E.F. Schumacher’s A Guide for the Perplexed (1977) And His Inspiring Discussion of “Two Types of Problems”

Dr. Robert Hickson                                                                                         3 December 2019

Saint Francis Xavier, S.J. (d. 1552)

Epigraphs

“To accept anything as true means to incur the risk of error. If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt, I minimize the risk of error, but at the same time I maximize the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important, and most rewarding things in life. Saint Thomas, following Aristotle, taught that ‘The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things.’” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 3.)

***

“Traditional wisdom had a reassuringly plain answer: Man’s happiness is to move higher, to develop his highest faculties, to gain knowledge of the highest things and, if possible, to ‘see God.’ If he moves lower, develops only his lower faculties, which he shares with the animals, then he makes himself unhappy, even to the point of despair.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 12—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original.)

***

“But there is a moral problem, and moral problems are not convergent, capable of being solved so that future generations can live without effort. No, they [i.e.,“moral problems”] are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.

“Can we rely on it [namely,] that a ‘turning point’ [i.e., ‘a metanoia‘—p. 139] will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked [as of 1977], but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer ‘Yes” would lead to complacency [hence to presumption], and the answer ‘No’ to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work.” (E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed, page 140—my emphasis added.)

***

“In the life of societies there is the need for both justice and mercy. ‘Justice without mercy,” said Thomas Aquinas, ‘is cruelty; mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution‘ [Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 5:2]—a very clear definition of a divergent problem. Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy is a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom.” (E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), page 127—my emphasis added.)

***

In 1977, the year of his death, the author of Small Is Beautiful (1973) introduced for us his effectively testamentary book—A Guide for the Perplexed—with some rather lengthy, yet freshly insightful, quotations from Saint Thomas Aquinas. These profound words from the Summa Contra Gentiles, as they are presented in Chapter One, also thereby help E. F. Schumacher to anticipate what he will later also say and develop in his intellectual and spiritual testament’s last chapter, Chapter Ten, which is entitled “Two Types of Problems.”

Let us ourselves therefore first consider two portions of Saint Thomas’ words:

With imperturbable certainty [says Schumacher] Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued:

“No man tends to do a thing by his desire and endeavour unless it be previously known to him. Wherefore since man is directed by divine providence to a higher good than human frailty can attain in the present life…it was necessary for his mind to be bidden to something higher than those things to which our reason can reach in the present life, so that he may learn to aspire, and by his endeavours to tend to something surpassing the whole state of the present life….It was with this motive that the philosophers, in order to wean men from sensible pleasures to virtue, took care to show that there are other goods of greater account than those which appeal to the senses, the taste of which things affords much greater delight to those who devote themselves to active or contemplative virtues.”1

Schumacher continues this line of emphasis by first introducing Saint Thomas’ second passage:

These [above] teachings, which are the traditional wisdom of all peoples in all parts of the world, have become incomprehensible to modern man [as of 1977], although he, too, desires nothing more than somehow to be able to rise above “the whole state of the present life.” He hopes to do so by growing rich, by moving around at ever-increasing speed, by traveling to the moon and into space. It is worth listening again to Saint Thomas. (13—my emphasis added)

And here is what Saint Thomas specifically argued in his apologetic work, the Summa Contra Gentiles (Volume 3), as a complement to the passage presented above from Volume 1:

“There is a desire in man, common to him and other animals, namely the desire for the enjoyment of pleasure: and this men pursue especially by leading a voluptuous life, and through lack of moderation become intemperate and incontinent. Now in that vision [“divine vision”—says Schumacher] there is the most perfect pleasure, all the more perfect than sensuous pleasure as the intellect is above the senses; as the good in which we shall delight surpasses all sensible good, is more penetrating, and more continuously delightful; and as that pleasure is freer from all alloy of sorrow or trouble of anxiety….

In this life there is nothing so like this perfect happiness as the life of those who contemplate the truth, as far as possible here below. Hence the philosophers who were unable to obtain full knowledge of that final beatitude, placed man’s ultimate happiness in that contemplation which is possible during this life. For this reason too, Holy Writ commends the contemplative rather than other forms of life, when our Lord said (Luke X:42): Mary hath chosen the better part, namely contemplation of truth, which shall not be taken from her. For contemplation of truth begins in this life, but will be consummated in the life to come: while the active and civic life does not transcend the limits of this life.” (13—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

In this context, let us now consider what Schumacher calls “convergent problems,” as distinct from “divergent problems,” the latter of which are much more demanding and stretching of a man’s higher faculties (such as our sensitively formed consciousness and our humble self-awareness).

After beginning his Chapter Ten with a partial recapitulation of his previous nine chapters, he says:

It remains to examine what it means to live in this world. To live means to cope, to contend and keep level with all sorts of circumstances, many of them difficult. Difficult circumstances present problems, and it might be said that living means, above all else, dealing with problems. Unsolved problems tend to cause a kind of existential anguish….

This extraordinary situation might lead us to inquire into the nature of “problems.” We know there are solved problems and unsolved problems. The former, we may feel, present no issue; but as regards the latter: Are there not problems that are not merely unsolved but insoluble? (120-121—my bold emphasis; italics in the original)

He will now gradually prepare us to look at the mystery and challenge of divergent problems, after briefly considering some lesser challenges. For, as he later says in his Epilogue—while still “learning how to cope, to grapple, with the divergent problems that are the stuff of real life” (139—my emphasis added):

The art of living is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing. Only if we know that we have actually descended into infernal regions [as was the case in Dante’s Divine Comedy] where nothing awaits us but “the cold death of society and the extinguishing of all civilised relations,” can we summon the courage and imagination for a “turning around,” a metanoia. This then leads us to seeing the world in a new light [perhaps under Grace]. (139—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Thus now comes Schumacher’s own step-by-step teaching:

First, let us look at solved problems. Take a design problem—say, how to make a two-wheeled, man-powered means of transportation. Various solutions are offered which gradually and increasingly converge until, finally, a design emerges which is “the answer”—a bicycle—an answer that turns out to be amazingly stable over time. Why is this answer so stable? Simply because it complies with the laws of the Universe—laws at the level of inanimate nature.

I propose to call problems of this nature convergent problems. The more intelligently you (whoever you are) study them, the more the answers converge. They may be divided into “convergent problem solved” and “convergent problem as yet unsolved.” The words “as yet” are important, for there is no reason in principle why they should not be solved some day….

It also happens, however, that a number of highly able people may set out to study a problem and come up with answers that contradict one another. They do not converge. On the contrary, the more they are clarified and logically developed, the more they diverge, until some [such as “Justice and Mercy” or “Growth and Decay”] appear to be the exact opposites of the others. (121-122—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

Schumacher’s attentive mind and fatherhood now give us an important exemplification of this kind of divergence, as it especially again applies to the little children:

For example, life presents us with a very big problem—not the technical problem of two-wheeled transport, but the human problem of how to educate our children. [And it has long been acutely and wisely perceived that “there are no technical solutions to moral problems.”] We cannot escape it; we have to face it. (122—my emphasis added)

Moreover, Schumacher will now concretely unfold his challenge about an often intractable “divergency,” that is, “a divergent problem” (123):

And we ask a number of equally intelligent people to advise us. Some of them, on the basis of clear intuition, tell us: “Education is the process by which existing culture is passed from one generation to the next. Those who have (or are presumed to have) knowledge and experience teach, and those who as yet lack knowledge and experience learn. For the process to be effective, authority and obedience must be set up.” Nothing could be simpler, truer, more logical and straightforward. Education calls for the establishment of authority for the teachers and discipline and obedience on the part of the pupils.

Now, another group of our advisers, having gone into the problem with the utmost care, says this: “Education is nothing more nor less than the provision of a facility. The educator is like a good gardener, whose function is to make available healthy, fertile soil in which a young plant can grow strong roots; through these it will extract the nutrients it requires. The young plant will develop in accordance with its own laws of being, which are far more subtle than any human can fathom, and will develop best when it has the greatest possible freedom to choose exactly the nutrients it needs.” In other words, education as seen by this second group calls for the establishment, not of discipline and obedience, but of freedom—the greatest possible freedom. (122-my bold emphasis added; italics in original)

Deftly and with some hyperbole and unmistakably fine irony, Schumacher now considers some implications of these two positions:

If our first group of advisers is right, discipline and obedience are “a good thing,” and it can be argued with perfect logic that if something is “a good thing,” more of it would be a better thing, and perfect discipline and obedience would be a perfect thing…and the school would become a prison house.

Our second group of advisers, on the other hand, argues that in education freedom is “a good thing.” If so, more freedom [as if truth mattered?] would be an even better thing, and perfect freedom would produce perfect education. The school would become a jungle, even a kind of lunatic asylum.

Freedom and discipline (obedience) here is a pair of perfect opposites. No compromise is possible. It is either the one or the other. It is either “Do as you like” or “Do as I tell you.”

Logic does not help us because it insists that if a thing is true its opposite cannot be true at the same time [pace Hegel!]. It also insists that if a thing is good [such as the Catholic Faith or the infused Virtue of Hope], more of it will be better. Here we have a very typical and very basic [and paradoxical?] problem, which I call a divergent problem, and it does not yield to ordinary, “straight-line” logic; it demonstrates that life is bigger than logic.

“What is the best method of education?” presents, in short, a divergent problem par excellence. (122-123—bold emphasis added; italics in original)

In partial answer to that question, Schumacher says:

Love, empathy, participation mystique, understanding, compassion—these are the faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of a policy of discipline or of freedom. To mobilize these higher faculties or forces, to have them available not simply as occasional impulses but permanently, requires a high level of self-awareness, and that is what makes a great educator.

Education presents the classical example of a divergent problem, and so of course does politics, where the most frequently encountered pair of opposites is “freedom” and “equality,” which in fact means freedom versus equality. (123—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

These overall words also remind me of one of the classic definitions of happiness, and eventually Beatitude: Happiness is the exercise of the full range of human faculties along lines of excellence.

However, we believe that Aristotle’s own range of the faculties and human potentialities and the virtues was not as capaciously large as those in the understanding and holy practice of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas. For Thomas believed that, not only was man intellectually “Capax Universi,” but also, in virtue of the Creation and the whole Supernatural Order, “Capax Gratiae.”

In 1971, seven years before his death, E. F. Schumacher became a Roman Catholic and recurrent subtle signs of that fact pervade A Guide for the Perplexed (1977), especially his affirming allusions to Saint Thomas Aquinas and Dante and the Parables of Christ (e.g., 132-133, on the Parable of the Talents).

In the context of Dante and great literary art and, decisively thus, “the communication of Truth” (128-129), Schumacher says that such “art helps us to develop our higher faculties, and this is what matters.” (129) Moreover, he notes more broadly that:

All great works of art are “about God” in the sense that they show the perplexed human being the path, the way up the mountain, providing a Guide for the Perplexed. We may again remind ourselves of one of the greatest examples of such art, Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante wrote for ordinary men and women, not for people with sufficient private means to be interested mainly in fine feelings. “The whole work,” he explains, “was undertaken not for a speculative but for a practical end…the purpose of the whole is to remove those living in this life from a state of misery, and lead them to a state of felicity.” The pilgrim—Dante himself—nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, that is, at the height of his powers and outward success, suddenly realizes that he is not at the height at all but, on the contrary, “in a dark wood, where the right way was lost.”….He cannot remember how he ever got there….The true function of art is “so to dispose [the] heart with desire of going” “up the mountain,” which is what we really wish to do but keep forgetting, that we “return to our first intent.” The whole of great literature deals with such divergent problems. (129, 130, and 131—my bold emphasis added; italics in the original)

With these few additional thoughts, E. F. Schumacher will implicitly encourage us to savor his own testament and his proposed Guide more fully, and also to bid us farewell thereby that we may continue our own adventure and risk-filled pilgrimage:

Man’s life can thus be seen and understood as a succession of divergent problems which must inevitably be encountered and have to be coped with in some way. They are refractory to mere logic and discursive reason, and constitute, so to speak, a strain-and-stretch apparatus to develop the Whole Man, and that means to develop man’s supralogical faculties [hence our fuller virtues and our grateful receptions of Grace?]. All traditional cultures have seen life as a school and have recognized, in one way or another, the essentiality of this teaching force [and its potential]. (128—my emphasis added)

As another wise man—Father John A. Hardon, S.J.—used to say to me recurrently about “the Whole Man”: “What we have is Nature; what we need is Grace.” And “To live and die in the State of Sanctifying Grace.”

–Finis–

© 2019 Robert D. Hickson

1E. F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, page 13—italics in the original. Henceforth all references to this text will be placed in parentheses above, in the main body of this brief essay. Saint Thomas’ own words are to be found in Volume 1 of his Summa Contra Gentiles (London: 1924-1928).

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