The rare combination of humility and genius is as beautiful as it is surprising, especially when encountered in one of the greatest physicists of the modern age. These three lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, explore a variety of unscientific topics–from politics to religion–and surprisingly, do not provide any answers. What they do give, however, is the opportunity to see non-scientific issues from the point of view of a scientific genius. This point of view is very different from the arrogant, condescending, closed-minded attitude that comes across from many figures in popular science, who seem to feel that their expertise in a narrow field qualifies them to make pronouncements on everything. In fact, the emotion that stands out most in these lectures is doubt. Not a lazy, depressing, hopeless sort of doubt, but a humble, searching doubt that fuels relentless curiosity. Feynman seems unwaveringly respectful of opinions and beliefs that contradict his own, while applying a formidable intellect and rational approach to the less scientific aspects of human existence.
Why I read it: I’ve enjoyed the two other books by Feynman I’ve read (QED and Six Easy Pieces) and jumped at the chance to read a less challenging book by him when I came across it in Henderson Books.
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.]