Decrying modern science and philosophy’s complete inadequacy to answer such endemic existential questions as “What does it all mean?” or “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, Schumacher creates a short but convincing argument for a more spiritual approach to life that transcends fact-based logic and the “nothing-but-ness” that characterizes modern thinking.
The backbone of the book is Schumacher’s categorization of “levels of being” into four vertical dimensions and the human experience into four “fields of knowledge” as follows:
Four Levels of Being:
Mineral = m
Plant = m + x
Animal = m + x + y
Man = m + x + y + z
(Where m=physical existence, x=life, y=consciousness and z=self-awareness)
Four Fields of Knowledge:
I–inner; that is, “what do I feel like?”
The world (you)–inner; “what do you feel like?”
I–outer; “what do I look like?”
The world (you)–outer; “what do you look like?”
As I understand, Schumacher basically argues that the mysterious, fundamental differences between levels of being, which science is unable to explain or reproduce, are evidence that life is bigger than logic and man is more than a favorable arrangement of atoms and random chemical reactions. He points out that by allowing science to overstep its bounds by making philosophical, ontological claims, and by limiting philosophy to proof-based, rigorously logical, “dead” arguments, human existence is robbed of richness and mankind renders itself unable to realise its full potential and humanity. According to Schumacher, an enlightened person who believes that “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” (3) is more equipped to deal with the many and varied divergent problems in life (“divergent” meaning polarizing issues for which logical solutions are difficult or impossible to find).
Despite a powerful opening, I found some parts of the book to be unconvincing and outdated; also, I was hoping to find something a bit more practically helpful than being told that happiness and a rich, fulfilling life can be achieved by cultivating the four fields of knowledge and striving towards levels of being above myself. However, the whole effect was undeniably challenging and uplifting–it is refreshing to read a philosophical treatise written to the end of ennobling man and celebrating the mysterious, temporary and fragile existence we each call life.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Schumacher’s philosophy much more than his economics in Small is Beautiful, so this book sounded appealing.]
Schumacher eloquently weaves together the topics of economics, environmentalism, philosophy and spirituality in a very thought-provoking way. He makes the case for a smaller-scale, more personal, moral, holistic and sustainable approach to the business of business, in contrast to the soul-crushing materialism of a modern society that worships wealth, serves mega-corporations and demands growth at any cost. He envisions a world where men are not unhappy cogs in giant money-making machines, but are engaged in work that is fulfilling, promotes their physical and spiritual well-being, and benefits their communities.
I fear that, in stripping Schumacher’s ideas of context and rationale, my summary makes them sound a bit like trite hippie-talk. They are not so. Schumacher makes an intelligent, efficient case for most of his beliefs and almost every page is quotable. It is because of the vast quantity of insightful ideas and observations that I have refrained from quoting any at all and have instead bought a copy of the book for future reference.
My favourite parts of the book are the more philosophical sections in which Schumacher looks at what it means to be human. (I especially enjoyed Part II, Chapter 1, which focuses on metaphysics.) His visions of a human existence that transcends the rat race is inspiring and encouraging. In general, the author places significant value on both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist morals and makes the kind of powerful case for spirituality that seems to come naturally to intelligent former-atheists like himself. This is refreshing, since society nowadays seems largely unwilling to acknowledge the numerous positive effects of religion, focusing instead on, say, the Crusades or sex scandals involving pastors.
My least favourite parts of the book involved Schumacher’s proposals for actually putting his ideas into action. It is one thing to attempt to influence someone’s personal beliefs and quite another thing to merely inflict your own on them. I believe that the kind of morality and radical changes that the author wishes to see enacted on a massive, economic scale can only come from personal conviction at a grassroots level. Anything else infringes on that necessary human freedom to make your own decisions, even if they are bad ones (addressed by Dostoyevsky in Notes from the Underground). Also, at times, the author seems to wish for a happy, hobbit-like society, where everyone is a subsistence farmer except for Fred, who makes shoes, and Sally, who weaves cloth. He doesn’t seem to leave much room for human nature or for people who think differently than him, such as innovators, scientists, entrepreneurs and visionaries.
[Why I read it: I think I saw the title in an article about The Times Literary Supplement‘s list of 100 most influential books published since WWII.]