The written review below reflects mostly on the “medium” of this book on Ivan Ilich, and its author, David Cayley, and it has only a rudimentary sketch as to the contents of the volume. David Caley, however, kindly agreed to a recorded discussion with me about more of the content of his book and Illich’s thought, and I am very grateful to him for doing so.

Piffard, NY. G. K. Chesterton observed in his time that because people were increasingly believing themselves unshackled from sin and superstition the dynamic power of forgiveness was being replaced, and even hidden, by a rather bland form of “tolerance”: After all, he writes, “[T]here isn’t anything to be forgiven.” In a similar way Christopher Lasch noted that the daring power hope was being replaced by the unctuous cultivation of consoling optimism as he also tracked the corrupting ascendancy of nostalgia (which can blanket us with strong feelings while we try to navigate a seemingly soulless world, and is so tempting for that reason) over the fructifying, living power of memory. Look around and you can see that we inhabit a world where many of the great and ennobling virtues and practices have been subtly corrupted: Individualism (the idea of ‘being different’) masks personality (being who you are). Crowds and political tribes mask community. Unbridled license masks freedom, and power masks authority, and this, increasingly, in an “in your face,” and pretty brutal kind of way. “Sweetest things turn sourest by their deeds” wrote William Shakespeare, and, “Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds.”

How true!

Historian and cultural critic Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was born with a large, aristocratic nose gifted for sniffing out festering lilies and rejoicing in vernacular, but sweet-smelling, weeds. (“A flower grows through a stone and breaks the stone. Is that violence?” he once wrote.) Illich noted this process (corruptio optimi pessima or “the worst is the corruption of the best”) pretty early in his career. In one specific example, and in connection with his work with community organizer John L. McKnight, he observed that there was a similar and very concerning development going on in the West with the virtue and the ethic of “care,” and even (and most importantly) in the Church. A certain, increasingly tyrannical, form of “care,” he perceived, was in the ascendant: It had transmogrified from the embodied practice of people in living in community to a type of deliverable that could be easily packaged and commodified and, therefore, designed and managed by institutions. This development was also juiced through its tendency to draw power to those who claimed authority to define it and deploy it, the professions, (a big story for Illich), while often, and, paradoxically, disabling those that had to suffer these ministrations.

Tracing the history of this pattern of corruption, Illich found through years of study that it stood, centrally, if, albeit, somewhat hidden until our time, in a long tradition that went back quite far in the West and had its origins in the Church. His sense for origins led him to St. John Crysostom (347-404) and his early premonition and admonition regarding this (“Inevitable?” We’ll come to that!) process: “Be careful of building hospitals, as you will lose the virtue of hospitality.” And not too long after, when the Catholic priesthood merged with the role of the “pastor” around the year 800, he saw in this new métier the origins of what he called the first “disabling profession.” Developments along this line continued, and Illich observed in his own lifetime the worrying growth of the modern, rationed, and professionally managed, ethic of “care.” Illich saw the caring “professions” as a corrupt and masked form of love (as Illich’s friend Erich Fromm was also diagnosing at the same time in a different way, and under a different light). We might say, at this modern stage, and quite worryingly, even ‘salt was losing its flavor.’

Could it get any worse? Could this narcissistic hall of mirrors close in any more? Well, theoretically, you have to be “alive” before you can love. And, as if on cue, in a unfolding that could only be described as apocalyptic (“Apocalypse” being a chapter title in Cayley’s book), Ilich saw how “Life,” that “personal aliveness” mixed with beauty, peace, and joy that Jesus came to bestow more abundantly, was also in the process of corruption through being reduced and resolved and transformed into a “substantive,” DNA-associated something which can ‘flat-line’ on a hospital monitor; that thing Governor Cuomo said of which to lose even one of (“a life”), to Covid, was too much. And this new imposter (which Illich claimed was the most powerful idol the Church has ever faced in its history) was substituting itself for the Life of which Jesus and the West had spoken of for millennia, even, and again, inside the Church. This substitution, furthermore, was replete with the attendant commodification, rationing, scarcity, and technocratic control that characterized all the other corruptions. An abomination of desolation was standing in the holy place.

Canadian author and broadcaster, David Cayley, who conducted two lengthy radio interviews-turned-books with Illich (in 1988 and 2000) and had a decades-long friendship with him, has written a gripping and unconventional biography of this deeply unconventional man. His work gives us the concepts and the history and the sources to follow the narrative described above, as well as understand many other historical analyses and social critiques that reveal to us Illich the man and his perception of the world in which we live. This is the first major treatment of Illich’s full corpus, which Cayley refers to as a written “continuing (of) the conversation.”

Before delving into some of the choice bits of this conversation, there are two aspects of its publication that are crucial and need to be named as, absent these two features, Illich’s whole legacy could be subject to misunderstanding and misdirection. The first feature is the gratitude the reading public should feel for the fact that this biography was written by a friend of Illich. Illich himself repeatedly claimed that after the Incarnation (which was the raison d’etre of all the great prophets’ prophecy) the role of prophecy has been superseded by that of friendship. This is a subtle, central, and revelatory theme of so many of his writings, so we might attempt a summation and say that, the Incarnation having taken place (Yeah, that guy at that place and that time, for the whole world), it is kept alive, spread, and kept manifesting and working through the medium, practice, and celebration of friendship (“Where two or three are gathered . . .”). “From that moment on,” Cayley quotes Illich as saying regarding the Incarnation, “any prophetic act or word is not only a hope but faith in the carnal presence of God.” Illich’s whole teaching style and subject were ultimately meant to resolve themselves into fellowship meals and conversation amongst friends, and, Cayley tells us, they almost always did in practice (and always with a candle lit for the possibility of the visitor at the door, the surprise, the new, the hoped-for: Christ).

Harnessing Illich’s seminal and always-illuminating ideas to a grand political project to shape the future in some newly envisioned mold, therefore, would not have been in keeping with the style and substance of the man himself. Such, however, is our addiction to the future drug, and to planning (a war on surprise and risk), that his thought is frequently appropriated for such crusades and this despite Illich’s own repeated claim that his work was “proscriptive” and not “prescriptive.” Even regarding the subject of one of his most famous books, Deschooling Society (1971), Cayley makes clear that Illich was not engaged in engineering a blueprint for a massive social project to create a society without schools. He was, instead, humorously calling for the disestablishment of schools (a another form of institutionalized religion and church, in Illich’s eyes) in the same way that society had disestablished the state churches of the religions we had all already come to recognize. Seems totally sane, and quite freeing, and pointing out the anarchic freedom to “pick up your mat and walk” is very different from engineering this new freedom into a new structure and making it mandatory. If we read him as a man with a plan (he actually referred to “planning,” quoting Jacques Maritain, as “the new sin of pride”), as forthcoming books about him are inevitably bound to do, it will be to completely misunderstand him and, as they say, “That’s on us.” Cayley’s work, however, stands for us as an obstacle and a warning against that possible willful misunderstanding prior to the publication of more and more books about Illich, which will certainly happen since his prescient thought gains more relevance with each passing year. The Italian philosopher Giorgo Agamben, who recently wrote a foreword to an Italian translation of Illich’s book Gender, is just one who has noticed that Illich has reached his “hour of legibility.” Will his thought be colonized by new, progressive, technocratic schemes that will end up being a subtle more-of-the-same tyranny that Illich hoped to help us avoid? It’s quite possible, but let’s hope not. And if it doesn’t, David Cayley’s promotion and elucidation of Illich’s testament will have a lot to do with keeping Illich from that fate.

The second crucial, grounding aspect of Cayley’s publication is “like unto the first”; Namely, he shows the centrality, within Illich’s thought, of something that is bound over time to be marginalized and then, possibly, excluded completely, which is the axial nature of Christ’s incarnation and the Church (for good and for ill!) in understanding the modern history of the West. Asked in a recent interview about Illich, the COVID crisis and the medical establishment, specifically as regards the difference between Illich’s understandings of modern biopolitics and those of Michel Foucault which, at first glance, do look similar (the two men knew each other), Cayley said, simply, “Illich believed in the Incarnation.” (As an aside, and speaking of biopolitics, Cayley, using Illich’s work, has authored at his blog the two most insightful analyses of politics during COVID written so far anywhere.)

Insert faith in the Incarnation and what seems like a similar worldview in many respects leads to vastly different understandings, atmospheres, and even futures. The always-insightful George Scialabba, for example, in a 2017 review of Illich’s work in The Baffler, (therefore, well after the publication of Cayley and Illich’s conversation in The Rivers North of the Future, which laid out the very schema that Cayley further explicates in this biography), also looked at the similarities and differences between Illich and Foucault, and his summary of Illich is an example of what I am talking about: “Unlike Foucault, who sometimes seemed to take a grim satisfaction in demonstrating how cunningly we were imprisoned in our language and institutions, Illich was an unashamed humanist.” This is good and true, as far as it goes, and Cayley points out the differences at that level, as well, noting, for example, Illich’s view of “man” stated thusly: “I just cannot shed the certainty that the norms with which we ought to live correspond to our insight into what we are.” In contrast, Foucault exclaims, “man is an invention of recent date” and is soon to be “erased like a face drawn at the edge of the sea”.

As dramatic as this contrast is at this level of understanding, however, we still cannot grasp the difference between Illich and Foucault while ignoring the Lion of Judah in the room. In not putting Illich’s statements on “man” in the larger context of Illich’s own and deeply considered view of the historical shape of the West (or in the microcosmic shape of Illich’s own life, easily found in his writings), Scialabba’s mode of analysis confuses more than it illuminates. “Humanist” captures something, but it ignores the centrality of the ideas of “surprise,” God’s creativity, “gift,” “gratuity,” the “unplanned,” something new in the world, and something arriving from the future (as well as the “anti-Christic” shadow of all of these) in the thought of Illich. Whether we like the question ourselves or not, or whether we think it a little intellectually uncouth and embarrassing, “What ye think of Christ?” was a question central to Illich’s thinking.

In the work and legacy of Rudolf Steiner (friend of Illich’s family and a kindred spirit of sorts), we see an example of how the Christocentrism of the man himself and of his thought can be nearly eclipsed, with the very best of intentions, by many his followers and interpreters. When reading a number of modern references to Illich by people who appreciate Illich’s intelligence and insight in pointing out and predicting the totalizing nature of modern technology and institutions, one is wont to join in the lament of the women at the tomb of Jesus in John 20:13, “They have taken away my Lord’s body. And I don’t know where they have put him.” Illich’s critiques of modern institutions (schools, hospitals, transportation, tools/technologies), which evolved over time, all rely on his ever-developing understanding of the historical working out of the Incarnation. He saw the Roman church as (again, for better and for worse) the very matrix of Western Civilization, and he saw modernity, with all of its disabling professions and sciences and institutions, as an extension of church history.

If you don’t want to hear that, you’re not alone. In fact, there is a lot of evidence that the official church didn’t (and doesn’t) want to hear that either, as it, too, stood exposed before Illich’s blistering critique. One particular example of Illich’s seems to mirror the incomprehension which Giorgo Agamben experienced when talking about the subject of “messianic time” in front of the Archbishop of Paris and other church dignitaries at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris in 2009. I am thinking of the time when Illich was offered a chance to make himself understood to Church leaders though the kindness of Governor Jerry Brown in California, who invited the local Bishop and friends to hear Illich talk on corruptio optimi pessima and the corruption undergone by the Gospel in the Church through its transformation from “personal act to planned services.” Cayley reports Brown as saying,

He (Illich) tried one subject, then another, and the bishop and his clerical assistant seemed nonplussed, even uncomfortable. Soon the conversation was over and our guests excused themselves and left. I am sure they were wondering what in the world Illich was getting at!

Two lines traveling together on a journey which look parallel at the beginning of their sally can be found in completely different terrain after some time, if one is only just a little bit skewed. The trajectory of the “corruption” Illich traces is a little bit more subtle than that, but the point about history eventually revealing something that was hard to perceive at its origins works to help make plausible the case that Illich was assembling in our time: Namely, that a couple of thousand years after the Incarnation, it is possible to study historically, and to take into account its effects, in ways still unfolding, of course, but also in ways not fully clear to earlier historians. Christopher Dawson called history the “liberating science” and Illich makes this claim real. In keeping with this, and using the centrality of the idea of “limits,” Cayley cites Illich as making the case that the Gospel has actually become practical, and even provable, in our time:

For the first time in history, and I give you only one of the Beatitudes as an example, one will be able to give scientific proof that ‘blessed are the poor’ who voluntarily set community limits to what shall be enough and therefore good enough for our society”. He implies in offering ‘only one’ that other Beatitudes had become equally susceptible of scientific proof, that the hour has also struck for the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure in heart, and so forth.

Cayley, in the conclusion, revinvokes this theme:

He recognized that the walls to the airtight compartments to which Bruno Latour’s “modern constitution” had assigned religion were collapsing and that a radical “secularization” was overtaking the Church. He anticipated the birth of a “post-religious” church prepared to return to the mountainsides, marketplaces, and dining rooms in which the Gospel was first proclaimed–its truth shared simply as truth and not as some set-apart religious truth.

And again:

He understood the Gospel primarily as an invitation to live in freedom rather than to invent law, bureaucracy, and pastoral edification on the previously unimagined scale. And he understood this invitation as self-limiting, inasmuch as it proposed neither a norm nor a duty nor an institutional imperative but a call to a new and very demanding type of relationship.

Cayley, himself, singles out “power of example” and “complementarity” as two main concepts under which Illich’s thought can come into clearer focus. I have focused here mostly on the first, and the attached video discussion focuses mostly on the second. In connection with “the power of example,” I have attempted to highlight the paradox by which Illich’s own thinking (a “gift”) can be corrupted and commodified in the same pattern (by turning it into a “plan”) that he spent his life exposing as it played and plays out in the Church and other institutions, to the great detriment of mutual aid, the gift, and the unplanned and ungoverned. It is such corruption that is leading us to the brink of apocalyptic, biopolitical hellscape. And an increasing “awareness” (key word) of “complementarity”–explored in greatest depth in his most controversial and, to me, important book Gender, which Cayley refers to as “more or less stricken from the intellectual record” (capitalism, for example, Illich sees as that economic system which results from an erasure of gender)–might therefore be seen, not as a formal plan, but as the musical theme of an ascent out of this barren wasteland. Such a theme might constitute, as in many symphonies, a return with a difference.

Included in Cayley’s study of Illich and complementarity are reflections on what Illich summed up as “the delusion about science,” “the vernacular,” “two types of duality,” (one shaped “in the depths of consciousness” which involves “absolute difference” and the other as “something generated within a unified field,” or variations on a single theme), “the age of systems” as well as many other enlightening topics. All these build on insights Illich was working out in famous books such as Limits to Medicine and Tools for Conviviality and the aforementioned Deschooling Society.

Insofar as Cayley distilled his expansive analysis down to two main themes and Illich, himself, resolved his teaching into fellowship meals with his students and friends accompanied by wine, enough food, and a lit candle for the unplanned guest who might show up at the door, it seems to me that both of these can be further united under the sacrament of friendship lived in the human scale:

[F]aith is recognition of the carnal presence of God, friendship is the true practice of faith. . . . It takes place in the “fearlessness” that is part of the new Christian condition. . . . In friendship are combined the new freedom and the new obligation that Illich believes were disclosed in the Incarnation. . . . This new freedom takes us outside of all prescription–who the friend will be takes us outside of all categories, class, or culture.

In Illich’s own words, “friendship suffices,” and if he can indeed be said to have had a plan, it was to simply “remove, by little acts of renunciation, anything that stood in its way.” Quite beautiful.

Jean-Marie Domenach, French intellectual and left-wing Catholic, in the introduction to this wonderful 1972 video interview with Illich, described him as follows: “Lover of mankind and Gods, perpetual traveller in search of justice and life. Like the crystals he also studied, his speech is made up of geometric, angular fragments in which history, philosophy, and science blossom in seeming disarray before taking shape as star-like ideas.” Cayley himself says of Illich’s writing that it “sparkles.” What one fundamentally comes away thinking as a result of reading this “intellectual journey” is that, with his own love of the Goddess and his confessed “mariolotry,” Illich is something of a St. Michael figure doing battle against the dragon of oversized institutions and corrupt facsimiles of life on behalf of Lady Wisdom, helping her “enter souls and shaping them into friends of God and prophets” (Wis. 7:27).

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  1. Thanks for this review. I’m really glad to see more and more attention to Illich’s thought (and I share the worries you raise about how it might be interpreted against its own grain). After 2020, I can’t think of any writer more important.

    Cayley’s two essays are the best thing anyone has written on the pandemic so far. I just taught both of them in one of my classes: extremely clarifying stuff.



  2. Illich has long been on my list. This piece prompts me to move him up in the queue. And to commenter Adam: Thanks for the article recommendation. That first piece, is, hands-down, the best thing I’ve ever read, on the pandemic-as-cultural/political- phenomenon.


  3. Thank you for the great article. I’ve been growing in my appreciation of Illich over the past year. I wanted to ask about the reference for the quote from John Crysostom, “Be careful of building hospitals, as you will lose the virtue of hospitality.” I’ve had trouble finding it elsewhere. And it’s interesting that it seems he opened several “hospitals” during his time in Constantinople, etc. Perhaps he was all too aware of the trappings of the hospital? Thank you again for your work here.



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