem-solving all contribute to Small Is Beautiful’s continuing appeal. Schumacher believed in absolute truths that must be applied in the non-absolute, often contradictory circumstances of daily life. He was no dreamy child of Woodstock but a forerunner of today’s “crunchy cons.” His work stressed the recovery of the always-essential complementarity of faith and reason, a task that has marked the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. His basic theses about the moral incoherence of our age, about virtue and balance, and about scale, all track with the conclusions of more rigorous thinkers like Barzun and MacIntyre.
Schumacher developed further the basic ideas of Small Is Beautiful in A Guide for the Perplexed, published in 1977, the year of his death. This slender volume, a very accessible read, was Schumacher’s effort to undertake the task of his generation that he had earlier called for, a form of metaphysical reconstruction that could be readily grasped by a large audience. He does not explain why he took his title from the work of the 12th-century Jewish scholar Maimonides, but Maimonides drew on classical sources—particularly Plato and Aristotle—and combined them with faith (he established 13 principles of faith). Schumacher’s effort has a similar purpose.
Schumacher intended A Guide for the Perplexed as, literally, a guide for those whose educations had left out important components of knowledge just because those components were not materially or empirically measurable. This exclusion from reality of all things not within the purview of the physical sciences has removed the “vertical dimension” of our lives, Schumacher argued. He liked to use schema and structures to make his points. This approach appeals to an analytical mind, but it often risks projecting a thin patina of rigor (or natural science) that distracts from Schumacher’s larger aims. Early on in A Guide for the Perplexed he describes four ascending “levels of being”: mineral, or physical existence (a rock, for instance); mineral plus life (plants); mineral plus life plus consciousness (animals); and mineral plus life plus consciousness plus self-awareness (humans). Because there are “ontological discontinuities” between each level, it follows that for humans there is an “inescapable existential truth [emphasis original]: The most ‘real’ world we live in is that of our fellow human beings. Without them, we should experience a sense of enormous emptiness; we could hardly be human ourselves, for we are made or marred by our relations with other people.” Moreover,
at the level of man, there is no discernible limit or ceiling. Self-awareness, which constitutes the difference between animal and man, is a power of unlimited potential, a power which not only makes man human but gives him the possibility, even the need, to become superhuman.
To what end are we to use this potential? For Schumacher, the purpose is not just the horizontal exploration of the physical universe, but the vertical search for metaphysical truth, or for God. He drew from Christian and Buddhist sources to attest to the importance of faith in gaining the highest insights. “Science”, literally “knowledge” for most of history, included these components. Schumacher contrasts this “science for understanding”, or wisdom, with contemporary science, whose purpose is the manipulation of things and people.
In another schema that occupies much of the book, Schumacher identifies four “fields of knowledge”: self-knowledge of our own experience and interior life, knowledge of the inner experience of other beings, knowledge of how others see and understand us (an objective knowledge of self), and knowledge of the world around us gained through our senses (which many wrongly think to be the only valid form of knowledge). Our task is to use all of these fields of knowledge to solve what Schumacher calls “convergent” problems (those for which clear answers can be found, or converged upon, through study and experience) and to cope with “divergent” problems—those that cannot be solved but can be transcended. Divergent problems involve tensions that cannot finally be resolved, as between freedom and order, justice and mercy, growth and decay. In dealing with divergent problems—and especially in not mistaking them for convergent problems—we develop our highest faculties and become truly human.
Within his efforts at schematization, his sometimes shallow and wandering admixture of Eastern and Western sources, and his popular language that seeks to pull along the perplexed but tends to excessive simplification, Schumacher nevertheless gets much right. He brings us to his own understanding of the true progress of a human being:
1. to learn from society and ‘tradition’ and to find one’s temporary happiness in receiving directions from outside
2. to interiorize the knowledge one has gained . . . becoming self-directed.
3. [only after] one has accomplished the first two, ‘dying to oneself’, to one’s likes and dislikes, to all one’s egocentric preoccupations. To the extent that one succeeds in this, one ceases to be directed from outside, and also ceases to be self-directed. One has gained freedom or, one might say, one is then God-directed.
Whether Schumacher succeeded in the task of devising an overarching theological reconstruction is far from clear. But along his way, he identified much that needs fixing, and he made a good start at recovering what he and others believed had been lost in order to begin the repairs.
In describing the crisis of our culture and civilization, Schumacher, MacIntyre and Barzun share the view that, even though astounding material progress based on science is all around us, in the West things have gone badly wrong, morally and spiritually. Our fantastic economic abundance has yielded, or at least coexisted with, the loss of what was highest and most human in our civilization. The cause is the playing out, perhaps inevitable but certainly historical, of some of the most prominent ideas—or errors—that grew out of the Enlightenment.
None of these thinkers falls prey to fatalism or reaction. MacIntyre rejects a “generalized social pessimism” and calls for the “construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.” Barzun ends From Dawn to Decadence with a fictional prologue to a future where all is not lost: “What saved the masses from brutishness was the survival (though in odd shapes) of a good deal of literature from the 500 years of Western culture, mingled with a sizable infusion of the Eastern.” Schumacher put economic and organizational advice on the same philosophical foundation.
These are hardly points of view of mere theoretical interest. At a time when questions of the size and scope of government occupy the American people, when our political process seems incapable of answering those questions, and when our society increasingly seems even to lack the common moral framework necessary to cope with basic political and economic problems in any coherent way, E.F. Schumacher has much to offer us. Happy birthday, Fritz.