On E. F. Schumacher’s “A Guide for the Perplexed”

I had the opportunity today to introduce to a couple friends of mine – one an episcopal priest and FDNY chaplain, the other a corporate litigation attorney – the book, “A Guide for the Perplexed,” by E. F. Schumacher (not to be confused with the similarly-titled – and not accidentally so! – 12th-century book by Maimonides). He is perhaps more known for his earlier book, “Small is Beautiful,” aptly subtitled, “Economics as if People Mattered.”

Excerpts from the liner notes of the current book:
“what he undertakes is to provide nothing less than a Manual for Survival… ”
“an unapologetic defense of traditional Christian humanism”

For my part, I was hooked at the point where Schumacher picks up the ball with this quote from psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl, a man whom he describes as “a psychiatrist of unshakeable sanity,” and runs with it:

He quotes: “The present danger does not really lie in the loss of universality on the part of the scientist, but rather in his pretence and claim of totality… What we have to deplore therefore is not so much the fact that scientists are specialising, but rather the fact that specialists are generalising.” [British spellings as in the source.]

From there, he goes on to discuss the four “Levels of Being.”

Mineral: m
Plant: m+x
Animal: m+x+y
Man: m+x+y+z

About “x” he writes: “No one has any difficulty recognizing the astonishing and mysterious difference between a living plant and one that has died and has thus fallen to the lowest level of being, inanimate matter. What is this power that has been lost? We call it “life.” Further on: “Even if somebody could provide us with the recipe, a set of instructions, for creating life out of lifeless matter, the mysterious character of x would remain, and we would never cease to marvel that something that could do nothing is now able to extract nourishment from its environment, grow, and reproduce itself, ‘true to form,’ as it were. There is nothing in the laws, concepts, and formulae of physics and chemistry to explain or even to describe such powers.”

He therefore comes to identify x as an ontological discontinuity, the first of the three ontological discontinuities on the road from mineral to man.

To go any further with this “book report” would take me too far away from where I meant to go, which was simply to introduce it with enough of a hook to catch you. Perhaps we’re there by now. 🙂

Read this book. If you have, let’s discuss. For the record, I’m on page 94 (of 140). Don’t give away the ending.


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