Sunday, July 13, 2008

Small is Beautiful, and So Is Rome

by Charles Fager

What does it mean that E. F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered (Harper & Row, 1973), has caught on so strongly, especially among people who are exploring “alternatives” of various sorts -- economic, political, spiritual? Originally published in England, the volume has now sold more than a million copies worldwide. Is its best-selling status another sign of decay in the old establishment world view, and further evidence of growing efforts to transcend that world view through a new consciousness, replace it with a new life style, and outlive it in a New Age?

Well, maybe. Those who think so include people who have compiled records of intelligent and dedicated radicalism going back a decade or more. But then again, other people have seen the book as representing something very different. One of them is E. F. Schumacher himself. As he puts it with unusual bluntness, “All this lyrical stuff about entering the Aquarian Age and reaching a new level of consciousness and taking the next step in evolution is nonsense. Much of it is a sort of delusion of grandeur, the kind of thing you hear from people in the loony bin. What I’m struggling to do is to help recapture something our ancestors had. If we can just regain the consciousness the West had before the Cartesian Revolution, which I call the Second Fall of Man, then we’ll be getting somewhere.”

Putting the ‘Inner House’ in Order

I talked with Schumacher recently when he passed through the San Francisco Bay area on a nationwide tour. While in the area he dropped in on one of his biggest local fans, California Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. for a private dinner, then for two days sat in on a big conference on Small Is Beautiful held by the extension department of the University of California at Davis.

Reporters thronged his press conferences, underlining his underground superstar status. During his U.S. visit he was hosted by five governors and a lieutenant governor, a passel of universities and social-change groups, and -- with fine ecumenical sense -- the heads of several large corporations. My conversation with him came in bits and pieces between lectures, local tours, speech preparations and fugitive efforts to catch a little sleep.

Most of his talks and the bulk of the questions he fielded had to do with the unorthodox economic proposals set forth in his book and his other writings: the idea, above all, of an “intermediate technology” appropriate in scale and cost to the needs and conditions of the people using it -- neither too large nor too small. But most of his specific suggestions seemed secondary to what came through as the primary message of Small Is Beautiful -- a message so skillfully delivered that it has been absorbed by his audiences apparently without being noticed. What is the message? Nothing less than a passionate plea for the rediscovery of old-time Western religion -- Roman Catholic religion, to be precise.

That’s right: E. F. Schumacher is really an apologetical preacher, one of the rare breed whose experience has made it possible for him to employ effectively the language and concepts of economics as a medium for communicating what is essentially a sermon, a call for readers to repent, believe the gospel and reorder their lives accordingly.

Schumacher himself insists that it is this “metaeconomic” foundation of his argument that is most important, rather than the specifics of, say, his attacks on nuclear power or the use of chemicals in agriculture. “Everywhere people ask,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph, “What can I actually do?” The answer is as simple as it is disconcerting: we can, each of us, work to put our own inner house in order.”

The key word here is “inner.” Skim over it, and one can easily imagine that, like some Earth Day orator, he’s only saying, “Ecology begins at home,” with recycling your bottles and flattening tin cans. He recommends these things, to be sure, but they aren’t the point.

The Anti-Christian Trauma

This “inner” part was what I wanted to talk to him about. He readily owned up to being a Catholic, a certified convert as of five years ago. This item is not mentioned in his book; in fact, one of the most frequently cited chapters, “Buddhist Economics,” almost made it appear as if he were deeply involved in Eastern religions. But wasn’t this chapter, I inquired, really more informed by the Catholic writings and thinkers he mentioned so frequently elsewhere in the book -- the papal encyclicals, Newman, Gilson and, above all, Thomas Aquinas?

Schumacher grinned. “Of course. But if I had called the chapter ‘Christian Economics,’ nobody would have paid any attention!”

This is not to say that the reference to Buddhism was a sham; he is firmly convinced that the basic elements of a common religious outlook are to be found in all the world’s major religions. But it was done artfully, to help get his message across. “You see, most people in the West are suffering from what I call an anti-Christian trauma,” he explained, “and I don’t blame them. I went through that for 20 years myself.”

Paradoxically, it was Buddhism that opened the door to Schumacher’s return to Western religion, so his use of Buddhist concepts, besides being shrewd, is authentically based in his experience. “I was raised in Germany in the atmosphere of scientific materialism,” he explained, “though with a veneer of Christianity -- Lutheranism. But after I went to the university, I reacted very strongly, like many young people, against veneers of religion and culture, and that was the beginning of my own version of the anti-Christian trauma. There’s much truth to that reaction too, of course, because the churches have become associated with so much that’s wrong about our culture.”

But this scientific materialism was hardly a satisfactory alternative world view for a sensitive soul. “These attitudes,” said Schumacher, “all left the taste of ashes in my mouth,” and it wasn’t long before he was searching for some better view of life.

Overcoming Egocentricity

Then about 1950, he said, he stumbled across a book about Buddhism. “My eyes had been firmly closed to truth,” he said, “but Buddhism opened them. As I read the book I kept saying, ‘This is what I’ve been looking for!’ And I wanted to learn all I could about it. As part of this study I became an economic adviser to the government of Burma, a Buddhist country.” Schumacher was then chiefly occupied as the head economist for the British National Coal Board, one of the largest industrial enterprises in Europe.

Another part of his exploration of Eastern religion included reading Gandhi. He was impressed by the Mahatma’s reported advice to his Christian friends from the West. As far as religion was concerned, Gandhi insisted, “Stay at home! Stay at home!”

These words echoed in Schumacher’s mind. “One thing I realized was that I was no different from anyone else in my society, really. And in my own view it is a very important part of a person s spiritual development to overcome his own egocentricity, his pride. And if I were to go around England passing myself off as a Buddhist, then I would also be thinking that everyone else around me was stupid, because they’d all got the wrong religion. They’re all unenlightened, while I’m the one who has the truth. And there are many people in the West these days going around acting like quasi-Orientals, with dreadful results.

“Of course, there are exceptions to this rule; I know Western people who are quite humbly and genuinely Buddhist. But in my case Gandhi was right; such an attitude would only signify a slipping back into my own egocentricity. And besides, I was quite sure that the Lord would not have left all the Christians without any truth in their tradition. This was all part of the process of overcoming my own anti-Christian trauma.

At Home in Catholicism

Once over this hump, Schumacher began exploring the styles and beliefs of the churches around him. “I found that in England almost any old nonsense was being written and passed off as Christianity, even by bishops. And so I finally decided that the Catholic tradition was the one where I felt most at home, and where the essentials of Christianity were best preserved.”

But why join a church at all, I wondered. If the central elements of various religions have so much in common, if they form what Schumacher calls the philosophia perennis, why did he feel obliged to settle for a single, necessarily limited institutional expression of it?

Schumacher leaned back in his chair, allowed that it was a good question, and took his time before answering. “All I can say,” he admitted finally, “is that I did it out of deep consciousness of my own weakness, my unreliability, my need for ‘crutches,’ for a framework. In these circumstances, to go it alone was simply not a good idea for me.

“In this way too, I heard echoes of what Gandhi said: ‘Stay at home! If everybody else around who is a Christian has a need for a church, am I really so different and better that I don’t? No. And in fact I get a great deal out of the church. The ritual, for instance, is extremely intelligent, in the fullest sense, so it is a great help. And finally, I am a family man [Schumacher at 66 has eight children, the youngest a son two years old], and even if I could sustain a free-floating spirituality, which I can’t, the children surely couldn’t, and it’s important to me that religion be a family affair. The church enables me to have that.”

The Catholic tradition provided Schumacher with more than a personal spiritual haven, however. It also gave him the building blocks for his own economics of human scale and appropriate technology.

“Schumacher is a contemporary voice of what I call social Catholicism,” commented John Coleman, who shared a panel with the Englishman at the Davis Extension Conference. Dr. Coleman is professor of religion and society at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, and he had delivered a paper discussing some of the ethical implications of the approach. “By this I mean the stream of Catholic thought that built on Thomistic principles, as particularly reapplied in the work of Jacques Maritain. Its adherents stressed that human institutions ought to be manageable in size, respectful of the human scale, and sanely run so that they did not damage the people involved in them.”

“These writers,” said Coleman, “also asserted that there were institutions in society outside the government which stood between the individual and the state, and which did not derive their right to exist from the state. In other words, they stood alongside and, if necessary, over against the state. The two institutions usually cited as being of this character were the family and the church itself. Schumacher extends this approach to technology.

“The problem with social Catholicism,” Coleman continued, “is that it has been mainly enunciated rather than acted upon. But in Europe, for instance, most of the Christian Democratic parties have endorsed the idea of workers’ councils as part of management in corporations -- a policy which Schumacher proposed in his book. And in England earlier in this century there was a group of Catholic distributists, headed by G. K. Chesterton, Hillaire Belloc and Eric Gill, who talked of decentralizing industry along lines that in spirit were very much like what you find in Small Is Beautiful.”

Coleman added: “Maritain was very much opposed to the bourgeois capitalism of his time; yet he also could not accept totalitarian socialism. So his work represents among other things an effort to find a ‘middle way’ for Christians. In his work as well as Schumacher’s you find a tension, an almost paradoxical character: they’re ‘conservative revolutionaries’ or ‘reactionary radicals,’ mixing the old and the new with all the risks that involves.”

Schumacher agreed with this catalogue of thinkers as sources for his own outlook. In keeping with their thought, he frequently repeated, in his talks at the Davis Extension Conference, his conviction that the first task of the people in the audience who agreed with him is “to sort out our values and our views of reality, to clear our minds.”

But as he urged them then to get down to more concrete work in support of various efforts of appropriate technology research and development, their comments and questions kept skimming past this first priority to the practical pros and cons, the alleged sins of the oil companies, his attitude toward women’s liberation, the possibility and desirability of violent revolution.

The First Task

Schumacher did not harangue them on the point. But he confirmed for me his strong sense of the priority of what he calls “metaphysical reconstruction.” “That is the first task,” he said, “because without it all these various technological fixes will only add to the confusion. But nowadays, to talk openly about such issues is hardly permitted in polite society.”

This comment reminded me of something else he had said often during the question periods following his lectures: “I’m not a scholar, or even a writer. I’m a practical man: I run things and get them going.” It is, I suspect, part of this practicality that leads him to approach the abstract side of economics -- its metaphysical and religious underpinnings -- through more “practical” (that is, saleable) concepts like Intermediate Technology and Buddhist Economics. Some Catholic apologists have likened this approach to a “slippery slope,” a line of thinking which, once embarked on at any point, would slide the inquirer, imperceptibly but most certainly, down into the expansive lap of Holy Mother Church.

Schumacher had to leave to catch a plane before I could ask him whether that’s what he expected to happen to many of his devoted readers. But it’s a good bet that he does; after all, as he said, he’s no different from the rest of us -- and that’s what happened to him.

Mr. Fager is a free-lance writer who lives in Palo Alto, California. This article appeared in the Christian Century April 6, 1977 p. 325. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.

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