Was Ivan Illich a Romantic?


(Recently I send the Penn State Press a lengthy manuscript of a book about the life and thought of Ivan Illich. Because of its length, I had to cut a number of sections that I wrote after the main body of the text was already complete. They deal with subjects that I felt had been left out or inadequately treated. Aside from occasional blind references to the book from which they have been excised, I think they are well enough able to stand on their own to justify my presenting them here. This is one of those sections.) 


A serious human life, no matter what “religion” is invoked, can hardly begin until we see an element of illusion in what is really there, and something real in fantasies about might be there instead.

-Northrop Frye[1]


In his book on English Romanticism, Northrop Frye says that, “Romanticism…is the first major phase in an imaginative revolution which has carried on until our own day and has by no means completed itself yet.”[2]  English philosopher and critic Owen Barfield says more or less the same thing with his Romanticism Comes of Age.  His title takes his hope for the event, but otherwise agrees with Frye that romanticism remains an unfinished revolution.   Charles Taylor takes a similar view.  He has argued, in many of his writings, that modernity cannot be fairly considered only in the one-sided terms favoured by its critics – individualism, disenchantment, anomie, instrumentalism etc. – but must also be thought of as including its powerful romantic counter-current.[3]  Illich mainly tried to fend off the idea that he was a romantic.  “I am neither a romantic, nor a Luddite, nor a utopian,” he said to me, and a version of this disclaimer is repeated in a number of essays.[4]  But I think he used the word romantic mainly in its colloquial sense of a rose-coloured or gauze-filtered view of things, particularly of the past – the sense in which the opposite of a romantic is a realist – and not in the sense in which Taylor, Barfield and Frye are speaking.   Here I would like to ask whether Illich is a Romantic in this larger sense.  Another way of putting the question is to ask whether Illich sees any good in the modern or whether he conceives it entirely as loss, decline and falling away.   

Several recent writers on Romanticism have said that it is impossible to give a strict definition of the term.  Sometimes it is used as little more than a casual slander.  Novelist Zinovy Zinik, for example, in an essay for the Times Literary Supplement (TLS) recently characterized “the Age or Romanticism” by “its nostalgia for the glorious past, national roots, blood,  soil and rural idyll, accompanied by xenophobia thinly veiled as patriotism.”[5]  Charles Larmore,  in his The Romantic Legacy, says that this name can refer to such disparate phenomena and thought styles as to rule out any exact statement of its scope, but, even so, he goes on, it  does assemble things that bear a certain family resemblance and it does contain “a precious inheritance” that he want to retrieve and conserve.  I can certainly see the difficulty.  I have recently been re-reading Wendell Berry’s long essay “Poetry and Place” in which he excoriates Percy Bysshe Shelley for everything that would seem to be worst in “romanticism”: his vanity, his self-pity, his grandiosity, his vagueness, his glorification of the Satanic, as in Shelley’s famous statement that Satan is the real hero of Milton’s Paradise Lost.[6]  This trouncing of Shelley, and the strong defence of Pope that precedes it, might seem to identify Berry as a “conservative” and “traditionalist” – the very opposite of a romantic.  And yet I’m sure I would have no difficulty in finding critics who think of Berry as an arch-romantic, a writer of rural idylls that virtually define the type.  So can anything be made of a term so elastic? 

I would say yes, insofar as the question of romanticism encodes a crucial question about modernity: is there some greatness in modernity that can be, as Charles Taylor says, retrieved, or is it, by now, a darkness so deep that we can only find our way at all by listening for what George Grant calls our “intimations of deprival?”[7]  Illich can be found, at different times, on both sides of this divide.  There is no doubt that his early work calls for a moderated and reformed modernity.  During the 1960’s he writes of the liberating possibilities in what he calls “secularization,” seeing in what Bonhoeffer calls “a world come of age” the possibility that he will at last be able, with others, “to celebrate my faith for no purpose at all.”[8]  “The development of humanity,” he says in the same essay, “tends towards the realization of the kingdom.”[9]  In Tools for Conviviality, the life within limits that he imagines is an explicitly modern possibility with a crucial role allotted to reformed versions of science, technology and liberal political institutions.   But later he will speak of our world as being “enveloped” in “mysterious darkness” and “demonic night.”[10]  He will identify himself as an “apocalyptic” thinker who thinks that we might be “quite close to the end of the world.”[11]  And he will say that what “determines our epoch” is “a bottomless evil that Hitler and Stalin did not reach.”[12]  In asking whether Illich is a romantic, therefore, I am asking finally for his position on modernity and his position within modernity. 

Let me begin by saying what I think Frye’s “romantic revolution” consists in.  Frye’s paradigm, as his readers will know, is the work of the poet engraver William Blake.  Blake, Frye says simply, “wraps up the whole romantic movement within himself.”   Frye goes on to describe the essence of this movement as the universe turned “upside-down.”[13]  The structure of the antique cosmos, which was mirrored in Christian theology, was top-down.  “Theologically,” Frye says, “there are four levels… 

…There is, first of all, the presence of God, which is associated with metaphors of ‘up there’…Then there is the state that God intended man to live in, that is, the Garden of Eden, the Golden Age, Paradise.  Then there is, third, the fallen world, the world man fell into with the sin of Adam and Eve.  Then there is, fourth, the demonic world, the world below the order of nature.  On that scheme…the destiny of man is to climb out of the fallen world as nearly as he can to the state that was originally designed for him.  He does this under a structure of authority: the sacraments of religion, the practice of morality, education and so forth.” 

In this traditional view, creativity and originality is entirely on the side of God.  Art could only, as Hamlet says, “hold the mirror up to nature.”[14]  (The figure of the mirror is used in M.H. Abrams famous study of Romanticism, The Mirror and the Lamp, where the mirror stands for art as imitation/reflection/mimesis, and the lamp for imaginative creation that shines by its own light.)  Blake and the Romantics, Frye says, turn this world upside down… 

For Blake what happens is that the child, who is the central figure of the Songs of Innocence is born believing that the world is made for his benefit, that the world makes human sense.  He then grows up and discovers that the world isn’t like this at all.  So what happens to his childlike vision?  Blake says it gets driven underground, what we would now call the subconscious.  There you have the embryonic mythical shape that is worked on later by people like Schopenhauer, Marx, and Freud…For Blake, you have to think of God as at the bottom of creation, trying to rebuild it, and as working through man to that effect.  

The uppermost realm, in the tradition scheme, is the realm of quintessence, the pure stuff of which the heavenly bodies are made.   In the new scheme the endless space of the universe is the space of alienation.  “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me,” Blaise Pascal had already written a century before Blake.  God, for Blake, is within – “All gods reside within the human breast” – and below, as can be seen in his “Marriage of Heaven and Hell” where “energy is eternal delight,” “the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction,” and “angels” have something to learn from “devils.”[15] The important thing here is what Frye calls the “embryonic mythical shape” that appears in many Romantics and, for Frye, is summarized or “wrapped up” in Blake.  He uses the term myth for a structure that contains and determines thought – myth not as story but as story shape.  Such structures, says German philosopher Hans Blumenberg, constitute a “horizon of meaning” because “they cannot be dissolved into conceptuality.”  Blumenberg speaks of “absolute metaphors” and Frye of “mythological frameworks,” but I take it that they are talking about the same thing: the container rather than the content of thought.[16]  The basic elements of this new structure, according to Frye/Blake – often indistinguishable as Frye freely acknowledged – are that God is no longer on the side of authority, or of a corresponding “objective” order; that “creation” is an imaginative achievement and not a pre-existing array; and that the imagination is the divine life in us.  “The real Selfhood is the Imagination in the Divine Man,” says Blake.[17]  In other places, he drops the copula altogether and just speaks of “Christ, the Imagination.”  For all the romantics, imagination was the faculty through which the world exists for us; for Blake it was also the world’s redemption.  “When the sun rises,” Blake supposes himself being asked, “do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guineau [a golden coin]?”  “Oh, no, no,” he answers, “I see an innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.  I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would question a Window concerning a Sight.  I look through it not with it.”[18]  Imagination here means something very different than the faculty that “gives to airy Nothing a local habitation and a name.”[19] It means the very ability to discover what is real.   

Let me now take a second step with Barfield’s “romanticism come of age” before returning to Illich.  Barfield traces the human journey from original participation to what he calls final participation.  Initially we are indistinguishable from the world in which we are conscious and of which we are conscious.  Citing Ernst Cassirer’s Philosophy of Symbolic Forms, he writes, “the history of human consciousness was not a progress from an initial condition of blank darkness towards wider and wider awareness of a pre-existing outer world, but the gradual extrication of a small but a growing and an increasingly clear and self-determined focus of inner human experience from a dream-like state of virtual identity with the life of the body and of its environment.”[20]  This process can be observed in language, Barfield says, where the words which we use to refer to immaterial phenomenon originate as references to material entities. The New Testament word for spirit, for example is pneuma, which originally meant wind.  There has been, says Barfield, “an age-long process of contraction of the immaterial qualities of the cosmos into a human centre, into an inner world which…made possible the development of an immaterial language.”[21]  Spirit is wind made articulate in speech.  The Incarnation, for Barfield, is the epicentre of this process of contraction, the moment at which the polarity of inner and outer are reversed.  “Jesus,” he writes, “reverses…direction from outside in to inside out – he was, or represented the turning point.  He taught that ‘it is not that which cometh into a man which defileth him but that which goeth out of him’ or “The kingdom of heaven is within you.”[22]  But, with humans, as Blake says, it is only “the road of excess [which] leads to the palace of wisdom,” and so this process of contraction does not stop at the point of balance between inner and outer worlds.[23]  The rejection of anthropocentrism – of, in Barfield’s word, “finding in the world what we have now properly located in ourselves” – proceeds to the point that everything is within ourselves, all “occult qualities” are banished from nature, and humankind becomes, in Blake’s words, “a little grovelling root,” cut off from all participation with nature and other people.  This is the dilemma in which “science” finally finds itself.  Barfield puts it this way… 

The denial of inner being to the processes of nature leads inevitably to the denial of it in Man himself.  For, if physical objects and physical causes are all that we can know, it follows that man himself can only be known to the extent that he is a physical object among physical objects.[24]  

American philosopher Stanley Rosen, contemplating the same difficulty, says, “If knowledge is enlightenment and science is knowledge, then to be enlightened is either to endure self-ignorance or to undergo reification.”[25] i.e. If knowledge is reliable insofar as it objectifies, then I must either remain ignorant of myself, insofar as I am a subject, or turn myself into an object.  This predicament is often traced to the Cartesian cut between subject and object, mind and nature, res cogitans and res extensa, but Barfield sees the Cartesian cogito as only an episode in a gradual and lengthy process.  “Objectivity,” he says, “is not something that was handed us on a plate once and for all by Descartes.”  It is rather a hard-won mental and moral achievement – precious, even as it turns destructive, and entirely necessary to the synthesis that Barfield calls final participation.   

The Romantic reaction indicts the one-sidedness of scientific reductionism.  At the mere touch of “cold philosophy,” Keats wrote, “all charms fly.”  (Science, in Keats’ time was still called natural philosophy.) Newtonian science, Keats said, would “unweave a rainbow” or “clip an angel’s wings.”[26]  Blake, in a famous engraving, pictures Newton at the bottom of the sea, staring intently downwards at the figure he is drawing with a compass on the scroll at his feet.  “May God us keep,” Blake prays, “from single vision and Newton’s sleep.”[27]  Romanticism gives birth not just to a critique of science but also to a counter-current within science.  Goethe, another critic of Newton, formed “the hypothesis that it might be possible to derive all plant forms from one original plant.”[28]  At one of his first meetings with his friend-to-be Friedrich von Schiller Goethe explained his idea of an urpflanze, usually translated as primal or archetypal plant.  Schiller objected, “This is not an observation from experience, this is an idea.”  Goethe responded, “Then I may rejoice that I have ideas without knowing it and can see them with my own eyes.”[29] Goethe’s work gave birth to a strand of “scientific” inquiry that is much more experiential and much more contemplative that what we normally call science.  He also began the work that has continued into our time of overcoming the divorce between mind and nature.[30]  I won’t go into that further here.  Barfield in his time was very impressed by the findings of quantum mechanics, whose pioneers had reached the foundation of matter only to discover, as Arthur Eddington quipped, that “something unknown is doing we don’t know what.”[31]  “The same elements,” Erwin Schrödinger concluded, “compose my mind and the world...Subject and object are only one.”[32]  Physics, once it had reached the limits of objectivity, was “pitchforked,” Barfield says, “back into philosophy.”[33] 

My point here is that Barfield believed that the detour through materialism and objectivity was a necessary stage in the achievement of what he called “final participation.”  Without separation, and withdrawal from the dream-state of original participation, it would not have been possible, he thought, to understand the role of imagination in overcoming “the abrupt gap between matter and spirit.”[34]  “Romanticism come of age” is his idea of a fully achieved synthesis in which the contracted ego, chastened by scientific materialism, expands again in new participation.  Humanity can wrestle self-consciousness, or subjectivity, out of its world only by polarizing inner and outer, subject and object.  This stance reaches it limit in our time, as all the convenient distinctions on which modernity was erected break down – not just subject and object, but equally private and public, society and nature, secularity and religion etc.  This is the crisis of what Latour calls “the modern constitution,” expressed in the modern institutional landscape but originally constituted in our minds.  We are now at the point, according to Barfield, where it is possible to understand that the nature from which we wrested our hard-won subjectivity, and then took it for all of consciousness, is itself unconscious mind – that the wind that became spirit was spirit all along, awaiting its name.  This new understanding is not an abolition of science/objectivity/the on-looker stance, but is rather, in Hegelian language, its sublation or sublimation (aufhebung), its lifting up into a new synthesis. 

This “New Age” view, of which I have taken Barfield as the representation, was profoundly attractive to me and determined much of the writing and broadcasting I did in the ten years before I reconnected with Illich in 1988.  Having come through the 1960’s, and the myriad of “revolutions” those years were said to portend, I had concluded that it made most sense to think of our time as an interregnum between ages.[35]  What was ending could be described on various scales: the industrial age, at least, or the modern age, or Illich’s age of tools, dated from the 12th century, or the Age of Pisces, now giving way to the Age of Aquarius (astrological epochs, or Great Years,  move  backwards through the zodiac),  or even the entire period of historical consciousness, dated from Karl Jaspers Axial Age (roughly 800-200 BCE)   However considered, one could see that what was ending, though far from over, and still producing brilliant sunset effects, was inexorably revealing its limitations.  But what was beginning?  Well, to be brief, the peaceable, ecologically sustainable, trans-religious and trans-cultural way of life towards which I thought the forcing house of nuclear and ecological apocalypse was insistently pointing.  Meeting Illich again in 1987 was quite a challenge to the more facile and uncritical elements of this stance, but, now, at last, I want to ask whether Illich himself in some way fits into a chastened version of what Barfield called “romanticism come of age.”  

Let me first just list the various ways in which Illich fits into the Romantic counter-culture, when it is taken at its best.  This “best” stands out in clear relief only when one follows Charles Larmore in rejecting the sterile dichotomy – Blake’s “two horn’d Reasoning, Cloven Fiction” – that has dominated too much of popular discussion.[36]   This dichotomy, as in the earlier mentioned image of “the mirror and the lamp,” pits a “responsive” stance – humble,  reverential, soberly aware of human limitations – against an expressive one which glorifies the “creative” imagination.  Hundreds of other opposed pairs get divided in the same way – left v. right, equality v. hierarchy, etc. – and so become opponents rather than complementary aspects of a large whole.  But, at its “precarious height,” Larmore argues, Romanticism tends to a “fragile synthesis,” which collapses into these opposed pairs only in its (frequent) corruptions and degenerations.   This synthesis, or movement of integration, is what I mean by Romanticism at its best.   Illich fits it as a critic of science who understands that political communities will recover their power of judgment only when “Science” is de-mythified, i.e. deprived of its current status as an oracle and put in its proper place as an invaluable but limited mode of knowledge.  He belongs as someone who understands the crucial role of tradition in the continuance of humanity as a recognizable being – one who has not, as Illich wrote in Tools for Conviviality, broken “all normative bridges to the past.”[37]  Sometimes, as I have said, Illich also hints that the very gateway to the future, or, better, to the rivers north of the future, may also lie in the past.  Illich is a Romantic, above all, in his respect for the spontaneous, the unplanned, the unconscious.  This is especially clear in his essay on “Vernacular Values” when Illich speaks rhapsodically of “the domain of the wild,” “the vernacular,” “living language,” “free and anarchic development” and contrasts these things with the plans of Spanish humanist Antonio Nebrija whose grammar of the Catilian tongue is, Illich says, an attempt “to engineer, to synthesize chemically, a language.”  Illich sees Nebrija, and by extension all the other Renaissance humanists who were trying to shape national languages and instruct their peoples in their use, as a colonizer who wants to turn Castilian into a “resource to be mined,” to invent “an educational sphere” outside of which there will be, in future, “no salvation,” and to initiate “a war on subsistence.”[38]  This essay, like many of Illich’s, is polemical – the point he wishes to impress on the minds of contemporary readers is its shaping and selecting principle – so one has to allow for a certain exaggeration on this account.  Nevertheless, I think the preference for spontaneous cultural formations is plain enough.  To this, I would also add the fears about the collapse of imagination in a unisex and, otherwise, uniform world that Illich expresses in Gender.  With the undoing of “otherness,” Illich says, metaphor has nowhere to go, because the unknown has become only the not yet known, and so imagination loses its purpose.  It keeps its prestige – contemporary people incessantly pursue “their dreams” – but it is reduced either to an entertainment – the profuse cult of “stories” – or to an instrumental role as the faculty which visualizes success.  (This disappearance of otherness occurs, in Illich’s view, not just between men and women under the impress of unisex.  The otherness of heaven and earth is also undermined by a church which believes it possesses the keys to the kingdom, as is the otherness of here and there in an era of globalization.)  A symbol for Illich is not a cypher or a sign, it is a mystery, constituting all we can know of what we encounter within the symbol.  Imagination is the faculty by which this encounter occurs.  It follows that Illich rates imagination, though rarely by that name, as high as any Romantic. 

Illich, as I’ve argued, is a polemical, occasional and, one might even say, evangelical writer.  By evangelical I mean not that he is a proselytizer, which he never was, but that what concerns him in his study of social configurations is whether they ultimately foster, or, alternately, undermine, the capacity to recognize and celebrate the Word of God.   The style in which his essays realize this high calling tends frequently to satire, by which I mean the use of humour, particularly irony, sarcasm, and exaggeration, to lampoon his object.  To take the case mentioned above, a balanced account of Nebrija’s work is not the point of Illich’s essay on “vernacular values.”  Nebrija, in a sense, is a sacrifice to the evangelical purpose of the essay, which is to prick the pretensions of the “educational sphere” and deflate its claim to monopolize education as the church had once monopolized salvation.  I’m reluctant to call this a lack of balance, since balance is exactly what Illich is seeking to redress in a world that has relentlessly institutionalized every conceivable good, but it is a lack of balance in the sense that Illich never says that he is looking for a balance between the authority of grammarians and the authority of wild, untutored speech, allowed its own “free, anarchic development.”  He restricts himself to satirizing Nebrija and drawing a more or less straight line from the grammarian’s first attempts to coax a “language” out of the wild and unregulated profusion of popular tongues to the dominated, manipulated and over-schooled languages that are spoken and written today.  

I mention this polemical and evangelical tendency because I think it obscures the affinity I am trying to draw out here between Illich and Barfield’s grown-up Romanticism.  One has to go back to the 1960’s to find Illich speaking openly of what he then called “man’s race to maturity” – the phrase occurs in a “call to celebration” written in 1967 with which he begins his book Celebration of Awareness.  That book concludes with an equally hopeful “Constitution for Cultural Revolution,” an expression that Illich used at the time to distinguish the metanoia, or changed mind, that he was preaching from a mere “political” revolution in which nothing changes but the face behind the desk.  Presumably he thought that this cultural revolution either failed or miscarried, or a little of both.  Illich rarely dwelled on the past, but one hears nothing more from him about a new age of human maturity.  As late as Gender (1982) an emerging “archipelago of conviviality” – a phrase he borrowed from André Gorz – was still on Illich’s horizon, but its further growth depended, he said, on a recovery and enlargement of the commons to which he never again referred.  (He was sympathetic to the claims of Gustavo Esteva, and others, that “new commons” were emerging in marginalized communities that had seen through the hollow promise of “development’’ and were now regenerating tradition and improvising livelihood outside of modern economic assumptions, but he did not see his hopes for a revival of vernacular independence realized among the social movements whose attention he had briefly enjoyed in the 1970’s.[39])  Nevertheless, I think Illich makes a crucial contribution to the Romanticism come of age that was Frye and Barfield’s hope.  For me this principally consists in a vision of the Gospel, as it might have been and might still be, and in the deinstitutionalization that would necessarily follow a recognition of what necessarily exceeds institutionalization, of what, now and forever, must remain in the domain of the unpredictable and the uncontained – the realm, as Illich says, of surprise.

[1] Northrop Frye, The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981, p. 50

[2] Northrop Frye, A Study of English Romanticism, Random House, 1968, p. 15

[3] This idea appears throughout Taylor’s work but is nicely, and briefly summarized in The Malaise of Modernity (Anansi, 1991). 

[4] IIC, p. 188

[5] Zinovy Zink, “Accentless Souls,” TLS, May 26, 2017

[6] Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, Counterpoint, 1983, pp. 106-213

[7] In his Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity (Harvard, 1989), Taylor describes the work as “an essay in retrieval” (p. 10) and elsewhere as “an exercise in retrieval” (p. xi); George Grant hints that all we have left of the good is our nagging sense of having lost it in “A Platitude” in Technology and Empire (Anansi, 1969), p. 239 ff.

[8] CA, p. 94

[9] CA, p. 87

[10] “Hospitality and Pain,” op. cit., p. 1

[11] RNF, p. 170

[12] “Health As One’s Own Responsibility - No Thank You!” op. cit., p. 3

[13] The exposition of this idea of the “upside-down universe” occurs in the chapter on “Milton and the Romantic Tradition” in Northrop Frye in Conversation, op. cit., p. 97ff.  All of the quotations that follow are taken from this chapter.

[14] William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, scene ii

[15] Blake, op. cit., p. 33ff.

[16] Hans Blumenberg, Paradigms for a Metaphorology, Cornell, 2010 (first German edition 1960), p. 5; Northrop Frye in Conversation, op. cit., p. 39

[17] Blake, op. cit., p. 233

[18] ibid., 565-566

[19] So says Duke Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act V, Scene i.

[20] Owen Barfield, The Rediscovery of Meaning and Other Essays, Wesleyan University Press, 1977, p. 16

[21] ibid., p. 235

[22] ibid., p. 235

[23] This is one of Blake’s “proverbs of hell”, op. cit., p. 35

[24] Barfield, op. cit., p. 12

[25] Stanley Rosen, Hermenutics as Politics, Yale, 1987, p. 4

[26] John Keats, Lamia, Part Two, lines 230-240

[27] Blake, op. cit., p. 722

[28] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Italian Journey, 1786-1788, Penguin Classics, 1970, p. 71

[29] Goethe relates the meeting under heading “A Fortunate Encounter,” in Scientific Studies, ed. and trans. Douglas Miller, Goethe edition, Vol 12, Suhrkamp, 1988, p. 20

[30] Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature, ed. David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc (SUNY Press, 1998) provides a good introduction.

[31] Sir Arthur Eddington, The Nature of the Physical World, Macmillan, 1928, p. 191

[32] Erwin Schrödinger, “Why Not Talk Physics” in Quantum Questions, ed. Ken Wilber, Shambhala, 1984, p. 79

[33] Barfield, op. cit., p. 179

[34] ibid., p. 150

[35] I first put forward this view in a radio series, broadcast, in 1981 called “Between Two Ages.”  It can be found here: http://www.davidcayley.com/podcasts?category=Between+Two+Ages

[36] The point is argued at length in the opening pages of The Romantic Legacy, op. cit.;  Blake, op. cit., 268

[37] TC, p. 83

[38] SW, pp. 29-51

[39] An extensive bibliography of Esteva’s writings in English is provided in this Wikipedia entry: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gustavo_Esteva