Ivan Illich

Still immersed in reading, but I’ll poke my head up long enough to mention one particular writer who is new to me, and to offer some links to his work.

I was aware of Ivan Illich, but only vaguely. I knew he had written a book called Deschooling Society, and was often mentioned along with people like John Holt, Raymond Moore, and John Taylor Gatto, all known for training a gimlet eye on the idea of institutional education. And I once had a copy of Tools for Conviviality on my shelf, having a long-standing interest in community and being intrigued by the idea implied in the title, that there were tools conducive to living together—but I never even opened it, and it is long gone. Aside from that, I knew nothing, not even that he was a Christian, much less a Roman Catholic priest.

The impetus for my current bout of reading was the series of three essays by Alan Jacobs mentioned in my previous blog post. I wanted to know more about Charles Taylor’s thinking on the origins of modernity, but a little bit of research suggested that A Secular Age, his masterwork, is a supremely difficult book, not to mention hideously expensive. But I remembered that James K.A. Smith had written a sort of guidebook to A Secular Age, called How (Not) to be Secular, and so I decided to start there. It’s been very helpful. And I wanted to read the two Taylor essays which Jacobs claims are vital, so I bought Taylor’s collection Dilemmas and Connections, and also the book of transcribed Illich conversations to which Taylor contributed the introduction, Rivers North of the Future.

For the record, Taylor is actually a clear and straightforward writer, with a peculiar but maybe necessary habit of neologizing. I say “maybe necessary” because he always gives his inventions detailed definitions and uses them precisely as he fits them together to build his explanations. Whether or not adequate words already existed, his new ones are so distinctive that they serve as a constant reminder to the reader that they denote key concepts. In any case, I actually find Taylor’s writing clearer than Smith’s summarizing—but Smith provides the sketchy overview I need but don’t have time to construct for myself from Taylor’s massive and complex book.

But this is about Illich. I read Taylor’s introduction to Rivers North of the Future, and was surprised to find Taylor saying that in these conversations he had discovered a key concept for structuring his then-ongoing research into the sources of secular thinking—namely, that modernity is not opposed to Christendom but in fact its full flowering, an inevitable perversion of the Gospel. That inspired me to dive into the conversations right away!

The conversations occurred near the end of Illich’s life and were intended as a summary of his thinking, with particular attention paid to a unifying idea that had underpinned his various writings but never been addressed explicitly in them. The Latin expression he uses to capture it is perversio optimi quae est pessima, or “the corruption of the best is the worst.” Shakespeare says it this way in Sonnet 94: “For sweetest things turn sour by their deeds / Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

Others have detected this in the arc from the advent of the Gospel to the early church to Constantine to Christendom to the Reformation to the Enlightenment to modernity to post-modernity. But usually the story is told as things ticking along pretty well until some outside force came along and knocked the project off the track—and if we could only set it back on the track, things would be good again. Illich (and Taylor) locate the source of perversion internally, and much more deeply in the project—at one point Illich despairs that it may actually be inherent, an unavoidable consequence—so deep that it is pointless to think about fixing it.

Illich studied several matters that are dear to me, and I mean studied—his original work focused on the history of the 12th century, where he saw the direction of Christendom change for the worse in several fundamental ways, but he was widely read—and I appreciate that he can back up in detail conclusions I’d reached tentatively and mostly intuitively. Some of his claims:

  • Things went badly wrong when we elected to take the Christian view and codify it, turning it from a spontaneous response to our neighbor into a standard of behavior which could be imposed and enforced (what he calls the “criminalization of sin”).

  • In the name of “development” modernity has tyrannized inhabitants of the pre-modern world by stealing the ability to subsist, substituting needs that can only be satisfied by participating in the system (Illich worked extensively among Mexican peasants).

  • Doctors had no concept of disease until the mid-19th century. Before then their role was to help people get their body back into balance, to facilitate nature’s working, and to help people endure whatever suffering that might entail. Now bodies are no more than collections of mechanisms which doctors are charged with “fixing.”

  • Our current understanding of “tool” is not fundamental but came into existence in the 12th century, and the change in thinking was critical to the development of modernity. Now there is another sea change—tools have been replaced by systems, which include the operator—and this change in thinking will have equally profound effects.

  • The parable of the good samaritan encapsulates the Gospel, i.e. the new thing that Jesus made possible. Before Jesus your neighbors were chosen for you, by locale or ethnicity. Jesus freed us to choose our neighbors, to choose them in the moment, and to encounter Him in the other.

  • Churches, schools, hospitals, political systems, and other such institutions should be viewed as rituals, the purpose and effect of which is to make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what the ritual is supposed to achieve.

Well, there’s a lot more—my copy of the book is heavily highlighted. Still, I’m not sure I can recommend the book as a starting place. If you’re not initially sympathetic to Illich’s view on a particular matter, justification for the view has to be found elsewhere in his work. Since I’d long ago come around to his general way of thinking, I found the reflection Illich does here both helpful and delightful. But someone who is skeptical of a particular claim will need to go to the source of it.

Fortunately, much of Illich’s writing is available for free online. Look here for some core pieces, including his books Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviality. And this site has collected together various occasional pieces by Illich.

One thought on “Ivan Illich

  1. I’ve read _Secular Age_ (when it came out) and I can’t say that I found it easy. I had read _Sources of the Self_ when it came out, too, and even though I disagreed with some of it it was much easier to understand. On the whole question of what went wrong in the 12th c. you might also see if you can find a used copy of Brad Gregory’s recent book. It’s polemical and angry and draws a problematic conclusion — but it’s very informative.

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