We’ve been giving “The Wisdom of Leopold Kohr” a close reading and we’re pleased to find it striking some new chords. We discovered this 1994 address by Ivan Illich to the E.F. Schumacher Society years ago and read it several times after that, but only casually. This time around, we’ve been intrigued by a particular passage that may be as concise a statement of Illich’s analysis of modern, Western society as we’ve ever seen:
Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted. Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization. Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good. [emphasis in original]
It has been our experience that re-visiting earlier Illich in light of later Illich works to deepen one’s understanding of what he was up to. New connections reveal themselves, certain keywords and metaphors gain meaning and relevance, the general landscape of his analysis becomes brighter, more vivid, and more revealing. And this works in both directions, of course, with old and new each illuminating the other. As we put it in a comment posted to a blog called World Streets, where Illich’s essay “Energy & Equity” was recently put up for discussion, “The more you read of Illich, the more he seems to say, the sharper his scalpel, the brighter his torch.”
Illich used the Schumacher lecture to elaborate on a concept - what he called proportionality - that he would develop as the main explanation for how very different - how monstrously different, as he might have put it - the modern, Western world has come to be from anything preceding it.
Illich speaks of proportionality at length in Rivers North of the Future, the book billed as his “last testament,“ and that is where we first began to grasp the concept and its important to Illich. But now, reading the 1994 paper again, the idea comes into even sharper focus.
Proportionality was the organizing principle, so to speak, of the pre-modern world and of society’s understanding of itself - of its cosmology, so to speak. Proportionality is Illich’s term for the way that things and people fit each other, give shape to and define each other, how each is indispensable to the other. There is no earth without heaven, for instance, and no heaven without earth. Man and woman, while much alike are also distinctly different, too, and that enables each to help define the other. Proportionality, moreover, gets at the idea that these two entitites, whatever they happen to be, keep each other in check. Their interdependence prevents either one from growing too large or losing its shape or destroying the harmony that the two of them share.
According to Illich, it was the pre-modern world’s overarching sense of proportion that kept it more or less in balance - in ecological balance, as we would say today, and in other ways, too. And by the same token, it has been an abandonment, or breakdown of proportionality that marks the modern world. In simplistic terms, the fit and harmony and appropriateness and common sense of the old world have given way to a world in which limits and bounds are almost made to be broken.
Today, it is difficult, indeed, to avoid seeing a world that is, in many ways, far out of balance and out of control: the global climate is out of whack and economic disparities are more extreme than ever before, to name just two obvious examples. Too much pollution, not enough food and water, too many people, inadequate finances, mounting crises in energy, education, and economics - the list of imbalances and ignored limits seems to be, well, almost limitless. And by now, these imbalances are apparent not only to highly-trained experts but to the average person, as well.
Barbara Duden, one of his closest collaborators, describes Illich’s inquiry into proportionality in his later years:
Ivan’s lecture courses in Bremen in the 1990s and the work of his closest associates, those in the “Poodle Group,” focused on the bygone proportionality between the inner and outer senses, on the ways in which heart and mind were attuned to one another. Here he again entered a completely uncharted realm of historical knowledge: the demise of the ‘sensus communis,’ a sense that recognizes and judges the fit among perceptions, and which ancient philosophers had conjectured in a bodily organ behind the eyes. Ivan pushed his friends to study the “proportionality” - the mutual constitutiveness - of all being in the premodern age and the decline and disappearance of a sense for this proportionality.
One of the first examples of this “mutual constitutiveness” that Illich identified for his readers was the traditional existence of man and woman. As Illich argued with considerable courage and enthusiasm in his book Gender, men and women once lived in fairly separate domains, using different words in many cases, occupying different kinds of space, working with different kinds of tools, experiencing their bodies and the world in different but mutually compatible ways. They depended on each other for subsistence, each contributing to the household and each giving form and definition to the other. Like the left and right hands of a person eating with knife and fork, man and woman divided the necessary work between them. The gender line, as Illich called it, varied by locale: In this valley, men and women divided the tasks involved in, say, harvesting crops differently from the way those tasks were divided in that valley, over there. Everywhere, though, a pattern held: men undertook tasks that were quite different from those handled by women, the result being that each sex contributed equally to the subsistence of the home.
Later, according to Illich, this gender divide broke down: Men and women came to be regarded as merely different versions of a new construct, the human being, and that, in turn, opened the door to economics and its underlying assumption of scarcity and thus, to new forms of discrimination. For instance, men and women were now seen as merely providers of another construct called energy - think “labor force” - and they began to compete for many of the same industrial jobs. And women, in virtually every place and situation, Illich points out, have ended up the losers in this game, particularly as now, they’re told that they are “equal” to men.
In short, Gender reflected Illich’s emerging awareness of proportionality and the way in which it pervaded pre-industrial, pre-economic life. The book describes the catastrophic breakdown in one particular aspect of the old world’s proportionality. Two entities that once complemented and shaped each other - man and woman - were re-conceived as simply two different versions of the same entity, the human being, which had not existed before.
Clearly, even if he did not rely on quite the same terms to express his pre-Gender thinking, the ideas of fit and proportionality lurk beneath the surface of Illich’s early texts. What is Tools for Conviviality “about,” after all, if not the search for human scale and balance, the setting of limits, and the search for a proper fit of man and machine? Many modern, industrial technologies simply do not help people live in a balanced way, Illich showed - not in balance with their surroundings and not in balance with their neighbors. The car, for example, wrecks communities by stretching the landscape apart, thus ruining it for pedestrians, and by fouling it with noxious gases, noise, and ugliness. And ever since Tools was published, words such as balance, appropriate, and small-scale have been key to the on-going discussion of alternative, “green” technologies and tools. Likewise Schumacher’s famous phrase, apparently due to Leopold Kohr, “small is beautiful.”
Let’s look more closely at those sentences of Illich’s that caught our eye. His aim is to contrast the classical world, in which being is governed by the search for proportionality, with the modern world, shaped by scarcity and economics. Of the old world, he writes:
Ethics, in a strong tradition from Aristotle to Mandeville, involved a public controversy about the good to be pursued within a human condition and perhaps grudgingly accepted.
In the past, Illich states, each community of people accepted the conditions under which it lived, a condition shaped by its physical surroundings and its understanding of what it was to be human. To use another of Illich’s key concepts, people knew and practiced an art of suffering, by which he means that each culture provided its members ways of making sense of existence, including the limits of that existence imposed by locale and available means.
And within such limits, each society tried to work out an ethics, or set of guiding principles, for how to live virtuously and how to know “the good” when it was encountered. The good, as we understand it, is another word for proportionality, for that common sense understanding of when two things, or two people, fit together properly, or harmoniously. (The word “proper” is rooted in the Latin proprius, or “one’s own, special.” “Proportion” stems from pro portione, for ‘with respect to [its or a person's] share.’ Harmony’s Latin root is harmonia, meaning ‘joining and concord’; the Greek harmos meant ‘joint.’)
Now, Illich looks at today’s world, shaped by the assumption that any and every thing of value is scarce - knowledge, transportation, health, jobs, money, energy, you name it:
Economics, however, demands the evaluation of desirable goals under the assumption of scarcity. It deals in the optimization of values; this leads to the creation of modern economic society, which provides seemingly unlimited fuel for a technological civilization.
Here, Illich is describing how “the good” gives way to values, which are incommensurable. The good is perceivable through common sense, not through numerical measurement. Values, Illich explains elsewhere in this paper honoring Kohr and in other writings, imply the existence of a zero point. He writes:
It's true that "value" is an old word; it stood near "dignity" in meaning, pointed out what was precious, indeed magnificent, and early on indicated the selling price of an object. Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, "value" has had these uses and has denoted what was always desirable, useful, even what was due; it then entered discourse in place of the good. By the time of my youth, it simply stood on the positive side of zero. Today, however, one needs a qualifier—values can be either positive or negative. To resolve this convertibility, to make it determinate, there is no stable criterion. With values, anything can be transposed into anything else, ...
And once “anything can be transposed into anything else,” the door is open to a world in which society understands itself in a radically different way. Writes Illich: “Such a civilization attempts to transform the human condition rather than debate the nature of the human good.”
And it is precisely this attempt to transform the human condition that Illich criticized so vehemently in his early writing. The service institutions that Illich analyzed - schools, the medical system, the transportation system - promise to overcome the human condition, to break its limits and eliminate barriers, all in the name of progress. And they do this with technology - not actual machinery, necessarily, but always with refined technique. This is what Illich means by “tools.”
Yet, when people put their faith in technology - in inappropriate technology, that is - they can lose their autonomy and end up conceiving of themselves as more or less poverty-stricken consumers of inexorably scarce goods and services. One obvious example: Instead of accepting death as inevitable and dying in ways that are meaningful to themselves and those close to them, people have been encouraged by the medical system to fight death at all costs. The doctor, as Illich explained in Medical Nemesis, used to be the last person one would consult at the time of death, but over time, doctors took over these last moments of life, redefining death and redefining people as mere consumers of medical services. And as the medical system comes up with ever-more exotic and aggressive treatments for, say, cancer, each one more expensive than the last, it is inevitable that a growing majority of people end up dying with the awareness that they are suffering a new kind of poverty. They and their loved ones are keenly aware that they have failed to obtain the fullest possible, aka the best, treatment. Most people know that have not been able to afford the latest high-tech procedures. They know, now, that there was more to consume if only they’d had the means. In short, the last and arguably the most important act of their life has been taken away from them.
And this, we believe, is much of what the current debate raging about health care and health insurance is about. People today are convinced that they are entitled to it all, to the most extreme and most expensive forms of care. This is also reflected in how intensely society dwells on statistics like “average life expectancy.” Lifespan itself if perceived as scarce, as opposed to living more fully for however much time one is given on this earth. In fact, we all will die, but for a moment, anyway, the medical industry succeeds in persuading us to consume its services in lieu of living fully now and dying peacefully when the time comes, cared for by our family and neighbors. As Illich once told an interviewer, his aim was to show how living more deeply might be better than simply striving at all cost to live longer.