Whatever Happened to Man?


(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.) 


In a book called The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, American writer Mark Greif argues that, during the period enumerated in his title, there was a prolonged panic about “Man.”  A few quotations will illustrate.  Jacques Maritain, who was Illich’s teacher in Rome in the late 1940’s, said, “The only way of regeneration for the human community is a rediscovery of the true image of man.”[1]  Lewis Mumford, reflecting on the threat posed by nuclear weapons, claimed that “it may be necessary to scrap almost everything to save man.”  Hannah Arendt, in her essay “The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man,” argued that the projection of technological power, reflected in “the conquest of space,” had not only “lowered…the stature of man” but now threatened to destroy it utterly.[2]  Herbert Marcuse, in a book that  exerted a powerful influence on the New Left of the 1960’s, portrayed contemporary man as “one-dimensional.”[3]  The Port Huron Statement, the manifesto by which Students for A Democratic Society (SDS) announced its arrival on the political scene in 1962, expressed its intention to “counter…the dominant conceptions of Man in the 20th century.”[4]  Man was ubiquitous in political discourse, and everywhere he appeared he was at risk, in danger, on the brink of extinction.  In a book of that name, published in 1947, C.S. Lewis spoke of “the abolition of man.”[5]  

The Illich of the early 1960’s and early 1970’s clearly belongs to this literature.  In Celebration of Awareness, we read of “man’s race to maturity” and of the hazards that he risks should he lose this race and be overcome by “the demonic nature of present systems which force man to consent to his own deepening self-destruction.”[6]  In “The Rise of Epimethean Man,” the essay which concluded Deschooling Society, the reader is told that “Man himself is at stake.”[7]  In Tools for Conviviality, “man” is warned to “set limits to the interference of his tools with the environment” or face a “gruesome apocalypse.”[8] And man is at much at risk as his environment: “Mankind may wither and disappear,” Illich writes, “because he is deprived of basic structures of language, law and myth.”[9] The same warnings are sounded in Limits to Medicine (Medical Nemesis, as its first editions were called) where Illich portrays the ultimate consequence of unlimited medicalization as a “cultural iatrogenesis” in which the very ability to suffer disease and death basic is sapped and enervated, and people, in losing the art of dying, lose the art of living.  He ends with a plea for a restoration of “Man’s consciously lived fragility, individuality and relatedness” – a sense, he says, of which “the experience of pain…sickness and…death [is] an integral part.”  There is an implication throughout that there is both a nature and a condition which is proper to Man, that this nature and condition have been exceeded, and that consequently Man as a norm, a destiny and archetype will disappear unless  “a major change of direction” is soon undertaken.[10] Illich is not included in Grief’s inventory of the discourses of “the crisis of man,” but I think there can be no doubt that he belongs with Arendt, Maritain, Mumford and the many others who foresee “the abolition of man.” 

Later in his life, Illich was more tentative about the kind of language he used in his jeremiads of the 1970’s.  When I quoted his statement that “man himself is at stake” to him in 1988, he said “I wouldn’t any longer be able to speak so easily of man.”  But this was not, he went on because he would now distinguish she from he but because he had “become more prudent.”  He was now, he said, “increasingly silent in public because I have more and more learned to recognize that even very careful and traditional use of words does not allow me to bespeak the percepts my grandfather knew, because they aren’t there any more.”[11]  This says, in effect, that what Illich predicted, in fact, occurred, and that he now refrains from speaking of man because few will even know what he means.  The world went over the cliff that prophets of “the crisis of man” saw looming ahead, and we now live with the consequences – a situation in which there is no normative human nature and no normative human condition.  Indeed the very frontier of civil rights among the young is the struggle against any norm that might obstruct the free flow of identity and the adventure of discovering one’s own.  People may still talk of ethics, and values, but neither have the slightest foundation.  Medical ethics, for example, do not set absolute and unequivocal limits, but rather express the medical institution’s prudent curation of its “image.” The word values may sometimes be used as a synonym for moral standards that are believed to be unequivocally right or wrong, but in itself it only refers to what a given individuals prefers or invests in, what he/she values.  

There are two ways of looking at Greif’s “age of the crisis of man.”  As a young writer trying to clear an intellectual and cultural space that does not begin with “post” – post-modern, post human, post-secular, post-historical etc. – he does not lament the disappearance of man.  It is not just that he sympathizes with the skeptic who began to refuse the discourse of man in the 1960’s and 1970’s – with Levi-Strauss who speaks for pluralism and says that “the ultimate goal of the human sciences is not to constitute but to dissolve man”[12]; with Michel Foucault’s recoil from “the moralizing pool of humanistic sermons” and his claim that “man is an invention of recent date,” doomed to be “erased like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea”[13]; with the apostles of difference, or différance in Derrida’s lingo; with feminists who saw man as male; with blacks who read man as “the Man,” etc.  Greif gives a generous account of these critiques, but, in the end, he is arguing not for or against man, but rather for a new, less polarized problematic.  If you find yourself, he writes, “at the threshold of the question of man,” then just stop, because all you will find across that threshold are “pre-programmed answers.”[14]  That’s one view – one that hasn’t given up on “a new paradigm,” even if it can’t say what it is.  The other is the view I ascribed to Illich – that the disappearance of “the question of man” represents not just the vanishing of a way of speaking but of the very possibility of a unified or normative view of humanity.  

Man is obviously a problematic term.  The problem is worse in some European languages than others – in German one can say der Mensch which doesn’t imply maleness, despite its grammatical gender, while in English man in general can  always be taken as pointing at men in particular – but the gender problem is only the beginning.  The word claims universality, but arguably points to a specific class – the propertied, literate, white, male individuals who consider themselves to be the subjects of history.   It takes for granted a certain conception of subjectivity – Charles Taylor’s “buffered self,” C.B. Macpherson’s “possessive individual” etc.[15] – a certain, decidedly Christian conception of the individual as one who attains to both uniqueness and universality by his participation in Christ, and a certain conception of history of which European man is the subject.  This is the image that Foucault wants to erase, that Derrida wants to unsettle, that Greif wants to transcend.  

And why not?  Well the question I want to raise is what Illich meant when he wrote in 1970 that “man himself is at stake.”  And if he/she was at stake, and subsequently disappeared – a logical conclusion, given that none of the steps required to save man were taken – then what?  For Greif, the crisis of man was the last gasp of an expiring humanism, and will, he hopes, give way to something less parochial and less phallocentric, something more plural and more adequate to the variety of human adventures.  And, if Christianity must go on to the historical refuse heap, along with Man, well, good riddance. The idea of a single, comprehensive human destiny constituting itself as history simple must be abandoned.  But with Illich, and other Christians attempting to renew their faith in the absence of man, matters are more complicated.  

Let me first try to address the specific difficulty of an English word that means both humanity-in-general and a male person.  For some women I know this difficulty is insuperable, and out of deference to them, I have never used the term man.  At the same time, I am aware that the available replacement terms – humanity, humankind, people, human beings, etc. – have a completely different valence than man.  Man evokes an archetype, a single being, while the possible replacements all suggest an assembly or gathering composed of many discrete parts that compose a heap but not a whole.  This is the problem in a nutshell. 

In the beginning, according to the Revised Standard Version of The Holy Bible, after God had made the heavens and the earth, and everything that lives upon the earth, He said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and let them have dominion…over all the earth.”[16]  Man is both singular and plural, a being made in single image – the image of God – and a multitude – a them, not just a he.  Much turns on this idea of humanity as a single being.  Not only does all of humanity fall in a single event, but all of humanity is redeemed in a single man.  This redeemer is a comprehensive and complete man, to be sure, the one who takes every place as home, every other one as his mother and brother, whose life is at once myth and history, an event in time and symbol of the timeless.[17]  But the Christ remains a being and an event that occurs in a definite place at a definite time, and will unfold as an earthly history.  The centrality of Christ can certainly be expressed with greater modesty and humility than triumphalist Christianity, in smug and confident possession of the truth, has generally done.  British theologian John Milbank has gone so far as to say that, although Christians believe Christ is “the fulfillment of everything,” that this must be considered “a weird kind of fulfillment…a kind of counter-fulfillment” because it doesn’t claim that Christianity possesses a superior doctrine, a superior metaphysics or any other claim to pre-eminence, but only that God is most fully shown in a single perfected, or fully expressed, human being.[18] But, even the most unassuming theologies and cautious missiologies, must assert that Christ is, as von Balthasar says, “the concrete universal,” and this implies, by some name or other, man i.e. a destiny that belongs to human beings as such and can’t be dissolved either in pluralism or a cosmic mysticism that swallows history.  

This, I think, is the nub.  In Illich’s account of Church history in The Rivers North of the Future almost everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, even to the point that he feels obliged to confess a temptation “to curse the Incarnation.”[19]  On principle, he never develops the hypothetical history that would tell us what might have been if the  church had “centred its faith” on the imminent danger of institutionalizing revelation as “anti-Christ,” beyond saying that the Gospel might have furnished “the crowning proportion” in a world that remained proportioned at human and natural scales rather than incubating its destruction.  Nevertheless, I think there are certain fundamental notes even in his chastened, de-clericalized, and self-aware evangelism.  Christianity must be evangelical i.e. it must be shared, even if it is shared only by example and in humble recognition that, in the words of the Kena Upanishad, “it is not understood by those who understand it/ It is understood by those who do not understand it.”[20]  (This paradox echoes through every scripture from Lao-Tzu’s “those who know do not tell/Those who tell do not know” to Jesus’ “seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear.”[21])  Christianity must be historical i.e. it must find its fulfillment in history.  And it must be apocalyptic i.e. it must understand the Incarnation as a decisive revelation which confronts humanity with a final choice – life or death, God’s way or no way at all.   In all these ways, a unified and unifying narrative is implied.  The being that is the subject of this narrative need not be called man.  There are many good reasons why it would be better if it were not.  But the unity of humanity, which is fully expressed in the word, and only weakly and diffusely in the alternatives, must be kept in sight.  

Perhaps a good solution is offered in theologian Walter Wink’s wonderful book, The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of Man.  Writing in the tradition of Carl Jung’s Answer to Job and Elizabeth Howes’ Guild for Psychological Studies in San Francisco, which extended and developed Jung’s dialogue with Christianity, Wink examines the enigmatic Biblical term the Son of Man.  It appears first in the Book of Ezekiel, where the prophet is addressed by that name by the Lord, and he sees a vision in which a radiant “Son of Man” confronts a senescent God portrayed as the Ancient of Days.  In the Gospels this is the main term that Jesus applies to himself – he doesn’t, despite his frequent references to his Father, call himself the Son of God but rather the Son of Man.  (And, if the term were literally translated Wink says it would actually be “the Son of the Man.”)  Wink thinks that a good translation would be “the human being.”   The term preserves the archetypal character of man while purging its gender.  I will not go further here into Wink’s “Christology from below” or his attempt to refute the received view of Jesus as “the omnipotent God in a man-suit,” but I do think that his account of Jesus as “the Human Being” – the one in whom divinity is fully realized as humanity – is very compatible with Illich’s understanding.  

[1] Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933-1973, Princeton, 2015, p. 7

[2] Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought, Viking Press, 1968, pp. 265-280

[3] Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, Beacon Press, 1964

[4] Greif, op. cit., p. 265

[5]  C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Macmillan, 1947

[6] Ivan Illich, Celebration of Awareness, Doubleday, 1970, p. 5

[7] Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, Penguin, 1973, p. 108

[8] Ivan Illich Tools for Conviviality, Harper and Row, 1973, p. 108

[9] ibid., p. 83

[10] Deschooling Society, op. cit., p. 112

[11] David Cayley, Ivan Illich in Conversation, Anansi, 1992, p. 125

[12] Greif, op. cit., p. 115

[13] ibid., p. 285, 303 (check page references)

[14] ibid., p. 328

[15] Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self, Harvard, 1907; Macpherson, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, Clarendon Press, 1962

[16] Genesis, 1:26

[17] This sentence is not an exact quote but closely follows a sentence of Owen Barfield’s that is quoted in Simon Blaxland-de Lange, Owen Barfield: Romanticism Come of Age: A Biography, Temple Lodge, 2006; “mother and brother” refers to Matthew 12:48, Mark 3:33, and Luke 8:21; “a symbol of the timeless” refers, among other passages, to John 8:56: “Before Abraham was, I am.”

[18] Milbank develops these thoughts in Part Six of my radio series, “The Myth of the Secular,” which can be found here:

[19] Ivan Illich/David Cayley, The Rivers North of the Future, Anansi, 2005, p. 61

[20] Kena Upanashad, II – 3, quoted in Panikkar, op. cit., p. 31

[21] The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu, trans. Witter Bynner, Capricorn Books, 1944, Stanza 56, p. 60; Matthew 13: 13no w