A Review of Arthur Melzer's Philosophy Between the Lines




I picked up this book, after seeing it reviewed, because I had been thinking about the claim I recently encountered that the work of Ivan Illich is a disguised form of theology.  (This claim is made in Todd Hartch’s new book The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, where he says that “Illich’s writing had a hidden purpose.”)  I am currently writing about Illich, and I thought that Melzer’s book might teach me something about esoteric writing and so help me to assess the claim that Illich is an esoteric writer.  I soon found that this was a book that could do a lot more than that.


The word esoteric itself is probably one of the reasons that I was not expecting a work of such breadth as this one proved to be.  I don’t mean that Melzer should have used a different word.   Esoteric is certainly the accepted term of art for what Melzer discusses – philosophical writing that disguises some part of its purpose or hopes to be understood in different ways by different readers – but, for most contemporary readers, the word connotes something arcane and out of the way, while Melzer’s book concerns crucial issues in the history of both philosophy and politics.  This, in fact, illustrates one of Melzer’s main points.  Contemporary readers have lost any feel for the esoteric, sensing it as nothing more than a childish game, a form of “perverse ingenuity” as one critic says.  But lacking this feel, he says, they become unable to understand how philosophy has been written through most of its history.  And that misunderstanding is the occasion for his book.  It is not, he tells us, that he has some esoteric purpose of his own, or even any particular liking for the genre – “I can barely tolerate subtlety,” he jokes in his introduction – but that he wants to make readers aware of a practice that he believes coloured “the whole conduct of intellectual life in the West over two millennia.”


He establishes the reality of this modern neglect early in the book with a quotation from Goethe, who wrote to a friend in 1811: “I have always considered it an evil, indeed a disaster which, in the second half of the previous century, gained more and more ground that one no longer drew a distinction between the exoteric and the esoteric.”   Melzer then goes on to offer evidence of the predominance of this practice up to the last years of the 18th Century (and, indeed its continuance by other names into our own time, as we shall see).  Here I will cite several key pieces of this evidence, just to give the flavour.  First Plato from the Seventh Letter:

If it seemed to me that these [philosophical] matters could adequately be put down in writing for the many or be said, what could be nobler for us to have done in our lifetime than this, to write what is a great benefit for human beings and to lead nature forth into the light for all?  But I do not think such an undertaking concerning these matters would be a good for human beings, unless for some few, those who are themselves able to discover them through a small indication; of the rest, it would unsuitably fill some of them with a mistaken contempt, and others with a lofty and empty hope as if they had learned awesome matters.


And two thousand years later, here is Jean Jacques Rousseau explaining, also in a letter, how his first discourse (On the Origin of Inequality) should be read:


It was only gradually and always for a few readers that I developed my ideas…I have often taken great pains to try to put into a sentence, a line, a word tossed off as if by chance the result of a long sequence of reflections.  Often most of my readers must have found my discourses badly connected and almost entirely rambling, for lack of perceiving the trunk of which I showed them only the branches.  But that was enough for those who know how to understand, and I have never wanted to speak to the others.


These are strong examples, but not at all isolated.  Melzer offers considerable  evidence that no philosophically minded writer before the 19th century believed that he could or should write entirely transparently, though the required degree of discretion and strategic obscurity remained a matter of dispute and discussion.  For example, Melzer offers this wonderful quotation from Erasmus, opposing Luther’s all out attack on Rome, despite Erasmus’s sympathy for Luther’s aims:


For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handling than to pile one cause of hatred on another…A prudent steward will husband the truth – to bring it out, I mean, when the business requires it, and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out for every man what is appropriate for him – [but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has poured it all out at once, making everything public.


Here Erasmus criticizes Luther for being insufficiently esoteric.  And differences of this kind continue through the modern period.  Everyone agrees on the need for some degree of indirection, but how much may be in dispute.  For example, figures associated with the more radical wing of the Enlightenment sometimes criticized their more cautious confrères like Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire for their hesitancies, but even they preserved some elements of esotericism.  One such radical Denis Diderot still believed that “one must be wise in secret,” and Pierre Bayle, another, writing earlier, during the first wave of Enlightenment, had reproved the followers of Descartes with not knowing “what must be said and what must not be said.”


But here we come again to the difficulty which I have already mentioned with the term esoteric or esotericism.   Erasmus’s difference with Luther could certainly be said to concern the proper degree of esotericism, i.e. Erasmus wishes Luther had spoken more esoterically, and Melzer uses the word in that broad sense.   But it seems to me that it would be more accurate to say that Erasmus wishes Luther more discreet, more prudent, more diplomatic.  Using the word esoteric cannot but invoke an element of dissimulation, unhealthy secrecy, perhaps even of conspiracy simply because these are connotations of this word as it is currently used.  But I see nothing of this in what Erasmus says.  In this sense, the word esoteric seems to unduly confine and limit Melzer’s meaning.


Let me expand this point slightly before going on.  One of the things that excited me about Melzer’s book was that I began to see almost immediately that it could be understood as a book about something much more than an outré, superceded and slightly suspect practice of elitist philosophers who wanted either to deceive or manipulate their publics.  Esoteric denotes willful secrecy – something intended only for initiates – but there is a sense in which  all writing is esoteric writing.  This is obviously true if one can’t read, but it remains true even as the various degrees of reading are achieved.  For most people there will always be types of literature for which they have neither interest nor aptitude and which will therefore remain in that sense esoteric.  But, all writing is esoteric in another sense as well because all writing of any ambition is bound to be more or less misunderstood.  There is no frictionless transmission of meaning from one mind to another, and control, always partial, of potential misunderstanding will always be a great part of the writer’s art.   This is not just because, as Socrates says in Phaedrus – Melzer quotes the passage – “every [written] speech rolls around everywhere, both among those who understand and among those for whom it is not fitting, and it does not know to whom it ought to speak and to whom not.”  It is also because nearly every word sets off a cascade of associations, which will necessarily differ from reader to reader.  One doesn’t have to contemplate the interference patterns created by these waves of association for long before it begins to seem miraculous that we understand each other at all.  In addition written language, simply by having been put in a fixed from, is reified – it becomes stupid, inert and unresponsive to its reader, an absence masquerading as a presence.  It was for this reason that Heidegger first suggested the practice, later deployed more extensively by Jacques Derrida, of writing “under erasure” i.e. crossing out a word so that it remains legible under the erasure, and in that way giving a graphic representation of the fact that every word belies itself.


To say writing is esoteric in this sense is just to recognize its frailty as a vehicle.  If the word is taken in this way, one gets around the charge that has been put against Melzer, as well as against Leo Strauss whose Persecution and The Art of Writing (1952) was the first book in recent times to draw attention to the importance of esotericismfor understanding philosophical writing.  Bernard Yack, in his review of Melzer’s book for the electronic journal Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/53333-philosophy-between-the-lines-the-lost-history-of-esoteric-writing/) sums up this objection:


Those of us who were introduced to the history of moral and political philosophy by students of Leo Strauss -- in my case, Allan Bloom -- would sometimes ask for evidence backing their claim that the great writers of the past practiced a lost art of esoteric writing. The answers we received, I'm sorry to say, were never very satisfying: a scrap of Bacon here, a letter from Diderot there, a passage or two from Plato's Seventh Letter. Surely, so vast a conspiracy must have left a larger mark on Western literary culture? Where were the books and articles that connected all the dots? Without such confirmation, it was hard to dispel the suspicion that it was Strauss's charismatic authority, more than anything else, that confirmed the existence of this esoteric tradition for our teachers.


In this review, Yack goes on to say that he thinks Melzer has supplied what Strauss never did: a convincing compendium of evidence which includes “testimony from major figures in every age from Classical Antiquity through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, confirming knowledge and approval of these ways of esoteric means of communicating philosophic ideas.”  And yet Yack says he is still unsatisfied, and thinks skeptics will remain unconvinced.  The problem, he says, is that while Melzer has supplied plenty of persuasive testimony that philosophers thought they were writing, in some sense, esoterically, he has not given much evidence that “philosophers… let alone playwrights like Shakespeare and Sophocles, produce works that continuously subvert their most prominent arguments in ways that help readers construct an alternative, esoteric argument to take their place.”  Yack goes on to say that he believes this type of esotericism to be “extremely rare” and to claim that Melzer has furnished no convincing example of it.  The example that came to mind for me in reading Yack’s criticism of Melzer was Shakespeare’s Henry V where no less an authority than Northrop Frye finds beneath the plays seemingly jingoistic surface – “once more into the breach, dear friends” – a counter-current which subverts and counteracts the more conventional surface.  Literature, whether philosophical, poetical or narrative, does, again and again, subvert, relativize and destabilize its ostensible commitments.  But my point is that the word esoteric, as used in Melzer’s book, suggests something much more restricted than he has, in fact, indicated in his book.   He raises issues concerning the nature of writing, the limits of politics, and the proper purpose of philosophy which go so far beyond the more limited question of whether writers have hidden agendas that I think he might have done well to scrap the words esoteric and esotericism in framing his argument.


That said, let me return to my discussion of the book and resume using the word he uses.  Melzer, as I have said, has provided a scholarly treasure trove of evidence that philosophers from Pythagoras to Kierkegaard have held to some variation of Lao Tzu’s “those who know do not tell,” or at least do not tell in the wrong place, at the wrong time, to the wrong people.  Some of this evidence comes from the New Testament, and Melzer’s discussion of the Gospel passages which recommend silence, secrecy and discretion was one of the sections of his book that I found most interesting.  These passages are familiar, and, in that sense, it is not surprising that the New Testament should be included in a history of esotericism.  But in another way it is surprising.  Christianity, Nietzsche quipped, was “Platonism for the people,” and the remark has its point insofar as the church believed it could spoon out a subversive and explosive doctrine to everyone.  It is surprising, therefore, to recall how often Jesus seems to recommend something more like what Melzer calls philosophical esotericism.  Jesus was, first of all, like Socrates, an oralist who committed none of his teaching to writing.  He was also careful what he said and where he said it.  He taught in stories, explaining to his disciples that “the secret of the kingdom” was granted to them while “to those who are outside everything comes in parables.”  He warned against casting “pearls before swine” lest “they [the swine] turn and rend you.”  After quizzing the disciples about who they thought he was, and receiving the answer from Peter that he is the Christ, he enjoined him to tell no one about it.  Likewise when he was transfigured with Moses and Elijah, he warned Peter, James and John to keep the whole story to themselves.  Later, the apostle Paul also adjusted his doctrine to his audience, telling the Corinthians that, at first, he fed them on milk because they were not yet ready for solid food.  Examples could be multiplied, but it seems clear enough that there are abundant traces in the gospels of a teacher well aware of the dangers full disclosure might pose to himself and others.  There is also a huge tension between this esoteric practice, and the triumphalist strain in which trumpeting angels unfurl banners and shout the good news from the skies.  Likewise there is a strain between the prudent teacher who practices protective esotericism, and the anointed one whose death is inevitable and whose passion has been entirely foretold. (“All this happened,” Matthew says, “to fulfill the prophecies in scripture.”) Arguably this tension continued in Christianity once it began to be formulated as a religion.  This is not the place to argue the point but one might cite the resurrection as the very archetype of a doctrine that should have remained esoteric and been discussed only with the greatest discretion and reserve.  Simone Weil held such a view.  For her the “theology of glory” which proclaimed the resurrection as a triumphant happy ending and a universal destiny was a travesty, a denaturing of the bitter truth of the crucifixion.  She affirmed the resurrection but only when hedged with the recognition of all the damage such an idea could do when shouted from the rooftops i.e. made exoteric. 


Esoteric writing continues to the end of the 18th century, and, in some cases beyond – among 19th century writers, Melzer quotes Kierkegaard on the necessity of deceiving those who are deceived, as well as Emily Dickinson’s wonderful poem which begins “Tell all the truth but tell it slant” – and the subject was never so hotly discussed as during the second half of the 18th century.  This discussion culminated, Melzer says, during a thirty year period between 1750 and 1784.  In 1750 Rousseau published his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts in which he criticized popularizers who have “indiscreetly broken down the door of the sciences and let into their sanctuary a populace unworthy of approaching it.”  In 1784Kant published his famous essay “What Is Enlightenment?”   In between there was a discussion whose scope was unprecedented.  Never in two millennia, Melzer says, had there been so intense and so open a discussion of “the social utility of truth and falsehood.”  But this debate was concerned only with the tactical form of esotericism that Melzer calls political esotericism – everyone agreed on the aims of progress and universal enlightenment but disagreed on the proper pace of change.  Ancient esotericism, which was much more thoroughgoing, had by then already been rejected by early modern thinkers like Machiavelli, Bacon and Hobbes.


The great dividing line between ancient and modern philosophy, in Melzer’s account, runs between their respective views of the relations between theory and practice (he retains the Greek term praxis, but I’ll use practice here.)  The ancients held that these relations were fundamentally conflictual – that the world could never be brought into conformity with the dictates of reason, and that to try to do so would be fatal to the health of society, as well as to the health of philosophers.  Society, or the city, its ancient archetype, must live according to unreason, its security and continuity dependent on various noble lies – the sacred origin of the laws, the brotherhood of the citizens, the providential character of the division of labour, the sanctity of marriage etc.  Philosophers might think beyond these necessary fictions, but, if they did so, they would practice various forms of esotericism in order to safeguard both themselves and their cities.  Melzer lists four main forms of this esotericism: protective, by which  the institutions of the city were shielded from the potentially corrosive effects of pure reason; defensive, by which the philosopher avoided persecution by veiling his doctrines in obscurity, ambiguity or outright misdirection; pedagogical, by which would-be initiates were guidedto pursue their own enlightenment rather than being handed ready made answers; and finally political, in which caution with dangerous truths was employed to some political end. 


All these forms of esotericism were premised on the underlying conviction that political community and philosophical rationality must always follow different principles and that the “the two lives,” the vita activa and the vita contemplativa, could never be brought into complete harmony.  Plato’s Republic, read esoterically, is a demonstration that this is so.  But, once this art was lost, it was possible to get readings like the one offered in Karl Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945) in which Plato is treated as a proto-fascist, a harbinger of modern totalitarianism who is offering, straight-faced, a blueprint for utopia.  Melzer, like many other Platonists, sees Plato as ironic, offering the whole machinery of eugenics, banished poets, children removed from their parents, guardians, philosophers kings and all the rest as a satire on reason rampant and not a blueprint.


Modern philosophy begins with what German/American political philosopher Leo Strauss called “a lowering of the sights.”  (There is a close relationship between Melzer and Strauss – some readers will already have recognized it – which I’ll come to presently.)  Ancient philosophy pursued the highest good, even if it could not be realized.  It was an attempt, as Melzer says, “to live in the mysterious light of the whole.”  The moderns, beginning with Machiavelli, adopt more realistic aims.  Fundamentally they reject the idea of an inherent disharmony between reason and political society.  Classical philosophy had its head in the clouds – even in ancient Athens this was Aristophanes’ charge against Socrates in his play The Clouds – let it now come down to earth and formulate more practical aims.  If the sights were set on comfortable self-preservation – on life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and, if we were, as Bacon advises, to get control of nature by first following her, then reason and society could gradually be harmonized.  Already in distant view is Marx’s famous maxim in his Theses on Feuerbach:  Up ‘til now “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways.  The point, however, is to change it.” Philosophy, Melzer says, became militant. 


This had several consequences.  It put philosophy at perpetual risk of corruption by creating a temptation to rate political expediency higher than truth, or even to argue in extremis that political expediency is truth – Orwell followed this road to its end in 1984 and Animal Farm.  It projected the ideal of progress, and, on the model of natural philosophy-becoming-science, made knowledge cumulative.  Ancient pedagogical esotericism had demanded that each student should re-ascend the heights of philosophy for him or herself, rung by laborious rung.  The idea of progress and accumulation allowed the philosopher to stand, with Newton, “on the shoulders of giants,” but it also left the assumptions that comprised these shoulders unexamined.  So modern thought, Melzer says, grew abstract and out of touch with the long chains of ungrounded presuppositions on which it was founded. 


A key reason for the militancy of modern thought was its sense, particularly during the Enlightenment, that it was locked in a life and death struggle with superstitition, priestcraft and dogmatic religion, which Hobbes summarized as“the kingdom of darkness.”  This antagonism, Melzer argues, was born of the relationship between Christianity and philosophy during the centuries in which Christianity was establishing its spiritual dominion.  Christianity, he says, was a religion without law – it had no sharia or halakhah.  It was a spiritual religion declaring, as the apostle Paul says, that “we are released from the Law, having died to what was binding us, and so we are in a new service, that of the spirit, and not in the old service of a written code.”  This was a revolutionary departure, in Melzer’s view, because religion and politics had up to this point been two faces of the same “theologico-political realm.  In support of this point he quotes the French scholar Fustel de Coulanges who says in his book The Ancient City that “all political institutions had been religious institutions…the laws had been sacred formulas, and the kings and magistrates had been priests.”  Christianity separated politics and religion, planting the seeds of the modern secular by positing, as Augustine would eventually say, two cities, the civitas dei and the civitas terrena, the city of God and the earthly city.  It was moreover a “remarkably apolitical” religion because it failed to address “concrete social customs, mores and usages” as its Judaic matrix had, and as later religions like Islam would.  Its character, Melzer argues, was of a “transcendent or universal religion of faith” which specified spiritual principles without offering practical or political guidance.  This rather cloudy, abstract character, Melzer goes on, put it in particular need of philosophical elaboration.  Bishops might fulminate against it – “It is not by philosophy that it has pleased God to save his people,” says Ambrose of Milan (337-397) – or ask with Tertullian (160-220), “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”; but Christianity needed philosophy in Melzer’s view, because, as a religion without law, it was destined to become “a doctrinal or dogmatic theological religion that made salvation contingent on the acceptance of certain often obscure or controversial dogmas.”  In the elaboration of this doctrinal apparatus philosophy became a necessary accomplice. “Christianity kept philosophy alive but subdued and under house arrest,” is Melzer’s pithy formula.  (Melzer doesn’t speak of specific teachings but I imagine he is thinking of doctrines like the Trinity, which achieved its canonical form at the Council of Constantinopole in 360, or the two natures of Christ hammered out at Chalcedon in 451.)


Christianity became a dogmatic religion, so concerned with its doctrinal integrity that it began to persecute and kill those it viewed as heretics.  This created the paradox that preoccupied Voltaire: “Of all religions,” he wrote, “the Christian should…inspire the most toleration, but till now the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.”  It also created a fatal animus within philosophy towards religion and its “dark kingdom,” fatal because it led philosophy so deep into history and projects of historical change that philosophy finally came to see itself as a pawn of history.  In short, philosophy became “historicist” or “relativist.”  Melzer defines these two terms, to which he assigns a rough equivalence, as follows: “the view that moral values and social norms have no objective or universal validity but derive from the arbitrary commitments of one’s culture, which are not intrinsically superior to the different or opposite commitments of other cultures.”  Karl Mannheim in an essay called “Historicism” written in 1924 claimed that this view “not only organizes, like an invisible hand, the work of social and cultural sciences but also permeates everyday thinking.”  Hans Georg Gadamer says that “historical self-consciousness” is “the most important revolution among those we have undergone since the beginning of the modern epoch.”  Closer to home, GeorgeGrant said the same in his 1969 Massey Lectures Time as History.   We feel ourselves as so much the prisoners of time and circumstance, as Grant said in his agonized “A Platitude” in Technology and Empire, that we can experience what is absolutely and unquestionably good only through our desperate “intimations of deprival.” 


It is, in a way, appropriate to quote and remember Grant here because Leo Strauss, who is the presiding intellectual influence in Melzer’s book, also played a decisive part in Grant’s life.  It was in reading Strauss, Grant told me in an interview in 1985, that he came to the shattering thought that “perhaps the Western experiment, the experiment that had gone on since the 17th century in both natural science and political science, had been a mistake.”  Now Strauss is a polarizing figure, and those who hate him, hate him a lot.  In Canada Shadia Drury, a professor of Political Science at the University of Regina, has led the charge, portraying Strauss as a sinister elitist and the godfather of American neo-conservatism who espouses “perpetual deception of the citizens by those in power.”  Among American critics, Nicolas Xenos goes so far as to find in Strauss’s teaching a nucleus of “pure fascism.”  (This charge is quoted in Strauss’s Wikipedia entry.)  Melzer acknowledges the fuss – “If you don’t like Strauss…just try not to think about him,” he advises early in his book – but thinks it is all largely misunderstanding.  Strauss’s “project,” Melzer says, “concerned not politics, as is almost universally assumed, but philosophy.” Reviewers like Bernard Yack, whom I cited above, have found this claim to be disingenuous – or, more politely, to be a form of defensive esotericism – and this seems true insofar as a project of defending philosophy from politics can certainly be described as itself political, but Melzer does make a good case that the history of philosophy was Strauss’s central concern.


Melzer’s book culminates in an assessment of Strauss’s critique of historicism and his plea for a return to the philosophical posture of the classical philosophers.  Esoteric writing plays an important part in this critique.  Beginning with his 1952 book Persecution and the Art of Writing, Strauss argued that an understanding of esotericism was crucial for an understanding of philosophy, and he continued to develop this idea in later works.   Melzer digests his argument into six main points: 1) Historicism partly rests on the argument that philosophers chronically disagree and that this shows them to be enclosed within their own time, place and temperament.  But if it is accepted that philosophers adopt various protective and pedagogical disguises, then careful reading may show them to be not so different as they appear at first glance. 2) Philosophers practicing defensive esotericism appear to be in greater agreement with the ruling ideas of their time than they actually are. 3) Without understanding esotericism we can’t appreciate the abyss the separates the ancients from the moderns. 4) Classic thought can only defend itself effectively if it is reinterpreted as radically skeptical, possessing no completed metaphysical system, but living rather, as Melzer says, “in the light of the mysterious character of the whole.”  5) Historicism can be understood as a reaction against the harm done to society by the abandonment of esotericism i.e. once philosophy threw caution to the winds and oversold reason, its Enlightenment pretensions had to be tamed, and this was done by re-grounding reason in historical circumstance. And, finally, 6) Historicism reflects the harm done to philosophy by the decline of esoteric writing.  The idea here is that modern thought, insofar as it was militant and progressive, was also “abstract and derivative” i.e. it lacked the “direct connection to [the] pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” which had nourished ancient philosophy. In other words, the practice of esotericism was partly based on the idea that “pre-theoretic, commonsense experience” required protection from the corrosive effects of ungrounded reason.  When this idea was abandoned, philosophy lost its grounding, and historicism became a plausible correction of the excessively abstract character which was imparted to modern philosophy by its overweening ambition.


Leo Strauss who died in in 1973, wrote of what he called the “crisis of modernity.”  According to Melzer he understood it in the following way:


The legitimacy of Western science, philosophy and rationalism is being radically challenged by two opposite but mutually reinforcing movements – the ancient force of religious orthodoxy and the “postmodern” one of historicism or cultural relativism.


This crisis had come about because of the inherent defects of modern rationalism – Strauss speaks of the “self-destruction of rational philosophy.” The main reasons for this self-immolation were its dogmatic demand for certainty and presuppositionless “foundations”; its attachment to political realism, practical efficacy and historical progress; and, above all, its insistence on the harmony of theory and practice, rationality and politicality – a deformity produced by the intensity of its struggle with religion.  Strauss hoped, and Melzer shares and has extended this hope, that, in Melzer’s words, “the rediscovery of esotericism may possibly open the path to a ‘posthistoricist or ‘post-modernist’ re-legitimation of reason through a new return to authentic Socratic rationalism.”   


One reason why this desired goal may someday come about is that historicism in Strauss’s view destroys its own foundations. He felt for example that toleration, the primary virtue produced by cultural relativism, tends to reach its inherent limit when it discovers that it has no reason not to tolerate intolerance i.e. it possesses no internal resources by which it can discover what should be tolerated and what not. And Melzer has other reasons to hope.  He argues, for example, in his book’s final pages, that classical thought is “a philosophy not of progress and enlightenment but of return.”  Return, for me, evokes the great emphasis on homecoming and restoration in contemporary ecological thought and suggests that Melzer is shares this widespread longing.  Classical thought, he goes on, “remains remarkably concrete, self-aware and rooted in ordinary experience.”  Esotericism, in this attractive rendering, protects not only the elite space of the philosopher – elitism, a word usually spoken as a curse in our day, was always the weightiest charge against Strauss – but also the vernacular, untheorized world.  Philosophy and vernacular life, in this view, are complements, not replacements for one another as they became in modernity when reason sought to remake society and was then supplanted in turn by periodic restorations of the claims of the irrational.   Esotericism, understood this way, stands for the restraint that keeps philosophy within bounds, preserving its integrity, and preventing it from overstepping its proper sphere.


This is where Melzer ends, and I think it’s worth quoting fairly fully the contrast he draws on his final page between classical and modern thought.


Classical philosophy endeavored to legitimize itself, to illuminate and test its basic presuppositions, through the constant return to and confrontation with the world of pre-philosophic experience (relying on esotericism to preserve that world from transformation in the face of this confrontation.)


Modern thought is built on the opposite hope that by its success in transforming, enlightening and disenchanting the world and by its continual progress in explaining the kind of things it can explain, it will make all testimony to or experience of the kinds of things that it cannot explain to simply wither away.  The world of traditional society, with its spirits, gods and poets, will simply disappear, refuted by history.  In short modern thought hopes to legitimize itself precisely through the obliteration of pre-theoretic experience.


This is an inspiring conclusion, I think, though, as I have already said several times, I fear that the word esoteric unduly restricts the scope of the argument.  Modesty, discretion, the ethics of concealment and unconcealment, the sense for the fitting or proportionate, the proper scope of prudence, the limitations of language, even the inherent contradictoriness of existence – all these are at some point in the book implications of the word esoteric.  That’s a lot of work for one word to do, especially when its primary sense evokes the modern bugaboos of hierarchy and elitism.  One can only hope that this book will make other readers see how fruitful a concept it can be in the hands of a lucid and generous writer like Melzer.


And what finally of the hope with which I began that I might get some insight into the question of whether Ivan Illich is an esoteric writer?  Well, respecting all the provisos I have already made about the meaning of esoteric, I would answer with a qualified yes.  Illich was certainly a writer who strictly limited his means, writing in a formal and highly condensed style that required considerable unpacking – it was a standing joke in the milieu we shared that some of his oldest friends had told him that it was only after I put out a book called Ivan Illich in Conversation in 1992 that they finally understood what he was talking about.  It also true that he spoke only when he felt called to do so.  The call might come from a friend or from some perceived public emergency but there was always an occasion, and no attempt to produce a summa or system that went beyond these occasions.  Likewise, he made no systematic exposition of his Christian faith though it completely coloured his work. (I have never been happy with calling this “a hidden purpose,” as I quoted Todd Hartch as saying at the beginning of this review – there’s more on this point in my earlier review of Hartch’s book on this blog – but there’s no doubt that it was not always fully revealed either.) 


So I would say that Illich as a teacher and writer observed some of the ethics that Melzer associates with esotericism.  I would also say that attention to the esoteric dimension in the New Testament contributes to an understanding of Illich’s hypothesis that corruptio optimi pessima, the corruption of the best is the worst.  Illich believed that the good news of the New Testament was something volatile and evanescent – the announcement of a freedom to love that could never be commanded or produced on demand.  When this freedom was institutionalized and made to perform punctually and reliably, the best became the worst.  The church, in this sense, is the essence of the exoteric, of that “brutal earnestness,” as Illich once called it, which believes that the truth can be shouted from the rooftops without irony or reserve and with no fear that it will be denatured in the process.   So, insofar as Illich holds that the explosiveness of the Gospel demanded more tact and less triumphalism than the church would eventually show, he can also be understood as on the side of the esoteric.  And finally I would say that Melzer’s book also contributed something to my understanding of the spirit of complementarity in Illich’s work.  Illich, for me, is the great critic of monism – not a very satisfactory word I know, but I don’t know another for what I want to point to – a view of the world as a single homogeneous field reducible to a single principle or a single stuff.     Illich wrote against the transformation of the duality of gender into the monism ofsex, against the overwhelming of vernacular life by professional service and expert opinion, against the reduction of imaginative talk to the uniform code of mediaspeak.  Melzer’s view that philosophy should properly be in a relationship of mutual restraint, of complementarity, with what he calls the pre-theoretic or commonsense world accords very well with this disposition of Illich’s.  Indeed what Melzer calls philosophy in its modern phase, marked as it is by universalism, political militance, and exoteric overreach, is very like what Illich sees as “Christianity,” trying to bring the whole world into line.  But to pursue this thought would demand a complex adjustment of the vocabulary of Strauss and his school to the vocabulary of Illich and his tribe – school doesn’t quite seem to fit in Illich’s case – and that’s a task for another day.     

Nils Christie: In Memoriam


On May 27th in Oslo, my friend Nils Christie died at 87.  The news was a blow, and it was a solace to set down some of my memories of this dear man.  The result was the following reminiscence.  It reflects on the significance of Nils’ work, and the way my life became intertwined with his:


Nils Christie was born in 1928 and was just entering his adolescence when Nazi Germany occupied his native Norway.   After the war, as a student of criminology, he was asked by his professor, Johannes Andenæs, to investigate what had gone on during the occupation in the northern camps where the Nazis had imprisoned captured Yugoslavian partisans, brought to Norway,  without being told where they were going, as part of Hitler’s campaign of Nacht und Nebel, or night and fog.   Conditions in these camps were terrible – during one year seventy per cent of the prisoners had died – and this could not be written off as a purely German atrocity, because several hundred Norwegian guards had also worked there.  Nils’ assignment was to find out why some of these guards had killed or maltreated prisoners.  He interviewed former prisoners and a cross-section of the guards, including both those who had behaved cruelly and those who had behaved decently.   A stark conclusion presented itself: those who had behaved relatively well had gotten to know something about their prisoners – they had talked with them and had often seen pictures of their families – while those who had been vicious had made sure they knew nothing beyond what the Germans told them – that these were sub-human savages from the Balkans.  


The insight he gained through this study became the central principle of Nils’ criminology:  how punitive we are varies with how much we know about the one whom we believe ought to be punished.  He pursued it through many books and articles during a long and fruitful career in which he became, first, a leading voice for the steady reduction in imprisonment that took place in Europe and North America after the Second World War, and, then, when this trend reversed and rates of imprisonment began a rapid rise after the 1980’s, a voice of prophetic warning against the dangerous political implications he saw in this increase.  Again and again he demonstrated that the rate of imprisonment is largely unconnected to the rate of crime, and that the rate of crime itself is an easily manipulated artifact.  (He called one of his books A Suitable Amount of Crime.)  During his own career, imprisonment fell while crime was rising, and then increased while crime was falling.  Crime control, he showed, is always a question of policy, and not of some necessary and predetermined response to crime.


Nils wrote in English in what he called “the saga style,” and he claimed that whatever virtues his vigorous and rough-hewn English prose possessed were born of necessity.  He didn’t have the ability to write elegant, swirling English sentences, he said, so he was forced to carve out his words and concepts, as if writing with a chisel in rock.   I found it an eloquent style, which needed no other justification, but it also supported a lifelong campaign against euphemism in criminology.  This campaign and the saga style came together in the first book he wrote in English, 1981’s Limits to Pain.   Here he argued that the operations of criminal justice are typically swathed in soft words that conceal what is going on.  Imprisonment is the intentional infliction of pain, but it often speaks of itself as correction (the Correctional Service of Canada), or penitence (the penitentiary), or reform (the reformatory).  Call a spade a spade, Nils argued, and it would be less easy to punish.


Nils is often credited as one of the inspirers of restorative justice, and this is true, but he was also an opponent of professionalization; and, insofar as the once vital movement for restorative justice has been professionalized, bureaucratized and turned into a minor subdivision of the criminal justice system in recent years, he was also a critic.   A look at one of his most influential articles shows why.  “Conflicts as Property” appeared in the British Journal of Criminology in 1977, and it argued in Nils’ bold, direct way that conflict belongs to the community in which it occurs. The criminal justice system appropriates it and translates it into its own terms.  To take a real example from my experience, a shooting of a citizen by the police at the end of my street was treated as none of my business because it was under confidential investigation by the special branch of the police set up to investigate police shootings.   What concerned me personally, and them only professionally, belonged entirely to them.  To tell me anything about it would have been a violation of their duty.  In similar way, court proceedings are limited to what is considered relevant under legal rules, which often involve what Nils calls a “trained incapacity” to see the case in dispute as a whole.   Conflict is expropriated and turned into a legal resource.   The effect is to weaken the community.  Conflict builds moral muscle, and when it is habitually referred to professional authorities these muscles grow flabby. 


What Nils argues for in this article is a balance between the formal justice system and the informal processes by which people try to get along with one another and keep the peace – what his friend Ivan Illich called “people’s peace”.  Formal justice is blind.  In the personification of Lady Justice that has come down to us from ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman sources, the scales and double-edged sword she is holding are complemented by a blindfold, and Nils never tired of pointing out that this showed not just her impartiality but also her inability to see beyond what could be accomplished with sword and scales.  As a final resort against violence, the formal legal system is infinitely precious.  When it monopolizes all conflict and undermines the community’s capacity for reconciliation, it becomes tyranny.   This was the basis for his position on restorative justice: by all means address conflict in the community but never allow this capacity to be professionalized and reabsorbed into the formal system.


I met Nils Christie at the urging of our mutual friend Ivan Illich.  Nils and Ivan had known each other since the early 1970’s when they found common ground in their attitude to schooling.  Nils had written a book, not yet translated from the Norwegian, whose title he rendered in English as “What if there were no school?” Ivan had just published his book Deschooling Society.  Nils also took part in meetings at CIDOC (the Centre for Intercultural Documentation in Cuernavaca, Mexico) on the role of law in a convivial society.  They kept in touch, and, when I came under Ivan’s influence around 1990, one of the first things he insisted that I do was to visit Nils Christie in Oslo and produce a radio series on his thought.   So, early in 1993, I took the overnight train from Hamburg to Oslo and found Nils waiting for me on the platform.   The next few days produced not just an inspiring set of broadcasts, which you can find under his name in the podcast section of this site, but also an enduring friendship, not just with Nils but also with his wife and fellow criminologist, Hedda Giersten.  She welcomed me at their table, just as Nils had welcomed me at the station, and I returned to Oslo, and to that table, several times in subsequent years, as well as several times receiving Nils at my home in Toronto. 


In 1993, when I first went to Oslo, Nils was about to publish a book called Crime Control as Industry: Towards Gulags Western Style?  It went through several editions, and, after the first, he removed the question mark from his subtitle.    It was his rueful reflection on the ever-increasing rates of imprisonment that he had been observing in the years before he wrote – most notably in the United States, and the former Soviet republics, but even under mild social democratic regimes – the Netherlands, for example, which had gone down to an astonishingly low 17 prisoners per hundred thousand of population in the 1960’s had reverted to 85 per hundred thousand by the time the third edition of  Nils’ book appeared in 2,000.   Crime Control as Industry asked why prison rates were growing so fast, and then considered the dystopian possibility that large prison complexes might offer considerable advantages to the emerging neo-liberal state and so become a permanent part of its social landscape.   Imprisonment provides jobs for those who build, supply and staff the prisons, but it also provides jobs for the prisoners, and in two senses: they become the raw material that the prison/industrial complex requires, and at the same time serve as convenient enemies for a society held together only by loose and provisional bonds.  Once capital abandons all local loyalties, Nils says, and even the winners in the economic sweepstakes feel how precarious their position is, a supply of certified losers can acquire a crucial symbolic function. 


Nils viewed the prison boom as, above all, a political emergency.   The societies that emerged from the Second World War contained a lot of people who knew at first hand the terrors of imprisonment.  Nils himself experienced a terrorized society as a teenager and knew in his bones what had happened in the Norwegian prison camps.  Post-war societies managed to control and reduce rates of imprisonment because they contained enough people who remembered concentration camps and refugee camps and who felt the awe and trepidation that the administration of pain ought to inspire.  But memories are short where mass media relentlessly highlight the present, and the appetite for enemies grew as societies polarized and became more complex after the 1960’s.   Nils worried about the emergence of “Gulags Western style” on two levels – the first was his compassion for the sufferings of the prisoners, the second, equally important, was his fear of the coarsening and desensitizing effect that large prison complexes have on political sensibilities.  Deprivation of liberty comes to seem normal and necessary; the state expands, while an intimidated civil society contracts; and the law wastes the majesty it ought to hold in reserve by involving itself in matters best left to the concerned community.  


In 1995, Nils’ sense of a dire political emergency inspired him to summon many of his old allies in the fight against mass imprisonment to Oslo for a consultation.  He also asked a number of prison insiders to join this gathering.  The head of the Correctional Service of Canada was there, as was the director of the prison system for the state of Texas, which then had a prison rate in almost vertical ascent, moving from under 200 per 100,000 in 1980 to almost 800 per 100,000 by 1995.   When this conference was in preparation, Nils called me and asked for my help in publicizing its findings. This was a moment of crisis for me because I had other projects in hand, and no desire at that moment to delve further into criminology.  However, with a little reflection, I soon saw that for years the success of my work as a broadcaster had depended on others saying yes, when I asked, and that it was now my turn to say yes.  I never regretted it, despite the diversion of my plans.  I went to Oslo and set to work on the first of the several series of broadcasts that I would end up making on the subject of criminal justice over the next five years. 


I recorded a number of excellent interviews, with Nils and others, after the conference in Oslo, and then when I returned home continued to explore alternatives to imprisonment.  In Oslo, I had sensed discouragement among many of the people there, people who had worked so hard to reduce rates of imprisonment only to see them take a sharp U-turn in the later 1980’s.  Back home in Canada I found more optimism.   Canada’s rate of imprisonment was a small fraction of the American rate, but it had still been inching up from 91 in 1981 to 114 in 1995 according to Correctional Service of Canada data.  (The American rate, by Nils’ calculation, was then nearing 600.)  The government would soon have to make a decision about whether to expand the existing prisons or build new ones.   The surprise to me, given the mood in Oslo, was that there was a lot of opposition to any prison expansion – within the Correctional Service and the Department of the Solicitor General, in the judiciary, and amongst the proponents of what was then just beginning to be called, in a new articulation of an old idea, restorative justice.   This preference for controlling Canada’s rate of imprisonment won the day, and the reaction I received made me believe that “Prison and Its Alternatives,” the series of ten broadcasts I presented on CBC Radio’s Ideas in 1996, might have played some small part in helping to consolidate this consensus in favour of holding the line.  Canada built no new prisons, and the rate of imprisonment declined slightly in subsequent years, until our current government began to deliberately force it up again.


 “Prison and Its Alternatives” told stories about promising alternatives to imprisonment around the world.  It did not make extravagant claims for these new/old forms of resolving conflict, but the series certainly had a “blue skies” element to it.  One of its interesting sequels was a call I received from David Cole, a provincial court judge here in Toronto.  He proposed that I spend a day “watching the parade”, as he put it, in his Scarborough court room.  The suggestion was not hostile, just a friendly attempt to bring me down to earth.  I went, learned something about the painful dilemmas involved in the day-to-day operations of the justice system, and later attended a conference of the Canadian Criminal Justice Association that David Cole helped to organize in Saskatoon on the pros and cons of restorative justice.   Nils was also there, and, in connection with the conference, he and I and the Australian criminologist John Braithwaite were invited to visit a “healing lodge,” a new type of prison  developed by the Correctional Service of Canada for aboriginal inmates.  There are now eight of these small institution altogether.  The one we visited was the Okimaw Ohci Healing Lodge, a women’s prison in the Cypress Hills near Maple Creek.  We were very hospitably received and all three of us, as I recall, were terrifically impressed by an atmosphere that seemed to justify the prison’s ambitious name.  One of the people who show us round was Yvonne Johnson, a long term prisoner who had recently published a memoir, written with novelist Rudy Wiebe, called Stolen Life: A Cree Woman’s Journey.  (A very painful book to read, but, for me, a revelation, and I would unreservedly recommend it to anyone who thinks they can bear the ordeal.)

The Saskatoon conference became the seed of a radio series called “To Hurt of To Heal”, broadcast in 2,000.  The year before I had also published The Expanding Prison: The Crisis in Crime and Punishment and the Search for Alternatives, a book which I dedicated to Nils, since he not only inspired it but also, in a certain sense, asked for it when he sought my help in his dark hour in 1995.   And the work I did, at Nils’ instigation, was just one instance of the influence he exercised on reformist criminology in Canada.  Mary Campbell, who retired in 2013 as Director General, Corrections & Criminal Justice in the federal government, says that “his intellectual influence on Canadians over the decades cannot be overstated.”  (Her obituary, for Policy Options, is at http://policyoptions.irpp.org/2015/05/28/nils-christie-in-memorium/)  She particularly mentions Ole Ingstrup, twice the commissioner of the Correctional Service of Canada, who was a good friend of Nils, and Judge David Cole.  I would also add the whole broad movement for restorative justice, which was permeated by Nils’ thinking.

What I have said so far might lead you to think that Nils’ influence was limited to criminology, but this is not so.  One of his most profound books, for me, is a short work – Nils was always wonderfully terse – called Beyond Loneliness and Institutions.  It describes the life of a rural Norwegian community called Vidaråsen, with which Nils was closely involved for many years and where he lived for a time.  It is one of the communities established world-wide under the influence of Rudolf Steiner that welcomes people with mental handicaps – Nils in his subtitle speaks of “communes for extraordinary people,” his preferred term for his friends there.  (In English these communities are usually called Camphill villages after the place near Aberdeen in Scotland where Austrian émigré Karl König and his associates established the first one.)  Nils admired and enjoyed the vivid and elemental quality of life there and also liked the challenge of presenting his ideas to people so far outside the ambit of academic discourse.  During one academic term, he had his University of Oslo seminar on “principles of justice” meet alternately at the university and at Vidaråsen.   What he discovered, he said, was that normal academic presentations were a flop, but when he “took up…concrete cases of justice, then the audience turned into a very vivid and active group.”  He compared the atmosphere in these seminars to what he experienced at the University of California at Berkeley when he lectured there in 1968 and “when the whole place was filled with vivacity and energy and student activity.”  (The quotations are from “Beyond Institutions,” a series I did in 1994 in which Nils discussed his experiences at Vidaråsen.)  He summarized his “life in the villages” by saying that “the increasing circle of extraordinary people I meet has made me aware of how handicapped we ordinary people are, when we are kept away from people who are extraordinary.”  This view was of a piece with his feelings about crime – the community is diminished when it doesn’t include everyone, just as it is diminished when it loses its power to resolve conflict. 

I cannot conclude without again mentioning Nils’ relationship with Ivan Illich.  Nils dedicated Crime Control as Industry to Ivan and gave him an honoured place at the conference in Oslo in 1995.  (An account of Ivan’s remarks on that occasion is given in my book The Expanding Prison.)   In the years after Ivan died in 2002, Nils and I had several long conversations about him.  I was trying to orient a book I writing about Ivan, but Nils was just as eager to ponder his friend’s legacy.  The two men couldn’t have been more different – Ivan, the Christian; Nils the humanist who recalled, the last time we spoke, that he had edited an anti-Christian newspaper while he was in high school.  And yet they were fast friends, and inspirations to one another.  Nils said that he got on best with Ivan when he treated him as “a visitor from the 12th century.”  Ivan doted on Nils and, early in their acquaintance, learned enough Norwegian to read  Nils’ book on schools.  Nils, doubtful, said that he examined him on the text and found that he had indeed understood it.  I see them as complements to one another, reaching the same place by very different routes, but both, in the end, equally devoted to the human scale and the face of the neighbor.

Nils died in hospital in Oslo on May 27th, the day after a collision with a tram while riding his bicycle.  He never recovered consciousness.  Nils was a lifelong cyclist and the last time I was with him in the summer of 2013 he took me riding through his hilly Oslo neighborhood on the electric bicycles he and Hedda had recently bought.  For me there is something glorious in knowing that he died as he lived, active and vigorous to the end, in the streets of the Oslo neighborhood where he was well known and well loved.  He will stay with me until the end of my days.  

What Is Religion?

A lecture to a legal symposium on Religion: A Public and Social Good, convened by the Canadian Council of Christian Charities at the University of Toronto.  It was delivered on May 11, 2015...                                                                      


Years ago, the Canadian philosopher George Grant told me a joke which he said he had heard from Bertrand Russell.  It tells of two atheists who are engaged in a long and fruitless debate.  Finally, recognizing that they’re getting nowhere, one turns to the others and says, "Look, let’s just give this up.  I’m a Protestant atheist and you’re a Catholic atheist and we have nothing in common.”  It’s a joke with a sharp and pertinent point in relation to my theme this evening the slipperiness of the word religion and the difficulty of telling who has it and who doesn’t.   Religion may be renounced but that does not mean that it is not still conserved, in both the institutions and the thought styles that bear its genetic imprint.  Atheism, as one such renunciation, is entirely defined by what it rejects and can never be anything more than a slogan until it specifies what that is.  Which God don’t you believe in is always the logical next question?  And that question, when it’s taken seriously, and not answered by an attack on some celestial straw man that no one ever believed in in the first place, must necessarily involve sustained historical, psychological and existential inquiry. 

The difficulty of defining atheism is one aspect of the more general difficulty involved in trying to define religion, and I don’t intend to try.  Rather I would like, first, to explore the bewildering multiplicity of meanings that are bound up in this everyday word, religion, and then, second, to show that the institutions by which we normally define it are but the proverbial tip of the iceberg.  Most of the mass lies hidden underwater in the form of thoughts and practices that we confidently define as secular.  This matters, I think, because religion is a contested object: in law, in education, in politics, in daily discussion.  And, if we don’t really know what we’re talking about, and if all sorts of rules are being made to contain this “x,” then it is probable that what we are doing is regulating the forms of religion our definitions can catch, while giving its many unrecognized forms a free ride.  Expanding our understanding, therefore, holds a certain promise and allows us at least to imagine a way out of the perennial modern culture war in which religion has always played such a divisive role.  

According to Eric Vogelin, the first writer to create a single compact category for the proper worship of the gods was Cicero.  Before this time, Vogelin says, many of the things that we unify under the name of religion had distinct and separate existences.   No one imagined that cosmological myth, Mosaic law, Buddhist dharma, and Platonic philosophy all belonged in the same bag.   Cicero’s motive, according to Vogelin, was conservative – he wanted to protect the truth in the face of a disconcerting and, he feared, disintegrating diversity of opinion and practice regarding the gods.   However that may be, the word was taken up by nascent Christianity, but still not used in our contemporary sense for a long time to come.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s argued that religion doesn’t even begin to acquire its contemporary flavour before the 16th century.   “Religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life,” says Cantwell Smith, “is an invention of the modern West.”  Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.”  In fact Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.”   (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence.  This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.)  John Bossy, the historian of Christianity, concurs with Cantwell Smith in finding that religion remains inextricable from culture until the time of the Reformation.  Only then, did the idea of religion as a matter of rational belief and private choice begin to take shape.  By 1700, he says in his book Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, this process was relatively complete.  By then, he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”  

Religion was isolated and packaged.  And, once it had been withdrawn from culture, it could then serve as a scapegoat, a cypher for violence and arbitrary opinion.  For example, the wars that convulsed Europe between the beginning of the Reformation and the Peace of Westphalia became known as the wars of religion.  But, as William Cavanaugh has shown in his book The Myth of Religious Violence, this name conceals more than it reveals.  What it conceals is that these wars were primarily wars of national self-assertion, the birth pangs of the modern national state, in which religion was often no more than a convenient marker for other interests.  It also effectively hides the sacred and church-like character of the emergent modern state by make this state appear to be the harbinger of freedom from religious violence.  Religion became the scapegoat of Enlightenment, the shadow in which it hid its violence.

A second important point to note is that this concept of religion was no sooner  formed than it was exported. Wherever an expanding Europe conquered, the template of religion was applied.  In India, for example, no clear distinction was drawn between religion and philosophy, and there was no thought that one ought to belong exclusively and as a matter of identity to one community of belief.   This does not mean there was never friction between communities, just that there was no object resembling what the modern West had come to call religion.  Today Hinduism defines itself as a religion; conflict between religions is endemic; and a superior secular authority is required to keep the peace and adjudicate these conflicts.

The isolation of religion was a key part of what French thinker Bruno Latour calls the modern constitution, that series of “purifications” – Latour’s word – which also included the equally artificial distinction then being established between nature and society.   Charles Taylor speaks of a “subtraction narrative” rather than a purification,  in his A Secular Age, but he has essentially the same idea.   In the conventional narrative of secularization, Taylor says, secularity is considered to be a primordial condition which is concealed by obscurantist religion.   Remove the religion and, presto, there’s the secular.  This story is no longer persuasive.  Taylor has shown convincingly that the secular is a child of Latin Christianity, and quite unthinkable without it.  Latour, likewise, has shown that the once plausible separations characteristic of the modern constitution are now in shambles.  If you had told Immanuel Kant, Latour once joked to me, that human beings were changing the weather, he would have patiently explained to you that you were a victim of outmoded mythic thinking – nature here/society there was a model that still worked for him as a demystification of occult powers.  In the new era that Latour likes to call the Anthropocene, when humans really do change the weather, it won’t work any longer.  And, I would argue it’s just the same with the separation of the religious from the secular – the fingerprints of religion on the secular are becoming too obvious to ignore.

Nevertheless they are ignored, and many still think that the category of religion covers only what goes on in mosques, churches, synagogues and temples or what goes on in our heads concerning the ultimate nature of things.  This continuing attempt to isolate and privatize religion runs into two main objections: first that religion exists in so many displaced forms, and second that it is built in to our institutions, and to our ways of thinking and speaking.  As far as its displaced forms, I think, this is pretty well worked ground, and I probably don’t need to go into it here.  I recently read a persuasive essay arguing that baseball is a religion, and I don’t think the idea is trivial.  If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck etc.  We use the word colloquially to describe any habit whose identical repetition we cherish.  One can be religious about a certain way of making coffee.   At a more serious level, millenarian political movements are commonly understood as displacements of religion.   In his book Migrations of the Holy, William Cavanaugh makes an excellent case for hiscontention that the modern state is now the primary site of the sacred.  Carl Schmitt makes the famous claim that, “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts” and adds the corollary that this is not just a question of historical precedence – the sovereignty of God comes before the sovereignty of the modern state – but also of structure – the analogy between the exception in jurisprudence and the miracle in religion is not accidental but derives from their identical function.   Schmitt took his insight in disastrous reactionary directions, but I think he is right nonetheless.  I don’t  see how we could get to the modern concept of sovereignty except via our idea of God, and, more than that, I don’t see how we can ever resolve the dilemmas of modern sovereignty without addressing their religious origin – a point I’ll come back to a little at the end.

A second aspect of the question of displaced religion concerns liturgy or ritual – the terms can be distinguished but are often used in overlapping ways.  Many modern students of religion have made the point that the relationship between liturgy and belief, or between ritual and myth is reciprocal.  Liturgy doesn’t just institute or incarnate a pre-existing belief, it also engenders that belief.  The British theologian John Milbank puts it this way: “The Christian God can no longer be thought of as a God first seen but rather as a God first prayed to,  first imagined, first inspiring certain actions.”  Liturgy enacts the church; it brings it into being.   But this is true not just of the church.   Its modern descendants – the school, the hospital, the prison – are also generated and maintained by certain rituals, or perhaps it would be better to say that their institutional practices are rituals, whose repetition produces a certain belief.  Consider for example the way in which the Canadian government has recently been able to generate a belief in public safety by intensifying the ritual of imprisonment, and has been able to do so in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are actually doing the opposite of what they say.   I won’t pursue this claim further here, but I think analysis of contemporary institutions a mytho-poetic (myth-making) rituals is a promising line of inquiry, and apt to show our supposedly secular society as a religious ceremony of unprecedented scale – to say nothing of cost.

I have already begun to touch on what I said would be my second point: the way religion is built in to the foundations of our society.  Here I will just briefly mention two of my most important teachers.  The first is Rene Girard, the French literary critic, anthropologist, and philosopher – his work is not easily  pigeon-holed.  His argument is that without religion, by which he essentially means sacrifice and prohibition, there would never have been human cultures in the first place.  Only religion, he says, could ever have contained our tendency to get stuck in self-perpetuating structures of reciprocal violence.  On this reckoning religion is the genome of human culture – its genetic constitution. 

Ivan Illich, the second thinker I want to mention, holds that modernity can only be understood as a perversion of what is given in the New Testament.  This is an argument to which I can’t do justice here, but it holds, in a phrase, that modernity is the Gospel upside down.   Jesus announces freedom from religion.  The point is complicated because this announcement is very hard to disentangle from the anti-Semitism that is always implicit and sometimes explicit in the attack on the legalistic Pharisees, but, nevertheless, again and again, religious prohibitions, even family ties and funeral obligations, are denounced in favour of a freely chosen love.   The Church makes this love the law.  It institutionalizes it and tries to make it perform punctually and reliably.  The result, claims Illich, is the vast architecture of institutionalized care which arguably defines modernity.

Now that’s almost criminally condensed, but my point is that our apparently secular world is nothing of the kind – rather it’s a kind of frozen religion – and it remains that regardless of how many people sit, or don’t sit in churches.  This realization has been dawning on people in many ways in our time, I think.  Another place to look is at the so-called return of religion in European philosophy – the descendants of Heidegger, thinking within the horizons of the New Testament.  Jean Luc Nancy calls Christianity “the nervous system” of the West.  Giorgio Agamben and Alain Badiou publish commentaries on the apostle Paul.  Jacques Derridawrites his Circonfession in homage to Augustine’s Confessions.  All these thinkers in some way recognize religion as a limit – something that we can’t get beyond.  Derrida, for example, shows how the messianic belongs to structure of experience, of time, of language.  “I’m afraid we’re not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar,” as Nietzche wrote in The Twilight of the Idols.  Many of these writers I’ve mentioned identify as atheists – Jacques Derrida puts it wittily and carefully when he says “I rightly pass for an atheist” – a statement which characteristically allows him to open the very door he appears to be closing.  A favourite work of mine, along these lines, is Richard Kearney’s Anatheism.  Kearney is an Irish philosopher and novelist and poet who now teaches at Boston College.  By adding the prefix ana – up, back, again – he tries to unsettle the theism/atheism distinction, and to highlight the atheistic moments even within theistic religion.  A simple distinction God/not God, he shows, is not true to our experience.

Now let me finally try to draw out two implications of what I have been saying. I have been arguing first that religion has changed its meaning over time, so we need to know what we’re referring to when we use the word – there may, for example, be a virtue of religion, expressing itself in a habit of humility and reverence, which is quite distinct, in our peculiar circumstances, from membership in a religious institution.  Secondly, I have been arguing that conserved religion – to give it only a very tentative name – is constitutive of our very way of life.  To me this points to the need for what Harold Bloom calls “religious criticism.”  This is the first implication to which I want to draw attention.  Bloom uses this term in his book The American Religion, and defines it by analogy with literary criticism, naming Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James as his two great predecessors in the practice of this art.  Literary criticism attunes itself to the voices of a text; religious criticism reads religion in the same spirit.  Now Bloom is interested in a taxonomy of the unique forms religion has taken in the United States, whereas I have talking here about how religion has conditioned our civilization as a whole, but I still find his term evocative.  Religiosity pervades our supposedly secular existence, and religious criticism suggests the discerning eye with which I think we need to examine it. 

The second implication, and here I will end, is that the only road open to the future may run through the past.  Only there will we find what John Milbank calls “the future we have missed.”  Suppose it is true that our present way of life is a product of religious misunderstanding – a perversion of the promise of salvation that has led into what begins to look like a historical dead end.  Suppose that the word religion, even after we have patiently deconstructed it, continues to name something essential about us, that, as William Blake says, “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul; less than All cannot satisfy Man.”  Then I think it follows that only by understanding what has gone wrong will we be able to set it right.  This does not mean rejecting secular society and instituting utopia.  So long as religions generate oppression and war, a secular power will be necessary to restrain them.  The existence of such a power is already a remarkable religious achievement.  But it does mean re-understanding what has happened to us, which, I think, is what conversion is – not changing what has been, but seeing it with new eyes. 








A Review of Todd Hartch's The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the Modern West

Todd Hartch, The Prophet of Cuernavaca: Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West, Oxford University Press, 2015


Reviewed by David Cayley


In 1999, near the end of his life, I asked Ivan Illich how he would square the injunction which ends the Gospel of Matthew to “make disciples of all nations” with his opposition to the missionary activity of the American Catholic Church in the 1960’s.  The interview was being done for the radio arm of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and we both knew, as Illich remarked a little later in this conversation, that we were engaged in what he called “a shadow battle on radio.”  Accordingly, he let me have it.  “I reject your imputation,” he said, “that in the 1960’s I took a stand against the missionary activities of the Church.”  “Those were the days,” he goes on to say, “when an American manipulator, journalist and priest, who had glorified the missionary activities of the American Maryknoll Fathers in China, found a new vocation for this Catholic missionary order by inveigling Pope John XXIII into signing a document in which he asks North American bishops and religious superiors to send 10 percent of their ordained, trained priests to South America, the new mission field of the Church.  This man also wrote a paper, which he then had signed by the Vatican authorities, creating, as a parallel to the secular Peace Corps, an agency called Papal Volunteers for Latin America.  And I denounced this as an obvious, easily understandable caricature, as a corruption of the mission given by Jesus to his apostles.” 


This sounds like a pretty open and shut case, but readers of Todd Hartch’s just published The Prophet of Cuernavaca will soon discover a more tangled tale.  In 1961 Illich and several colleagues set up the Center of Intercultural Formation (CIF), in Cuernavaca, Mexico, with the announced purpose of training missionaries to Latin America.  (CIF later gave birth to the Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC), a less church-centered organization which, for a time, operated in parallel with CIF and then displaced it.) This was a continuation of work Illich had begun in Puerto Rico some years before when he founded and directed the Institute for Intercultural Communication, which had trained New Yorkers who were working with Puerto Rican immigrants.  Here, Hartch reports, “hundreds of priests and nuns and some teachers, firefighters, police officers” were introduced to the Spanish language and the rudiments of Puerto Rican culture.   John Considine, the Maryknoll priest about whom Illich spoke to me, was a key figure in the launching of CIF.  Considine was then the director of the Latin American Bureau (LAB) of the Catholic Welfare Conference, and his concern was the implementation of the missionary plan for which he had gained the support of the Pope.  Illich’s work in Puerto Rico had given Considine a high regard for Illich’s abilities, and he had insisted that Illich was by far the best man to direct the training of these new missionaries, even when Paul Tanner, the general secretary of the association of American bishops, had argued with him that Illich was too much of a wild card to be trusted in such a position.  As the  director of the LAB, Considine was crucial to the flow both of both funds and students to the new center, and he served on its board of directors.  Without him, it’s unlikely, on Hartch’s evidence, that CIF would ever have got off the ground.  


Illich maintained cordial working relations with Considine for a number of years.  In a letter written to Considine in 1963 he acknowledges “frequent differences in opinion” but then goes on to say that these had only “strengthened rather than weakened our mutual respect.”   So, if Illich from the start had regarded the missionary initiatives for which Considine had won the Pope’s backing as “an easily understandable caricature” of the Gospel imperative to spread the good news, then it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the main manipulator in this story was Illich and not the earnest and somewhat credulous Considine.  But perhaps it’s the case that Illich turned against the missionary effort in Latin America more gradually than he allowed in his summary recollection to me nearly forty years later?  Todd Hartch does not think so.  He quotes a remark Illich made in connection with his years in Puerto Rico before ever establishing CIF.  “I learned in Puerto Rico,” Illich recalled, “that there are only a few people who are not stunted or wholly destroyed by lifelong work ‘for the poor’ in a foreign country.”  And Hartch thinks that this impression was fortified during a 3,000 miles journey that Illich made over a four-month period in 1960, winding his way from Santiago, Chile to Caracas, Venezuela.  Hartch calls it a pilgrimage; it was certainly a voyage of discovery.  Illich was impressed by Latin American folk Catholicism but repelled by the American missionaries he encountered.  “Remarks by Illich,” Hartch writes, “implied that the missionaries he met during this time conceived of their role as making the Latin American Church look more like the Church in the United States, saving Latin America from communism and building costly schools and church buildings.  Illich was so angered by these Americans that in 1960, probably on this trip, he told Bishop Manuel Larrain, president of the Latin American bishops’ organization that he was ‘prepared if necessary to stop the coming of the missionaries to Latin America.’”  What one can certainly say, it seems to me, is that Illich, from the beginning, believed that mission must be a vocation and not a programme with a target or a diversion of ecclesiastical personnel to an underserviced area.  Accordingly it’s hard not to share Hartch’s conclusion that, at the least, Illich’s relation with Considine involved a certain amount of “ambiguity, flattery and misdirection.” 


I begin with this vignette because I think it illustrates the value of Todd Hartch’s book for those of us who know something of the legend of Illich’s CIDOC years but not much of the historical record.    And Hatch discovered an extensive record deposited in archives at Harvard, Notre Dame, Indiana, Fordham and the Catholic University of America.  Drawing on letters, periodical literature, the recollections of teachers and students, and the many publications of CIF/CIDOC, as well as Illich’s own writings, Hartch has pieced together the story of Illich’s Cuernavaca years, beginning with the establishment of CIF in 1961 and ending with the closing of CIDOC in 1976.  Particular attention is given to what Hartch calls “the Catholic period” from 1961 to 1967.   He also provides a biographical sketch of Illich in the years before 1961, and concludes with an assessment of Illich’s work as a whole, but the greater part of the book is taken up with the goings on at CIF/CIDOC and with the question of mission.


Before he ever started CIF, Illich had developed a philosophy of mission.  The best introduction to it is a book called The Church, Change and Development (1970) which includes several substantial statements of Illich’s views.  The qualities that Illich urges missionaries to cultivate are humility, poverty of spirit, and silence in the face of all that they do not know and may never understand.  Missionaries may know the Gospel, but they can have no idea initially what it means in the new context they have entered, and, in that sense, they enter empty-handed.  He also urges the need for some formation in the sociology of religion, an education he himself had undergone in the 1950’s through writers like Will Herberg, Martin Marty and others who had shown that much of what passes for Christianity is no more than cultural accretion and the sanctification of civic piety.  Such an education was particularly necessary for Americans, he thought, because the power and influence of the United States made it easier for them to confuse the Gospel with the particular form of their church and therefore to become what he calls “ecclesiastic conquistadors.”


So Illich certainly began his work at CIF with the view that many, perhaps most of the Americans who were apt to end up in Latin America under a plan like Considine’s would likely do more harm than good unless they underwent drastic reorientation.  This was reflected in the CIF training courses.  In the very first session, Hartch writes, only thirty-two of sixty-two students managed to get through the course.  At all times Illich was, as his friend Joe Fitzpatrick said, “a sign of contradiction” who quite deliberately evoked strong reactions.  Hartch quotes one priest as saying, “The Monsignor is aiming too high, too high for me and others of my capacity.”  Another unhappy priest complained of Illich and his staff’s “rigorism.”  A French Canadian woman who attended in 1962 felt that the “program…brings students to the edge of hysteria and chase[s] half of them away.”  By 1965 even John Considine, finally disillusioned, was complaining that the students “morale” was being undermined.  There were of course also those who experienced CIF training as an awakening, and Hartch occasionally quotes them too, but the voices of the disappointed and offended tend to predominate.  Perhaps one can get the flavour of the good Illich did from a remark his friend the Bishop of Cuernavaca, Méndez Arceo, made to Francine Duplessix Gray who quotes it in her 1970 profile of Illich for The New Yorker.  “I love the way Illich tortures his missionaries,” the bishop told Gray.  “Sometimes I cry with emotion at seeing aged men, elderly priests shed their old selves under his care.”


CIF was established as a missionary training centre but soon began to open  other avenues as well.  Its library expanded, its journal, CIF Reports, became a voice for various cultural ferments then bubbling in Latin America, and the ambitious publishing programme that was later characteristic of CIDOC was begun.  As a result of meetings held under CIF auspices, a separate institute devoted to specifically Latin American pastoral methods was established.  Its stated purpose was to foster “vernacular pastoral methods in a prophetic, servant Church of the poor.”  This was one of the first stirrings of what became known as “liberation theology,” a movement in which CIF initially played a founding role.  Illich later opposed this tendency, insofar as it involved a politicization of the church, but the project of a distinctive Latin American theology was initiated at a meeting he convened at CIF’s Brazilian outpost in Petropolis in early 1964, and CIF Reports was the journal in which its first expressions were exchanged.  These developments constituted the positive side of Illich’s programme.  He wasn’t just trying to keep away missionaries who had an ethnocentric and clerical/bureaucratic conception of the Church; he was also trying to put forward a new image of Latin America as a potential source of renewal.  In 1963 he expressed his hope that Latin America, both in the sense of “occupation with it and preparation for it,” would have a “revolutionary influence on Church institutions outside of Latin America.”  “We can therefore,” he said, “ever more speak of the responsibility which Latin America has towards the world and which it is exercising though CIF.”  Illich, in other words, did not see North America as a rich civilization whose bounty ought to be made to overflow into the lands of its southern neighbours.  He saw it as a world itself in need of healing and rededication.


Illich’s hope that Latin America might assert a “revolutionary influence” on a complacent Church in the “developed” countries is characteristic.  He may have given the term his own twist, but he speaks frequently during this period of revolution.  His first book, Celebration of Awareness (1970), is subtitled A Call for Institutional Revolution.  Particularly telling, for me, is a letter Hartch  reproduces from 1962.  Illich was writing to his friend Joe Fitzpatrick, a Jesuit priest and professor of sociology at Fordham who had been Illich’s ally since the early 1950’s when they worked together on the integration of Puerto Rican immigrants into the Catholic Church in New York City.  In the letter he urges him to abandon “the institutional frameworks that now allow you to be courageous” and to risk “total involvement” in CIF even at the cost of losing “respectability among your peers.”  If Fitzpatrick were to embrace this professional and spiritual “exile,” then “in a way,” Illich concludes, “you might be the first North American priest who with full consciousness of what it involves…joins the revolution.”  This is a letter to a dear friend – I can still remember with what pleasure Illich, many years later, introduced me to Joe Fitz, as he called him.  It says something about what Illich himself was giving up, since his abilities would certainly have afforded him the comfortable priesthood and secure academic career that he is asking his friend to renounce.   But more than that it shows that Illich, at this time, was in full earnest about revolution.  The object of this revolution was what he spoke of in his late interviews with me as “the resurrection of the Church,” the Church he refers to in various writing of the 1950’s and 60’s as a “sinking ship” and a “giant [which] begins to totter before it collapses.”  The only way to save it, as he argued in his essay “The Vanishing Clergyman,” would be to dismantle its whole corporate, clerical bureaucratic structure and return to mystery, surprise and celebration – Illich’s three great watchwords.  The Church, he said, is “that surprise in the net, the pearl,”  “a divine bud which will flower in eternity,” and “a sign to be lifted up among the nations.”  This was the Church’s proper vocation, not manpower planning for Latin America, and, on the consistent evidence of what he said during his years as a churchman, he believed, in the spirit of the times, that the revolution he imagined could happen and that he was called to do everything in his power to see that it did.


This brings me to what I see as an ambiguity, and perhaps an ambivalence in Hartch’s book.  Hartch understands and states clearly that Illich was not against mission as such.  “He decried cultural imperialism posing as mission,” Hartch writes, “not the concept of mission itself.”  And yet elsewhere he refers to Illich’s “anti-missionary” campaign and even, on one occasion, to an “anti-missionary plot.”   This seems wrong to me.  Illich had a clearly articulated philosophy of mission, which honoured his Lord’s instruction to spread the Gospel.   How else call the Church “a sign to be lifted up among the nations”?  But Illich also believed that a staid, complacent and unimaginative American Church could not be such a sign under the conditions that prevailed in the 1960’s.  Consider: first, that the United States was then actively supporting dictatorships in Latin America which used torture as an instrument of government.   Illich had first hand experience with one such − the murderous military junta that ruled Brazil with American connivance after 1964 – and, later, he published an open letter to Paul VI in Commonweal condemning the Pope’s silence about the atrocities of this regime.  Second, a development crusade was then underway – in Latin America it took the form of the Alliance for Progress.  Illich characterized development on the terms dictated by the donors as a “modernization of poverty” and offered evidence for his belief that development and mission were being conflated.  And, finally, the American missionary initiative was a bureaucratic programme and not an expression of missionary vocation.  As early as 1946 John Considine had written a book called Call for Forty Thousand, in which he called for the American church to send that many missionaries to Latin America.  That call later translated into the plan endorsed by Pius XII, implemented by John XXIII, and continued by Paul VI that the American Church should assign 10% of its personnel to Latin America.  (The number 40,000 was chosen as a “tithe,” which traditionally was the 10% of one’s income due to the church.)  Illich viewed this plan as a colonial, rather than evangelical undertaking.  These are substantial reasons, and, for me, they explain why Illich opposed a certain practice and interpretation of mission without opposing evangelization as such.



Hartch’s ambivalence’s also extends to his characterization of Illich.  Here I should confess a prejudice.  Although I met Illich in the later 60’s, I knew him mainly in the last fourteen years of his life, and I’m sure that the man I knew was an altogether sweeter and mellower man than the angular, ambitious and sometimes proud campaigner whose portrait Hartch attempts.  Nevertheless, I think there may be some confusion in this portrait between Illich’s personality and certain calculated gestures – poses, one might say – that he felt were required to accomplish the purposes he had set himself.   Illich was certainly a theatrical man, who liked to shock, but I bridled a little at the description of him as “difficult,” “prickly” “confrontational.”  Again I would say that his action should not be separated from his purposes and his calling.


Hartch’s critique of Illich culminates in his conclusion.  There he argues that Illich’s opposition to Considine’s crusade was uncharacteristic.  He speaks of “the anomaly of Illich’s prolonged disobedience.”  The idea is that even though the young Illich, in Hartch’s words, “often ignored rules and regulations,” and even though the later Illich trounced virtually every major modern institution in his writings, the period of the 1960’s stands out because only then did he defy the whole hierarchy of the Church.  The relevant passage is worth quoting in full:


Illich convinced himself that he knew better than one pope, then another, and then another. He knew better than the Pontifical Commission on Latin American.  He knew better than he American and Latin American bishops.  He knew better than the Second Vatican Council.  The popes and the bishops and the most important Church council since the Council of Trent were all wrong: American missionaries were so dangerous that he was justified in using any means necessary to foil their plans.


The tone here seemed to me, at first reading, almost bullying, as if the sheer number of pontiffs he was opposing should have cowed Illich into submission, but I think it does reflect a serious and substantial difference between Hartch and Illich on the question of obedience.   Hartch says that Illich, in standing against the whole hierarchy of his church,  “was flirting with the Promethean arrogance that he condemned in others.”   And yet, Illich loved the Church above all things and, more than once, spoke of himself as an obedient son.  How can this be understood?  I think the answer lies in a distinction Illich made in his conversations with New Yorker  writer Francine Du Plessix Gray between the Church as “She” and the Church as “It.”  (Gray’s profile of Illich can be found in her book 1970 Divine Disobedience)  The Church as “She” – I quoted part of this passage earlier – is “that surprise in the net, the pearl.  She is the mystery, the kingdom among us.   The identity of the Church as She will remain through whatever changes she is currently undergoing.”  The Church as It, on the other hand, is “the institution.”  “I can talk about It,” he goes on, “only in sociological terms.  I’ve never had trouble creating factions and dissent towards the Church as It.”   This quotation allows us to see, I think, why Illich did not consider himself to be in the grip of “Promethean arrogance” in opposing what he regarded as a corrupt and colonial account of mission.  He was not standing against the Church as She.  He disputed no item of faith and in no way questioned the Church’s magisterium, the Latin word by which the Roman Church designates its teaching authority.   He opposed the Church as It, arguing against its policy not its doctrine, and this is why he could take the position he did without compromising his duty of obedience.


In the final section of the book from which the above passage is drawn Hartch also reveals that he thinks he knows where Illich went wrong.  “The missing procedure in Illich’s investigations,” he says, “was a careful inquiry into the nature of mission itself.”  Then he goes further and argues that Illich betrayed his own convictions.  “Personal experience with oafish priests in Puerto Rico, Americanizing missionaries in Colombia, and indelicate Papal Volunteers in Cuernavaca led him not to deeper reflection but to setting aside or bracketing his beliefs about missions.  If questioned directly he affirmed the missionary call of the Church, but in practice he did not want to see missionary activity in Latin America.”  Now Hartch knows, and acknowledges elsewhere, that Illich conducted an extensive inquiry into the nature of missions, and left behind an inspiring record of it in several of the essays that are published in The Church, Change and Development.  So why does he say that Illich failed to carry out “a careful inquiry?”  It seems plain that he does not think that Illich carried out a careless inquiry, but rather that he was wrong.   Hartch gives two main reasons: the first is that he thinks the transmission of Christianity can occur even through the most flawed media.  African Christianity, he argues, is now a vibrant, “indigenized” faith despite its problematic colonial origins.  “Regardless of their intention, and often in direct contradiction of their intentions, he says, “missionaries can serve as catalysts of cultural revival.”  Second he thinks that ‘‘the mission field” is an irreplaceable and indispensable scene of dialogue.  The “thousands” of missionaries whom Illich drove away, in Hartch’s view, were an opportunity foregone – each one a bridge that was never crossed, a chance of greater intercultural understanding that died in its crib.  In fact, Hartch even thinks that Illich shot himself in the foot by so effectively discrediting missions because, by doing so, Illich deprived himself of the very ground on which he might have made himself understood.


The largely non-religious friends and colleagues with whom he collaborated in Germany lacked the theological background to engage the religious side of his argument, while most Christian intellectuals either could not escape the shackles of … modernity itself or lacked the cultural and historical resources to appreciate its profundity.  Only on the mission field could Illich have found his peers. [My italics]


Hartch’s disagreement with Illich, it seems to me, reproduces the perennial debate between reform and revolution.   Illich was explicitly revolutionary.  His claim may have rested on the witness of the New Testament, and the practice of the early Church, rather than some projected utopia, but it was still effectively revolutionary in the face of a Church that had become, in his words, “the world’s largest non-governmental bureaucracy.”  He called for a new, de-clericalized church, and for a practice of mission that followed the spirit of Jesus who sent his disciples out to preach and heal with the instruction “to take nothing for your journey but a staff.” (Mark 6:8)  In the absence of such changes, he saw the American church as “standing on the side of W.R. Grace and Company, Esso, the Alliance for Progress…and whatever is holy in the Western pantheon” and, therefore, as a fatally compromised source of aid for the Latin American church.


Hartch doesn’t refute these claims.  He doesn’t even dispute them.  In a sense, he simply turns away from them at the end, and declares Illich’s procedure to have been self-defeating.  This is a substantial argument, and one that Illich was often taxed with: a critique so total, his opponents said, removes any grounds for constructive action.  In the case in question, no missionaries go, the Gospel is not preached, not even badly, isolation intensifies, and Illich ends up with no one to talk to.    But this argument also overlooks something: that Illich envisioned a different way of doing things, and invited others to share his vision.  Had more than a few accepted, new paths would have opened, other encounters would have occurred, the Gospel would have been preached in a different way.   Even as it was, Illich never said, don’t come to Latin America, any more than he said, don’t preach the Gospel.  He argued that the missionary enterprise, as then imagined by a bureaucratic Church deeply entangled in American geo-political hegemony, was a Trojan horse, a poisoned gift.  If Illich was right in this view, then surely he was not wrong to follow its consequences to the lengths he did in trying to undermine this enterprise.  He never, to my knowledge, denounced or failed to recognize a true missionary.


The Prophet of Cuernavaca, as I’ve said, focuses mainly on the years of the years between 1961 and 1976, and most intensively on the years before 1969 when Illich resigned from Church service.  But Todd Hartch also tries to take the measure of Illich’s work as a whole.  One chapter called “The Grammar of Silence” begins with a letter John Holt wrote to Illich in 1971.  “I am distressed and discouraged to note,” Holt says in this letter, “how little even those people who spend many weeks or months at CIDOC understand what you are saying and how little their own lives or ways of thinking are touched by it.”  Hartch  endorses Holt’s view that Illich was not well understood and says that he finds it “surprising  that someone as intelligent as Illich…caused such confusion.”  “Many of his friends and supporters,” he goes on to say, “longed for the day when he would produce a clear, direct and simple speech or text, but he never did.”  No evidence is given for this statement, i.e. no friends or supporters are cited, and, though it’s certainly true that lots of people, at one time or another, found Illich hard to understand, I think it’s quite an exaggeration to say that his friends waited in vain for him to clarify his position.   It’s probably also worth noting in passing that, in my experience, people who said they didn’t understand Illich often actually meant that they didn’t accept his arguments. But, however that may be, what I would like to take up here is not Hartch’s claim but his explanation of it.  “The reason for this lack of lucidity,” he says “was that most of his teaching and writing had a hidden purpose.”   The term “hidden” is then supplemented, in the following pages, by a number of other equally pregnant words including “coded” and ‘camouflaged” and “obscured.”   What is being kept out of sight, of course, is Illich’s theological agenda.


I think a serious misapprehension is at work here.  One of Illich’s most sensitive and attuned interpreters, the Italian scholar Fabio Milana, has written that after his withdrawal from the church Illich’s condition was one of “exile.”  This seems true – Illich did not cease to be a priest just because he was forced to withdraw from the formal exercise of clerical functions, rather he moved into what could well be understood as missionary settings where his faith was often not intelligible on its face.  He himself told an assembly of the American Catholic Philosophical Association in 1996 that, “when speaking in Bremen or Philadelphia [i.e. in a secular setting] I felt I ought to shroud my ultimate motive in apophasy [i.e. proceeding by way of negation rather than affirmation].  I did not want to be taken for a proselytizer, a fundamentalist or worse, a Catholic theologian; I do not have that mission.”  But this discretion was something other than camouflage.  Illich sought common ground with his auditors in analyzing those institutions which modern persons most devoutly believe in – schools, hospitals, prisons, and the like.  He believed that these institutions were descendants of the Church and would have been unthinkable without the Church’s prior effort to guarantee salvation and render it punctual and reliable.  But this does not mean that his analysis was only valuable as a coded critique of the Church.  The school and the hospital are the effective forms of the Church among us – their “liturgies” are the ones that matter to us.  To understand what they do, and what they say to us about who we are, is not merely coded theology, or an allegory of church reform.  The church may have pioneered the dispensing of grace, but who now promises us “life more abundant,” if not the institutions of health and life-long learning? 


It is also important that Illich never disguised his idea that modern institutions bear the genetic signature of their church originals.  It is quite explicit in Deschooling Society where he says that the school system is “the repository of society’s myth” and performs functions “common to powerful churches through history.”  He speaks of the school as a “sacred precinct, ” a “sacred milieu,” a “drawn-out labyrinthine ritual,” and a place where “the intricate rubrics of initiation” are enacted.  This is not to deny that Illich at the end of his life said things he had never said before about what the corruption of the Church meant to him.   But he also insisted, when talking to me about these matters, that he spoke “not as a theologian, but as a believer and an historian.”   And to speak as an historian meant to recognize that “the Incarnation… represents a turning point in the history of the world for believer and unbeliever alike.  Belief refers to what exceeds history, but it also enters history and changes it forever.”  This is not the place to pursue the point further, but I do think that if Illich manifestly thought that the historian could follow the rocky road from the Incarnation to modern worship of life and health, and felt that tracing this road was his vocation as an historian, then not much is gained by calling him, against his wishes, a theologian.


The question remains: did Illich, as Hartch intimates, “stop just short of clarity”?  I obviously don’t think so.  He may have sometimes “veiled his ultimate motive”, as he told the Catholic philosophers, because he didn’t want to be misunderstood or too easily categorized as “fundamentalist…. proselytizer…or…theologian.”  But this to me does not mean he pulled his punches or obscured his meaning.  I would rather say that he tried to discern how much it was possible to say in a given setting.   This does not mean that he did not sometimes misjudge.  And it’s true that as an old man he did sometimes feel that he should have been more explicit about the faith that animated his critique.   But it is also true that his effort to make himself understood in settings where he could not presume on a shared faith produced an extraordinary and illuminating analysis of modern institutions, an analysis which is much more than encoded theology.


Todd Hartch, in his title, calls Ivan Illich a prophet.   This was a word that  Illich himself foreswore, once telling the then President of Italy, Romano Prodi, when Prodi asked him if he wasn’t engaged in “a continuation of prophecy for our time,” that “the time of prophecy lies behind us.  The only chance now lies in our taking this vocation as that of the friend.”  This is an interesting statement because it recognizes that prophecy remains a vocation – a calling – but then claims that this summons is now best answered through friendship.  Still, the word is hard to avoid when writing about Illich because prophetic is probably the most readily understandable word for the mode of clairvoyant denunciation in which Illich often writes.   My question would be whether Todd Hartch has allowed the full prophetic force of Illich’s work to reach him, or whether he has not rather tried, at certain points in his book, to have his cake and eat it too: on the one hand building up the image of Illich’s volcanic genius, on the other standing safely aside in judgment of his misguided radicalism.  I do not want to say that this ambivalence undermines the value of the work.  It doesn’t.  Hartch seems to me a fair-minded and even handed reporter when it comes to the historical record, and I am extraordinarily grateful to him for the work he has done in opening a window onto Illich’s CIF/CIDOC years.   I should say also that in his conclusion he recognizes the power and continuing pertinence of Illich’s critique of modern institutions.   More than that Hartch acknowledges that Illich “risked everything he had to present his message to the world.”  So the difference I am left with, I suppose, is that Hartch thinks that Illich, in at least one critical respect, was wrong, while I think he was right.   







A Review of Humanism and Embodiment

Susan Babbitt, Humanism and Embodiment: From Cause and Effect to Secularism, Bloomsbury, 2014


This book came to my attention because its author, a professor of philosophy at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario wrote to me to let me know that, in writing it, she had made considerable use of the work of Ivan Illich.  She focuses particularly on The Rivers North of the Future, a book made from my late interviews with Illich that was published in 2005, three years after Illich’s death.  Illich’s work has rarely received serious philosophical attention – Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s engagement with Illich in his preface to The Rivers North of the Future and in his own A Secular Age is exceptional – so I read the book avidly.  I do not really consider myself competent to review it, since it belongs to a series called Bloomsbury Research in Analytical Philosophy, and I have at best a very scant and mostly second-hand knowledge of analytical philosophy; but, since Illich’s work concerns me so closely, I thought I would pass along what I was able to glean of the argument. 


Babbitt’s book is about humanism, a vast word which has been deployed in many different ways over the centuries.  It is interesting to note in passing that when Erich Fromm introduced Celebration of Awareness, a collection of Illich’s essays from the 1960’s, he could find no better characterization of Illich’s stance than “humanist radicalism” which he defined as “radical questioning guided by insight into the dynamics of man’s nature.” Babbitt defines humanism as faith in “the possibility of (approximate) truths about human well-being…that is, about how best to live.”  These truths are to be discovered, Babbitt thinks, in a bodily way, which explains the second half of her title.  Humans, for her, are thinking bodies, not brains in vats, and “dualism” insofar as it separates mind and body is one of her bêtes noires.   Embodiment, she says, is “a philosophical challenge [which] reaches further than feminist philosophy typically ventures,” though the implied critique of feminist philosophy isn’t really developed in the book.  (Her subtitle “From Cause and Effect to Secularism,” I found a bit mystifying, since secularism is not extensively treated and no trajectory towards it from “cause and effect” is identified.)


A philosophy of embodiment, in her view, is “best conceptualized from within one of the core areas of analytic philosophy, the philosophy of science.”  The gist, as I understand it, is that, on the one hand, she wants to retain the idea that the world exists apart from our theories about it and is knowable as such. “However persuasive we may be in describing the world,” she writes, “the causal structures of the world do not change as a result.”  On the other hand she does not accept “positivism” which she defines as the view that all knowledge is justified by appeal to foundational beliefs with a privileged status – an example would be beliefs based on observation.   Positivism, she says, has failed because all beliefs depend on other beliefs, as well as on circumstances and conditions.  But this “context relativity” does not defeat our aspiration to truth because “there is a world with which we engage causally” and this world “acts on us, affecting us bodily.”


Cause, obviously, is a very important word here, and Babbitt says surprisingly little about what the term has meant historically, or even what it means in the context of this book.  The best definition I can offer, if I have read her well, is to say that the word refers to undeniable bodily experience which could guide us, if we would only allow ourselves to trust it.  But our ability to recognize the unchanging “causal structures of the world” is menaced by the fact that truth is only persuasive insofar as it is plausible or “projectible” – a term she borrows from American philosopher Nelson Goodman.  She illustrates by Eugene Ionesco's absurdist theatrical fable Rhinoceros, in which people in a small town gradually turn into rhinoceroses, until only one man is left who is not a rhino.  Now he is the monster.  Human-ness is not projectible in a world where rhinoceritis is the norm.  The same can be said where injustice is so pervasive and normalized that justice is unprojectible – think of the way in which slavery was taken for granted in the ancient Greek culture that we still think of as one of the seedbeds of humanism.  


Projectibility, then, threatens our ability to recognize, name and cultivate what is properly human, but it does not prevent it altogether.  And this ability, Babbitt thinks, is crucial   Early on in her book she gives two examples of writers whom she thinks have failed in this task.  The first is Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis who has written eloquently about saving languages and cultures, but who cannot, she says, tell us how to distinguish what is good in culture from what is reprehensible.  All cultures as such deserve preservation.  Her second example is philosopher/economist Amartya Sen who argues, in her words, “that  development aims for the realization of human capacities” but then fails to explain “how to know which capacities are the essentially human ones.”   Sen assumes, she says, “that human-ness is known.”   In other words, he takes as given what Babbitt thinks must first be discovered.


How human-ness is to be discovered is the main subject of her book.  She draws on three traditions, or streams of thought which she names as historical materialism, eastern philosophy and Christian scripture.  These three have certainly come into contact and even dialogue, but it is still somewhat unusual to find them aligned in the way Babbitt aligns them  – Marx mixing with the ancient Chinese sage Chuang-Tzu and L’Arche founder Jean Vanier rubbing shoulders with the Italian reform Communist Antonio Gramsci, and all being treated as equal, and, in some sense, compatible authorities.  What they have in common, in Babbitt’s view, is their respect for embodied experience.  She begins with Marxist thought and with the dialectical interplay of theory and practice that its exponents have preached.  For example, she quotes, Lenin on the pursuit of self-understanding as a passage through “dark waters” in which the subject must sometimes be transformed in order to understand himself or herself.   And she cites Gramsci who says that “only the man who wills something strongly can identify the elements that are necessary to the realization of his will.”   These ideas, she says, are “resources” for a philosophy of embodiment.  She does not endorse Marxism, or historical Communism;  she says only that historical materialism is right in insisting that we can only act, learn and grow by engaging with the real conditions in which we live.


Her second resource is Eastern philosophy.  The Buddha, she says, understood the role of projectibility in intellectual reasoning, and, for that reason, insisted on close attention to actual experience or what Babbitt calls “cause and effect within the body.”   Feelings count for more than thoughts because they are not subject in the same way to the “constraints of plausibility.”  Meditation, on this view, is ruthless and unsentimental attention to everything that happens to and within the body.  It is not a way of escaping the world but of understandinghow it comes to be. 


Her third resource is Christian scripture.  She finds in the New Testament a strong emphasis on faith grounded in experience, rather than in ideology or “belief system.”  What Jesus calls the Kingdom of God is present in the world, but it can only be found by overcoming the self.  “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it,” he says, “but whoever loses their life for me will find it.”  (Matthew 16:25)  “Unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies,” he says on another occasion, “it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24) This teaching corresponds, for Babbitt, with Buddhism’s recognition of the illusory character of the self and the Marxist insistence that we can change neither ourselves nor the world without submitting to the actual historical conditions in which we live.  The over-arching idea is that we find our humanity in encounter and not in preoccupied subjectivity. 


In connection with Christian scripture, Babbitt also cites French philosopher Alain Badiou’s book on St. Paul.  Badiou says that, for Paul, “it is not the signs of power that count, nor exemplary lives but what a conviction is capable of here, now and forever.”  Paul’s conversion is what Badiou calls an Event – “an utterly original happening which is out of joint with the smooth flow of history and which is unnameable and ungraspable within the context in which it occurs.”  (The quotation is from Terry Eagleton, whose paraphrase of Badiou Babbitt quotes.) The idea, once again, is that what counts is what happens.  Paul’s experience of a universal Christ in whom there is “neither Jew nor Greek” is, in no sense, projectible.  To understand it will be the work of a lifetime for Paul, and, inasmuch as Christianity subsequently remakes the world, it is not wrong to say that we are still absorbing it.  But everything begins, as Paul says repeatedly, “in the flesh.”


At this point readers of Illich will probably begin to see where his reading of the parable of the Samaritan fits in.  Jesus tells the story in response to a question from “a certain lawyer” who asks him, “Who is my neighbor?”  A man was going down to Jericho, he says, and was set upon by robbers and left for dead in a ditch.  Two of his co-religionists, a priest and a Levite, come along but “pass by on the other side” – either because they have more important religious duties to fulfill or because they are avoiding contaminating contact with what may be a corpse.   The next to pass is a Samaritan, someone not of same religion or community as the man in the ditch.  He stops, binds his wounds and takes him to an inn where he can be can recuperate, promising the innkeeper that he will reimburse him for any unforeseen expenses on his return.   This story, Illich says, has for centuries been misunderstood as a teaching about the duty of care.  But its real point, for Illich, is to show that who the neighbor is cannot be known in advance.  The Samaritan turns out to be the neighbor because he responds bodily to the call of the wounded man.  It is not a duty that calls him – according to the ethics of the time his duty would have extended only to his own people, and not to some half-dead foreigner beside the road – it is an urgent bodily response which he feels that he cannot refuse. 


Babbitt drawsattention to several features of Illich’s account.  First the man in the ditch does not “fit” from the point of view of the Samaritan.   No “skein of relations” or “network of concern” exists at the moment of their encounter.  There is no category or a priori understanding which can guide the passer-by.  In acting as he does he reaches beyond all existing horizons.  Second his response is a bodily one – the King James Bible says that he felt compassion but the Greek refers more graphically to what we would call his gut. And, finally, the occurrence depends on chance – the Samaritan happens upon the wounded man.  “Embodiment,” Babbitt says, “implies radical contingency, not just of meanings, but also of meaningfulness.”  She means, I think, not just that various meanings might be assigned to a given event, but that event itself may give birth to the meaning. 


By this point in my reading it had become clearer to me what Babbitt means by saying that we engage “causally” with the world.  As far as I can understand her, she is saying that there is a world that exists beyond the horizons of our theories and beyond what we can reach so long as we remain entrapped in a self that pretends to a certain sovereignty over its own experience – she sometimes adopts Charles Taylor’s term “the buffered self” to describe this modern sovereign stranded in its own subjectivity by its pretension to choice, planning and control.  This world can speak to us and change us but only if we recognize the authority of chance and trust our embodied experience.  (In case this should seem like a truism – who doesn’t trust their embodied experience? -  consider the case of the trained professional who has, in Babbitt’s words “no need to be experientially aware of the person [he or she is] assisting” because the professional, in effect, knows the case in advance.) This trust in embodied experience can potentially lead us towards an understanding of what is properly human. 


I’ve already said that I know little of analytic philosophy, but what little I do know leads me to suppose that Babbitt’s undertaking is both brave and novel.  This is evident in the variety of resources she brings to bear, as well as in the fact that she calls them resources i.e. recognizes that she is intimating andsketching a direction rather than producing a finished philosophy.  A book that yokes together historical materialism and Christian mysticism, Buddhist psychology and analytic philosophy of science must necessarily set aside obvious dissonances and incongruities in order to highlight the common features of these traditions.  I take this not as a fault but as an indication of the direction in which she wants to encourage thought to move.


Looking, finally, with the eye of someone who remains involved with the work of Ivan Illich, I would say two things.  First I am delighted, as I said earlier, to find Illich given such serious and sustained treatment in a work of philosophy.  Second I think he has much more to give.  Babbitt relies mainly on Illich’s interpretation of the story of the Samaritan, though she does refer to other works, and I rejoiced to find an accurate and friendly digest of Gender, a book often vilified by feminists.  A fuller account of Illich’s understanding of embodiment and why he found modern risk society so fatally disembodying remains to be written.   I hope to write this account, and I am happy to have found a sympathetic fellow traveller in Susan Babbitt.










Part Moon, Part Travelling Salesman: Complementarity in the Thought of Ivan Illich

This paper was prepared for a small gathering of friends held at a monastery in the small Italian town of Pescia (between Florence and Lucca)  in the summer of 2014...





In one of the titled footnotes in Gender, Ivan Illich suggests that a promising  philosophy of complementarity died still-born within the social sciences.  The footnote, titled Ambiguous Complementarity, discusses the work of the Frenchman Robert Hertz who died in the trenches during the First World War.  Hertz, Illich says, had “tried to incorporate this notion into the social sciences at a time when the concept had begun to be fruitful in the physical sciences.”  The essay Illich commends is “The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand: A Study in Religious Polarity” and, in it, Hertz claims that “dualism is the essence of primitive thought [and] dominates primitive social organization.”   But this idea, Illich goes on, was declawed and domesticated by Marcel Mauss, on whom the inheritance of Hertz’s youthful and foreshortened genius fell.  Mauss, according to Illich, took “the disconcerting asymmetry and ambiguity contained in Hertz’s idea of complementarity” and made it the foundation of a universal process of exchange.  Mauss was then annointed by Claude Levi-Strauss, who claimed that Mauss had been “the first to have treated the total social fact as a system of exchanges and that Hertz had been his inspiration.  “The fuzzy, partly incongruous complementarity that can be understood only by means of metaphors which Hertz had begun to recognize as the root of all culture,” Illich concludes, “was repressed in the social sciences in favour of operational concepts such as role, class, exchange, and, ultimately, “system”. 


I leave it those better acquainted with the work of Marcel Mauss to say whether this is fair to Mauss.  I can say that when I looked into Hertz’s essay I found what one sometimes does when dipping into Illich’s sources – that he had read more into Hertz than the latter may have intended, or, indeed, could have intended, writing, as he was, during the very infancy of his science.  I was also disturbed to find that, in Hertz’s essay, as its title suggests, the preeminence of the right hand is so total in much of his evidence that the left hand is as much scapegoat, victim and pariah as it is the ambiguous complement of the right hand.  I’ll let a Maori proverb Hertz cites stand for a great deal more of the same tenor.  “All evils, misery and death,” it says, “come from the female element” which is, of course, associated with the left hand.   Hertz ends his essay by approving the contemporary tendency, as he says, “to level the value of the two hands.”  “A liberated and foresighted community, he concludes, “will strive to develop better the energies dormant on our left side.”  Now this does not sound to me like the words of a man who wants to make complementarity either the horizon of social science or a bulwark against all universal concepts.  But, whether a philosophy of complementarity in the social sciences died aborning with Hertz or not, Illich’s attempt to construct its genealogy got me thinking about how the quest for such a philosophy motivated Illich’s own work. 


As it happened, not long before I reread Gender and was impressed by this footnote, I had finally braved a 500+ page tome entitled The Complementary Nature of Reality – a book that had been sent to me unsolicited by its publisher after he had heard and liked a long radio series I had done called How To Think About Science.  The book’s author Peter Barab argues that:   “Today’s science is akin to magic: it manipulates nature with dazzling technological displays and mathematical acrobatics, but the primary theories…, especially of physics, lack all meaning, in that scientists cannot explain what they are doing or identify the broader patterns that are involved.”  The consequence is, and here he quotes Neil Postman: “The world we live in is incomprehensible…but never surprises us for long, since we have no consistent picture which new events could alter.”  The solution, according to Barab, is to take complementarity seriously, not just as a pragmatic description of what occurs, but as the deep structure of reality.  In physics this task was begun by the Danish physicist Niels Bohr who reflected on the experimentally demonstrated fact that a given quantum might manifest now as a wave, now as a particle, and also on his German colleague Werner Heisenberg’s finding – the famous Uncertainty Principle – that there is a limit to how precisely one can measure certain paired qualities like position and momentum at the same time.   Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, as it came to be called, held, in effect, that everything comes in pairs.  The findings of quantum physics were not paradoxes or artifacts or mere appearance which would all eventually be resolved, as Einstein hoped, in a unified theory.  Nature is fundamentally dual, not unitary, according to Bohr, and Barab thinks that this can be elaborated into a comprehensive and consistent philosophy of science which thinks in pairs and not always of a reduction to one underlying principle or substance. 


Peter Barab’s book confines itself to physics, but I was led next along the pathways of my eccentric reading to Carl Jung who I think can be said to have advanced a philosophy of complementarity in psychology.  I don’t want to tarry long here with Jung except to say that he insists that nothing can be illuminated without casting a commensurate shadow, that man is unconsciously woman and woman unconsciously man, and that consciousness and unconsciousness exist in a compensatory, or complementary relationship.  Two others also deserve mention before I go on to Illich: the first is Nicolas of Cusa, with whom, I confess, I have only a slight acquaintance.  His idea that we can grasp God only as a complexio oppositorum, a complex of opposites, an idea Jung took over and bent somewhat to his own purposes, I understand as a way of unifying without reducing, of resolving without dissolving you might say.  He yearns beyond duality but never tries to deny it, and I think this is very much in Ivan’s spirit, though I never remember him mentioning Cusanus.  The second is the English poet William Blake who says memorably that “Opposition is true friendship” and that “Without contraries there is no progression.”


I mention these names in passing to hint at possible lineages, and in the hope of starting conversations with those who may know more than me, but what I mainly want to do here is to focus on Illich’s philosophy of complementarity and how it informs his work.  Gender is surely its centerpiece, but I would argue that the idea is there from at least the time of Tools for Conviviality.  There we find the idea of multi-dimensional balances.  And what is balance? Opposing forces in equilibrium, a scale on which opposing weights are suspended, domains that restrict and limit one another in a harmonious way. This idea is developed in various ways, but always a single mode of production, a single mode of thought, the radical monopoly of a single institution is deprecated.  “Well being,” as defined in Shadow Work, is “a balance,” which occurs when “use values and commodities fruitfully mesh in synergy.”  Modernity and the industrial mode of production are not rejected – rather they are to be brought into a complementary relationship with vernacular and communal imperatives.


Gender brings this idea into new relief, and begins to make visible some of its underlying assumptions.  The book was criticized, most pointedly and substantially, in my view, by Nancy Scheper Hughes, a professor of Anthropology at Berkeley, and one of the seven women who responded to Illich’s performance of the text of Gender in Berkeley in the fall of 1982.  Drawing on her own work, she claims that Illich is a naïve and partial anthropologist who has mistaken ideology for practice, exaggerated the extent to which tasks are gendered in pre-capitalist society, and downplayed the perverse, destructive, and arbitrary elements of gender.   “No society or culture could sustain itself for very long,” she says, “under the kind of extreme sexual segregation that Illich posits as characteristic of pre-industrial ‘Vernacular Gender’ societies.” (Feminist Issues 3:1, Spring ‘83, p.34)  This critique may have merit and, I would even say, justice – Gender, to me, is an arrogant book, inasmuch as its author is so preoccupied by his own discoveries and his own agenda that he pays almost no attention to the milieu he is addressing, and is, in addition, quite free with his insults.  For example, “Women academics grab at the semblance of legitimacy that comes from putting on the hand-me-down Marxoid categories discarded by social historians.”  This might be true of some woman academic, or even a whole school of women academics but carelessly aimed, as it appears to be, at all women academics, it seems more inflammatory than enlightening. However, now that I’ve got that off my chest, my point is that Illich is not finally writing anthropology.  Listen to the ways he talks about gender – he calls it “the best heuristic he has yet discovered for the investigation of the pre-industrial past” – this is from memory and I can’t place its source – it may have been written or said somewhere other than in Gender – but clearly a heuristic is a way of seeing, an aid to discovery, rather than an historical claim as such.  He speaks of gender and sex as ideal types.  He says that what is needed more than anything else is an epistemology of gender – that gender, in other words, is a way of knowing and not just a historical object to be known.  He asserts that his understanding of gender is “rooted in the deepest mystical experiences” and that it is nourished by the scholastic concept of relation subsistens.  Relatio subsistens, as Lee Hoinacki would later explain, is a scholastic redescription of the mystery of the Trinity with its three persons who are one and yet distinct, independent as a whole and yet dependent among themselves.  He claims that “gender is a metaphor for the ambiguous symbolic complementarity that constitutes each of the two genders…as metaphors for each other” – in short a metaphor for a metaphor which reminds of Marshall McLuhan’s witty twisting of Robert Browning’s “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a heaven for?” into “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp/ Else what’s a meta-phor?”  He also calls gender a way of “incarnating symbolic duality.”


All of this suggests to me that gender is something much more than a historical category for Illich, though I’m not at all denying that it is that as well.  It’s a way of reinstating here and there, and you and me in their proper relation of mutually dependent otherness.  I can still remember the relief I felt in reading the book – that in place of the unlimited and impossible demand that seemed to arise from feminism, as it had from earlier revolutions, an inexhaustible mystery was being restored – along with the possibility of respect, limitation, modesty and friendship.  Illich sums this up in the idea of gender as metaphor – that each, in a beautiful sense, stands for the other.


What this points to is that Illich is not actually all that interested, as he may sometimes appear to be and as many critics claimed he was at the time the book was published, in vindicating this or that historical form of vernacular gender.   Gender, as he explicitly says, stands for a principle of mutual dependence and mutual limitation, and for an otherness that cannot, by definition, be overcome.   It represents the idea that a stable and sustainable social order can only stand on two legs.  And, above all, it blocks what I can only call mon-ism, though it’s ungainly and unfamiliar word.  Monism is universal competition, unlimited growth, denatured language - whatever circulates without impediment because it has no necessary complement by which it could be limited.


Illich struggled for words in which to expound this philosophy.   At the time of Gender, he was still leaning heavily on the idea of ambiguity and asymmetry.  Later on he hit on the idea of di-symmetry, of opposing domains that fit each other and are answerable to each other without being an identical image of each other.  The word didn’t make much of a slogan, dissymmetric complementary being even more of a mouthful than the earlier paradoxical counterproductivity, but it says what Illich wants to say:  that only by opposition do things hold together, only by a plurality of powers can freedom be nourished, only by limitation can language live.


A beautiful statement of this philosophy occurs in Ivan Illich in Conversation: “I like to walk along the watershed,” he says, “and to know that left and right are profoundly different from each other and contradictory to a high degree. The world of sex holds together only because of the rests of gender that survive in it and sprout in it.  The world of cybernetic modeling, of computers as root metaphors for felt perception, is dangerous and significant only as long as there is still textual literacy in the midst of it.  Transportation systems can function only as long as people have legs to walk to the car and open the door.  Hospital systems can make sense only as long as people still engage in that totally intransitive activity which is living.  I wish I could find a way of never appearing like a preacher who focuses your attention on the scenery on only one side of the watershed…Once thinking becomes a monocular perception of reality it’s dead.” (Ivan Illich in Conversation, p. 241)


Complementarity is two-sidedness – not the two-sidedness that William Blake calls “the cloven fiction,” the divorcing of subject from object, but the two-sidedness of man and woman, night and day, breath and heartbeat.  It can also be contradiction, depending on what one wants, at a certain moment, to emphasize – mutual dependence or mutual limitation – the fact that I can’t do without you or the fact that you’re in my way.  It expresses the condition of existence of a world – world in the sense in which Hannah Arendt says that we are now world-less – a limited, bounded state in which action, submission, gratitude and unobstructed listening are still possible.  Without the sense of complementarity we lose what I can only call the otherness of the other, and it was Illich’s conviction that, after the Incarnation, after God has emptied himself into a human person, that it is only through the other that God’s word can reach us.  What is at stake for him, in other words, is not less than everything.


Recognition of complementarity is a mode of awareness, sometimes of tragic awareness, insofar as it’s a principle of opposition, limitation and ultimately nemesis.  And awareness is an important term in Illich’s thought.  It’s what he unreservedly recommends in place of programmes, plans and agendas intended to bring the future into line.  Reality is refractory to our will – it has aspects not just that we haven’t seen yet but that are and must remain, in the very nature of things, beyond our horizon because our horizon always moves with us.  Our salvation doesn’t lie within ourselves – it comes to us and perhaps in an unexpected form.  “I fear the Lord is passing me by,” was one of Illich’s watchwords.   All this is part of complementarity, I think, because complementarity is the very constitution of the reality that allows us to be surprised.


Illich, as I am beginning to understand him, has several rhetorical modes.  Let me call them the prophetic – a term I can’t avoid using, even though I understand why he foreswore it in favour of friend; the sociological; and the satirical.  The prophetic is an inspired seeing that invokes judgment – when Ivan says, as he does in his “Health As One’s Own Responsibility: No, Thank You”, that our world is marked by “a growing matter-of-fact acceptance of a bottomless evil which Hitler and Stalin did not reach” he cannot be refuted with statistics that point to a reduction in poverty or an improvement in dental hygiene. If one could erase the “Onward Christian Soldiers” overtones from the word salvation, then one could say that salvation is his point of view in this mode.   The second mode is the sociological – and it was in the sociology section that Illich was generally filed when his books were still to be found in bookstores (and there were still bookstores to find them in).  This is the Illich of laws, who says, for example, that beyond a certain rate of acceleration mobility is inversely proportional to speed, that shadow work will necessarily expand in lockstep with waged employment, that there are identifiable thresholds at which institutions will begin to get in their own way and frustrate their own purposes, that the wage gap between men and women will never close or be reduced.   These laws, in my view, are sometimes doubtful, but they are certainly essays in social morphology which are subject to evidence and argument.  And finally the satirical.  The existence of this mode only dawned on me gradually, and I don’t know why since Illich very often referred to his productions as caricatures, and he said much the same when he called his more polemical works of the 70’s pamphlets.  When we hear of “life-long bottle babies wheeled from medical centre to school to office to stadium” or “apartment towers that store people between trips to the supermarket” or “the colourless mumbling” of American college students, then we are in this satirical mode. Like the prophetic mode, it has to be taken for what it is – a nightmare vision of modern existence which can’t really be refuted because it takes no account of whatever meaning and purpose these mumblers and bottle-babies may themselves find in their wheeled existence.


I doubt if these three modes exhaust Illich’s considerable rhetorical spectrum, but three are enough for me to make the point I want to make here, which is that these different inflections change the way complementarity is treated.   Illich says that when he walks the watershed he very much appreciates the profound difference between left and right, and he hopes never to be found to be a preacher who directs his reader’s attention to only one side.  And yet when, in prophetic mode, he exposes the contemporary world as a revelation of evil, when he says, in a white hot passage at the end of the essay on shadow work, that modern forms of enclosure are not just cruel and degrading but actually demonic (p. 115), it would seem that he is not just calling for a balanced and complementary relationship between use values and exchange values, or a vernacular sphere and a free market, he is denouncing the modern entirely.  I know Illich can and should be read in very different ways, as befits someone who spoke only as friends, occasions and the urgencies of his time seemed to demand, who never proposed a consistent system of thought, and who definitely did not speak all of his mind on all occasions.   I simply want to raise the question here of whether there is, in Illich’s work, a conflict, a tension if you want, between the Romantic modernist who looks for a reformed and rebalanced modernity, a recovered art of living, as he says at the end of Gender, and the Catholic anti-modernist who was still required to swear the Oath against Modernism before his ordination, and who never really renounced it.


Let me take another example of the way in which I think the understanding of complementarity can be vitiated by the prophetic mode even when Illich is ostensibly working as an historian.  In the essay on Vernacular Values in Shadow Work, he describes the petition the humanist grammarian Antonio Nebrija submitted to Queen Isabella of Spain in the hope, vain as it turned out, that the Queen would patronize his project of creating a grammar of the Castilian language.  This was in the same year that Columbus sailed fatefully westward.  Nebrija’s project is presented in an entirely negative light – a 500 year long war on subsistence is being initiated, and the Castilian people are losing their vernacular, which will be taken away for processing by a new professional elite and then sold back to them as taught mother tongue.  It’s a wonderful essay, full of insight and instruction, but I could never help wondering, as someone who grew up loving grammar and parsed sentences with a relish that many of my contemporaries seemed to reserve for the workings of internal combustion engines, whether a grammar could really be that destructive.  Was not Cervantes also waiting in the wings, or Shakespeare, or Rabelais if one switches the national context?  Wasn’t the ideal a balance between an ever-evolving vernacular and the scholarly anatomy of language Nebrija proposed. Was there nothing good in getting the European vernaculars out of the shadow of Latin?  Could not lengua and habla, tongue and language have made peace and co-existed?  Again a vision of balance seems to be pitted against an all devouring monism, which causes the monopolizing mode to lose its legitimacy altogether, and puts the very idea of a possible balance into the shadows.


One final point: Complementarity, as I have been trying to say, has both its harmonious and its tragic aspect.  There is no action without an equal and opposite reaction – that’s Newton’s third law of motion which can be paraphrased as all forces exist in pairs, or as whenever one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body will exert a force of equal magnitude in the opposite direction.  Christ invokes anti-Christ.  This was the mystery that Illich spent a life-time contemplating, that caused him to say to me - that “the more you allow yourself to conceive of the evil you see as evil of a new kind, of mysterious kind, the more intense become the temptation – I can’t avoid saying it, I can’t go on without saying it – of cursing God’s Incarnation.” (Rivers North of the Future, p.61) You can probably imagine the trepidation with which I broadcast this statement, the layers of script in which I defensively muffled it, and the rueful amusement I then felt when no listener ever even commented to me on what I had thought was an utterly explosive statement; but I quote it here a master instance of complementarity – that the world is “called to glory,” as he put it elsewhere, but the paradoxical consequence is that it ends up enveloped in “demonic night”. (Hospitality and Pain, p. 1) Could this fate, this mysterious darkness, have been avoided?  Yes, Illich says, but not by eliminating the possibility of its occurrence.  It was in the nature of things that the Incarnation would cast a proportionate shadow.  Awareness of this necessity, however, might have mitigated its effect, and produced a church less “brutally earnest” – Illich’s words again – and less fatally convinced of its own rectitude.  Here again I find Illich converging with Jung and Cusanus.  One cannot avoid the opposites, for that is how the world is constituted, but one can dance with them and laugh.   



Politics and Religion in the Thought of Ivan Illich

This paper was prepared for a symposium held at the Oakland High School for the Arts under the auspices of California Governor Jerry Brown in the summer of 2013.  The occasion was the publication of Beyond Economics and Ecology, a collection of Illich's essays on these themes, edited and introduced  by Sajay Samuel.  The conference was called After the Crisis: The Thought of Ivan Illich Today...



The heading of today’s session is politics and religion, so I’d like to begin by reflecting on these terms, both of which can be extremely slippery.    I know they have practical, everyday meanings –  we will usually agree in ordinary talk that what goes on in churches and mosques, synagogues and temples is religion, while what is discussed in legislatures and government offices, is politics – but if we inquire a little more deeply, they become quite difficult to distinguish.  One of the hallmarks of the modern age was the distinction between a private sphere in which one was free to cultivate one’s religion, and a public realm governed by the canons of secular reason.   This regime began to take shape at the beginning of the modern age, roughly the 16th century, and it’s arguable that before that time there was no such thing as religion in the sense in which the word is used today.  Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the great Canadian scholar of religion writing in the 1960’s says: “religion as a discrete category of human activity separable from culture, politics and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West.”  Before the 16th century - at the earliest - the word can denote a virtue, a disposition, a habit – a practice let’s say - but not the adoption of a set of propositions or beliefs as “my religion.”  In fact Cantwell Smith goes on to say that “the rise of the concept of religion is in some ways correlated with a decline in the practice of religion itself.”   (Just as an aside here some of the slipperiness of the word religion can be seen in that quote, in which Smith, having just said that religion is not a transhistorical essence but a modern invention then goes on to speak of “religion itself” as if it were just such an essence. This shows, I think, the difficulty we still have in speaking of these matters.)  By the beginning of the eighteenth century, according to the historian of Christianity John Bossy, the idea of religion is well established.  “By 1700,” he writes, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”   And religion once distinguished from politics became in many ways its scapegoat:  the conflicts between the nascent national states of the 16th and 17th centuries, to take just one example, became known as the wars of religion, when they could just as plausibly – more plausibly - have been called the wars of state-making, and taken as illustrating the arbitrary and violent character of state power, rather than the violent and arbitrary character of religious belief.   


One could say a lot more about the segregation of the secular from the religious in the modern world, and about the fateful imperial reorganization of other civilizations and cultures along these lines during the colonial era, but the point that I want to make here is that this whole mythology has come undone in our time – undone to the extent that, in some circles at least, one hardly needs to argue the point any more.   There are a lot of people to whom it now seems obvious that religion and politics were never really separate – we can see, for example, that millenarian political ideologies like Communism were transpositions of Judaeo-Christian originals, that civilizations are spun out of something more fundamental than either reason or belief,  that we enter public and political life as  all that we are and not just as disinterested and disembodied units of discourse, that there will always be a sacred – something for which we will sacrifice – because it’s in the nature of human beings to produce one.   The holy, as William Cavanaugh says, only migrates, never disappears, and, in the modern era, it is as likely to appear in the trappings of the state as of the church - in fact, at the moment, in countries like mine and yours, one can probably more safely abuse religious symbols than desecrate a flag or some other sign of the state.

What this means, in brief, is that when we talk about religion – let’s leave politics aside for the moment - we don’t always know what we’re talking about.  The German legal scholar Carl Schmitt says that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”  All right, but even this bold and often quoted statement still imagines two domains between which there is a not quite legitimate intercourse called secularization – the very point that Hans Blumenberg argued with Schmitt in his Legitimacy of the Modern Age.   The map we have inherited doesn’t fit the territory in which we’re living, and the apparent resurgence of religion, I think, confirms rather than refutes this diagnosis.  With no visible way ahead one tries to go back.  But there is no going back.  And this is what it means to live, as the title of our gathering has it, after the crisis.  There is a crisis, but it is by now so diffuse, so familiar, so total, and so intractable that it makes no sense to call it a crisis in the absence of some way of getting a handle on it.  Modern concepts like religion and politics, private and public, sacred and secular no longer open the door we’re trying to open.


This is a situation in which I think Ivan Illich’s work can be helpful.  This is a subject for a book not a half hour’s talk, and I hope to write such a book during the next couple of years, but let me try to just give you a short sketch of why I think he matters.  Many thinkers in recent years have developed the idea that I can remember Illich first quoting to me from the historian Christopher Dawson: that the Church is the West and the West is the Church.  Jean Luc Nancy, a French philosopher, whom I have been reading recently, says that the nervous system of the West is Christian – an interesting image.   It’s no longer a surprise to find a contemporary philosopher like Nancy expounding the Epistle of James, as he does in the book I mentioned, or to find Alain Badiou or Giorgio Agamben poring over the letters of the apostle Paul, but these thinkers are, you might say, trying to crack the code of their civilization without ever really declaring themselves in relation to the Gospel.  Illich, I think, can tell us more because with him here is still something left to recover once Christianity has been, as Nancy says, deconstructed.


Here again we run into a difficulty with words, and specifically the word Christianity.  When I was about to present my last interviews with Illich on CBC Radio in 2000, I got into an argument with my usually indulgent executive producer about the title.  I wanted to call it “The Corruption of the Best is the Worst” because that title stuck most closely to the hypothesis Illich wanted to argue.  My superior thought the phrase awkward and obscure and insisted that I call the series, The Corruption of Christianity.   But, I protested, that implies that there was once some uncorrupted thing called Christianity which then was spoiled, and Illich doesn’t believe that.  Christianity names the corruption that was inherent in the Christian revelation from the outset – the world being what it is.  Christ and anti-Christ enter the world together.  I lost the argument and thought it better to present the series under a mystifying title than not to present it at all, but the problem remains.   Jacques Ellul got around this difficulty by using the word Christianity for the institutional religion, and an algebraic ‘x’ for the revelation itself.  If you’ll allow me I’ll just speak of the Gospel as a way of pointing at this ‘x’.  


Illich claimed that the Gospel was and is something peculiarly  volatile or unstable.   It’s the charter of our freedom to love wherever and whenever we feel called – a possibility that must be revealed since it doesn’t lie within humanity’s natural repertoire – but it is also the source of a unique evil which is generated whenever this love is made compulsory, and power is exercised in its name.  This faith, initially, is not a religion.  Illich says so explicitly: “faith in the incarnate word sacrificed on the cross is not a religion and cannot be analyzed with the concepts of religious science.” (Illich in Conversation, p. 268.)  But it became a religion: what escapes all bounds was confined and controlled, what can only be a response to a call was delivered on demand.   Illich traces out this institutionalization over centuries.  It can be summed up as the breaking and dissolution of boundaries.  What begins with the Samaritan daring, by God’s grace, to reach across the ethnic and ethical divide which separates him from the beaten man in the ditch ends with globalization, the universal circulation of commodities, a morality of relative values, and the fathomless virtuality of life in a here with no beyond.


Christianity, and now I mean Christianity, confronts us today not just as a creed, not just as the sum of its millions of adherents, but as a fully achieved historical Juggernaut.  Our way of speaking, our habits of thought and our institutions all emerge from the historical crucible in which, first the church, and then secular governments attempted to make the Gospel perform punctually and reliably.  Care is now the primary commodity in which we trade, life the primary idol which we worship.


Illich describes the gradual unfolding of the perverse consequences of the Incarnation as apocalyptic, using this much abused word in its root sense of revelation or unveiling.    Over time these consequences accumulate and become visible – visible in a way they were not to the believers who first planted their seeds.  To take a simple example – the pioneers of public health insurance in Canada thought of their programme as an obvious desideratum of Christian charity.  They did not foresee what Illich called medical nemesis – the way in which the blanket of professional care would eventually suffocate vital abilities and turn life itself into a resource.  But we can see it, and this disillusionment is our gift as well as our burden.


Through Illich’s eyes, I can see that our religion is our way of life, and not our profession of “belief.”  In his study of theology, he says, he was always drawn to ecclesiology – the study of the church as an institution – and within ecclesiology to the study of liturgy.  Liturgy is the way in which the church manifests itself, the practices of penitence and prayer, praise and procession, eating and drinking by which it comes alive as a social body.  Aidan Kavanagh, a historian of liturgy, describes early Christian liturgies that took entire cities as their scale and occupied most of the day on Sunday.   There was no congregation meekly seated in rectilinear rows following along in a printed programme – faith was enacted.  Theologians say relatively little about the church in the first millennium, Kavanagh says, because they simply take it for granted that “Christian faith could not be lived in any other way than socially, communally and sacramentally.”


Today we perform different liturgies.   Modern schooling is a liturgy, Illich says, a public service whose ritual repetition produces a social body, and I think we need to take this idea seriously.  Our consciousness of who and what we are is produced by what we do.  Our religion is defined by our actions not our speculative beliefs.   Illich liked the term religiosity because he thought it reached past explicit creeds to capture the atmosphere, the climate of opinion, as one says, in which we live.  And our religiosity is generated by our liturgical practices – in schools and hospitals, museums and prisons, hotels and cinemas where we enact what we really believe. 

Illich was a proscriptive thinker, as his friend John McKnight said long ago.  He engaged in proscription, not prescription.  Another way of saying this is to call him an apophatic theologian, one who tells you what God is not, not what God is, but since Illich so emphatically denied being a theologian, I prefer to take him at his word and not call him one.  Proscriptive thinker is all right, and  the term may  even shed some light on the question of how to locate him in relation to the problematic categories of politics and religion.   Illich, in his campaigning days, between - let’s say - 1960 and 1980, was often understood as a political thinker, and as far as the term goes I think he was.  He referred to his own efforts as political campaigns and many of his most celebrated books end with a call for “political counter-measures” against this or that form of institutional overgrowth.   But as he went on and began to contemplate the extraordinary inertia of the institutions whose growth he had thought to limit, he finally came face to face with a conclusion that I think had been gradually dawning on him all along: that modern certainties are so tenacious because their roots go so deep.  “Everywhere I look for the roots of modernity,” he says, “I find them in the attempts of the churches to institutionalize, legitimize and manage Christian vocation.”

Our politics, in short, are rooted in our religion, unsatisfactory as both these terms are, and our religion moreover is a derivation of something that in its nature could never be a religion, which makes things even more complicated.   This is not to dismiss politics in the instrumental sense of the term, nor to say that nothing is at stake – a great deal is sometimes at stake, and Thomas More’s maxim – If you can’t achieve the best, at least prevent the worst – continues to apply.  But it is to say that if politics as a discussion about what is good, a discussion in which all options have not been foreclosed by economic and technological forces that have long since escaped our control – if politics in that sense is ever to resume, we will first have to understand the liturgies, the rituals, the raindances, as Illich liked to say, by which we produce and reproduce the world that surrounds us.  We will have to learn to swim against the current and seek in our tradition what British theologian John Milbank calls “the future we have missed.”

It seems to me that the time is propitious for such a reconsideration.  Religion persists – against the prediction of universal secularization that was one of sociology’s founding certitudes until not so very long ago – but it doesn’t necessarily persist as “religion” in the modern sense – that is as private, incommunicable, and antagonistic belief.  As modern definitions weaken, we can begin to see that religion is not a private property but a human propensity, and, as such, can be thought of as a commons rather than a private enclosure.   In the face of the recognition that “the crisis”, as I said earlier, has ended only by becoming total, I think we have entered a clearing, an opening where it may become possible to think differently about our tradition.

So let me conclude with another story about the same colleague and friend I spoke of earlier – my old executive producer whose indulgent and understanding supervision of my work was one of the great blessings of my life, even though I may appear to be picking on him here.  Sometime in the late 1990’s I presented him with a plan for four series of broadcast all dealing, I think I said, with contemporary appropriations of Christianity – the four subjects were to be Simone Weil, René Girard, Ivan Illich, and Herman Bianchi, a Dutch jurist, less well known than the other three, who was then trying to reintroduce the theory and practice of sanctuary into criminal justice.  My friend approved my plan, but then expressed a hope that afterwards I would return to more political and social subjects.  I understood at that moment that I did not feel as my colleague seemed to that these “religious” subjects were somehow set aside from social and political concern as if they pertained to some other world than this one.  So I said that I thought that “religion” was precisely what needed to brought to light in the public square, and that nothing could be more political than curious, disinterested inquiry into the religious roots of contemporary predicaments.  I’m not sure I convinced him, but I continue to think that’s true.