Wednesday, April 14, 2021

FALLEN LEAVES. An Autumn Chronicle (Issue II)

The full PDF of Autumn Leaves. An Autumn Chronicle (Issue II) can be accessed here.

We have been here long enough now to know that civilisations rise and civilisations fall. Yet it would seem that we have failed to understand the past sufficiently if our perceptions of the present are any indication. We were not here to experience the massive volcanic eruptions that caused the Permian mass extinction event on the earth some 250 million years ago, or the meteoric impact 65 million years ago that brought about a further mass extinction. But poised as we are on the edge of yet another massive extinction of species - this time humanly-caused - we would do well to recover the insights of every developed culture in recorded history regarding the nature of cyclical time, of flux and flow, of waxing and waning, of birthing and burying.

The convulsions that have wounded and displaced so many in so many ways in recent memory are both qualitatively and quantitatively different to the periodic upheavals that have historically been our human lot. Our expectations regarding future steadiness and the predictability of seasonal cycles are now challenged by the changes brought about by technological-industrial civilisation. We can no longer look to our children's future with the certainty that our parents looked to our own.  

Fallen Leaves. An Autumn Chronicle serves to provide considered and reflective commentary on both the practical and the philosophical dimensions of our present circumstances. These explorations may help to clarify the nature of the inner attributes and the outer forces that shape our experiences during this time of growing troubles. 

This second edition of Fallen Leaves includes a substantive critical review of Operation Cast Lead, the three-week long assault on the inhabitants of Gaza by the Israeli military during December 2008/January 2009, a review of the work of Leopold Kohr whose ideas were to have a strong influence on E.F. Schumacher, some reflections on the crooked corporate dealings associated with 2008 global financial crisis, and musings on a number of other issues.

Below is a listing of the contents of Fallen Leaves II:

1.  Must We Do This Every Time?
2.  Slouching Towards Gaza: Operation Cast Lead and the Dismembering of a People
3.  On the Folly of Transience
4.  Dressing Mammon's Wounds II. Feast of the Giants
5.  On Reconnecting
6.  Leopold Kohr. Gentle Messenger of Community, Fellowship and Celebration
7.  On the Need for Another Way

The full text of Fallen Leaves II can be viewed and/or downloaded as a PDF from:

Tuesday, March 2, 2021

FALLEN LEAVES. An Autumn Chronicle (Issue I)

The full PDF of Autumn Leaves. An Autumn Chronicle (Issue I) can be accessed here.

Each of us carries particular gifts. Times of high civilisation offer a rare opportunity for us to develop and express those gifts. We take freedom of belief, freedom of choice, freedom of action and freedom of thought for granted. Yet historically, such freedoms are not givens, but have been available only to the few. The fruitful exercise of these freedoms turns on the degree to which we are informed in those areas from which we draw our sense of identity. True freedom presupposes a deep and intimate knowledge of the issues that are central to our lives, and the forces and influences to which they are subject.

Each edition of Fallen Leaves. An Autumn Chronicle will hopefully serve to provide a considered and reflective commentary on both the practical and the philosophical dimensions of our present circumstances. This and subsequent editions of Fallen Leaves will explore the idealisms, the cynicisms and the pragmatisms inherent in this time as our sense of certainty begins to fail. These explorations may help to clarify the nature of the inner attributes and the outer forces that shape our experience during this time of growing troubles. Between the lines, these explorations may help to broaden our perception of the nature of the influences that contribute to the creation of both harmony and of strife.

Fallen Leaves offers an ongoing extension of one of the primary principles underlying Holism and Complementary Medicine published in 2006. That principle was clearly stated by eco-theologian Thomas Berry in his Schumacher Society Lecture of 1991:

It should be especially clear in medicine that we cannot have well humans on a sick planet. Medicine must first turn its attention to protecting the health and well-being of the Earth before there can be any effective human health.

Contrary to the progressivist fantasy held by so many, it becomes increasingly obvious that we are not on the cusp of a bright and equitable age of universal peace, freedom and abundance for all. It is equally clear that we can no longer depend on a continuation of those rhythms and patterns that perennially sustained earlier civilisations.

This first edition of Fallen Leaves includes critical and interpretive reflections on the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, the phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder that caused the death of hundreds of billions of bees in the US and Europe between 2006 and 2008, the hidden human consequences of US and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan, and a number of other issues.

Fallen Leaves I concludes with a substantive review of the ideas presented by environmental historian Colin Duncan in his seminal 2007 essay, The Practical Equivalence of War? which addresses the approaching curtailment of taken-for-granted freedoms that we are collectively facing as climate change and its effects begin to gather momentum.

Below is a listing of the Contents of Fallen Leaves I:

1.  A Minor Manifesto
2.  Remembering Hiroshima
3.  The Slow Awakening
4.  The Rising Dragon
5.  By Hook or by Crook
6.  From Silent Spring to Seedless Summer
7.  Dressing Mammon's Wounds
8.  There Are No Good Wars
9.  The Great Bear Awakens
10. Wounding Further the Already Wounded
11. The Inevitable Fall
12. This Peculiar Moment

The full text of Fallen Leaves I can be viewed and/or downloaded as a PDF from:

Wednesday, June 3, 2020



In any given life, there are certain events that remain firmly imprinted in our memories. I carry an indelible memory of an evening in late May 1989. I had just returned home from a meeting and my wife excitedly called me into the television room. On the screen were images of tens of thousands of young people gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The English-language commentator was talking about the pro-democracy movement that had been steadily growing in many Chinese provinces and that was finding its most dramatic expression among the students and their supporters gathered in Tiananmen Square. We understood that this was truly an historic moment and expressed to each other the hope that the Chinese Communist autocracy might actually be on the point of yielding to the great call for freedom of thought and action that was so clearly expressed among those gathered at the Square.

Everything changed in the late hours of June 3rd. Deng Xiaoping had commanded that his troops crush the movement using whatever force was necessary. And crushed it was. The event and its consequences have been detailed extensively since. The massacre at Tiananmen Square definitively demonstrated that the methods of State violence instituted by Mao Zedong remained firmly in place as Communist Party policy.

Soon after the events of June 3rd and 4th, Australian sociologist Jonathan Unger compiled a series of essays written by colleagues and friends detailing the movements throughout China that had led up to the Tiananmen Square protests and what followed. [1] Though published in 1991, these essays remain an ongoing testament to a time when the aspiration for human freedom throughout China took living form, only to be overturned by powerful forces controlled by the State and then erased as far as possible from the collective memory of the Chinese people.

One of the more important understandings to emerge from this collection of essays is that the young and idealistic students who gathered in the name of democratic reform were united in their calls for an end to corruption in government. They also called for the establishment of an independent press capable of reporting impartially on all aspects of Chinese life, the creation of an independent judiciary able to reign in government excesses, and the universal protection of both academic freedoms and the right to exercise critical thought.

Another of the central messages delivered by the essays is that the protests were not confined to Beijing, but were part of a broad-based awakening. They represented a collective reaction to perceived corruption and incompetence in government, and were a response to the disregard of the Chinese Communist Party to the aspirations of Chinese citizens for both economic and political reform. The demonstrations at Tiananmen Square were a living manifestation of the will of the people of China, emboldened by the courage of university students and community leaders, to bring an end to the nepotism that permeated all levels of government and the tight control of individual freedoms exercised by the Communist Party.

The immediate trigger for the 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square was the unexpected death of Hu Yaobang, Party General Secretary and former revolutionary leader. Hu Yaobang had long supported an easing of the tight controls that constricted many freedoms in China, and supported the free expression of political, philosophical, and intellectual thought. He was also a strong advocate of the right of students to gather and to demonstrate peacefully in public spaces. His death on April 15th 1989 generated protests throughout China against the regime of Deng Xiaoping. These protests were actively supported by both officials and by workers – often in the tens of thousands – in many provinces. But they did not all prove to be peaceful. One of the essays describes how the student protests in the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province soon after Hu Yaobang’s death in April resulted in clashes with police in which a number of student protesters were killed. [2] The violence exercised by the police in the Xi’an protests was but a prelude to what was soon after to erupt at the hands of the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square.

Unger’s collection reveals that, contrary to appearances, China at the time of the pro-democracy demonstrations was not a unified entity under the Central State. The essays make it clear that local leaders and many within the general population throughout China were in full sympathy with the spirit of the protesters. But the support and goodwill of Chinese citizens was no match for the power of armoured tanks and the ruthless compliance of heavily armed soldiers.

The spirit of hope and freedom expressed in the pro-democracy protests in China in 1989 was brutally stilled before it had the opportunity to do its work.


One of the more powerful retrospective analyses of the massacre at Tiananmen Square and its consequences is that produced by the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent for the 25th anniversary of the event in 2014. [3] In this superbly produced documentary, members of the Australian Embassy in Beijing at the time were brought back together 25 years later to reflect on their experiences in May and June 1989. Their individual accounts help provide a detailed mosaic of what went down at that time. Those interviewed included the Ambassador David Sadleir, the Defence Attaché Peter Everett, the Economic Counsellor Geoff Raby, and the Embassy Media Officer Gregson Edwards among others. Their accounts leave no doubt about the ferocity of the Chinese response to the protests, a response that has been completely stripped from the historical records in China. Mention of the event remains absolutely forbidden in all Chinese media. Any reference to it on the internet is immediately taken down, while harsh punitive measures are meted out to any in China who would dare to raise the issue.

Those interviewed describe how hundreds of thousands of PLA members were trucked into Beijing from other provinces in the days leading up to the massacre. According to Greg Edwards, the soldiers started shooting indiscriminately into the crowd at around 11 pm on June 3rd. Many were killed and injured in that first volley. Soon after, armoured personnel carriers “came tearing into the square.” One of them stalled at a barrier and the crowd descended on it. It was “stopped by a crow-bar in the spokes, and then set alight.” The soldiers inside were incinerated.

Soldiers in huge numbers then descended into Tiananmen Square. Their trucks and tanks simply ran over protestors and the crowd was subjected to indiscriminate machine-gun fire. Edwards recalled: “It’s not known how many protesters were shot or crushed that night.” The bullets used at Tiananmen Square were not ordinary bullets, but were designed to shred flesh when they entered the body. Many who fell were not fatally wounded, but bled to death within a short time.

By the morning of June 5th, the army had complete control of Beijing. Troops used bulldozers to push bodies into heaps, doused them in petrol, and then burned them up. According to Peter Everett, most of the students killed did not die in the actual assault on Tiananmen Square, but were systematically rounded up by the military and killed in the weeks following June 4th. Many were forcibly removed from their parents’ houses, taken elsewhere, and executed. The parents received notices that their children had been “shot while trying to escape” or that they “fell down the stairs.”

The precise number of those killed as a result of the Tiananmen Square massacre will never be known with certainty. Recently released documents in the UK reveal that the British ambassador to China at the time estimated that over 10,000 people - mostly students - were killed in consequence of the Tiananmen Square action. [4]

The terror unleashed at Tiananmen Square is not a singular aberration or strategic error on the part of the Chinese Communist State. Violence has been explicitly built into its structure from the outset. This sanctioned violence reached extraordinary levels during Mao’s Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution during which millions of people died. Nor did it end with Tiananmen Square. In the decade that followed, two groups within China – the Uyghurs of Xinjiang and members of Falun Gong throughout China - were designated Internal Enemies and thereafter systematically subjected to State violence.

Chinese history has been re-written for the Chinese. The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 appear nowhere on Chinese internet search engines. History textbooks used by schools in China make no mention of the massacre. On those few occasions when 1989 is referred to by politicians, the event is passingly portrayed as a necessary minor intervention to deal with a small group of agitators whose thought and actions threatened the peace and prosperity of the Chinese people.

The suppression of acts that are clearly unjust but knowingly undertaken at the highest levels of government appears to be part of the political machinery in China. What has been done with the history of Tiananmen Square has, in the two decades since, been repeated in the matter of “re-educating” over one million Uyghurs detainees in Xinjiang [5] and the reported “harvesting” of organs from Falun Gong prisoners of conscience for use by transplant surgeons throughout China. [6] These activities show the degree to which Chinese leaders have disregarded their more noble traditions in the pursuit of control, of power, and of wealth.

The roots from which the Chinese soul draws nourishment have lain dormant during the moral winter that China has endured over the past century, but the perennial turning of seasons is ultimately unstoppable. The chilling inhumanity exercised in the present age must subside in its turn. The Wen Yen Commentary was believed to have been elaborated by the Confucian school over two thousand years ago. In it, we find the following commentary on the first Hexagram of the I Ching, Ch’ien/ The Creative:
“The four fundamental attributes of the Creative are likewise the attributes necessary to a leader and ruler of men. In order to rule and lead men, the first essential is to have humane feeling toward them. Without humaneness, nothing lasting can be accomplished in the sphere of authority. Power that influences through fear works only for the moment and necessarily arouses resistance as a counter-effect.

On the basis of this conception, it follows that the mores are the instrument by which men can be brought into union. For nothing binds people more firmly together than deeply rooted social usages that are observed because they appear to each member of society as something beautiful and worth striving for. . .

Furthermore, as the foundation of social life there must be the greatest possible freedom and the greatest possible advantage for all. These are guaranteed by justice, which curtails individual freedom no more than is absolutely necessary for the general welfare. Finally, to reach the desired goals, there is the fourth requisite of wisdom, manifesting itself by pointing out the established and enduring paths that, according to immutable cosmic laws, must lead to success.” [7]

The principles of just government were recognised in China even before the birth of Jesus and will hopefully be meaningfully recovered in the uncertain future that awaits us all. However, it would appear that we either learn very slowly or that the very nature of power and its exercise has an irremediably corrosive effect on human nature.

There is a consistent political ethos underlying the events at Tiananmen Square in 1989, the enforced “re-education” of Uyghurs and the colonisation of Xinjiang (and Tibet beforehand), and the “disappearing” of tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners throughout China since 1999. Elements of this ethos with its undercurrents of secrecy, suppression, and “control of the narrative” remain active and visible in the present day even in regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. This is reflected in the refusal of Beijing to permit outside observers from entering China to investigate the origins of the outbreak that has brought unspeakable grief to so many families around the world and upended the economies of so many countries.

As the power and the confidence of the Chinese State continues to grow, one can only hope that the expressions of good will and the yearning for freedom expressed so strongly and, in the end, so poignantly by those who paid the ultimate price at Tiananmen Square, will find their fruition in the fullness of time.


1. Jonathan Unger: The Pro-Democracy Protests in China. Reports from the Provinces, M.E. Sharpe, London, 1991

2. Joseph W. Esherick, Xi’an Spring, in Jonathan Unger (1991), pp. 81-86

3. Tiananmen: Australia’s Witnesses. ABC Foreign Correspondent (3rd June 2014). Viewed at:

4. Tiananmen Square protest death ‘was 10,000’. BBC News (23rd December 2017). Viewed at:  

5. Human Rights Watch: Eradicating Ideological Viruses. China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. September 2018. Viewed at:

6. The problematic issue of reconciling the immense number of organ transplants that occurred in China after 1999 with official accounts of the sources of donor organs was substantively documented by David Kilgour and David Matas in 2006. Ten years later, they extensively updated their findings. (See: More recently, this issue has been picked up by Australian researcher Matthew Robertson in his March 2020 report: Organ Procurement and Extrajudicial Execution in China: A Review of the Evidence. (See:

7. Richard Wilhelm and Cary F. Baynes. The I Ching: Or, Book of Changes, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1968 (Third Edition), pp. 376-377

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.

A PDF copy of the above essay along with selected excerpts from The Pro-Democracy Protests in China. Reports from the Provinces can be accessed at:

Saturday, November 9, 2019

E.F. Schumacher. On Small is Beautiful

When Francis Fukuyama triumphally proclaimed The End of History in 1989, he projected the widely-held view that Western liberal democracy, firmly rooted in corporate capitalism and the free market economy, had brought humanity to its historical culmination. From Fukuyama's particular vantage point at the end of the twentieth century, it was plain sailing ahead. He wrote: "What we are witnessing is . . . the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government." [1] There appeared to be absolutely no disquiet in his mind regarding the less tangible consequences of the liberal democratic project with its implicate laissez faire commercialism, monstrous energy consumption and consumerism, and widespread dislocation of traditional societies.

As the precarious state of technological civilisation becomes ever more apparent, it can only be helpful to reconsider the reflections of those less sanguine commentators who, even decades before Fukuyama issued his pronouncement, perceived the strains within both institutional structures and ecological systems that heralded hard times ahead.

E.F. Schumacher was such a one.

Copies of Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, first published in 1973, can still be found in many libraries. And it occasionally chances as an unexpected treasure on the shelves of second-hand bookshops. Although most copies of the book were printed in paperback form, it remains one of the pivotal works of the twentieth century and carries within it the fruits of decades of considered reflection on the nature of human flourishing.

As an economist, E.F. Schumacher focussed his attention on how economics could be made to serve human needs rather than those of corporations and megalithic financial institutions. His work has had a significant influence on many who continue to remain active behind the scenes in their mission to restore the natural rhythms and capacities of the earth and her peoples, an earth that has been severely lacerated by industrial civilisation and its destructive technologies. In his own words:
We must thoroughly understand the problem and begin to see the possibility of evolving a new life-style, with new methods of production and new patterns of consumption: a life-style designed for permanence. [2]
It is clear that half a century later, we have barely begun to understand the problem, and have - especially in the so-called developed world - cultivated a life-style designed more for transience rather than permanence.  Although Schumacher's ideas were not picked up by those who move the world the way it goes, they remain fertile ground for those who would contemplate any futurity in a post-apocalyptic context.

Schumacher identified Keynesian economics as the primary driver of an economics - and politics - of greed that continues to devour the world. In 1930, on the cusp of the decade-long Great Depression, Keynes wrote:
For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to everyone that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still. For only they can lead us out of the tunnel of economic necessity into daylight. [3]
Keynes' hundred years has nearly passed, and the gods of avarice and usury and precaution have shown no sign of fatigue but, rather, seem more intent on claiming what they can of the next hundred years as well. Powerful states, corporations, and individuals continue to tenaciously claim the freedom to increase their wealth and privilege regardless of the cost to peoples or planet. A recent Oxfam Report notes that "just eight men own the same wealth as the poorest half of the world." [4] In more direct terms, this means that eight single individuals own more than what is owned by three and a half billion of the world's poorest people.

Pity, says Schumacher, that we listened to Keynes and not to Gandhi.

Regarding the ravenous consumption of energy by technological civilisation and the near-universal promotion of nuclear power as a means of providing that energy, Schumacher presciently noted that nuclear reactors have a finite life beyond which they become unusable and unserviceable. Each of the over 400 nuclear reactors in use today will become an incandescent monument that will continue to emit radioactivity for centuries. Dismantling them may remove the eyesore, but the core and its irradiated surrounding structures will continue to emit radiation for countless generations to come.

The current push for new fleets of small modular reactors (SMRs) as sources of low-carbon energy and as a "solution" to the problem of humanly-induced climate change similarly disregards that fact that we still don't know what to do with over 220,000 tons of high-level waste, most of which is crowded into the overflowing cooling ponds of the world's existing reactors. In the meantime, the molten reactor cores of Fukushima continue to pour radionuclides into the Pacific Ocean while, at the time of writing, the Japanese government is poised to release the contents of 1000 massive tanks holding over a million tons of contaminated water into the sea, justifying this act of ecocide by citing the old and over-worked adage, dilution is the solution to pollution. Biology works differently. Even a single radioactive atom embedded in the tissues of any living organism causes havoc in the cells surrounding it.

Hard energy. The contaminated water tanks of Fukushima

Nearly 50 years ago, Schumacher wrote about nuclear energy in his signatory style:
No degree of prosperity could justify the accumulation of large amounts of highly toxic substances which nobody knows how to make 'safe' and which remain an incalculable danger to the whole of creation for historical or even geological ages. To do such a thing is a transgression against life itself, a transgression infinitely more serious than any crime ever perpetrated by man. The idea that a civilisation could sustain itself on the basis of such a transgression is an ethical, spiritual, and metaphysical monstrosity. It means conducting the economic affairs of man as if people really did not matter at all. [5]
E.F. Schumacher has also identified a curious inversion within the industrial-technological project whereby in the guise of easing life's burdens, progress and development have brought a massive and ubiquitous poisoning of the earth and her creatures in their train. Small is Beautiful draws attention to the excesses and the disparities of an economic and industrial system that has trashed cultural traditions that have served the needs of human communities for centuries. Schumacher cautioned against the gigantism and the obsession with globalisation that were beginning to overtake governments of all colour during the 1960s and 1970s. Schumacher offered both clarity and direction but his suggestions found no resonance with the dominant political and economic powers. These powers have systematically herded the world into an insistent consumerist ethos, while such terms as restraint and self-reliance have been effectively removed from their lexicons.

Yet through it all, Schumacher remains optimistic that creative individuals and visionary groups will continue to develop simpler technologies and ways of living that are more in keeping with the needs of the earth and her people than with those of superannuated shareholders and their corporate minders.

Soft energy. Harvesting the invisible

E.F. Schumacher calls for the creation of educational programs in both the developed and developing world that are more attuned to the perennial rhythms of the earth, systems of education that are directed more to the cultivation of wisdom, discernment, compassion and usefulness, than to satisfying industry-driven demands to create new cadres of "efficient" and compliant technocrats. One of Schumacher's major contributions during his latter years was the development of what came to be known as "intermediate technology" programs in both developed and developing countries. These serve to empower local communities and to promote autonomy and decentralisation.

Such individuals as Satish Kumar and Vandana Siva have become powerful advocates of Schumacher's ideas. They, along with many others have taken up the work of awakening and informing all who would hear that the present entrancement and the pursuit of the goals of technological-industrial civilisation do not bode well for humanity and its earthly home.

Strong Gandhian sentiments permeate Schumacher's work. He bluntly demolishes the myth of limitless growth as the natural destiny of economies and nations. Yet the common sense spoken by Schumacher is still nowhere to be seen in the economic and political style of the present day. It is, however, increasingly being taken up at the margins by individuals and communities who have consciously stepped off the wheel and chosen to simplify their lives in whatever ways are given to them.

After teaching English at New York University from 1962 to 1964, American writer, poet, and political activist Wendell Berry saw the writing on the wall. He resigned his post and purchased a farm in Kentucky which he proceeded to cultivate using ploughs and heavy horses rather than agricultural chemicals and heavy machinery. In 1981, four years after Schumacher's death, Wendell Berry presented the inaugural Schumacher Society lecture entitled People, Land and Community in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. These yearly lectures inspired by the work of E.F. Schumacher continue to be hosted by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics with the 39th annual lecture entitled Actionable Responses to Climate Change being held in October 2019.

A profound aesthetic sense is expressed in Schumacher's thought. He continually returns to the criteria of beauty, of elegance, of non-violence, and of human scale in his pursuit of a workable future for humanity during a time of troubles and of growing uncertainty.

E.F. Schumacher remains an enduring source of wisdom in an age of madness and folly.


1. Francis Fukuyama: The End of History, The National Interest, Summer 1989
2. E.F. Schumacher (1974): Small is Beautiful. A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, Abacus Edition, London, p. 19
3. Ibid., p. 22
4. Oxfam Briefing Paper: An Economy for the 99%, January 2017, p. 2
5. Schumacher (1974) op. cit., p. 141

Vincent Di Stefano M.H.Sc., D.O., N.D.
Inverloch, November 2019

A PDF copy of the above essay along with selected excerpts from "Small is Beautiful" can be downloaded from:


 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).

His ideas continue to be explored, developed and disseminated by such groups as the Schumacher Society in the UK and the New Economics Institute in the US as well as numerous individuals and groups in both the developed and developing world.

This post offers a downloadable audio presentation drawn from two lectures given by Schumacher in the 1970s.

2. Wendell Berry. Finding Our Souls before we Lose the World

Wendell Berry has written over twenty books of poetry, sixteen volumes of essays, and ten novels. He has also been prominent in political actions against the Vietnam War, nuclear energy, US Department of Agriculture policy, George W. Bush's post 9/11 National Security policy and more recently, the mining of coal by the methods of Mountaintop Removal in Kentucky. All the while, he has continuously worked his 125 acre farm using traditional and organic methods.

Throughout his life, Wendell Berry has sought to artfully uncover the rhetoric that presents our time as one of utopian possibilities and universal fulfilment. While acknowledging the transformations wrought by industrial and technological civilisation, he calls our attention to the perennial values and unchanging realities that condition our being.

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.