Ivan Illich on what’s wrong with the world

Ivan Illich (1926-2002) was a Catholic priest and philosopher famous in the 1970s for his criticisms of modern institutions, including compulsory education. modern medicine and most technology.

I read his Tools for Conviviality when it first came out in 1973.  He thought technology should be limited to what he called tools—devices such as sewing machines (my example, not his) that served the needs of households, rather than textile machinery in factories, to which human beings had to adapt themselves’  I thought his ideas interesting but impractical.

Now it seems that our high-tech civilization may not be sustainable, due to global warming, exhaustion of natural resources, and the fragility of complex supply chains, not to mention war and revolution.  So maybe Maybe Illich’s ideas are worth a second look.

On the recommendation of e-mail pen pals, I recently read THE RIVERS NORTH OF THE FUTURE: The Testament of Ivan Illich as told to David Cayley.  It contains a short biography of Illich and a series of interviews by Cayley, a writer and broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., in 1997 and 1999.

This is deep stuff, and I don’t think I fully understand it.  What follows is what I got out of the book, not a summary of what’s in the book.

Illich’s contention was that the modern world is a product of the corruption of Christianity.  The basic ideas of secular liberalism, such as the equal dignity and worth of all persons and the duty of the strong to protect the weak, originated in Christianity, but have become distorted by being torn from their Christian context.

Jesus taught that the two great commandments were to love God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbor as yourself, Illich wrote.  To illustrate what he meant, he told the story of the Good Samaritan.

A member of a despised group, like a Palestinian Arab in Israel today, helped a stranger, a Jew, who had been beaten, robbed and left by the roadside.  Nobody would have said that the Samaritan was obligated to help. Two high-status members of the Jew’s own community had passed by on the other side.  But the stranger acted as his neighbor.

It was the custom among early Christians to set extra place at the table in case a hungry stranger came by in need of food and shelter.  The stranger could be Jesus–who showed us that God in the form of human flesh. 

Over time Christian villagers set aside separate buildings for the poor.  And then the church came to set rules about giving, such as tithing.  And now we have the modern, impersonal welfare bureaucracy.

So charity has become a matter of following rules and helping organizations.  There are individuals who would do what the Good Samaritan in the parable did, but they are rare and generally regarded as eccentric.

Illich said the corruption of Christianity was in the “criminalization of sin.”  Sin is a breaking of the relationship between a human and God, including the image of God manifested in another human being, he wrote.  But the church came to define sin as a breaking of certain rules.

But given human nature as it is, what would you expect?

Jesus told the people that Moses gave them laws “because of your hardness of heart”—meaning they were not capable of being guided by the law of love.  But are people today any different from what they were 2000 years ago?

Consider what Jesus expected of his Apostles.  Quit your job.  Leave your family.  Give away all your possessions to the poor. Don’t plan for the future; God will take care of you.

Love God with all your heart, mind and soul and your neighbor as yourself.  Love even your enemies.  Criticize yourself, not other people.  And if you pretty much do all these things, don’t pat yourself on the back.  Any repentant sinner is just as good as you are.

It is really something that the first generations of Christians were actually able to live at that level of intensity.

It’s not surprising to me that later generations developed a dialed-down version that ordinary people, even people as weak and selfish as I am, could accept.  Even so, in every century, there was a St Francis of Assisi or Dorothy Day who tried to live out the original teaching/

Illich led an interesting life.  Born in Croatia, he was educated in Rome and Salzburg, became a Catholic priest and seemed destined for a brilliant career as a theologian.  He became acquainted with the Puerto Rican community in New York while on a visit there in 1952, and received permission to serve as parish priest there.

Four years later he became rector of Catholic University in Puerto Rico, while serving a small village far from the university as a priest.

He was an adviser to Cardinal Seunens during the Second Vatican Council, but withdrew when he learned that the council planned to condemn condoms as unnatural, but say nothing about nuclear weapons.

Illich  founded the Center for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in 1961.  It was set up to train North American missionary priests for service in Mexico.  He thought the U.S. church had a hidden agenda to impose North American cultural values on Latin Americans

Ivan Illich

He taught that typical Latin American villagers had a better grasp on what life is all about than typical U.S. suburbanites and that their culture should be respected.  He also had a low opinion of President Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress. —“the alliance for middle-class progress,” as he called it.

The church in 1969 forbid any priest, monk or nun to visit the center, and Illich closed it in 1976.  He was charged with heresy.  He never answered the charges and never was excommunicated or unfrocked, but he stopped performing the functions of a priest.

After that he earned his living as a writer and college lecturer.   He was briely famous in theb 1970s for best-selling books such as Tools for Conviviality (the only one I read), Deschooling Society, and Medical Nemesis.

His criticism of modern life was like his criticism of modern religion—that it replaced human relationships with impersonal systems that promised too much and delivered too little.

He thought that medicine’s goal of eliminating suffering and indefinitely prolonging life is both an impossible goal and a false goal. 

It is good to comfort the sick and help them when you can.  But suffering and death are inescapable facts of human life.  Denying this fact leaves you unprepared when suffering and death come.  Better to learn how to live and die with dignity.

He himself died of untreated cancer of the jaw, which he endured for many years.

Click to enlarge

When I think of Illich’s book on tools and technology, I think of my father.  He grew up poor, on a farm.  During most of his work life, he was a civil servant for the state of Maryland.  But he knew how to hunt, fish, garden, do carpentry work, do farm work, play poker and carry on a conversation with anyone in any walk of life.

He would have been happy to teach me any of these things, but instead I chose to go through life with my nose in a book, figuratively speaking.  I was able to do this because I am sustained by systems I do not understand and have no control over, and which are maintained by people I don’t know, many of them less well off than I am—not to mention cut hair, sell vacuum cleaners from door to door and supervise others.

It is very possible that the complex systems will break down.  When and if they do, people like my father will be needed.  Yet the whole tendency of society is to make people dependent on fragile and mysterious systems.

When I read about Illich’s thoughts on schooling, I think of my nephew.  His parents thought he should go to college, but he was not someone who could absorb information through classroom instruction and assigned reading.  Eventually he joined the Navy, in which learning is hands-on.  He flourished there.  A sonar techician, he has conducted briefings for high-ranking officers and supervised others.

There are many ways to learn.  Illich asked why people are forced to learn in just one way and branded as failures when they don’t. 

But I have to say I’m not sure I understand Illich or have communicated well the little I do understand.  His wide learning and deep piety are beyond me. 

I am a product of modernity and I don’t want to give it up or see it go away.  Mexican villagers and my own pioneer ancestors knew how to fend for themselves.  I don’t.  I’m glad I don’t have to live their hard lives.

But maybe that won’t be a choice.  Illich advocates a kind of voluntary simplicity.  By all indications, my society is headed for an era of involuntary simplicity.

I recommend the linked articles.  Maybe I should have just skipped these notes and just provided the links.


An invitation to Ivan Illich by Marilyn Snell for Utne magazine.

Against Everything: On Ivan Illich, scourge of the professions by George Scialabba for The Baffler.

Pregnant With an Evil by Marcus Rempel for Anabaptist Witness.

Questions About the Current Pandemic From the Point of View of Ivan Illich by David Cayley.


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