Small is Beautiful, pt. 4

[previous entries in the series: part 1, part 2, and part 3]

Not content to offer mere diagnosis, Schumacher dedicates considerable space in Small is Beautiful to concrete proposals for reform. Recognize the importance of education, technology, and social organization (here, he is primarily thinking of large scale organizations, corporations, government, etc.) to modern society, he focuses on those areas. We therefore begin with education:

If Western civilization is in a state of permanent crisis, it is not far-fetched to suggest that there may be something wrong with its education. No civilization, I am sure, has ever devoted more energy and resources to organized education, and if we believe in nothing else, we certainly believe that education is, or should be, the key to everything. In fact, the belief in education is so strong that we treat it as the residual legatee of all our problems. If the nuclear age brings new dangers; if the advance of genetic engineering opens the doors to new abuses; if commercialism brings new temptations–the answer must be more and better education.


Small is Beautiful , 84

I don’t think you need to be a particularly sophisticated reader to note the subtle critique here, but whether the modern fixation on education is ridiculous or not, serious reform is necessary. In another work, Christopher Dawson sums up the problem in terms I believe Schumacher would agree with:

In the modern world the average man can go through his whole education without becoming aware of the existence of this elementary and essential spiritual factor either in the individual psyche or in the life of civilization.. Whether he studies the liberal arts or science and technology he is given no inkling of the existence of any higher principle which can be known and which can influence individual behavior or social culture. Yet, as I have said, all the great historical civilizations of the past recognize the existence of some spiritual principles or ends of this kind and made them the key of their interpretation of reality and their concepts of moral order. Hence a system of education like that of the modern secular state which almost totally ignores the spiritual component in human culture and in the human psyche is a blunder so enormous that no advance in scientific method or educational technique is sufficient to compensate for it.


Small is Beautiful, 203

That final line is an important one and hearkens back to a point made by Schumacher and noted in the second post of this series. Namely, that one of the characteristic mistakes of our age is expecting a technical solution to solve a problem rooted in the illegitimate predominance of techne. In concrete terms, this means that reforms that propose to solve the problem of education by adding computers to the classroom or developing some innovative teaching method not only will not help the situation, but are in fact concrete manifestations of what’s gone wrong in the first place. It is precisely the idea that we need only to stumble upon the right method, some neutral set of processes, and then allocate the proper resources to it that is the problem. Endlessly tweaking the method is a waste of time at best and quite often an active harm as this tweaking saps the momentum of centuries in favor of novelty.


What education needs instead is a re-orientation toward what actually matters, namely how to live:

To do so, the task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is not doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them….More education can help us only if it produces more wisdom.


Small is Beautiful, 86 (my emphasis)

It’s remarkable how purposeless education is today. Think, what is the point of an education? To make it simpler, let’s restrict our focus to the university, what is the purpose of a college education? If it is to prepare you for a job, then it is a horribly constructed institution, imparting almost no practical skills and compartmentalizing career services into an optionally (and rarely) explored corner of campus. Those exalting the utility of the liberal arts for work conveniently ignore that this utility is entirely accidental. You might end up using some insight from Dante in your job at a fancy non-profit, but your study of Dante was certainly not directed toward that end.


Thus, education cannot be directed toward work (and if it is, ought to be wholly reconfigured and begun again), nor, thanks to the denial of spiritual ends noted by Dawson, can it be directed towards some moral or metaphysical purpose.1 A university education cannot be aimed at making you a better person (as in the classical conception of the liberal arts), because the possibility of moral truth is denied by virtually everyone. That this denial is contradictory nonsense, leading not to a neutral, tolerant system that facilitates the glorious free-flow of ideas, untrammeled by illogical prejudice, but rather a schizophrenic mush of objectively asserted and practiced moral claims that refuse to subject themselves to rationality under the guise of not being claims at all (and thus becoming far less tolerant and more totalitarian than anywhere that dogma is explicitly pronounced) is simply ignored.


So what’s the point? “Critical thinking”? What does that phrase, so often bandied about, even mean? And, come to think of it, how often are “thinking” skills actually taught? How often is a student required to read Aristotle on logic, Cicero on rhetoric, or any book that’s actually about how to persuade and argue rationally? Instead, students are expected to discern how to think critically by (best case) analyzing history and literature and writing papers about them. I confess, this doesn’t make much sense to me. To bring about any real reform, we need to actually articulate a purpose for education and work coherently toward that purpose, which, of course, requires rejecting the abandonment of metaphysics and attendant denial of human nature.


Examined from a different angle: There is no such thing as a neutral space of ideas, no education without some metaphysical grounding. Any assertion to the contrary is a flat lie that utterly destroys any possibility for true education (again, people today are generally only educated by accident and momentum). Moreover, since we are, at our very root, metaphysical beings, education without a coherent metaphysical grounding is profoundly anti-human. It is worse than pointless:

Whether the subjects taught are subjects of science or of the humanities, if the teaching does not lead to a clarification of metaphysics, that is to say, of our fundamental convictions, it cannot educate a man and, consequently, cannot be of real value to society.


Small is Beautiful , 98

Thus, we must, to reform education, abandon the pretense of neutrality, abandon the anti-human ideologies of the modern era, and re-orient education towards the metaphysical, recovering the true purpose of an education: to make us better.

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.


Small is Beautiful , 98
  1. “The most powerful ideas of the nineteenth century, as we have seen, have denied or at least obscured the whole concept of “levels of being” and the idea that some things are higher than others. This, of course, has meant the destruction of ethics, which is based on the distinction of good and evil, claiming that good is higher than evil.” (Small is Beautiful, 105)
    Since Schumacher is worried a great deal about environmental degradation, recall that I’ve previously argued that any coherent environmental ethic must be predicated on a hierarchy of being.
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Power and the Modern Age

I find myself reading a lot of diagnoses of the modern world-picture.1  There are perhaps too many of these, they all generally arrive at the same conclusions, of the sort we’ve recently explored in Schumacher, and you wish they said more about the cure than the disease.2  In any case, I tend to believe that the convergence of these diagnoses is a sign of their plausibility and when we step back we can see how each individual author is taking up a thread of a vast and multifaceted problem.  It’s therefore always interesting when an author offers a different perspective on things. Such is the case of Guardini’s The End of the Modern World. Like virtually everyone, he situates the roots of the modern weltbild in the late Medieval period—his “culprit” is Copernicus and the end of the medieval picture of the cosmos (a claim I only find mildly convincing)—and like many he also argues that the titular end has already come, sometime during or around the time of the two world wars.3

In the wake of this ending, Guardini understands the central question of the next phase of history to be man’s relation to power. What he means by power is not entirely obvious, something like “real energies capable of changing the reality of things, of determining their condition and interrelations” (End of the Modern World, 121). A definition that encompasses both what we might call material technology—atomic bombs, computers, bulldozers, and the like—and social technology—propaganda, mass education, mass media.

He’s weak on the latter sort of power. The specter of nuclear war very obviously lurks in the background here,4 yet it turns out that it is not in material technology that power has developed most insidiously in the decades since Guardini wrote.5  Nevertheless, his key worry remains legitimate, that modern man understands technology as an essentially natural force, detached from human choice

The use of power is accepted simply as another natural process; its only norms are taken from alleged necessity, from either utility or security. Power is never considered in terms of the responsibility for choice which is inherent in freedom.


End of the Modern World, 83

The worry is that control over power, which man has very deliberately seized, usurping God, to inaugurate the modern revolution in thought, has been abdicated in light of the horrors and exigencies of the World Wars and the attendant collapse of the modern world-picture that resulted (is resulting). Thus, power is now understood to progress as a consequence of some internal logic, rather than as something actualized by human agents.

Of even more significance, the development of power has created the impression that power objectifies itself; that is, power cannot really be possessed or even used by man; rather, it unfold independently from the continuous logic of scientific investigations, from technical problems, from political tensions. The conviction grows that power simply demands its own actualization.


End of the Modern World, 83

The very development of news sources of power, in other words, demands that this power be used. Atomic weapons are, as mentioned, the prototypical case. The fact that the hydrogen bomb can be built means it must be built. The fact that it has been built, means me must build bigger and bigger bombs and must build scores of them. The need to do so is not because the people, our leaders, have specifically chosen, but because political circumstances imagined as beyond the control of human agents, have necessitated it. Thus, they bear no moral agency for their choice to make ever more destructive weapons, not really.

Nuclear weapons are passe these days, but we can see this reasoning to other areas. The surveillance state is necessary because it is useful, how else will we prevent the terrorist attacks that are only possible because of the (apparently inevitable) choices made by policy makers in other areas? Globalization and corporate consolidation are necessary due to market forces, entirely distinct from the people we’ve appointed (or who have appointed themselves) to manage the markets. That these have disastrous effects, morally and materially, is simply an unfortunate natural by-product, no different than a natural disaster and certainly no one’s fault.

Guardini contends that this ostensible lack of agency is a colossal lie, the unfolding of the energies that control the world are not directionless. They cannot be.

There is no being without a master. As far as being is nature–or the non-personal creation–being belongs to God, Whose will is expressed in the laws by which this being, this nature, exists. As far as being is taken out of nature and into the sphere of human freedom, it belongs to man and man is responsible for it. If man fails in his responsibility and does not care for being as he should, it does not return to nature. To think that it does is a negligent assumption, one with which the contemporary world has consoled itself with more or less awareness. But being is not something which one can dispose of by putting it away in storage. When man fails in his responsibility toward the being which he has taken from nature, that being becomes the possession of something anonymous. 

End of the Modern World, 83-4

That (more properly, these) anonymous possessor(s) are demons. Guardini is not being metaphorical here, he means actual demons. Man in the slowly crumbling ruins of the modern age is given a choice. He can give himself over to unconsciousness, and the inhuman, demonic consciousness that will the vacuum,6 or he can master himself, something only possible (as the failure of the modern world-picture to do makes clear) through a proper awareness of our true relation to power and power’s real source, God:

If human power and the lordship which stems from it are rooted in man’s likeness to God, then power is not man’s in his own right, autonomously, but only as a loan, in fief. Man is lord by the grace of God, and he must exercise his dominion responsibly, for he is answerable for it to him who is Lord by essence. Thus sovereignty becomes obedience, service (134).

Guardini believes the choice between these two options, demonic and divine, will only become obvious as things progress. The crumbling of the modern world-picture reveals the stark reality of the struggle lying behind it. No longer will we be deceived by the mush of false sentimentalism masquerading as Christianity or the insistence, much derided by Nietzsche, that Christian values can be retained after their bedrock has been denied. He ultimately sees this as a good thing, though it will certainly not be a quiet and peaceful time. At least the lies of the modern age will hold less currency and, in collapse, awaken the possibility of something true taking their place. Meanwhile, each individual still faces the choice, as they always have, must make it and make it well.

  1. I think I’ve settled on this term, we might substitute condition, worldview, mindset, etc.
  2. The reason for this disparity is because the cure is rather simple, “cultivate virtue.” Simply stated, yet exceedingly difficult. Still, there ought to be more practical advice on attaining this life, particularly amidst the corrupting miasma of the modern world. To his credit, Schumacher outlines some high-level curatives that we’ll discuss in the next few posts.
  3. when dealing in meta-history, it’s all right to be vague about these things
  4. making me realize we never really talk about nuclear weapons anymore, when I was a child, living in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, they were still very much on peoples’ minds. Odd how these things slip away.
  5. As an aside, there is a fairly strong argument that technological development has essentially stalled as of late, a troublesome development for a world-picture so dependent on continual technological advancement for its own self-justification.
  6. When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but not finding any, it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.” (Luke 11:24-6). We might also thing of the terrifying consumption of Prof. Frost in That Hideous Strength as a metaphor for the modern described by Guardini (this should horrify you).

Small is Beautiful, pt. 3

[Part 1], [Part 2]

Schumacher was an economist, and thus some of his most penetrating analysis comes in his section on economics and the evils attendant therein. First, in keeping with the materialistic orientation of the world discussed in the previous post, we see that, in a materialist world, the gravest error is to fail to be profitable:

If an activity has been branded as uneconomic, its right to existence is not merely questioned but energetically denied. Anything that is found to be an impediment to economic growth is a shameful thing, and if people cling to it, they are thought of as either saboteurs or fools. Call a thing immoral or ugly, soul-destroying or a degradation of man, a peril to the peace of the world or to the well-being of future generations; as long as you have not shown it to be “uneconomic” you have not really questioned its right to exist, grow, and prosper…something is uneconomic when if fails to earn an adequate profit in terms of money.

Small is Beautiful, 44

Of course, this is a downright stupid way to think about the world and about value, it’s ridiculousness so obvious that it hardly needs to be refuted, merely stated. It is, like the vision of Chesterton’s madman, cripplingly narrow:

The judgment of economics, in other words, is an extremely fragmentary judgment; out of the larger number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision can be taken, economics supplies only one 


Small is Beautiful, 45

This narrowness, I have referred to it elsewhere (here and here) as flatness, is the defining characteristic of the modern mindset and the biggest reason why a world shaped by that mindset (and ours is everyday more so, though it resists1) is so deeply unsatisfying (in a profound metaphysical way, this is a dissatisfaction that destroys souls2).


To make matters worse:

Economists themselves, like most specialists, normally suffer from a kind of metaphysical blindness, assuming that theirs is a science of absolute and invariable truths, without any presuppositions


If I could destroy just one myth in the mind of my readers, it would be this presumption of neutrality. Economics, like all the bastard children of the “Enlightenment,” presumes to detach itself from its own practitioners (if you listen carefully, you can hear Kierkegaard screaming and kicking in the distance). Detached from men (who have already been detached from God), these practices become fundamentally anti-human and begin to devour.


A few concrete instances of how the economic world-picture has impoverished us. First, despite ostensibly being the science that describes work, economics fundamentally misunderstands the very nature of labor:

Now the modern economist has been brought up to consider “labour” or work as little more than a necessary evil. From the point of view of the employer, it is in any case simply an item of cost, to be reduced to a minimum if it cannot be eliminated altogether, say, by automation. From the point of view of the workman, it is a “disutility”; to work is to make a sacrifice of one’s leisure and comfort, and wages are a kind of compensation for the sacrifice. Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment. 


Small is Beautiful, 57


And today more and more people see their livelihoods sucked into the maw of automation, while an even greater number can find no joy in their work, their jobs having been designed in light of this mindset and thus deprived of joy in their very constitution. As Josef Pieper, the great theorist of work and leisure (see also Sayers and von Hildebrand), has pointed out the economic world-picture also drains the leisure and comfort that is supposedly the point of work of any true meaning. Leisure simply becomes the island of not doing anything amidst the grind of the day-to-day.


Many of the corruptions brought about by the economic world-picture (and of modern thought more generally) are obscured by technology’s shininess. Ignored, however, is the reality that this technology rarely makes us happier. Indeed it rarely even makes us more efficient or grants us more leisure.3

While people, with an easy-going kind of logic, believe that fast transport and instantaneous communications open up a new dimension of freedom (which they do in some rather trivial respects), they overlook the fact that these achievements also tend to destroy freedom, by making everything extremely vulnerable and extremely insecure, unless conscious policies are developed and conscious action is taken to mitigate the destructive effects of these technological development.

Do you have more or less time for yourself since you first bought an iPhone?
We, therefore, not only have emptied out work and leisure of any real significance, making the former especially onerous, but we’ve also dramatically increased the amount of time we spend at work in the name of becoming ever more efficient.


This process leads to ever greater social disconnection, especially as economic circumstances require the consolidation of people in urban areas (this is a huge topic, and I’ll thus only gesture towards it here).

The factor of footlooseness is, therefore, the more serious, the bigger the country. Its destructive effects can be traced both in the rich and in the poor countries. In the rich countries such as the United States of America, it produces, as already mentioned, the “megalopolis.” It also produces a rapidly increasing and ever more intractable problem of “drop-outs,” of people, who, having become footloose, cannot find a place anywhere in society. Directly connected with this, it produces an appalling problem of crime, alienation, stress, social breakdown, right down to the level of the family. In the poor countries, again most severely in the large ones, it produces mass migration into cities, mass unemployment, and, as vitality is drained out of rural areas, the threat of famine. The result is a “dual society” without any inner cohesion, subject to a maximum of political instability. 


Small is Beautiful, 75

America has always suffered from rootlessness of a sort (see Chateaubriand, for instance), but it has now reached, perhaps surpassed, the stage of crisis, and we can see this crisis manifest essentially everywhere if we have eyes to see.


Enough with the dour diagnosis, however. Next time, what is to be done!

  1. naturam expelles furca, tamen usque recurret. Horace, Epistles i. x. 24
  2. see here, for instance. On why this is the inevitable result, see here.  
  3. Remind me to write about this essay one day.  

Small is Beautiful, pt. 2

[part 1]

Been busy and only going to get more so through the month of November, so this series on Schumacher is likely to be pretty spread out.  Apologies.

One of Schumacher’s key insights is that the problem of the modern economic system is not simply a crisis in the distribution and use of resources, but is instead a fundamentally moral crisis.  It is not a technical problem with a technical solution.  The problem is our mindset, our worldview, specifically that:

modern man has built a system of production that ravishes nature and a type of society that mutilates man. If only there were more and more wealth, everything else, it is thought, would fall into place. Money is considered to be all-powerful; if it could not actually buy non-material values, such as justice, harmony, beauty or even health, it could circumvent the need for them or compensate for their loss. The development of production and the acquisition of wealth have thus become the highest goals of the modern world in relation to which all other goals, not matter how much lip-service may still be paid to them, have come to take second place.

Small is Beautiful, 313

The crisis of mindset begins with the enthronement of material ends as the highest good1 and is perpetuated by the collapse of thinking that attends such an enthronement.2

If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they really are, his very successes become failures. If whole societies become infected by these vices, they may indeed achieve astonishing things but they become increasingly incapable of solving the most elementary problems of everyday existence. The Gross National Product may rise rapidly: as measured by statisticians but not as experienced by actual people, who find themselves oppressed by increasing frustration, alienation, insecurity, and so forth. After a while, even the Gross National Product refuses to rise any further, not because of scientific or technological failure, but because of a creeping paralysis of non-cooperation, as expressed in various types of escapism on the part, not only of the oppressed and exploited, but even of highly privileged groups.

Small is Beautiful, 32

Sin makes you stupid, in other words.  And, as a consequence, we become more and more unable to rescue ourselves from the ever more stupefying morass into which we have fallen:

The neglect, indeed the rejection, of wisdom has gone so far that most of our intellectuals have not even the faintest idea of what the term could mean. As a result, they always tend to try and cure a disease by intensifying its causes. The disease having been caused by allowing cleverness to displace wisdom, no amount of clever research is likely to produce a cure.

Small is Beautiful, 40

No technological solution can solve a problem rooted in the technological mindset itself, in the mindset that imagines nature only as something to be dominated, exploited, controlled.

We shrink back from the truth if we believe that the destructive forces of the modern world can be “brought under control” simply by mobilizing more resources–of wealth, education, and research–to fight pollution, to preserve wildlife, to discover new sources of energy, and to arrive at more effective agreements on peaceful coexistence. Needless to say, wealth, education, research, and many other things are needed for any civilization, but what is most needed today is a revision of the ends which these means are meant to serve.

Small is Beautiful, 314-5

Thus, to save the world, we must first of all affect a change in our hearts and minds, must reorient ourselves to new ends.  Ultimately, Schumacher argues (to skip ahead quite a bite) this reorientation is nothing less than the reawakening of the virtues:3

Out of the whole Christian tradition, there is perhaps no body of teaching which is more relevant and appropriate to the modern predicament than the marvelously subtle and realistic doctrines of the Four Cardinal Virtues–prudentia, justitita, fortitudo, and temperantia.
Small is Beautiful, 316

Let’s continue our exploration in future posts of what this reawakening looks like in the realms of education, technology and social organization.

1. Something the students in my Introduction to World Religions courses never fail to notice is that this enthronement is condemned by every major religion on Earth.  There’s probably a reason for that condemnation, maybe even a good one.

2. I must cite this stunningly evil anecdote about Keynes, Schumacher’s mentor, that Schumacher recounts to show how this mindset was consciously adopted:

In 1930, during the world-wide economic depression, [Keynes] felt moved to speculate on the “economic possibilities for our grandchildren” and concluded that the day might not be all that far off when everybody would be rich. We shall then, he said, “once more value ends above means and prefer the good to the useful.”
“But beware!” he continued. “The time for all this is not yet. For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight.”
Small is Beautiful, 24

Doing evil so that good might result, an ever present and thoroughly wicked temptation (cf. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ch. 3)

3. Striking how many brilliant thinkers independently arrive at this conclusion, isn’t it?

Small is Beautiful

Beginning another series of posts, this time concentrating on E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.

Schumacher was a mid-20th century economist, a student of Keynes, who advised the British National Coal Board (a far bigger deal than the name alone indicates) for decades.  Influenced by his study of philosophy, particularly the traditional social thought of the Catholic Church,1 and his travels around the world as an economic consultant (particularly to Burma), he formulated an understanding of economics and technology that is a vital corrective to prevailing attitudes both in his day and our own.  His book was surprisingly popular, yet the problems Schumacher critiques are still very much with us and his solutions sadly unimplemented, at least on any mass scale.

By and large I believe that Schumacher is correct both in his diagnosis of what is wrong with modern economic systems and in his prescriptions to resolve the problem, and his writings have greatly informed much of the “what is to be done” aspect of my thought on the environment/economy.2

Schumacher suggests that the core problem is a philosophical one, an unwarranted confidence that material advances have eliminated the problem of production.  This false confidence is rooted in a materialistic techno-centric outlook3 that is, at its very core, false and will thus lead inexorably to collapse.  This outlook leaves us blind to the ravenous consumption/destruction of three irreplaceable resources :

This illusion, I suggested, is mainly due to our inability to recognizes that the modern industrial system , with all its intellectual sophistication, consumes the very basis on which it has been erected. To use the language of the economists, it lives on irreplaceable capital which it cheerfully treats as income. I specified three categories of such capital: fossil fuels, the tolerance margins of nature, and the human substance.

Small is Beautiful, 21

My eye is, of course, most drawn to the last of these, though Schumacher gives ample space to all three.

The problems related to the first are fairly obvious, no less so in our modern era of seemingly never-ending violent entanglement in the Middle East than in Schumacher’s own ecologically-troubled time.

The second points to the broader set of ecological stresses placed on the natural world by careless, over-scaled industrialization.  Conceive of the natural world as an exceedingly complex system that is, for the most part, able to absorb any number of shocks.  A single summer without much rain does not cause an ecosystem to collapse nor does an especially cold winter or even a more violent natural disaster, such as a hurricane.  However, these events do place pressure on the system and, if they accumulate dramatically, a point can be reached where the “safety margin” of they system’s resiliency is overcome, leading to rapid collapse.  Perhaps the most obvious case of this sort of thing is what happened to isolated island ecosystems after the arrival of man.  A population of only fifty people–who brought with them dogs, rats, etc.–was enough to guarantee the extinction of the Dodo in less than a hundred years.

The third category that is consumed by the modern industrial system is, to put it in even more severe terms than Schumacher, the human soul.  One needs to only think of the Satanic mills of industrial England, suicide nets outside iPhone factories, or the bleak dehumanizing horror of Soviet architecture, to say nothing of the terrible all-consuming atomization of modern America.  There is simply no point to industrial society if it deprives us of our humanity, and no point to any reform that does not confront this corruption/consumption head on.

In the next few posts, I’d like to continue this diagnosis, looking at both the moral character of the current crisis and the systems of thought that underlie it, before proceeding to Schumacher’s suggestions of how to fix these issues in the realms of education, technology, and, perhaps, social organization.

1. Schumacher eventually converted to Catholicism a few years before his death in 1977.

2. The two are, of course, inextricably linked.  One of the pervasive and obviously true contentions of Small is Beautiful is that economics cannot simply be an arena cordoned off from the rest of human activity.

3. Which I would define as the idea that the attitude towards nature of humanity is essentially one of control and domination

The Captive Mind, pt. 4

[part 1, part 2, part 3]

In previous posts, we’ve seen the tremendous appeal of the totalitarian ideology to the intellectual as a means of overcoming social alienation and the terrific social pressure on doubters that ensues after the ideology has become ascendant.  This ascendancy is unstable, however, because the totalitarian ideology is, ultimately, a lie.

Moreover, it is a lie that is quite often directly opposed to the work of the intellectuals themselves.  Can we truly square Plato, Confucius, Jane Austen with the ideology?  What can it mean to study these figures through a lens expressly hostile to their deepest convictions?  Or, to move beyond specifics, how can we pursue the truth through the means of a truth-denying lie?

The success of the ideology, therefore, leads to a sort of schizophrenia.  The intellectual must become double-minded, seeking truth in a conceptual framework that denies the existence of truth (implicitly or explicitly).  Double-mindedness manifests in a deep-seated anxiety:

A patient has a hard time, however, when the moment comes for him to swallow the [ideology] in its entirety. He becomes such a nervous wreck that he may actually fall ill.

The Captive Mind, 17

There’s a marked unhealthiness, mental and physical, to the intellectual world.  Interestingly, Milosz suggests that guilt is at the root of much of this anxiety, something I had not considered previously, but fits with the alienation between the Procrustean bed of theory and actual objects of study, the mutilation necessary to make reality “fit” the ideology.  There’s an awareness that something real, beautiful, and meaningful is being destroyed/lost in this process.  Since we crave reality, beauty, and truth this loss is deeply upsetting, even if only subconsciously.  Intellectual life is thus pervaded by a mournfulness for what was and what could be.

The result is acedia, that most besetting of modern sins.  Milosz doesn’t actually use the term, but it’s quite obvious that’s what he’s talking about:

The one thing that seems to deny the perfection of [the totalitarian ideology] is the apathy that is born in people, and that lives on in spite of their feverish activity. It is hard to define, and at times one might suppose it to be a mere optical illusion..Yet there is something impalpable and unpleasant in the human climate of such cities as Warsaw or Prague

The Captive Mind, 23-4

Apathy and torpor, despite frenetic activity, with an accompanying despair of any possibility for meaningful change.  As a result, we’re miserable, no matter how fancy our offices, how lush the campus, how privileged the position we hold:

Whatever we may call it, this much is certain; if Hell should guarantee its lodgers magnificent quarters, beautiful clothes, the tastiest food, and all possible amusements, but condemn them to breathe in this aura forever, that would be punishment enough.

The Captive Mind, 24

In the face of this misery, it takes an enormous amount of effort to maintain the ideology, to buttress social pressures, to assuage misgivings with material comforts, to punish dissenters.  There comes a point where maintenance costs become untenable, where they system becomes deeply fragile and unable to respond to crisis without huge expenditures, expenditures which deplete the ability of the system to respond to subsequent crises and even to day-to-day stresses.  Increasingly desperate and brutal attempts to quash dissent and enforce intellectual hegemony are a symptom of what is likely an irrevocable decline.  Ketman proliferates.  Ideological collapse is imminent.

The sheer mass of machinery required to maintain the ideology is the greatest sign of its weakness.  The apathy and despair of the majority is to the advantage of the reformer.  To cast off the ideology is simpler than it seems, though not easy (like all good things).  One simply must have the will, the courage, to do so.  The true enemy, therefore, is not external structures or other people or even the ideology itself, but our own cowardice and torpor.  To overcome the forces Milosz so ably diagnoses, we must overcome ourselves.

The Captive Mind, pt. 3

[Part 1], [Part 2]

In the previous two posts, we’ve explored the social alienation afflicting the intellectual and the allure of the newly ascendant totalitarian ideology as a means of overcoming that alienation.  I think it’s important to note that this alienation is a very real and serious thing.  We are social beings and to be detached from society is the cause of considerable suffering.1  The intellectual does not err in seeking to become re-integrated into society, they err in that the ideology they are drawn to is wicked and false (and thus can only increase alienation in the end with a good bit of suffering on the way).  Thus, the point of Milosz’s book, and my summaries of it, is not to be cruel or act superior to the intellectual (there is considerable sympathy in the portrayals of individual artists under the Soviet regime that make up the bulk of the book), but rather to understand the complex, sobering reality of the intellectual life under totalitarianism.2

Once the ruling ideology has become dominant among the intellectual class, the pressure to conform becomes immense.  If the individual speaks out:

He would invariably be crushed by superior reasoning plus practicable threats against the future career of an undisciplined individual. Given the conditions of convincing arguments plus such threats, the necessary conversion will take place. That is mathematically certain.

The Captive Mind, 13

By “superior reasoning,” Milosz does not, I believe, mean that the Soviet ideology was in fact rationally superior to what it was supplanting, but rather that it had an answer for everything and that its supporters had a readily available stock of responses by which any challenge to the system could be disrupted and incorporated.  In other words, that any objection only serves to demonstrate 1.) the unworthiness/wickedness of the objector and 2.) the truth of the system.  This dynamic becomes self-reinforcing and moves outside the realm of ideas and into that of real-life consequences thanks to the ever-increasing control of the ideology over the means of disseminating ideas, hiring committees, media outlets, etc.:

I predict the house will burn; then I pour gasoline over the stove. The house burns; my prediction is fulfilled….I predict that a work of art incompatible with socialist realism will be worthless. Then I place the artist in conditions in which such a work is worthless. My prediction is fulfilled

The Captive Mind, 15

Thus, you end up conforming.  Although you might never truly agree with it, you give lip service to the ideology, nodding along as if you agree, while keeping your doubts hidden.  Milosz, borrowing a term from the Islamic tradition, refers to this as “ketman.”  He details a number of forms this can take, but the one most common to the Academy in my experience is the type he calls “professional”:

since I find myself in circumstances over which I have no control, and since I have but one life and that is fleeting, I should strive to do my best. I am like a crustacean attached to a crag on the bottom of the sea. Over me storms rage and huge ships sail; but my entire effort is concentrated upon clinging to the rock, for otherwise I will be carried off by the waters and perish, leaving no trace behind.

The Captive Mind, 69

Keep your head down, do your work, don’t rock any boats and all will be well.  The truth is, if you manage to avoid the occasionally-invisible shoals, all probably will be well.  You’ll carve out a quiet little space to be left alone and can ride out the storm.  Unless they stop leaving you alone.

We are left, therefore, with a loud and powerful group, likely the minority, that enthusiastically supports the ruling ideology, and a larger, but cowed, set that pays lip service to it, concealing disagreements behind a veil of acceptance.3  The intellectual class is converted, the dominance of the ideology appears complete.

Next, the final (?) installment: the problem is, this drives you insane and murders your soul.

1. The breakdown of social bonds, societal atomization and its attendant pathologies are perhaps the single most serious issue facing us today.

2. And perhaps to banish any idea that salvation from the totalitarian will derive from the intellectual class in their capacity as intellectuals or that they are somehow insulated from the effects of the ruling ideology by virtue of their intellect.

3. And periodically helping destroy the more courageous and outspoken challengers to the ideology, thankful that it is not them who is in the dock.  In these moments we see that ketman is not merely a survival strategy, but moral rot.

The Captive Mind, pt. 2

When we last left the intellectual, he found himself increasingly drawn to the ruling ideology as a means of overcoming his alienation and general uselessness to the prevailing culture.  In the new world of theory, the intellectual is not merely useful, but essential and superior.   Alongside this attraction, Milosz identifies another form of alienation and concomitant resentment that draws the intellectual to the totalitarian ideology: his disdain for bourgeois culture.

The intellectual, being a cultured sort (and in the examples Milosz provides, being an artist himself), recognizes the essential vacuity of bourgeois arts and manners, an emptiness that is especially pronounced in the previously-diagnosed absence of a common faith.1  The intellectual, displaced from their cultural station due to the separation of intellectual pursuits from anything the average person is actually interested in, is drive into the bourgeois class and thus into this emptiness, a situation that generates considerable resentment.  But in the new world, under the new system, they get to be in charge again, to tell the bourgeois what they are allowed to enjoy and do and what art and activities, previously sanctioned, are now insufficiently revolutionary.2  Milosz:

The intellectual’s eyes twinkle with delight at the persecution of the bourgeoisie, and of the bourgeois mentality. It is a rich reward for the degradation he felt when he had to be part of the middle class, and when there seemed to be no way out of the cycle of birth and death.

The Captive Mind, 11

Again, participating in the new system is a source of meaning, belonging, and social capital.  And this meaning, belonging, and status is purchased by the remaking of the world, the destruction of the old order.  Milosz sums up the mindset:

Let a new man arise, one who, instead of submitting to the world, will transform it.

The Captive Mind, 10

Here is where gnosticism enters the picture.  I use the term in the same sense as the great political philosopher Eric Voegelin, whose ideas are far to complex to easily distill in a single post.3  In brief, the gnostic thinker is dissatisfied with the situation of the world, and who wouldn’t be? It is fallen, after all.  But their reaction to this dissatisfaction is to attribute the world’s problems not to human fallibility, but to the system of the world itself.  In other words, the problem is not sin, but the order of things.  Thus, to overcome the evil of the world requires only human action, action taken to destroy the system of the world4 and usher in a more perfect system.

Milosz’s intellectual sets himself up as what Voegelin would call a gnostic prophet, the individual tasked with proclaiming the formula of transformation (a formula of destruction and renewal) to the masses.  And who wouldn’t want to be a prophet?  Much more fun than being a mere academic.

Next time: maintaining orthodoxy

1. Two points. First, you might object that modern intellectuals in fact appear quite enamored with popular culture.  Witness the enthusiasm of the “elites” for works like Harry Potter or the Disney Marvel films which can, at best, be classified as “entertaining trash.”  This doesn’t point to an error on the part of Milosz, rather it suggests that these works are themselves products of the totalitarian ideology.   Enthusiasm among intellectuals (and the hand they have in creating these works) is simply a sign that they have “bought in.”  In this view, the absurd over-enthusiasm works like these generate among the wannabe intellectual set (say, journalists) is a form of status signalling.

Second, to be fair to the intellectual, we should note that he’s correct about the cultural desolation in the absence of faith.

2.  I’m confident the reader can insert the appropriate modern condemnations.

3. I’ve long promised myself that I would similar series to the current on Voegelin.  Now, I’m promising you, dear reader.

4. Up to an including the very order of being itself.  Voegelin notes that it ultimately terminates in the murder of God.

The Captive Mind, pt. 1

Over the summer, I helped teach a course on religious toleration.  Of course, we read Locke, who takes as a major conceit of his argument the position that religious belief cannot be compelled by force.  I took issue with this, as I do with a lot of Locke’s arguments.1  Primarily, I thought that Locke had not really considered the effect of what we might call “soft force” on religious belief, that people can truly be moved within a totalitarian system to alter their beliefs to (at least in part) conform with the reigning standard.

Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mind is a study of precisely this phenomenon, specifically focused on the mentality of artists in Poland following the Soviet conquest.  The power of this book does not merely lie in the fact that it allows us to score points against Locke,2 but that it addresses the powerful question of how artists, ostensible free-thinking intellectuals, could become “suckered” into accepting and even advocating the ideals of a totalitarian society, ideals which run radically counter to the ideals these artists had previously championed or even destroy the very notion of art itself.3

It’s an important subject, because I believe we can see much of what Milosz diagnoses in “intellectual” society today, particularly in academia.  Thus, I thought it would be worth hitting a few of his major points.  You should really read the book, it’s excellent.

Milosz begins with the deep background to the problem.  Namely, the destruction of religion as a dominant force,4 particularly in art (and, we might add, in the academy).  Due to the lack of religion that unites the intellectual with the common people there:

arises the painful sense of detachment or abstraction that oppresses the “creators of culture.” Religion has been replaced by philosophy, which, however, has strayed into spheres increasingly less accessible to the layman…Music, painting, and poetry become something completely foreign to the great majority of people.

The Captive Mind, 7-8

One only needs to spend about 15 seconds looking around a modern art gallery to see the truth of this.

The intellectual has thus become alienated from society, a place no one wants to be and the intellectual least of all.  He needs his work to be important, else he has no reason for being.  Witness reactions to complaints about the uselessness of much academic research typically lobbed by conservatives.  They strike home, trust me.  Enter the new system, the new society.  Here, the intellectual’s work has meaning again, it is relevant:

The intellectual has once more become useful…He has been restored to society, whereas the businessman, aristocrats, and tradespeople who once considered him a harmless blunderer have now been dispossessed…We must not oversimplify, however, the gratifications of personal ambition; they are merely the outward and visible signs of social usefulness, symbols of a recognition that strengthens the intellectual’s feeling of belonging.

The Captive Mind, 9

Now, all of a sudden, that theory-ridden monograph on 15th century trade networks isn’t worthless (and, more importantly, all those hours spent reading becoming so theory-laden in the library).  No, not worthless at all.  The intellectual has a purpose.  He’s on the vanguard, a force of transformation, and the question of whether that transformation is for good slips away.  It must be good, because the past was bad,5 else how could the intellectual have ended up so alienated in the first place?  Thus, temptation.

Next time: Gnosticism!

1. Locke’s arguments are shockingly bad.  To his credit, sort of, Locke himself seems to pull back from this specific position over the course of his debate with Proast

2. Really, to pick on Locke is like being cruel to a child.  His ideal is impossible and incoherent and his arguments terrible.

3. To say nothing of human nature, etc.

4. Worth noting that Solzhenitsyn made the same diagnosis in his famous Templeton Address.

5. This principle must be defended at all costs.