E.F Schumacher’s ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’

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Get a view of E.F Schumacher's stark black/while view of good and evil in "A Guide for the Perlpexed."

Although most of us now remember E.F. Schumacher for his noteworthy 1973 book, Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, and for his advocacy of Appropriate Technology, there was far more to this extraordinary man (Mr. Schumacher died as a result of a heart attack September 4, 1977) than that.

To get right down to it, E.F. Schumacher was a deeply religious individual who saw Good (things like fresh air, pure water, and unpoisoned soil) and Evil (nuclear weapons and power plants, cancer-causing chemicals, and the like) in stark black and white terms. Or, to put it another way, in Fritz Schumacher’s mind . . . we wouldn’t be facing the environmental crisis, the fuel crisis, the food crisis, or any of the you-name-it crises that we’re up against today if we still had the reverence of our ancestors (at least some of them, anyway) for this beautiful planet and the Great Spirit, Life Force — yes, if you will, God — that created it.

The following is excerpted with permission from A Guide for the Perplexed, Schumacher’s last book. (Copyright 1977 by E.F. Schumacher, published by Harper Perennial. Available in paperback from Amazon.)

On a visit to Leningrad in August 1968 — during the week of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia — I consulted a map to find out where I was, but I could not make it out. From where I stood, I could see several enormous churches, yet there was no trace of them on my map. When finally an interpreter came to help me, he said: “We don’t show churches on our maps.” Contradicting him, I pointed to one that was very clearly marked. “That is a museum,” he said, “not what we call a `living church.’ It is only the `living churches’ we don’t show.”

It then occurred to me that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes. All through school and university, I had been given maps of life and knowledge on which there was hardly a trace of many of the things that I most cared about and that seemed to me to be of the greatest possible importance to the conduct of my life. I remembered that for many years my perplexity had been complete, and no interpreter had come along to help me. It remained complete until I ceased to suspect the sanity of my perceptions and began, instead, to suspect the soundness of the maps.

The maps I was given advised me that virtually all my ancestors, until quite recently, had been rather pathetic illusionists who conducted their lives on the basis of irrational beliefs and absurd superstitions. Even illustrious scientists, like Johannes Kepler or Isaac Newton, apparently spent most of their time and energy on nonsensical studies of nonexisting things.

Enormous amounts of hard-earned wealth, according to my guides, had been squandered throughout history to the honor and glory of imaginary deities, not only by my European forebears, but by all peoples, in all parts of the world, at all times. Everywhere thousands of seemingly healthy men and women had subjected themselves to utterly meaningless restrictions, like voluntary fasting, had tormented themselves by celibacy, had wasted their time on pilgrimages, fantastic rituals, reiterated prayers, and so forth, had turned their backs on reality — and some do it even in this enlightened age — all for nothing, all out of ignorance and stupidity , and none of it was to be taken seriously today, except of course as museum pieces.

From what a history of error we had emerged! What a history of taking for real what every modern child knew to be totally unreal and imaginary! Our entire past, until quite recently, was today fit only for museums, where people could satisfy their curiosity about the oddity and incompetence of earlier generations. What our ancestors had written, also, was in the main fit only for storage in libraries, where historians and other specialists could study these relics and write books about them, the knowledge of the past being considered interesting and occasionally thrilling but of no particular value for learning to cope with the problems of the present.

All this and many other similar things I was taught at school and university, although not in so many words, not plainly and frankly. It would not do to call a spade a spade. Ancestors had to be treated with respect: They could not help their backwardness, they tried hard and sometimes even got quite near the truth in a haphazard sort of way. Their preoccupation with religion was just one of their many signs of underdevelopment, not surprising in people who had not yet come of age. 

Even today, of course — I was told — there remained some interest in religion, which legitimized that of earlier times. It was still permissible, on suitable occasions, to refer to God the Creator, although every educated person knew that there was not really a God, certainly not one capable of creating anything, and that the things around us had come into existence by a process of mindless evolution, that is, by chance and natural selection. Our ancestors, unfortunately, did not know about evolution, and so they invented all these fanciful myths.

The maps of real knowledge, designed for real life — then — showed nothing except things which allegedly could be proved to exist. The first principle of the philosophical map-makers seemed to be “if in doubt, leave it out,” or put it into a museum. It occurred to me, however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say: “if in doubt, show it prominently?” After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead, they constitute no challenge to the living.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time, I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, taught that “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.” “Slender” knowledge is here put in opposition to “certain” knowledge, and indicates uncertainty. Maybe it is necessarily so that the higher things cannot be known with the same degree of certainty as can the lesser things, in which case it would be a very great loss indeed if knowledge were limited to things beyond the possibility of doubt.

The philosophical maps with which I was supplied at school and university did not merely, like the map of Leningrad, fail to show “living churches” , they also failed to show large “unorthodox” sections of both theory and practice in medicine, agriculture, psychology, and the social and political sciences (not to mention art and so-called occult or paranormal phenomena, the mere mention of which was considered to be a sign of mental deficiency.)

In particular, all the most prominent doctrines shown on the “map” accepted art only as self-expression or as escape from reality. Even in nature there was nothing artistic except by chance … that is to say, even the most beautiful appearances could be fully accounted for — so we were told — by their utility in reproduction, as affecting natural selection. In fact, apart from “museums,” the entire map from right to left and from top to bottom was drawn in utilitarian colors: hardly anything was shown as existing unless it could be interpreted as profitable for man’s comfort or useful in the universal battle for survival.

Not surprisingly, the more thoroughly acquainted we became with the details of the map — the more we absorbed what it showed and got used to the absence of the things it did not show — the more perplexed, unhappy, and cynical we became. Some of us, however, had experiences similar to that described by Maurice Nicoll:

Once, in the Greek New Testament class on Sundays, taken by the headmaster, I dared to ask, in spite of my stammering, what some parable meant. The answer was so confused that I actually experienced my first moment of consciousness — that is, I suddenly realized that no one knew anything . . . and from that moment I began to think for myself, or rather knew that I could . . . . I remember so clearly this classroom, the high windows constructed so that we could not see out of them, the desks, the platform on which the headmaster sat, his scholarly, thin face, his nervous habits of twitching his mouth and jerking his hands. And suddenly having this inner revelation of knowing that he knew nothing . . . nothing, that is, about anything that really mattered. This was my first inner liberation from the power of external life. From that time, l knew for certain — and that means always by inner individual authentic perception which is the only source of real knowledge — that all my loathing of religion as it was taught me was right.

The maps produced by modern materialistic scientism leave all of the questions that really matter unanswered. More than that, they even deny the validity of the questions. The situation was desperate enough in my youth half a century ago. It is even worse now because the ever more rigorous application of the scientific method to all subjects and disciplines has destroyed even the last remnants of ancient wisdom … at least in the Western world. For it is being loudly proclaimed in the name of scientific objectivity that “values and meanings are noshing but defence mechanisms and reaction formations” … that man is “nothing but a complex biochemical mechanism powered by a combustion system which energizes computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining encoded information.” Sigmund Freud even assured us that “this alone I know with certainty, namely that men’s value judgments are guided absolutely by their desire for happiness, and are therefore merely an attempt to bolster up their illusions by arguments.”

How is anyone to resist the pressure of such statements, made in the name of objective science, unless, like Maurice Nicoll, he suddenly receives “this inner revelation of knowing” that men who say such things, however learned they may be, know nothing about anything that really matters? People are asking for bread, and they are being given stones. They beg for advice about what they should do “to be saved,” and they are told that the idea of salvation has no intelligible content and is nothing but an infantile neurosis. They long for guidance about how to live as responsible human beings, and they are told that they are machines, like computers, without free will and therefore without responsibility.

“The present danger,” says Viktor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist of unshakable sanity, “does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist, but rather in his pretense and claim of totality. What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalising.” After many centuries of theological imperialism, we have now had three centuries of an ever more aggressive “scientific imperialism,” and the result is a degree of bewilderment and disorientation, particularly among the young, which can at any moment lead to the collapse of our civilization. “The true nihilism of today,” says Dr. Frankl, “is reductionism. Contemporary nihilism no longer brandishes the word nothingness. Today nihilism is camouflaged as nothing but-ness. Human phenomena are thus turned into mere epiphenomena.”

Yet they remain our reality, everything we are and everything we become. In this life, we find ourselves as in a strange country. Ortega y Gasset once remarked that “Life is fired at us, point-blank.” We cannot say: “Hold it! I am not quite ready. Wait until I have sorted things out.” Decisions have to be taken that we are not ready for, aims have to be chosen that we cannot see clearly.

This is very strange and, on the face of it, quite irrational. Human beings, it seems, are insufficiently “programmed.” Not only are they utterly helpless when they are born and remain so for a long time . . . even when fully grown, they do not move and act with the surefootedness of animals. They hesitate, doubt, change their minds, run hither and thither, uncertain not simply of how to get what they want but above all of what they want.

Questions like “What should I do?” or “What must I do to be saved?” are strange questions because they relate to ends, not simply to means. No technical answer will do, such as “Tell me precisely what you want, and I shall tell you how to get it.”

The whole point is that I do not know what I want. Maybe all I want is to be happy. But the answer “Tell me what you need for happiness, and I shall then be able to advise you what to do”,  this answer, again, will not do, because I do not know what I need for happiness. Perhaps someone says: “For happiness you need wisdom,”  but what is wisdom? Or: “For happiness you need the truth that makes you free,”  but what is the truth that makes us free? Who will tell me where I can find it? Who can guide me to it or at least point out the direction in which I have to proceed?

After Dante (in the Divine Comedy) had “woken up” and found himself in the horrible dark wood where he had never meant to go, his good intention to make the ascent up the mountain was of no avail; he first had to descend into the Inferno to be able fully appreciate the reality of sinfulness. Today, people who acknowledge the Inferno of things as they really are in the modern world are regularly denounced as “doomwatchers,” pessimists, and the like. Dorothy Sayers, one of the finest commentators on Dante as well as on modern society, has this to say:

That the Inferno is a picture of human society in a state of sin and corruption, everybody will readily agree. And since we are today fairly well convinced that society is in a bad way and not necessarily evolving in the direction of perfectibility, we find it easy enough to recognise the various stages by which the deep of corruption is reached. Futility, lack of a living faith, the drift into loose morality, greedy consumption, financial irresponsibility, and uncontrolled bad temper , a self-opinionated and obstinate individualism, violence, sterility, and lack of reverence for life and property including one’s own,  the exploitation of sex, the debasing of language by advertisement and propaganda, the commercialising of religion, the pandering to superstition and the conditioning of people’s minds by mass-hysteria and “spellbinding” of all kinds, venality and string-pulling in public affairs, hypocrisy, dishonesty in material things, intellectual dishonesty, the fomenting of discord (class against class, nation against nation) for what one can get out of it, the falsification and destruction of all the means of communication, the exploitation of the lowest and stupidest mass-emotions, treachery even to the fundamentals of kinship, country, the chosen friend, and the sworn allegiance: These are the all-too-recognisable stages that lead to the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations.

What an array of divergent problems! Yet people go on clamoring for “solutions” and become angry when they are told that the restoration of society must come from within and cannot come from without. The above passage was written a quarter of a century ago. Since then, there has been further progress downhill, and the description of the Inferno sounds even more familiar.

But there have also been positive changes: Some people are no longer angry when told that restoration must come from within. The belief that everything is “politics” and that radical rearrangements of the “system” will suffice to save civilization is no longer held with the same fanaticism as it was held 25 years ago. Everywhere in the modern world, there are experiments in new lifestyles and Voluntary Simplicity . . . the arrogance of materialistic scientism is in decline, and it is sometimes tolerated even in polite society to mention God.

Admittedly, some of this change of mind stems initially not from spiritual insight but from materialistic fear aroused by the environmental crisis, the fuel crisis, the threat of a food crisis, and the indications of a coming health crisis. In the face of these — and many other — threats, most people still try to believe in the “technological fix.” If we could develop fusionenergy, they say, our fuel problems would be solved. If we would perfect the processes of turning oil into edible proteins, the world’s food problem would be solved, and the development of new drugs will surely avert any threat of a health crisis and so on.

All the same, faith in modern man’s omnipotence is wearing thin. Even if all the “new” problems were solved by technological fixes, the state of futility, disorder, and corruption would remain. It existed before the present crises became acute, and it will not go away by itself. More and more people are beginning to realize that “the modem experiment” has failed. It received its early impetus from what I have called the Cartesian revolution, which — with implacable logic — separated man from those Higher Levels that alone can maintain his humanity. Man closed the gates of Heaven against himself and tried, with immense energy and ingenuity, to confine himself to the Earth. He is now discovering that the Earth is but a transitory state, so that a refusal to reach for Heaven means an involuntary descent into Hell.

It may conceivably be possible to live without churches, but it is not possible to live without religion. That is, without systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of “ordinary life” with all its pleasure or pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity (whatever it may be).

The modern experiment to live without religion has failed, and once we have understood this, we know what our “post-modern” tasks really are. Significantly, a large number of young people (of varying ages!) are looking in the right direction. They feel in their bones that the ever more successful solution of convergent problems is of no help at all — it may even be a hindrance — in learning how to cope, to grapple, with the divergent problems which are the stuff of real life.

The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Only if we know that we have actually descended into infernal regions where nothing awaits us but “the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations,” can we summon the courage and imagination needed for a “turning around,” a metanoia. This then leads to seeing the world in a new light, namely, as a place where the things modern man continuously talks about and always fails to accomplish can actually be done.

The generosity of the Earth allows us to feed all mankind and we know enough about ecology to keep the Earth a healthy place. There is enough room on the Earth, and there are enough materials available, so that everybody can have adequate shelter. We are quite competent enough to produce sufficient supplies of necessities so that no one need live in misery.

Above all, once we have learned to view the planet in this new light, we shall then see that the economic problem is a convergent problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and certainly do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been. But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not convergent; that is, capable of being solved so future generations can live without effort. No, they are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.

Can we rely on it that a “turning around” will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer “Yes” would lead to complacency, the answer “No” to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.

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