Living in the midst of the of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is clear, that the shock of this crisis has exposed a deep confusion as to how we should respond. A perplexity has been exposed, stemming from a lack of appropriate answers, or even, any clarity as to what questions should be asked in the first place. Without appropriate guidelines to plot a way forward, it is as if we are adrift in stormy seas, with the attendant nausea, without any clear direction of where land and safety may be.
Much of the short term debate seems to revolve around technological fixes for defeating Covid-19, for example, new vaccines or new drug treatments, without much debate around the general health ecology allowing this virus to arise.
Much of the long term political debate seems to revolve around turning the clock back to the failed solutions of the last century, for example, a re-warming, of authoritarian nationalism on the right and top down big-state solutions on the left.
This is no way apportioning blame to any one in particular and a pandemic would be a shock to any civilisation, however enlightened. For some, however, this perplexity, is no surprise. It has been clear that the modern world has been adrift for a long time.
In ‘A Guide for the Perplexed’ Schumacher argued that the task of philosophy is to provide maps for living in the whole world, pointing out the important points of reference, allowing us to chart a course towards a holistic, healthy, fulfilling and happy life. Good maps are generally non-existent in the modern world. This was bound to be exposed sooner or later.
It is a testament of the brilliance of this book that his main thesis, written in the 1960’s appears to be many times more relevant, now, sixty years later. This book is an essential starting point for anyone who wants to untangle the perplexity that has inflicted humanity, that which has been cruelly exposed by this pandemic. For this reason, a series of blogs, will be written in this space, to enable a timely review of the main ideas in this book, and to outline some of the key insights that may be of help to navigate our way, once this crisis is over.
In the first chapter, 'On philosophical maps', Schumacher makes clear his central aim:
“In this book, we shall look at the world and try and see it whole.” (p16)
As mentioned above, it is vitally important to have clear maps, to see the world as whole. First of all let us look at the cartographers art, to see if it offers any clues as to what a good map should be. If the map-makers notice a feature they decide to include it on the map in its proper place. To do anything else would just lead to confusion, for people in the real world, attempting to navigate from one place to another. To omit key features would be irresponsible and could well be dangerous.
It is Schumacher’s claim that in the modern world most of the important features to enable us to see this world, meaningfully, and as whole, are left out. He outlines many ways that this happens of which two will be highlighted here.
Firstly the modern maps make us question the sanity of our own perceptions. Schumacher quotes at length an experience by the young Maurice Nicol:
(Maurice Nicol sat in class at school and asked a question to his teacher about a religious parable)…
"The answer was so confused that I experienced my first moment of consciousness - that is, I suddenly realised that no one knew anything… and from that moment I began to think for myself…and suddenly this inner revelation of knowing that he knew nothing…nothing that is, about anything that really mattered. This was the first inner liberation from the power of external life. From that time, I knew for certain - and that means always by inner individual authentic perception which is the only source of real knowledge …” (Paraphrasing in parenthesis, Dr Maurice Nicol in Schumacher, p14)
The revelatory insight of the young! All of us can relate to similar experience. Suddenly the map we have been given does not match our experiences. We are then left with a choice, to go it alone, or to follow the map and question our own sanity. To question our own sanity is cover up our understanding and to follow 'the power of the external life'. Therefore, a ‘map of the whole world' must show those features that matter to people, in particular the questions relating to the fulfilment of our ‘inner individual authentic perceptions’, questions that can lead to rising above the ‘whole state of the present life’, to wholeness, health and to happiness.
Secondly, the modern map makers seem to work on the principle, 'if in doubt leave it out' Schumacher writes:
“it occurred to me however, that the question of what constitutes proof was a very subtle and difficult one. Would it not be wiser to turn the principle into its opposite and say ‘If in doubt show it prominently’ ? After all, matters that are beyond doubt are, in a sense, dead; they do not constitute a challenge to the living.” (p13)
The modern maps given out at our schools and universities tend to focus on those things that can be proved to exist, leaving out those that don’t. However, the things that can be proved to exist are always the things that matter less to us as human beings. Schumacher draws heavily on the work of St Thomas of Aquinas, to illustrate this point with the quote:
“the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” (Thomas of Aquinas, in Schumacher, P13)
This is one of those quotes, that placed as our starting point, could lead to a lifetime of fruitful research and investigation. The implication for how we see knowledge is immense. For now, it is enough to understand that slenderest knowledge, refers to knowledge that cannot be proven one way or the other. Slenderest knowledge refers to knowledge that has the highest uncertainty but also the highest value to human beings. Slenderest knowledge allows questions of ends not simply of means. Questions, such as, ‘How can I be liberated from suffering?’ or ‘What does this crisis mean to how I want to live my life?' These are questions which cannot have technical answers based on evidence. They are questions related to slender knowledge which require guidance and direction. A clear map of ‘living in the world’.
Schumacher made these points sixty years ago. They are as relevant today as they were then. The important questions of life are given more featured in the arts, music and humanities, subjects that have been effectively sidelined in school syllabuses in the UK. It is also a questions of the way these subjects are taught, didactically or are they taught by drawing from ‘inner authentic perception’ as recommended by the insight of Dr Nicol. It seems that maps produced by ‘modern materialistic scientism’ are as important today as they were then. These maps leave all the important questions unanswered. More than that, they deny the validity of all the important questions!
The rest of Schumacher’s seminal book flows from this need to provide a guidebook about the subject ‘Man lives in the world’. Essentially the work is to provide landmarks and guidance as to how one should proceed.
The landmarks are provided in the following chapters which will be reviewed later in a series of Blogs under the following Titles:
2. Levels of Being,
5. The Four Fields of Knowledge,
6. Two Types of Problems,
7. The Epilogue.
This book, then, is intended to give direction out of the perplexity we face in the modern world. More than anything it is to understand the nature of the problems that we face. Not to solve them, but merely to identify them. Once identified, the path ahead, is beautifully laid out by the precepts of Tibetan teachers:
Comprehensive philosophy embracing the whole of knowledge,
System of meditation enabling clarity of focus,.
Art of living, right activity in body, speech and mind. (paraphrased, p18)
This path leads to hope. Hope, that as a humanity we can start to see our present crisis, that of life and death, not simply as something to be technically fixed, but, also, in the longer term, to begin to ask the important questions, requiring the ‘slenderest of knowledge’, to rise above 'the whole state of our present life', to really start living, in this world.
All quotations are from 'A Guide for the Perplexed', E.F. Schumacher, Vintage, 2011.