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Schouborg, Gary (1999)

"The Romantic Ivan Illich"


The Romantic Ivan Illich


Gary Schouborg




In his well-known and widely acclaimed critiques of education and health care, Ivan Illich repeatedly denies that he is a romantic, which he contrasts with being a realist (Illich 1994; hereafter, HO). Indeed, he is very much the realist, both because of his trenchant criticisms and because of his refusal to resurrect a past that he sees is irretrievably lost. Nevertheless, he remains a romantic in three senses: he is tendentious, melodramatic, and impractical. (For convenience, I will follow his usage in contrasting "romantic" with "realistic". I am aware that there are positive senses of "romantic" as well; but they are not the subject of this article.)


Illich repeatedly denies that he is a romantic. "I am convinced that 'health' and 'responsibility' belong to a lost past and that, since I am neither a romantic, a visionary, nor a drop-out, I must renounce both of them" (HO 25). The reason for renouncing them is that today "'health' and 'responsibility' … are elements of a lost past to which there is no return" (HO 25, my emphasis). He adds that, "Longing for that which health and responsibility might have been in recently arrived modernity I leave to romantics and drop-outs" (HO 30, his emphasis). Illich therefore sees himself as realist rather than romantic in (1) recognizing that health in any desirable sense is not available to contemporary culture and (2) accepting that fact rather than yearning for the impossible. Certainly Illich is a realist for not yearning for the impossible, as well as for his many perceptive observations of the difficulties contemporary culture has gotten itself into. However, his perspective on these difficulties is romantic.


Illich is a romantic in three senses: he is tendentious, melodramatic, and impractical. First, he is tendentious. Rather than lay out data in all its puzzling complexity, he selectively does so in the service of the web he seeks to weave. Like any romantic, he is more enthralled with his story than with the reality it is supposed to express. Second, his tendentiousness allows him to draw differences much too broadly, seducing him into a rhetoric whose intensity comes from melodrama rather than from illumination. Third, having painted problems with too broad a brush, he finds himself unable to address them in a practical manner.


The result of this triune romanticism is that Illich offers a view of spirituality and contemporary culture as necessarily inimical. The view is romantic in the same sense that some suicides are romantic in exaggerating the significance of their own suffering, and impractical in failing to see the solution of their difficulties within themselves.



1. Illich is romantic because he is tendentious.


Rather than lay out data in all its puzzling complexity, he selectively does so in the service of the web he seeks to weave. Like any romantic, he is more enthralled with his story than with the reality it is supposed to express. For example: "Opposed to manipulative institutions are "'convivial' institutions. Telephone link-ups, subway lines, mail routes, public markets and exchanges do not require hard or soft sells to induce their clients to use them. Sewage systems, drinking water, parks, and sidewalks are institutions men use without having to be institutionally convinced that it is to their advantage to do so" (Illich 1971, pp. 54-55; hereafter, DE). Conveniently, Illich fails to mention streets, highways, freeways, parking lots – all of them having the characteristics he gives convivial institutions but also having the disadvantage of being politically incorrect, environmental no-no's.


Indeed, Illich finds the streets in New York City too convivial, suggesting that, "most cross-streets should be closed to automotive traffic and parking should be forbidden everywhere" (DE 84). The manipulative use of hard or soft sells to reduce traffic is not for him. He would simply eradicate them with non-manipulative legislative fiat. Perhaps he could adopt the slogan, with apologies to the IRA: "People don't create traffic, cars do." Illich also ignores the fact that some "convivial" systems such as Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) and the notorious L. A. subway are seriously underutilized and are constantly trying to get people to use them. (Yes, yes, I know they were built after he wrote DE; but they serve as good contemporary counter-examples and there were similar "convivial" institutions before 1971 that he selectively ignores.)


Illich also claims that right-wing institutions are manipulative, whereas left-wing are convivial (DE 53). "Right-wing institutions tend to be highly complex and costly production processes in which much of the elaboration and expense is concerned with convincing consumers that they cannot live without the product or the treatment offered by the institution. Left-wing institutions tend to be networks which facilitate client-initiated communication or cooperation" (DE 55). Unfortunately, this characterization forces us to conclude, paradoxically, that HUD and the Department of Education are right-wing creations.


What helps Illich's tendentiousness work on the unwary reader is his great show of erudition. Few are going to challenge his claims when he makes them from sweeping historical vistas sprinkled with arcane references and terminology. Yet, if the reader pays more than superficial attention, Illich's showy scholarship raises more questions than it answers.


The key term in HO is "askesis". He labors over the introduction of the word, finally announcing that it means "renunciation" – only he chooses "askesis" because "renunciation is not a familiar concept today" (HO 26). So he chooses the more familiar "askesis" to help us out? Even more egregious is his claim that modern health systems are "evils and crimes which render us speechless. Unlike death, pestilence, and devils, these evils are without meaning. They belong to a non-human order. They force us into impotence, helplessness, powerlessness, ahimsa" (HO 28, his emphasis). For those who slept through their grammar school introduction to commonly used English words, "ahimsa" is the Buddhist and Hindu prescription against harming any sentient being. It has nothing to do with impotence, helplessness, powerlessness. His terminology is worse than pedantic (demonstrating learning without instructional benefit). It is muddled.


His historical scholarship is questionable at crucial points. Thus, he says that, "In the American Declaration of Independence, the right to happiness is affirmed" (HO 25). The careless reference to "the right to happiness" instead of "the right to the pursuit of happiness" makes the reader wonder if Illich is also careless on matters with which the reader is unfamiliar. Nor is his loose language harmless: glossing over "pursuit" allows him to draw the difference between Greek and modern thought all the more starkly, and tendentiously. "Right to happiness" focuses on content, on something we have. "Right to the pursuit of happiness" introduces the element of our relationship to what we desire. We will see in section 3 the significance of this distinction between the content of our experience and our relationship to it.


A second example of questionable history is his statement that "'responsible' … , as a philosophical concept, only appeared around 1920" (HO 29-30). One wonders what he means, in light of David Hume's writing in 1739: "Actions are by their very nature temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the characters and disposition of the person, who perform'd them, they infix not themselves upon him.… The action itself may be blameable; it may be contrary to all the rules of morality and religion: But the person is not responsible for it.…" (Hume 1739, p. 411, my emphasis). Here again, Illich's questionable erudition is not harmless. Identifying 1920 as the first use of "responsible" as a philosophical concept helps him support the impression he would give us that there are cataclysmic differences between our age and previous ones. His selective history, in turn, supports his melodramatic rhetoric.


2. Illich is romantic because he is melodramatic.


In the days of Galen and Hippocrates, "He was healthy who integrated himself into the harmony of the totality of his world according to the time and place in which he had come into the world. … But since the seventeenth century the attempt to master nature displaced the ideal of the health of a people, who by this time were no longer a microcosm (HO 25). As a result, "modern-day health is the fruit of possessive individualism[,] … a society based on self-serving greed" (HO 25). The shift in emphasis from community to individual and from understanding mankind as organic part of nature to master of it "gives the a-cosmic health created in this way the appearance of being engineerable." (HO 25). This skewed perspective reduces "a person to an immune system" (HO 29) with "death as the enemy" (HO 27). This makes us cogs in an impersonal medical system that inhumanely extends life to the extreme of "prolonging the suffering of madmen, cripples, old fools and monsters" (HO 27).


One might think we could make lemonade out of the alleged lemon that is our contemporary life by tying everything together by systems thinking. But it won't do, because it also is an abstract child of science (HO 28). The community and "harmonious mingling" (HO 25) that Illich desires are found in experience on a human scale. In contrast, the root problem with our society is that it is "abstract and disembodied. The certainties on which it rests are largely sense-less…" (HO 26). What we have lost is "the experienced body" (HO 29). What we have lost is tribalism.


Today's concept of health requires us to adapt to this contemporary state of affairs (HO 26), a prospect so evil that Illich is forced to renounce it – "No, Thank You!" He acknowledges that we cannot escape our complex, abstract culture by returning to tribes of a few hundred people. However, if we give in to our culture, we become powerless cogs in the machine – undesirable even if we are healthy cogs in a healthy machine. Therefore, our freedom comes from renouncing our culture: "No, Thank You!", refusing to accept responsibility for our health by internalizing its values. Instead, we take solace in our friends (HO 29), the only part of our reality that any longer has human scale.


What is romantic-melodramatic here is Illich's language. For him, we do not just find ourselves in a modern system that has its advantages and disadvantages compared to the pre-modern. For him, we live in a system that has no soul, so that we lose ours if we cooperate with it by internalizing its values. Therefore, if we do not renounce the system we subject ourselves to "evils and crimes which render us speechless. Unlike death, pestilence, and devils, these evils are without meaning. They belong to a non-human order" (HO 28, his emphasis). "To demand that our children feel well in [this] world … is an insult" (HO 27, my brackets). Indeed, "the concept of a life which can be reduced to a survival phase of the immune system is not only a caricature, not only an idol, but a blasphemy. Seen in this light, desire for responsibility for the quality of this life is not only stupid or impertinent, it is a sin" (HO 31).


What Illich rightly points to is that mankind's change from pre-modern to modern world views is qualitative, not just a matter of complication. Unfortunately, his melodramatic language is both result and cause of drawing the difference too starkly, so that he can find no way of participating humanly in contemporary technological society. In short, his romantic impulse leads him to an impractical impasse.


3. Illich is romantic because he is impractical.


In contrasting the pre-modern era as holistic with the modern era as abstract and dis-integrated, Illich contrasts one content of our experience with another while ignoring our innermost relationship to either. In identifying a humane, meaningful life with tribalism, he identifies a desirable life with one content (smaller groups) compared to another (complex, technological society). Having done that, he has no choice but to renounce modern culture as too abstract and complex, and to find solace in a circle of friends. We can be grateful to him for relentlessly pursuing the logic of content to its ultimate conclusion. In this respect, he is radically and systematically realistic.


Unfortunately, Illich's conclusion is impractical in that it leaves no humanly acceptable way to participate in contemporary society. And his attempt to salvage something through friendship may not take us where we most deeply desire to go. Fortunately, there is a way out: focusing not on the content of our experience – on any particular form it assumes – but on our innermost relationship to it, the inner rhythm by which we savor whatever experience we have, whether it occurs in pre-modern or modern venues.


"Everything is gestation and then birthing" (Rilke 1984[1903], p. 23, his emphasis). This is as true of moderns as pre-moderns. What rightly concerns Illich is that complex technological society both distracts our attention from this inner rhythm and seemingly demands so much from us that we are easily seduced into accommodating the pace of our lives to those demands rather than to our natural, innermost rhythm. But it is this rhythm that allows us to assimilate our experience, to determine its significance or meaning for our lives. Short-circuiting this rhythm in order to maximize the satisfaction of our desires leaves us having achieved much but feeling empty, because we have not given ourselves time to experience the significance of what we have done.


Finally, Illich's appeal to friendship may also be romantic. It is impossible to be certain, since Illich does not explain just what satisfaction he derives from friends. It depends on whether friendship for him is one commonly referred to, or something deeper.


There is an important and commonly observed sense in which friends cannot satisfy our deepest needs. We cannot always have others with us; and even if we did, we cannot communicate to them everything we experience. We do not fully understand even our best friends, nor they us. In this sense, we are each radically alone. If this is what Illich understands by friendship, then appealing to it to liberate us from our contemporary crisis is indeed romantic.


On the other hand, the solitude in which we find ourselves is the same for us all. "[T]here is only one solitude.…" (Rilke , p. 53, his emphasis). In this vast solitude we are united. If that conclusion appears bloodless and unsatisfying, it does so only for the same reason that we conclude that we are each radically alone: we are focusing on the content of our experience rather than on our relationship to it. In terms of content, it is inevitably true that we cannot always have others with us and that we never fully understand one another. If content were all there were, we would indeed be cut off. However, there is also our relationship of openneness to the content of our experience. From that liberating openness, we are one – not by abstract logic, but in the most deeply satisfying way possible. When we and a friend are mutually open to one another, the facts of parting or of incomplete understanding are secondary limitations. The presence we feel to one another is all. What began as stark solitude because we were focused on unshared content becomes a rich presence to one another through our relationship of openness.


If Illich finds this presence in friendship, then he is to that extent realist. He need take only one short step further to heal his remaining romantic aversion to technology, to see that what he finds in friendship can heal the complex, technological abstractness that concerns him in contemporary culture. For each of us can be as open to intellectual and technological processes as we are to one another. The key is whether in dealing with either we are faithful to our innermost rhythm, by which we experience the significance of what we do. When focused on content, we rightly see an unbridgeable gap between technology and our most human needs. From that perspective, it is no wonder that when invited to participate in technology, Ilich replies, "No, Thank You!" Talk of healing the rift is merely abstract words. However, in the solitude of our innermost rhythm, the words become flesh.




Hume, David (1739) Treatise of Human Nature, Selby-Bigge ed., II.iii.2.

DE: Illich, Ivan (1971). Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row.

HO: Illich, Ivan (1994). "Health as One's Own Responsibility: No, Thank You!" Journal of Consciousness Studies, 1(1), 25-31.

Rilke, Rainer Maria (1984). Letters to a Young Poet [1903 -1908]. Stephen Mitchell trans. New York: Random House.