Media, PA. Ladies and gentlemen, Ivan Illich is dead. Long may he live.
I don’t mean Tolstoy’s famous fictional decedent, Ivan Ilyich, although he is certainly dead, too. No, in this case I refer to the once-famous (or notorious) priest-scholar-anarchist-activist, who died in 2002, and I commend him to you as a worthy addition to the canon of “philosophers and saints” whom we have seen paraded before our eyes since FPR began. One refreshing element of the Front Porch Republic has been its deliberate discernment and display of a kind of communion of the living and the dead, from Chesterton and Belloc to Tocqueville to Flannery O’Connor to Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, to Owen Barfield and our crunchy Pope Benedict XVI, and, perhaps above all, to Wendell Berry. Together again for the very first time, this assembly represents a kind of constellation of interests of Front Porchers, the many and various sources of our commitments to “place, limits, and liberty.” Ivan Illich may seem a curious addition to this already-curious litany, but over the past several weeks I have found my thoughts returning to him more and more as I have considered our FPR conversations. He may just be one of the most provocative and intelligent people you’ve never read.
Ivan Illich garnered quite a bit of attention in the 1970s with his books Deschooling Society and Medical Nemesis, but, his fifteen minutes of fame exhausted, he slipped into relative obscurity for a generation of scholars. We may find ourselves on the edge of an Illich renaissance, however, since Charles Taylor’s ponderous A Secular Age has given strategic place to Illich’s thoughts on the nature of modernity. In the last decade or so of his life, Illich began to excavate seams of thought that had lain beneath the surface of his apparently scattered and idiosyncratic oeuvre. Illich was convinced that modernity itself makes sense only as a distortion of the Christian gospel. The medieval church, through the institutionalization and rationalization of Jesus’s command to love one’s neighbor, fundamentally and unintentionally corrupted the very best of the new possibilities for human thought and action introduced through the incarnation, and the result was the regime of modernity. This thesis is developed most fully in a series of interviews conducted by David Cayley for the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s program Ideas in 2000 and later published in a slightly different format as The Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich (2005). Charles Taylor wrote a preface for the book while he was writing A Secular Age, and he points to the influence that Illich’s thesis has had upon his own thought. Taylor and Illich share the view (a) that modernity is in some fashion an ecclesial creation, and (b) that this historical development is irreducibly complex. But Illich’s sense of the sinister effects of modernity runs much deeper than Taylor’s, leaving him with a darker sense of contemporary life than Taylor can bring himself to claim. If Taylor in the end presents us with a chastened comedy, Illich offers instead a tragedy awaiting redemption.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan provides Illich with a perfect exemplum of the “surprising and entirely new flowering of love and knowledge” made possible by the Incarnation. When asked “who is my neighbor?” Jesus gives the familiar account of a Jew attacked on the road to Jericho and left for dead who is passed by and ignored by both a priest and a Levite before a Samaritan – enemy to all Jews – tends to his wounds, brings him into town, and provides for his needs. As an answer to the question, the story destroys traditional ethnic constraints around neighborliness:
This doctrine about the neighbor, which Jesus proposes, is utterly destructive of ordinary decency, of what had, until then, been understood as ethical behavior… In antiquity, hospitable behavior, or full commitment in my action to the other, implies a boundary drawn around those to whom I can behave in this way. The Greeks recognized a duty of hospitality towards xenoi, strangers who spoke a Hellenic language, but not towards barbaroi. Jesus taught the Pharisees that the relationship which he had come to announce to them as most completely human is not one that is expected, required, or owed. It can only be a free creation between two people, and one which cannot happen unless something comes to me through the other, by the other, in his bodily presence.
Illich once surveyed sermons on this parable from the third century through to the nineteenth, and he discovered that it is most often treated as an example of how one ought to act. He was convinced that this rather missed the point. Jesus had been asked not “How should I treat my neighbor?” but rather “Who is my neighbor?” And the answer is that the neighbor cannot be pre-defined. Neighbors emerge only from an encounter, a “call and not a category,” as Illich said. When the call of the neighbor is converted or institutionalized into a rule or duty of behavior, even if with the best of intentions, it is fundamentally altered. “Hospitality is transformed into a service.”
So there is no question that the modern service society is an attempt to establish and extend Christian hospitality. On the other hand, we have immediately perverted it. The personal freedom to choose who will be my other has been transformed into the use of power and money to provide a service. This not only deprives the idea of the neighbor of the quality of freedom implied in the story of the Samaritan. It also creates an impersonal view of how a good society ought to work. It creates needs, so-called, for service commodities, needs which can never be satisfied – is there enough health yet, enough education?—and therefore a type of suffering completely unknown outside of Western culture with its roots in Christianity.
With this, we see the deep root structure of Illich’s earlier work on development, schooling, and medicine in what he believes to be a long and inexorable process that began with the Constantinian establishment of Christianity. But these phenomena only become truly modern when the order of the world in which they are established is severed from its sheer gratuitous contingency upon the creative gift of God. Once the cords of contingency are severed, the ossification of such service institutions –including states themselves– is complete: they become self-perpetuating phenomena.
Illich devoted the early years of his career to opposing grand schemes of “development” like the Peace Corps and the Alliance for Progress. He saw “development” as a “war on subsistence,” replacing, as David Cayley says, “a tolerable absence of goods with a much more painful condition which he named ‘modernized poverty.’” Development, perhaps contrary to its intention, cultivates a culture and an ethic of consumption in “underdeveloped” peoples, such that they become entirely dependent upon costly services provided by global institutions. When development programs are “successful,” they succeed in cultivating needs that outstrip the institutions’ capacity to provide these services. “Underdeveloped” countries thus find themselves in greater need but with fewer indigenous resources. Illich’s crusade against global development programs led to the establishment of the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC), and this, in turn, led to considerable tensions between him and Rome, to the point that he voluntarily stepped away from his title and role as a Catholic priest. He remained a man of deep Catholic faith, but he was careful to respect the terms of his departure, devoting himself entirely to his work in sociology and history.
Deschooling Society (1971) was the first book that brought Illich to the attention of the public. In it, Illich studies educational systems as ritual forms whose major effect was to “make people believe in the necessity and goodness of what they were supposed to achieve.” Although universal education is held to be a great democratic equalizer, Illich found that schooling functions rather as a system of privileging those few who make it through the full fourfold cycle of schooling (elementary, high school, college, and graduate/professional). The schooling system, once universally established, therefore holds a “‘radical monopoly’ insofar as it is the only way to gain employment and social standing.” Illich argues not for the end of schooling or education as such, but rather for the end of this monopoly. Managing the school system should not be the only means of access to good work.
In his other better-known work, Medical Nemesis (1974), Illich traced a similar history. The institutionalization and professionalization of medicine has fundamentally altered our understanding of health, illness, life, and death. He began the book with his typical iconoclastic flair: “The medical establishment has become a major threat to health.” He then explores how the medical profession makes itself the arbiter and manager of health and illness and thereby undermines the patient’s own resources for healing, suffering, and dying well. Indeed, this institutionalization has made the very notion of “dying well” seem odd. We live in a situation of “cultural iatrogenesis” which “sets in when the medical enterprise saps the will of people to suffer their reality.” Thirty-five years later, Illich’s argument has the ring of many of our current medical reform movements, from alternative and holistic medicine to hospice care. Modern medicine is founded upon the principled refusal of the limits pain, suffering, and death, and so has altered deeply and fundamentally our sense of life. If such observations sound to us now rather common, we may still be struck with awe and perhaps confusion at Illich’s willingness to practice what he preached. Although he did not by any means foreswear medical treatment completely, he lived with a tumor that developed on the side of his face and jaw in the late 1970s until his death in 2002. In his last decade, the tumor was as large as a grapefruit, causing him pain and discomfort in his jaw, affecting his hearing and his sleep. But, despite the urging of friends and physicians (One surgeon sitting next to him on an airplane began to palpate the tumor without asking permission!), he determined that it was his cross to bear.
I first discovered Illich as a graduate student writing a dissertation on the history of biblical interpretation. Innocent of any of his earlier work, I found my way to him through his last book, a study of a less well-known but brilliant figure of the 12th century. Illich had nurtured a life-long love and study of several medieval figures, with the canon Hugh of St. Victor foremost. He always referred to Hugh as his teacher, in the same breath with more contemporary figures like Erich Fromm and Gerhart Ladner. When the Sturm and Drang of his popular social criticism had passed, Illich began to study the development of knowledge itself. He co-wrote a book on the development of the alphabet, and, ten years before his death, he wrote In the Vineyard of the Text: A Commentary to Hugh’s Didiscalion (1993). The book examines Hugh as a figure perched on the cusp of a new era in which scholasticism develops as a technology for the organization of information. In Hugh, we can see the beginnings of a transformation of the relationship between text and reader, and so a transformation in our perception of knowledge itself. The book is remarkable for its combination of close and careful textual reading and measured but substantial claims about the larger issues of technology and knowledge, a model of careful historical study with an eye to present concerns. Above all I grew to appreciate Illich’s even-handedness: He matched a certain sadness for the era of “monastic reading” that was passing away with an even-tempered assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the technological era that had just begun in Hugh’s time. Illich possessed a tragic sensibility that was far more subtle than most declension narratives. He was a critic of modernity, to be sure, but he refused the cheap consolations of wholesale ideological condemnations.
This tragic sense is found in his broader assessment of modernity as such. While he did not shy away from his bold claim that modernity is the corruption of Christianity (he often quoted the Latin adage, corruptio optimi pessima, “the corruption of the best is the worst”), even here he admitted to a kind of ambivalence. “It is part of this hypothesis,” he tells Cayley, “that the Church’s attempt to give this worldly power, social visibility, and permanence to the performance of Christian charity, is not un-Christian. As I understand the Gospels, … it is part of the kenosis, the humiliation, the condescension of God in becoming man and founding or generating the mystical body which the Church understands itself to be, that this mystical body would itself be something ambiguous. It would be, on the one hand, a source of continued Christian life, through which individuals acting alone and together would be able to live the life of faith and charity, and, on the other hand, a source of the perversion of this life through institutionalization, which makes charity worldly and true faith obligatory.” Illich’s analysis leaves us suspended between beauty and abasement, between perfection and perversion, hoping for gratuity in a world that has grown “immune to grace.” We are left on the tragic horns of a dilemma which only God in his mercy can redeem.
In the meantime, he thought, we can try to learn to live, to suffer, to die well, all this and more through the careful pursuit of disciplines of gratuity. When David Cayley asks despairingly, “So how can one live gratuitously in a world like this?” Illich responds, “Friends, friends… gratuity, just so, for the fun of it, for your sake…” But to live gratuitously requires a new asceticism, the practice of virtues – “repeated acts of faith, hope, and love which slowly create in you, psycho-physically, an ease in performing them.” In this way, we can resist or expose the great lies of massive institutionalization, even if we cannot escape them completely. Instead, we cultivate friendships around their margins, confident, he says, “that things which are finally important must be capable of being shared with others whom I love first and then want to talk to.” Even in the midst of his withering analysis of modernity as corruption, then, there is room for hope.
Illich’s penchant for hospitality was legendary, always with a table, a generous supply of red wine (which he convinced the IRS to let him write off as a business expense), and a lit candle, since “our conversations should always go on with the certainty that there is somebody else who will knock at the door, and the candle stands for him or her.” Having discovered most of his work after his death, I am fortunate that Ivan Illich has knocked on my door. I wouldn’t say that I always agree with his view of things, but I am always challenged to think differently after reading him, and I know he still has much to teach me. Long may he live.