E. F. Schumacher

A Guide For the Perplexed

“Our task is to look at the world and see it whole.”

With a desire to “look at the world and see it whole,” German economist E. F. Schumacher (1911 – 1977) attempts to draw our collective being and demonstrate we are more than the sum of our atoms.

A Guide For the Perplexed is the culminating work of a man who spent his life finding and guarding the element of humanity in science and economics. A man who saw the edge of science and the unknowable beyond.

To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to the knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimise the risk of error but I maximise, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and rewarding things in life.

Schumacher was a German economist who left the growing Nazi regime in his home country to live and work in England. As he developed connections to Oxford and England’s preeminent economist, John Maynard Keynes, Schumacher became well-established in post-war nation-state development.1

Schumacher believed some element connected us to our humanity and to one another. Seeking and considering this element was “one of the subtlest, most important and rewarding things in life.”

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

That A Guide For the Perplexed, what “life has been leading up to,” came from a man who was the head of the British Coal Board for twenty years speaks to the holistic nature of his thinking. Schumacher sought to expand our consciousness to what we are beyond materiality:

Our initial review of the four great Levels of Being can be summed up as follows.

‘Man’ can be written m + x + y + z
‘Animal’ can be written m + x + y
‘Plant’ can be written m + x
‘Mineral’ can be written m

[…] The extraordinary thing about modern ‘life sciences’ is that they hardly ever deal with life as such, the factor x, but devote infinite attention to the study and analysis of the physicochemical body that is life’s carrier. It may well be that modern science has no method for coming to grips with ‘life and such.’

Although Schumacher calls on theology to round out our understanding of our boundaries of being, he did not use theology to answer life’s unanswered questions. “Faith is not in conflict with reason;” writes Schumacher, “nor is it a substitute for reason.”

There is reasonable faith and unreasonable faith. To look for the meaning and purpose at the level of inanimate matter would be as unreasonable as an act of faith as an attempt to ‘explain’ the masterpieces of human genius as nothing but the outcome of economic interests or sexual frustrations. The faith of the agnostic is perhaps the most unreasonable of all because, unless it is mere camouflage, it is a decision to treat the question of significance as insignificant.

To Schumacher, that self-awareness exists is enough to imagine its significance. And imagine we must.

Now, the person is distinguished from other beings by the mysterious power of self-awareness and this power, as we have already noted, has its seat in the heart, where, in fact, it can be felt as a peculiar kind of warmth.

By localizing our concept of “self” in our heart, Schumacher isn’t suggesting a mystic property of this organ, but rather he’s drawing on an intuition that the heart means something to us as a place of empathy, self.2

Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Science and technology and our collective consciousness have expanded since Schumacher bestowed A Guide for the Perplexed upon humanity. We’ve seen a black hole, we’ve mapped the genome, we’ve seen countries and governments—thought impenetrable—change. We are beginning to understand the limits of technology and human expansion. We are reaching the limits of environmental elasticity.

And yet, as recent as 2014, physicist Alan Lightman wrote, “Science is not the only avenue to arrive at knowledge.” The question of what we don’t know will always exist.

The concept of a human continuum and our pressing relationships to each other, formed by the continuity of being (what Schumacher would call the “x”), has been threaded throughout history. From the writings of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to Lightman’s contemporary ruminations on certainty.

When uncertainty bubbles up, we return to these questions, pushing deeper into what makes us human, what makes us special. Expanding our consciousness just as Schumacher intended.