Saturday, November 18, 2017

Simone Weil and The Poem of Force. From the Fields of Ilion to the Charnel Grounds of Europe

Whoever endures a moment of the void either receives the supernatural bread or falls.
It is a terrible risk, but one that must be run.
 Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace

Even as a child, Simone Weil had an understanding of both the deprivations and the depredations of war. At an age when most children can barely see beyond their own shifting desires, Simone Weil had fully grasped the reality and the meaning of sacrifice. She was six years old in 1915 when the immolation of Europe by military force and blind violence had already crossed unspeakable thresholds. In May and June of that year, over one hundred thousand French soldiers lost their lives in the Artois offensive. Three months later, a further one hundred and ninety thousand French soldiers were killed in the three-weeks-long Champagne offensive. In that year alone, nearly two million French soldiers, over a million British soldiers, and over six hundred thousand German soldiers had been killed in an insane mutual slaughter that saw little if any change in the battle lines of the Western Front.

Simone Weil's father, a doctor, had been conscripted for medical service soon after the outbreak of the war. Travelling with her family from base to base, Simone came to know at close range the tragic reverberations of war. At the age of six, she quietly announced at the family table that she would no longer eat sugar but would send her portions to the French soldiers on the Front. This small act was to be the first of many such gestures of identification with the oppressed and the afflicted throughout her life.

The will for solidarity and identification with human suffering in all its forms continued to grow in Simone Weil long after her small gesture in 1915. Diagnosed with tuberculosis while in England in 1943, she steadfastly refused to eat any more food than her French compatriots who had been reduced to survival rations because of the widespread destruction of agricultural lands, production facilities, and food distribution networks throughout Europe. Despite the efforts of her doctors and even frustrated attempts to tube-feed her, Simone Weil breathed her last on August 24th 1943. She was thirty four years old. E. Jane Doering offers the following account of the circumstances leading to her death:
"She was torn by the thought that she had abandoned her native land in its time of need. Her fragile health and extreme disappointment at not getting permission from the free French Forces to re-enter France led to a physical breakdown with tubercular complications. A cure was rendered impossible by her refusal to eat more than what she believed was available to the most deprived of her compatriots in occupied France, or to accept rich foods - considered the remedy for tuberculosis - while the British were short on rations. The rigor of her thought imposed a harsh consistency on her lifestyle." [1]

Hitler in Saarbrucken, Germany, 1932
From an early age, Simone Weil had attended closely to the political currents of the time. She identified with revolutionary Marxism even before her adolescence and had become active within workers movements by the time she had reached her twenties. She visited Germany for ten weeks in the summer of 1932 staying mostly in Berlin. While she was there, she came into contact with Leon Trotsky - who in 1928 had been expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin - and with his inner circle. On her return to France, she published a number of articles on the disarray of German trade unions and on the passivity of the German Communist Party in the face of Hitler's ascendency.

While visiting Paris the following year, Trotsky and his son stayed briefly in the house of Simone Weil's family. He and Weil vigorously locked horns and, in the words of Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, "engaged in heated discussions of the revolution." [2] Her youthful ideological fixations were rapidly disintegrating as she came to realise the growing violence and oppression exercised by the communists in Stalin's Soviet Union and by the national socialists in Hitler's Germany. Her commitments began to shift from engagement with revolutionary thought to understanding more deeply the lived realities of the poor and the oppressed.

In 1934, she published her reflections as "Oppression and Liberty" (Réflexions sur les causes de la liberté et de l'oppression sociale) - the only book she was ever to write. During the same year, she took leave from her role as teacher in order to take up employment in a number of factories. While working on the assembly line of the Renault plant near Paris, she came face-to-face with the brutality and the violence of factory supervisors, and came to witness directly the impotence and vulnerability of workers ensnared in the industrial system. These experiences quelled even further the revolutionary ardour that had fuelled her earlier years. David Pollard reflects:
"The experience of factory work changed her revolutionary views. Weil moved on from the Marxian notion of workers as the carriers of revolutionary consciousness to a view that factory work killed what was important in the person, leaving little consciousness for personal development or liberation. Weil's factory experience of humiliation, exhaustion and helplessness gave her a powerful metaphor - the slave." [3]
In a letter to a confidant some years later, Simone Weil recalled her factory experiences with both poignancy and eloquence:
"I knew quite well that there was a great deal of affliction in the world, I was obsessed with the idea, but I had not had prolonged and first-hand experience of it. As I worked in the factory, indistinguishable to all eyes, including my own, from the anonymous mass, the affliction of others entered into my flesh and my soul. Nothing separated me from it, for I had really forgotten my past and I looked forward to no future, finding it difficult to imagine the possibility of surviving all the fatigue. What I went through there marked me in so lasting a manner that still today when any human being speaks to me without brutality, I cannot help having the impression that there must be a mistake and that unfortunately the mistake will in all probability disappear. There I received forever the mark of a slave, like the branding of the red-hot iron which the Romans put on the foreheads of their most despised slaves. Since then I have always regarded myself as a slave." [4]
The metaphor of the slave was to become a recurring trope in her writings thereafter.

She left the factories in August 1935 as her already-frail health had broken down under the pressure. She began to experience severe migraines that prevented her from reading and writing for days at a time. Although her physical capacities would never fully recover, Simone Weil's daemonic drivenness remained undiminished, reigniting and burning furiously at every opportunity.

On War and Rumours of War
Simone Weil, Spain, 1936
The Spanish Civil War broke out on July 17th, 1936. Despite her frailties, she signed up with an anarchist militia together with fellow anarchists from other European countries. Within a month, Weil was in Spain, sporting a carbine on the front-line. In yet another example of the thwarted intention that seemed to be her constant companion, within a few days of arriving, she stumbled into a pot of boiling oil and severely scalded one of her legs. She was forced to return to France soon after because of the injury.

Yet the experience was not an entire debacle. Being thrown into the horrors of actual warfare, she was soon disabused of any notion of the inherent nobility of war. She came to learn of the fate of a 16 year-old Spanish boy soldier who had been captured by her group. Refusing to join her companions and to renounce his allegiance to Franco, he was summarily executed. This was her first direct encounter with the impersonal brutality that infects all who come under the thrall of force in the fields of war.

On her return to France, she began searching out earlier historic sources in an attempt to understand the nature of the forces that drove individuals and nations to engage in war. Her visit to Germany had made her aware of an increasing militarism that was growing into a machine that threatened to engulf Europe in a holocaust of unrestrained violence. She had even then predicted that Hitler would gain victory in 1933, and that Europe-wide war would inevitably follow.

Long-attuned to the classic Greek spirit, her incisive intelligence turned to Homer's Iliad in the hope of deepening her understanding of the realities unfolding around her.  She gave voice to her early thoughts in an essay published in 1937, Let Us Not Begin Again The Trojan War. She had by that time declared herself a committed pacifist, favouring negotiations with Hitler and endorsing Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. As events inexorably intensified, she came to realise the brutality and the viciousness of Hitler's intention. She was later to reflect on the crucial moment when she finally abandoned her pacifism:
"Ever since the day when I decided, after a very painful inner struggle, that in spite of my pacifist inclinations it had become an over-riding obligation in my eyes to work for Hitler's destruction . . . my resolve has not altered; and that day was the one in which Hitler entered Prague in May 1939, if I remember right. My decision was tardy, perhaps . . . and I bitterly reproach myself for it." [5]
L'Iliade, ou le poème de la force

Weil and her family succeeded in escaping Paris in the days immediately before Hitler's troops occupied the city. They relocated to Vichy and then Marseilles in the south of France. It was here that she once again turned to Homer's Iliad, but this time in the full light of Germany's crushing assaults on its European neighbours. Within a short time, she had produced an astonishingly original interpretation of the poem unlike any that had ever preceded it. Her L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force, was translated into English in 1945 as The Poem of Force. It was no fine and detailed literary analysis of the poem. For Simone Weil, the Iliad was not about the gods, the strategies, the treaties, the entreaties, and the negotiations of warring parties. The Iliad was, in its essence, a poetic study of the subjection of men to the determinations of force, and an account of the consequence of its exercise both on those who would wield it and those who are crushed by it. The essay was first published in 1940 in Les Cahiers du Sud, a literary journal based in Marseilles. It begins with the following extraordinary paragraph:
"The true hero, the true subject, the centre of the Iliad is force. Force employed by man, force that enslaves man, force before which man's flesh shrinks away. In this work, at all times, the human spirit is shown as modified by its relations to force, as swept away, blinded, by the very force it imagined it could handle, as deformed by the weight of the force it submits to. For those dreamers who considered that force, thanks to progress, would soon be a thing of the past, the Iliad could appear as an historical document; for others, whose powers of recognition are more acute and who perceive force, today as yesterday, at the very centre of history, the Iliad is the purest and loveliest of mirrors." [6]
Nowhere in the essay was there any explicit mention of the situation that confronted Europe at the time. Like the poem itself, Weil drew from the timeless elements fashioned by Homer to provide an account of the slow descent of the human spirit into a destructive and dehumanising mania under the thrall of force.

Weil's essay is beyond paraphrasing or summarising. It's density and its balance need to be directly experienced. In a dual study of Weil's Poem of Force and a parallel essay, On the Iliad written by her contemporary and compatriot Rachel Bespaloff, Cicero Bruce articulates the impossibility of adequately re-presenting either of these works satisfactorily. He writes:
"One can fully appreciate the essays revisited here only by experiencing them for himself. For they are neither reducible to any terms short of those which translate the originals into English nor satisfactorily expressible in any summary or paraphrase. What impels their description here is the hope that they will find readers in our day." [7]
I can do no better than to re-echo Bruce's sentiments - particularly in regard to Simone Weil's L’Iliade, ou le poème de la force.

The final pages of Weil's essay provide privileged entry into her deeper quest to reconcile the Greek genius with her own unique Christian revelation. Her highly developed scholarly and experiential perspectives were precipitously challenged soon after she returned from Spain as a result of three intensely mystical experiences. These culminated when, in her own words, "Christ himself came down and took possession of me." [8]

These unanticipated experiences did not alter the intensity, but redirected the style of her philosophic quest as she more determinedly sought out the perennial sources of insight into the numinous, transcendental and supernatural dimensions of human experience. These sources included the Gospels, the Bhagavad Gita, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Koran, and Taoist and Buddhist literatures. Although Simone Weil continued to engage deeply with Catholicism in her latter years, she maintained complete independence from all institutional forms and, according to all accounts, chose not to formalise her relationship with the Church through the sacrament of baptism.

The Poem of Force as Performance

For those with the staying power, Romanian dramatist and Professor of Theatre, Simona Giurgea brings her full European presence and sensitivity to a stark and at times electrifying performance of Weil's The Poem of Force in the video embedded below. Trained in Romania, and serving as lecturer at a number of universities in the U.S. since 1995, Simona Giurgea offers a masterful on-stage re-creation of Weil's essay. In it, she resuscitates the nearly-lost art of the rhapsodei, the ancient Greek poets and interpreters of Homer who carried his work in their very being having committed the epic poem to memory and reviving it with each new performance.

In her dramatic interpretation, Simona Giurgea seamlessly interweaves Weil's text and selected excerpts from the Iliad into a performance that both elicits and reflects the timeless nature of Homer's poem.


1. E. Jane Doering, (2010): Simone Weil and the Specter of Self-Perpetuating Force, University of Notre Dame Press, Indiana, p. 7

2. Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, (2001): Three Women in Dark Times. Edith Stein, Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, p. 59

3. David Pollard, (2015): The Continuing Legacy of Simone Weil, Hamilton Books, Maryland, p. 15

4. Simone Weil, Letter IV, Spiritual Autobiography. [In: Simone Weil, Waiting on God, Fontana Books (Collins), U.K., 1959, p. 33]

5. Quoted by Christopher Benfey, A Tale of Two Iliads (pp. 207-219) in Christopher E. G. Benfey and Karen Remmier, eds. (2006): Artists, Intellectuals and World War II, University of Massachusetts Press, Amhurst, p. 216

6. Simone Weil, "The Iliad or, The Poem of Force", Politics, 1945, vol. 2, no. 11, (pp. 321-331) [Translated by Mary McCarthy], p. 321

7. Cicero Bruce, "Reading the Iliad in the Light of Eternity", Modern Age, 2006, vol. 48, no. 1, (pp. 48-58), p. 55

8. Letter IV, Spiritual Autobiography, p. 35

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D
Inverloch, November, 2017

A PDF copy of the above essay - and also of Mary McCarthy's translation of Simone Weil's The Poem of Force - can be downloaded from:


 1. Of Poverty and Potency. The Reluctant Mysticism of Simone Weil

For most of her short life, Simone Weil felt intensely the unsatisfactory nature of earthly life. Even as a child, she had identified with the pain and privation of young French soldiers mired in the battle fields of Europe. Despite her own relatively comfortable circumstances - her father was a doctor - as soon as she had won her first freedoms, she actively took on the cause of the poor and of unemployed workers. She had directed her incandescent intelligence to writers who offered an analysis of the causes of poverty and oppression and the means of overcoming it, but found their suggested solutions served only to replace one form of oppression with another.

2. There Are No Good Wars

The booming of artillery and the crackling of bullets have pierced and sundered the past twenty decades. The slow dance of aerial engagement that once tested the reflexes and determination of young pilots during the so-called Great War has been replaced by infernal powers that thunderously impel silicon-guided missiles to their well-mapped targets. And this is all done at a safe distance by those with the hardware and the know-how.

But who truly knows the consequences of such acts apart from those unfortunates in the line of fire, and those heroic individuals who witness and document the human reality of what is otherwise counted in the ledger of contemporary history as anonymous casualties and collateral damage?

Thursday, September 21, 2017

On Ivan Illich and the Limits to Medicine

Reflections on the man and his Medical Nemesis: the Expropriation of Health

Reading Ivan Illich is not easy, though in a different way to reading Continental philosophers or quantum physicists. Illich’s language is demanding and requires a certain suspension of judgement if one is to penetrate the systemic meaning behind his often challenging – if not vehement - rhetoric. But it is worth the effort.

It is difficult to appreciate the nature of Ivan Illich’s critique of Western society and of modernity in general without having some familiarity with his early experiences. He was born in 1926 to a Dalmatian father of landed aristocratic birth and a German mother of Sephardic ancestry whose family had converted to Catholicism. He knew privilege from an early age. Rainer Maria Rilke, Jacques Maritain and Rudolf Steiner were all visitors to his family household.

Illich moved to Vienna in the early 1930s with his mother and his younger twin brothers. They soon came to experience the heaviness of the Nazi regime at close range, particularly after the annexation of Austria in 1938. In order to avoid Nazi persecution, they moved once again in 1941, re-settling in Florence. Those early years taught Illich how suddenly one’s life and cultural circumstance can change. As a child, he had known the steadiness and stability of his father’s ancestral culture, yet within a few short years, he had come to experience the fragility of many of life’s “certainties”

When he was 12 years old, Illich had a foreboding about what was soon to erupt throughout Europe. While walking on the outskirts of Vienna just before the Nazi invasion, he decided that he would never marry because, “certain things will happen which will make it impossible for me to give children to those towers down on the island in Dalmatia where my grandfathers and great-grandfathers made children.” [1]

By the age of 17 years, he had resolved to enter the priesthood. He studied philosophy and theology at the Jesuit-run Gregorian Institute in Rome and concurrently undertook a doctoral thesis at the University of Salzburg based on a study of the ideas of Arnold Toynbee. While in Rome, Illich was drawn into a number of influential circles and developed a personal friendship with his old family friend, Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. Through Maritain, he  was introduced to Cardinal Giovanni Montini, who was later to become Pope Paul VI.

Illich completed his studies and was ordained a priest in 1951. His intellectual power had been noted by Montini who wanted him to join the Vatican inner circle. The Cardinal urged him to enrol at the Accademia dei Nobili Ecclesiastici in Rome. Illich, however was more interested in history and planned for a second doctoral degree at Princeton University. [2] He crossed the Atlantic soon after and was appointed parish priest of an impoverished Puerto Rican community in New York.

New York City, ca. 1955
For the next 5 years, Illich was fully immersed in Puerto Rican life and culture. Apart from serving the needs of his own parishioners, he visited Puerto Rico at every opportunity, often travelling on horseback. It was there that he began to regain a sense of the stability and resilience of traditional communities, something that had been shaken by his experiences in Austria. Illich’s time with Puerto Ricans also reinforced a growing distaste for modernity with its wanton destruction of traditional cultures. The themes of cultural integrity and resilience were to be interwoven into his wide-ranging intellectual explorations thereafter.

Illich’s unique qualities were soon recognised. By 1956, he had been appointed Vice-Rector of the Catholic University of Puerto Rico where he established a facility that introduced American priests and religious to the language and the cultural life of Latino communities. He also became deeply interested in the schooling of the local children. It was in Puerto Rico that the ideas for what would eventually find expression in Deschooling Society a decade later began to take form.

In his role as Vice-Rector at the University, Illich managed to cross swords with both of the Catholic bishops of Puerto Rico. His situation had become so untenable that he eventually resigned from his post. On returning to New York in 1960, he was enthusiastically welcomed by the Centre of Intercultural Formation at the Jesuit Fordham University, which was at that time looking to establish a training program for missionaries in Latin America.

Illich was appointed executive director of the new program for a five-year period and given generous funding to set it into motion. He took to the road in search of a suitable base. For the next four months, he ranged throughout Latin America, often travelling by bus or hitch-hiking in order to more fully participate in the life-worlds of local communities.

On arriving in Cuernavaca near Mexico City, he met with Mendez Arceo, a courageous and progressive bishop, “who had a transformative and renewed vision of the Church quite different from official church positions.” [3] They hit it off immediately and Illich there and then decided to establish the Centro de Investigaciones Culturales (CIC) at Cuernavaca. The first missionaries began to arrive in 1961. Bruno-Jofre offers the following reflection:
“Cuernavaca was the right place for Illich. It had been a field of Catholic experimentation before Vatican II, under the leadership of Bishop Mendez Arceo. . . . It was a special place in which the local Church as an institution had attempted to engage with the spirit of the times and with the people themselves, even before Vatican II.” [4] 
Illich soon gathered a group of influential teachers around himself. Under his stewardship, the CIC in Cuernavaca rapidly established itself as a centre of far-ranging intellectual engagement.

Cuernavaca, ca. 1960
Three years later, Illich established a parallel centre in the same premises, the Centro Intercultural de Documentacion (CIDOC), an entity that was completely independent of Church funding. By 1965, CIDOC had virtually subsumed CIC’s role. Through CIDOC, Ivan Illich and his collaborators began to project powerful, independent and controversial ideas that challenged conventional thought in many disciplines.

The establishment of the CIC had been a response to calls from conservative Catholic elements in the U.S. and from Pope John XXIII for the “modernisation” of Latin America through missionary activity. The clerics, religious and volunteers who arrived at the CIC in Cuernavaca found, however, that “something very different was being offered. Instead of teaching words of a new language they learned to be quiet; and instead of basic notions about Latin American culture they [CIC] dissuaded missioners from achieving their goal.” [5]

Catholic support for the Fordham project had been largely motivated by concern over the perceived growth of both Marxism and Protestantism in Latin America. Castro’s success in Cuba prompted John F. Kennedy to launch the “Alliance for Progress”, a ten-year multi-billion dollar aid program on August 17th 1961. Curiously, that same day, Pope John XXIII formally instructed the North American Catholic hierarchy to send missionaries and lay volunteers in large numbers to Latin America. [6]

Illich was aware that the priests and lay missionaries attending Cuernavaca could, without their knowing it, inadvertently find themselves in the service of imperial power. He strove to sensitise them above all to the culture of the communities within which they would be working. His concerns were later to be made explicit in one of Illich’s more controversial papers, The Seamy Side of Charity published by the Jesuit weekly America Magazine in January 1967. In it, he wrote:

“The men who go to Latin America must humbly accept the possibility that they are useless or even harmful, although they give all they have. They must accept the fact that a limping ecclesiastical assistance program uses them as palliatives to ease the pain of a cancerous structure. . . .

We must acknowledge that missioners can be pawns in  a world ideological struggle and that it is blasphemous to use the gospel to prop up any social or political system.” [7]

Illich was deeply conscious of the movements that were arising spontaneously among the people of Latin American. By the time that Cuernavaca was established, he had spent close to a decade living close to Latinos, firstly in New York, then at the Catholic University in Puerto Rico, and more recently, on the streets and in the barrios of Central and South America. His contact with Bishop Mendez Arceo had affirmed the existence of a strong and engaged Catholicism in Latin America that was beginning to find its own unique expression.

Robert-Fleury, Galileo before the Holy Office, ca. 1847
Not surprisingly, word of Illich’s activities at Cuernavaca began to reach the ears of more conservative members of the Catholic hierarchy, both locally and in the U.S. One of the local bishops even accused him of sorcery. [8] Despite the support of Bishop Arceo in Mexico and Cardinal Spellman in New York, Illich was ordered to present himself before the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1967. He arrived in Rome in June 1968 and maintained a dignified reserve in the face of accusatory questions regarding his own activities and those of his religious and academic colleagues in Mexico. In January 1969, the Vatican instructed the Bishop of Cuernavaca that priests and religious were thenceforth to be prohibited from participating in any of the programs or activities at CIDOC.

Illich resigned from his priestly ministry two months later in March 1969. He never, however, lost his connection with the deeper spirit of Catholicism and what he referred to thereafter as Mother Church. He remained celibate and continued to recite the divine office daily for the rest of his life.

Having formally put aside his monsignorial role, Illich immediately embarked upon a highly energised and productive phase of his life, publishing four books – each of which was widely read – between 1970 and 1975. Though thematically different, each of these publications offered radical critiques of the cultural developments that Illich and his colleagues had examined at Cuernavaca. The last of these works was entitled Medical Nemesis. The Expropriation of Health.  It offered a highly individuated and revolutionary critique of the personal, social and cultural influence of Western technological medicine.

Medical Nemesis was a work of deep scholarship, fluid erudition, and fearless rhetoric. It unapologetically laid bare the excesses and the deficiencies of a profession that had over the previous century claimed immense cultural authority for itself. Illich's earlier published books were largely collections of essays. Medical Nemesis however, was a tightly integrated, wide-ranging review of the expropriation of individual and cultural autonomy by the profession of medicine.

Illich clearly understood the magnitude of what he was taking on. Unlike his earlier works, Medical Nemesis was extensively footnoted with sources ranging from The Lancet to The New England Journal of Medicine to the works of Montesquieu and Wittgenstein. By the end of the second chapter of this eight-chapter book, Illich had already referred to the writings of such medical commentators as Rene Dubos, Thomas Szasz, Michael Balint and Maurice Pappworth, sociologists including Eliot Friedson and Howard Becker, and philosophers and cultural historians including Simone de Bouvoir, Michel Foucault, Eric Voegelin and Lewis Mumford.

By documenting the sources of his ideas and insights with such thoroughness, Illich hoped that his non-medical readers would begin to look at what was already out there for themselves. He also wanted to leave a well-signposted audit trail for those within the medical profession who he knew would be incensed by his revelations. Predictably, Medical Nemesis was not welcomed by most within the medical fold. But Illich was no stranger to the consequences of truth-speaking. He had been forced out of his own church by criticising the policies of the Roman curia and of North American prelates in the management of Central and South American “problems”. Ivan Illich had a penchant for rocking the boat. Not surprisingly, he found himself cast adrift.

In Medical Nemesis Ivan Illich identifies and deconstructs many of the unconscious elements that drive the biomedical enterprise. He addresses the complicity of biomedicine in “enabling” people to adapt to inherently sickening social, industrial, environmental and political realities:
“The physician, himself a member of the dominating class, judges that the individual does not fit into an environment that has been engineered and is administered by other professionals, instead of accusing his colleagues of creating environments into which the human organism cannot fit.” (p. 169)
At a more immediate level, Illich brings to light the limitations of biomedicine’s mechanistic and reductionistic view of life and urges a reconsideration of vitalistic and holistic perspectives that encompass more fully the nexus within which both health and sickness arise. He draws strongly from historical and cultural frames of reference that place the individual within meaningful contexts from which the slings and arrows of adverse fates, of human debility and limitation, and the inevitability of suffering and death can be negotiated. Much of his ferocity is directed against the medicalisation of all stages of life, and especially of death:
“For rich and poor, life is turned into a pilgrimage through check-ups and clinics back to the ward where it started. Life is thus reduced to a “span,” to a statistical phenomenon which, for better or for worse, must be institutionally planned and shaped. This life-span is brought into existence with the pre-natal check-up, when the doctor decides if and how the foetus shall be born, and will end with a mark on a chart ordering resuscitation suspended.” (p. 79)
Illich writes at length of iatrogenesis – of the illness or injury caused by medical interventions – but extends the field of inquiry far beyond the domain of personal incidents into the broader theatres of social and cultural influence. Social iatrogenesis is made manifest in the medicalisation of all aspects of life and the consequent loss of individual autonomy and capacity for self-care by citizens who are transformed into “patients.” Of greater concern to Illich is the cultural iatrogenesis reflected in a near-total abandonment in Western societies of the traditional resources, understandings and philosophies that have perennially enabled people to cultivate the art of suffering, and to accept - if not embrace - this inevitable and inescapable dimension of human experience. Philosopher Charles Taylor was moved to reflect further on this aspect of Illich’s thesis:
“So medicalisation alters our phenomenology of lived experience. . . . We don’t see that we are being led to see/feel ourselves in different ways, we just believe naively that this is experience itself; we imagine that people have always imagined themselves this way. And we are baffled by accounts of earlier ages.” [8]
Medical Nemesis is too dense and too difficult a work to be circumscribed by any short review. Yet a few months before Illich’s death in December 2002, Richard Smith, editor of the British Medical Journal reflected on his own re-reading of Illich’s Medical Nemesis, a work that had profoundly influenced him as an undergraduate in the 1970s. He concluded his review with the following remark:
“It’s the ultimate book reviewer’s cliché to say that every doctor and medical student should read this book, but those who haven’t have missed something really important. When sick I want to be cared for by doctors who every day doubt the value and wisdom of what they do – and this book will help make such doctors.” [9]
Illich is to be admired for his principled courage and fearless confrontation of forces he perceived as being inherently noxious and damaging to the individual and the collective psyche. Illich lived as he spoke. Even in the end, he eschewed the ministrations of oncologists in the treatment of a disfiguring facial tumour that seared his latter years, preferring to wear both the pain and the tumour with fortitude and dignity. He remained active until the end and found occasional ease in his latter days by lighting a small piece of opium in the pipe that he carried about with him.

There is more that could be said, but this is sufficient to give some sense of the systemic nature of Illich’s critique. He was not interested in patchwork solutions, but along with his contemporary brothers-in-arms Fritz Schumacher and Leopold Kohr, Ivan Illich sought to alert all who would hear that Western civilisation had entered very dangerous and destructive times.


1.  Cited in James Arraj: “In Search of Ivan Illich.” Viewed at:
2.  Hartch, Todd (2015): “The Prophet of Cuernavaca. Ivan Illich and the Crisis of the West”, Oxford University Press, p. 6
3.  Bruno-Jofre, Rosa and Zaldiva, Jon Igelmo, (2016), “Monsignor Ivan Illich’s Critique of the Institutional Church, 1960-1966, J. of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 67, No. 3, 568-586
4.  Ibid., p. 577
5.  Zaldivar, Jon Igelmo and Uceda, Patricia Quiroga, (2011), “Ivan Illich and the Conflict with The Vatican (1966-1969”, The International Journal of Illich Studies, Vol. 2, No. 1, 3-12
6.  Bruno-Jofre and Zaldiva, op. cit., p. 574
7.  Illich, Ivan (1967): “The Seamy Side of Charity”, America. The Jesuit Review, Jan.21, 1967. Viewed at:
8.  Taylor, Charles (2007): “A Secular Age”, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., p. 740 
8.  Smith, Richard (2002)” Book Review, “Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health”, BMJ, 324, 13th April. Viewed at:

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.
Inverloch, September 2017

A PDF copy of the above essay, together with a collation of selected excerpts from his Limits to Medicine. Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health can be  downloaded from:

Babette Babich on Ivan Illich:

Life is a Test: Ivan Illich's Medical Nemesis and the "Age of the Show"

A fascinating perspective on the ideas presented by Illich in his Medical Nemesis is offered in the video clip below by Babette Babich, professor of philosophy at Fordham University. This presentation is adapted from a lecture she gave to the International Philosophy of Nursing Society in Quebec, Canada in August 2016. 

Forty years after the publication of Medical Nemesis, Babette Babich wryly reflects on the present state of medicine and its contemporary "cutting edge" aspects.


1. E.F. Schumacher. A Voice for Wisdom in an Age of Folly

The economist E.F. Schumacher has served as a source of inspiration for many over the past half-century. His essential message is carried in two books published in the five years before he died, Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered (1973) and A Guide for the Perplexed (1977).

This post offers both an audio presentation drawn from two lectures given by Schumacher in the 1970s and a review of some of his ideas as presented in Small is Beautiful.

2. Leopold Kohr. Gentle Messenger of Community, Fellowship and Celebration

Leopold Kohr was professor of economics and public administration at a number of universities in North America, Puerto Rico, and the United Kingdom from the early 1940s to the 1970s. As a younger man, he spent time in Spain as a journalist, sharing an office with Ernest Hemingway, and a friendship and many conversations with Eric Blair, who was later to publish his own writings under the pen name of George Orwell.

The wisdom of Leopold Kohr is the wisdom of one who has realised the essential perplexity of many aspects of human reality and of one who has sought to communicate his insights and offer an alternative, albeit unrealisable vision.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

A House Divided, A House Restored

"And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5

I have in recent months become increasingly aware of a growing hostility expressed towards Pope Francis by a number of individuals and fundamentalist Catholic groups who remain ideologically opposed to the reforms carried out after Vatican II during the 1960s. I have found this perplexing, particularly in view of the fact that Pope Francis is a man who is deeply aware both of human reality with all its strengths and weaknesses, and of the tenebrous future that confronts our planet and her peoples.

Before becoming vicar of Rome, Pope Francis had an intimate knowledge of life as it is lived by many at street level. Even during the early days of his priesthood, he lived in the midst of his communities. And in true Jesuitical spirit, Fr Jorge Bergoglio went native - to use the language of sociologists - by choosing to work with those on the margins of society. He would often turn up in the slum districts of Buenos Aires unannounced and mingle freely with local people and local priests. When elected to the post of vicar-general of the Flores district in Buenos Aires in the early 1990s, he would often spend time on the back streets rather than in comfortable ecclesial bureaus. After becoming archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1998, Bergoglio dramatically increased the number of priests living and working in such communities. Journalist Nick Miller offers the following portrait:
"He was a frequent visitor to the villas miserias, the shanty towns, a place of dangling electricity cables and open sewers, and he sent his priests to work there in unprecedented numbers. One of them, Padre Pepe, told [his biographer] that they spoke every week. 'He would show up by surprise . . . he felt comfortable here,' he said. 'He was trying to show that the slums were not just important for the people who live there, but for the whole Church.'"
Pope Francis has also been an energetic reformer in his dealings with corruption in the Church. During his time as vicar-general in Flores, he asked that church authorities reveal the extent of their property holdings. Jose Luis Mollaghan, a senior priest in charge of finances, tried to block his investigations. Soon after his investiture as archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio summarily removed Mollaghan - together with another cleric who had opposed him - from their posts.

The matter did not end there. In 2005, Mollaghan was himself appointed archbishop of Rosario in central Argentina, but in 2013 came under investigation for mismanaging church funds. In May 2014, Pope Francis stripped his old adversary of his role as archbishop and moved him to Rome, appointing him to a commission tasked with investigating priests involved in the sexual abuse of children. It would seem that in the spirit of his new homeland, Pope Francis made a point of keeping his friends close, but his enemies closer.

A Particular Style

The preferred style of the pontificate of Pope Francis was evident from the start. On his election to the papacy in March 2013, he did not take his seat on the papal throne but chose rather to talk and mingle with his cardinals. When it was time for them all to return to their lodgings, he travelled with them in a bus rather than in the appointed limousine. He chose not to wear the traditional red papal slippers that were presented to him but remained in his street-scuffed and road-worn black leather shoes. When he was ushered into the papal apartments for the first time, he exclaimed, "There's enough room for 300 people here! I don't need all this space", and returned to his small apartment. Three days later, he confided to a group of journalists, "How I wish for a church of the poor, and that the church were poor."

When Pope Francis celebrated his first public mass in the Vatican at St Anna's church a few days later, he wore the same simple surplice as that worn by parish priests throughout the world. At the end of the mass, he met with members of his congregation outside the church as priests do everywhere. His message during that first mass confirmed the soft radicalism that has become his signatory style:
"We . . . are the people who, on the one hand want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others with, to condemn others. And Jesus has this message for us: Mercy. I think, and I say it with humility, that this is the Lord's most powerful message: Mercy. It was he himself who said: 'I did not come for the righteous.' The righteous justify themselves. Go on, then, even if you can do it, I cannot! But they believe they can."
His broader mission to extend the church's social doctrine was made more explicit soon after. A month after assuming the papal mantle, Pope Francis met with Rafael Correa, the president of Ecuador. Invoking his namesake, he said, "Take good care of creation. St Francis wanted that. People occasionally forgive, but nature never does. If we don't take care of the environment, there's no way of getting around it."

Two years later, Pope Francis published his encyclical letter, Laudato Si. On Care for our Common Home. This timely document offers a detailed reflection on the escalating crises facing present and future generations due to climate change and humanly mediated ecosystem destruction. Unlike papal encyclicals generally, Laudato Si is directed to all peoples and not just the church hierarchy and lay faithful:
"I urgently appeal then, for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation that includes everyone, since the environment challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all." (# 14)
In contrast to his predecessors, Pope Francis has a coherent understanding of the centrality of global capitalism in creating the conditions that have brought the planet to such a perilous edge. This may be one of the fruits of witnessing at close range the struggles of many Central and South America countries against corporate and political interference from imperial powers during the 1970s and 1980s. The recent beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by a death squad affiliated with big money and the El Salvador military while he was celebrating mass, further attests to the determination of Pope Francis to reposition the church into the midst of its poorest and least powerful members.

By its very nature, Laudato Si is not a political manifesto addressing the changes needed to minimise environmental destruction or of mitigating the effects of climate change. Rather, it expresses a deeply holistic view of the fields of influence that have overtaken the past century with such devastating consequence. According to ethicist and theologian Russell Hittinger, Pope Francis understands deeply that global capitalism and corporate power have become a world system and that, "the familiar institutions of our life [have become] empty shells of technocracy in the service of money." Pope Francis reflects in Laudato Si:
"We have to accept that technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups." (# 107)
It is not simply a matter of creating new technologies or replacing energy sources. The crisis that confronts us all is yet another manifestation of a derailment and a derangement of our sense of ourselves and each other and a reflection of our collective abandonment of such simple virtues as benevolence, solidarity, fairness, and sensitivity to the hidden consequences of our actions. Before there can be any healing of the earth and of her people, we need to be awakened to the love that has given birth to all things, seen and unseen. Again, Pope Francis in Laudato Si:
"It is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin, of our mutual belonging, and of a future to be shared with everyone. This basic awareness would enable the development of new convictions, attitudes and forms of life." (# 202)

The Softer Side

Pope Francis has carried the seemingly contradictory dimensions of realism and transcendence, reason and revelation, and empiricism and faith into his papacy. While dealing with the "real" world and all its corruptions, abuses, and institutionalised rigidities, he has maintained deep fidelity both to the sources from which his own Catholicism has sprung, and to the ongoing historic manifestations whereby it is perennially sustained. Contrary to the suggestions of certain observers, Pope Francis is no quasi-secular hero come to sort out all the silly superstitions and anachronisms in which Roman Catholicism is steeped. Over and above all else, he is a Jesuit, a member of the Society of Jesus, one irrevocably formed by Ignatian training in memory, hope and discernment. And he bears the full history of the church with all its wounds and all its powers in his person. This is evidenced in his acknowledgement of and participation in realities that the modernist temper prefers to ignore, if not deny outright.

A short four months after he was elected, Pope Francis consecrated the Vatican to St Michael in a garden ceremony held on July 5th 2013. St Michael had figured prominently in the life of the church until the reforms of Vatican II. This was due largely to the influence of Pope Leo XIII who in 1884 experienced a visionary encounter between Satan and Jesus in which he heard Satan boasting that he could destroy the church within a century if given enough power and freedom. A softly spoken voice replied: "You have the time. You will have the power. Do with them what you will." Pope Leo immediately retreated into his study and emerged soon after with a newly composed hand-written prayer to St Michael. He passed it on to his secretary with instructions that it was to be universally distributed and read thereafter in every Catholic Church after the celebration of each mass. The prayer fell out of favour after Vatican II though it continues to be part of the private devotions of many Catholics.

The act of consecrating the Vatican to St Michael by Pope Francis represents an act of invocation of the great prince of angels in order to protect the Vatican City state and all who live and work in it from corrupted and corrupting influences. In earlier informal discussions with Latin American clerics, Francis had spoken forthrightly about a "stream of corruption" within the Vatican Curia. During the consecration ceremony itself, he said: "In consecrating the Vatican City State to St Michael the Archangel, I ask him to defend us from the evil one and banish him." Though many may consider this to have been a quaint, archaic and largely symbolic ritual, it reflects the complete acceptance by Pope Francis that there are powers at work in the world that defy rational comprehension.

St Michael himself has a long history of manifestation within the Catholic tradition. The Cave of St Michael at Monte Gargano was often visited by Padre Pio of Pietrelcina who - together with St Francis several centuries before him - viewed it as a place of transformative spiritual power. In October 2013, a few months after the consecration ceremony in the Vatican, a painting of St Michael situated in a funerary chapel on the island of Rhodes began to secrete tears from its eyes. All the usual tests were conducted and it was concluded that the painting had not been interfered with in any way and that it did, in fact, mysteriously exude a tear-like fluid. Even after the painting of St Michael had been transferred from the funerary chapel to the main church in Ialyssos nearby, it continued to weep.

Re-invoking the Presences

Canadian philosopher and author of A Secular Age, Charles Taylor has declared that, "We are no longer dealing with a real presence. We can now only speak of an act as symbolic." As with most overarching generalisations, this simply does not hold true in all circumstances or for all individuals. There are some whose experience is otherwise. This is certainly the case with Pope Francis and his invocation of St Michael to protect the Vatican. And it is equally the case in the curious enigma of the Portuguese Catholic mystic Alexandrina da Costa who lived ecstatically for a period of over 13 years solely on a single daily consecrated Eucharistic wafer. Throughout that time, she neither drank a drop of water nor consumed a morsel of food.

Such phenomena have occurred throughout history and will doubtless continue to occur despite the protestations of militant rationalists. They are a verifiable part of human experience and are integral to the deeper human story. They cannot be simply swept aside because they do not conform to a certain view of how the world must be. European Christianity carries numerous such stories in its long and often contradictory history. These manifestations bespeak the uncomfortable-for-some but nonetheless fully evidenced reality that the world is infused with energies and graced by phenomena that lie well outside the prescriptive domains of scientific naturalism. And this understanding is integral to the world inhabited by Pope Francis.

One of the great treasures held within the heart of Italian Catholic spirituality is the mystery of the regular and repeated liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro (St Januarius) three times each year at the Cathedral of Naples. According to tradition, the blood was collected after the martyrdom by beheading of San Gennaro during the reign of Diocletian. Since the late 14th century, several times each year, the blood which is stored in a vial mysteriously transforms from a dark, coagulated mass into a labile and liquid state.

On March 21st 2015, Pope Francis visited the Cathedral of Naples to address a large gathering which included many priests and nuns. The reliquary containing the solidified blood of San Gennaro was brought to the altar for the occasion. After putting aside his prepared notes and delivering an extemporised address, Pope Francis kissed and later blessed the crowd with the reliquary. Much to the surprise of everyone present, the blood began to liquefy. Pope Francis was not at all perturbed by what had happened, even though it had been more than 150 years since the blood of San Gennaro had actually liquefied in the presence of any pope. With gentle humour, he used the occasion to urge those present to strive more fully in the exercise of their faith and the honouring of their church.

It is clear that Pope Francis has his feet planted equally firmly in both the physical world with all its difficulties and contentions, and in the world of divine presences that are capable of irrupting gently - and sometimes not-so-gently - into human experience.

Three months after he had consecrated the Vatican to the protection of St Michael, Pope Francis welcomed a small statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. At his specific request, the statuette had been transported to the Vatican from Fatima in Portugal, where it usually resides. A dedication ceremony was performed in the presence of the statue on October 13th 2013, the anniversary of the final apparition of Mary to three children in a field near Fatima in 1917. This was in fact part of a conscious sequence initiated by the pope in the days immediately following his election to the papacy.

It is common knowledge that Pope Francis has for many decades been intensely devoted to Mary, the mother of Jesus. He prays the rosary three times each day and has encouraged Marian devotion among his congregations. Within hours of his election as pope in March 2013, he approached Cardinal Jose da Cruz Policarpo of Lisbon and made a special request that his pontificate be consecrated to Our Lady of Fatima. This was accomplished two months later after a mass at the Fatima Shrine on May 13th, the 96th anniversary of the day on which the Blessed Virgin first appeared to the three children at Cova da Iria in Fatima.

It is no surprise that Pope Francis brought this process to deeper fulfilment exactly five months later by bringing the most celebrated Marian icon in Catholicism to the Vatican and using the occasion to consecrate the world to her care. October 13th 1917 was the day on which, true to her promise, the Blessed Virgin gave a sign of her living presence at Fatima by manifesting the Miracle of the Sun, which was witnessed by over 70,000 people who had gathered at the cove and by many others who lived nearby or were travelling through the area at the time. There are many aspects regarding the manifestations at Fatima - all of which are on the public record - that give pause to the notion that the possibilities within human experience can be fully circumscribed by the laws that govern physics and the material universe or by genetic determinism.

The phenomenon of Fatima is central to Pope Francis's vision of both the future of the Church and the future of the world. In his role as pope, he has no doubt been fully briefed on the nature and the content of the prophecies of Fatima that have been serially delivered and variously interpreted over the decades. It is clear that Pope Francis has fully accepted the veracity of the events that occurred at Fatima in 1917. It is also clear that he accords power and agency to manifestations of the divine as they have been expressed from the healings performed by Jesus 2,000 years ago to such contemporary irruptions of presence as occur at Lourdes, Fatima, Rhodes and the Cathedral of Naples among other places. Such phenomena all point to the fact that the story is far too complex to be fully encompassed by reductionist scientism, materialist philosophy, a dehumanised and dehumanising economics, and the cynical opportunism that defines contemporary politics.

The declaration by Pope Francis of 2016 as the Year of Mercy, was an act of great hope and affirmation. Despite the seeming hopelessness of the times with its many wars, mass migrations of refugees, social and spiritual desolation, widespread inequality, and relentless environmental destruction, Pope Francis has called for an opening of the human heart to powers that reach deeper than anything we are ourselves capable of construing, and an awakening of the human will to ways of peace and mercy that begin within oneself and thereafter emanate through all our fields of influence.

And if it be our fate
To feel the shudder and shake of crashing dreams
Let it be wrought of heaven and earth
And not of those who would call the close of day

Mother, awake

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D
Inverloch, March 2017

Copies of this essay in both PDF and Word Doc formats can be downloaded here


1. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina. Healer for a Broken Time

This post offers a review of the life and work of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, a Capuchin priest who carried the wounds of the crucified Christ. 

It includes an English translation of his Prayer for Healers, and carries an embedded documentary that examines his life and influence.

2. In Search of the Deeper Healing

"The healing intention has taken many forms throughout history. It has been voiced in the prayers and invocations of countless generations of priests and shamans. It has been carried by the men and women who sought out the substances present in nature and those produced by human ingenuity that help to ease the pain of sickness and hasten the return of health. It continues to find expression in the skill and precision of those dedicated surgeons who daily exercise their art."

This post reflects on a range of experiences while accompanying our daughter to a large Melbourne public hospital. It offers some personal reflections on the nature of healing in all of its manifestations.