A Guide for the Perplexed by E.F. Schumacher (1977)

I stumbled upon this book through an article written by Maria Popova of Brainpickings.org, which focused on Schumacher’s concept of the Levels of Being. The book further piqued my interest for its critique of dogged scientism and its defense of there being meaning in life. Schumacher makes his argument without resorting to a dogged something else or mysticism or refuting the merits and credibility of science in general.

He takes a position that makes sense and is ultimately good news for humankind.  He finds that there is no reason (accepting Darwinism) that life should not have meaning, but it is up to the individual to decide the extent to which it does. Faith is therefore required in choosing our own “grade of significance” (135). The human faculty of self-awareness is what sets us apart from all other lower levels of being and opens us up to unlimited potential. “There is no discernible limit to what Man can do; he seems to be “capax universi,” (capable of the universe) as the Ancients used to say, and what one person has done shines thereafter like a light in darkness as a capability of Man, even if no second person is ever found able to do it again” (132).

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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 (120).

For Schumacher, there are two types of problems, namely convergent and divergent. Convergent problems are ones that can be solved through sciences, like physics and math. These truths are useful in bringing us new technologies but don’t factor in life’s messiness or joyfulness. He says, “It may well be that modern science has no method for coming to grips with life as such. If this is so, let it be frankly admitted; there is no excuse for the pretense that life is nothing but physics and chemistry” (19). These sciences cannot, therefore “lead to philosophy, if philosophy is to give us guidance on what life is all about” (105).

But ethics and the realm of higher levels of being and consciousness are concerned with divergent problems, whose solutions are not easily agreed upon by experts. Divergent problems are the “stuff of real life” (139). He gives credit to the existentialists, saying,”the main concern of existentialism…is that experience has to be admitted as evidence, which implies that without experience there is no evidence” (126). Context and wholeness regarding the human experience is paramount. Intention, inner life and social realities are what Schumacher meant by life as such and to ignore this part of life is to miss the point.

Schumacher suggests that we need to stay aware of the tensions in society, like freedom and order, so that we can better cope with them, but not to solve them. Society thrives on constant change and contradictions. He warns against a ‘final solution’ when it comes to the complexity of social order, saying:

“Societies need stability and change, tradition and innovationpublic interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society’s health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man’s humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both” (127).

Dichotomies like these, cannot and need not be finally solved for societies to do well, but they must be rectified by applying certain higher human virtues. To illustrate this idea, Schumacher invokes the French national motto of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The first two, liberty and equality, are logical opposites that can be enforced by law in certain concrete ways. Brotherliness though, comes “from a higher level…it is a human quality beyond the reach of institutions, beyond the level of manipulation. It can be achieved only by individual persons mobilizing their own higher forces and faculties, in short, becoming better people” (124).

Logic does not help us [with divergent problems] because it insists that if a thing is true its opposite cannot be true at the same time. It also insists that if a thing is good, more of it will be better (123).

But as he states, life is bigger than logic and adding certain human qualities, like brotherliness can change the dynamic of seemingly contradictory poles. “How is it that liberty and equality cease to be mutually antagonistic and become “reconciled” when brotherliness is present? (126). A pair of opposites can stop being opposites when “self-awareness plays its proper role” at the human level, when “higher forces as love and compassion, understanding and empathy, become available…as a regular and reliable resource.”


Schumacher sees philosophy’s task as a way of applying wisdom to everyday things and within that he sees ethics as having to do with finding our purpose and happiness. Criticizing the notion of happiness as merely “comfort and excitement,” he points out,

Even when, being well adapted, they survive with plenty of comfort and excitement, they go on asking: “What is ‘Good’? What is ‘Goodness’? What is ‘Evil’? What is ‘Sin’? What must I do to live a worthwhile life?” (132)

For Schumacher, goodness is found in having and honing in on these contemplations, “I am called upon to “love God,” that is, strenuously and patiently to keep my mind straining and stretching toward the highest things, to Levels of Being above my own. Only there lies “goodness” for me (136).

In the Epilogue, he takes a pared down conception of religion, defining it as “systematic work to keep in contact with, and develop toward, Higher Levels than those of ‘ordinary life’ with all its pleasure and pain, sensation, gratification, refinement or crudity — whatever it may be” (139). You can do this by concerning yourself with society’s divergent problems. “Divergent problems offend the logical mind, which wishes to remove tension by coming down on one side or the other, but they provoke, stimulate, and sharpen the higher human faculties, without which man is nothing but a clever animal” (128).

In the end, Schumacher gives an assessment of where we stand as a people on earth and that our major problems are not of necessity but of morality:

The generosity of the Earth allows us to feed all mankind; we know enough about ecology to keep the Earth a healthy place; there is enough room on the Earth, and there are enough materials, so that everybody can have adequate shelter; we are quite competent enough to produce sufficient supplies of necessities so that no one need live in misery. Above all, we shall then see that the economic problem is a convergent problem which has been solved already: we know how to provide enough and do not require any violent, inhuman, aggressive technologies to do so. There is no economic problem and, in a sense, there never has been.

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 are divergent problems, which have to be understood and transcended.

Can we rely on it that a ‘turning around’ will be accomplished by enough people quickly enough to save the modern world? This question is often asked, but no matter what the answer, it will mislead. The answer “Yes” would lead to complacency, the answer “No” to despair. It is desirable to leave these perplexities behind us and get down to work (140).

This summation shows that our situation is messy but by no means dire. We have the potential and ability to change what is wrong with the world. We have to avoid letting technologies shape our lives, where no inherent or substantial guidance can be derived from them. Variety and contrast is our advantage and we should not stifle it, rather go with the ebb and flow that is the complex balance of human nature. And work on making those human qualities of the higher kind a regular and reliable resource.


What I underlined:

When we meet a friend we have not seen for six months there is not one molecule in his face which was there when we last saw him (116).

If art aims primarily to affect our feelings, we may call it entertainment; if it aims primarily to affect our will, we may call it propaganda…When they are transcended by, and made subservient to, the communication of Truth, art helps us to develop our higher faculties, and this is what matters (129).

True art is the intermediary between man’s ordinary nature and his higher potentialities (130).


Edition: Harper Perennial 2004

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