E F Schumacher was an influential thinker of the last century, a pioneer of the early environmental movement and alternative economics. He founded the development charity Practical Action, inspired the New Economics Foundation, and turned his esoteric mind to all kinds of topics, from education to renewable energy.
When he is quoted, which is often, it is usually as the author of Small is Beautiful. If the quote isn’t from that book, then the chances are it’s from Good Work, or Schumacher on Energy. The book you hear less about is A Guide for the Perplexed.
That’s interesting, because Schumacher himself thought it was the most important thing he’d written. “This is what my life has been leading up to” he told his daughter as he handed her the manuscript. So it proved to be, because five days later, he had a heart attack on a train and died.
Whatever its author thought of it, A Guide for the Perplexed hasn’t quite stood the test of time in the same way, but I was curious. I came across a copy recently, and I just finished it.
Perhaps one reason why it’s not so well known is the title. It’s too general, like a travel guide that forgets to mention which country it’s for. What is this a guide to? I am perplexed by a great many things. Having spent the 80s in Madagascar, I am perplexed by Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody. (It is a joke, isn’t it?) One might assume that since Schumacher was an economist, it would be a guide to the economy. Even the basics of inflation, monetary policy and the like are perplexing to most people. A guide to that would have been very useful. Instead, A Guide for the Perplexed is a work of philosophy, a ‘map’ for how to live in the world, how to find our place in the order of things. If you know your philosophy, you would not be confused my the title. It borrows, of course, from 12th century Jewish Rabbi Maimonides.
Schumacher was not the first economist to dabble in such territory. Adam Smith is hailed as the father of modern economics, but was a moral philosopher first and foremost. But it’s not what Schumacher was known for, and even by his standards, it is full of unfashionable ideas.
For example, the book starts by outlining the ‘levels of being’, from inanimate objects at the bottom to plants, animals, and humans at the top, with the suggestion that the “chain of being extends upwards beyond man”. Each level can understand those below it, but not above it. It would lack the ‘adequatio’, the requisite mental capacity, to conceive of higher forms. This exploration of adequatio goes on until around halfway through the book.
If it sounds arcane but relatively straightforward, it’s not, digressing into psychology, Buddhism, Christian mysticism, computer programming and even attempting to outline the chains of being in mathematical formulae.
Having got this far then, the reader may find themselves more perplexed than when they began. Having laboured through the levels of being, they may flick back to the contents page and see that they now have ‘four fields of knowledge’ and ‘two types of problem’ to go. They may then put the book down and go and watch television instead.
Schumacher would not approve of this. One of the key messages of A Guide for the Perplexed is to live more intentionally. “The difference between directed and captured attention is the same as the difference between doing things and letting things take their course, or between living and ‘being lived’”. He appeals to us to move from being a computer to being the programmer, alert to ourselves and those around us. “When we are not awake in our attention, we are certainly not self-aware and therefore not fully human.”
Right, turn the TV off then, and press on.
E F Schumacher spent his life working these things out. I don’t know how unique to him his philosophy is, but it was something he came to over a long period of time. He was an atheist in early life, then a Buddhist and a Catholic by the end. The best bits of A Guide for the Perplexed are therefore a synthesis of wisdom literature. In the passage above on knowing yourself, he draws practically identical advice from Socrates, Swami Ramdas, Shakespeare, the Tao Te Ching, the Apostle Paul and a seventh century Islamic sage.
The need for wisdom is another overarching theme. Modern society is full of information, knowledge, data, and short on wisdom. Schumacher laments “the systematic neglect of traditional wisdom”, and suggests that this neglect has led to a situation where “Western man is rich in means and poor in ends.” That’s a point made powerfully by Skidelsky and Skidelsky in their recent book How much is Enough?
Lacking wisdom, we are unequipped to tackle the biggest problems of life. We are fine at technical problems, where each new development refines an idea until you converge upon a solution. Political and philosophical questions however, are divergent. Justice and mercy, change and stability, innovation and tradition, these are all forces that pull against each other. And, says Schumacher, grappling with them is the whole point.
Not all problems are meant to be solved. They can only be transcended with love, brotherhood, and a setting aside of oneself. The balance between equality and freedom, for example, is a divergent problem – a move towards one is a move away from the other. The French revolutionaries recognised this, which is why they added a third word to their battle cry. Achieving égalité and liberté at the same time is impossible without fraternité.
How to sum up A Guide for the Perplexed then? I’ve found that there are real insights in it, but you have to read between the lines. It’s not a book that seeks to explain things, but to prompt things that you will have to go away and think about. It’s not an easy read, and that’s a shame, because its message is important. “The things modern man continuously talks about and always fails to accomplish can actually be done” says Schumacher. We have the ideas, the technologies and the know-how to end poverty, stabilise the climate, and create a fair society. If we haven’t done it yet, it’s because the problem lies in ourselves.