We’re entering that time of the Jewish new year, the High Holy Days, when each person makes a cheshbon hanefesh—a “soul inventory”—in preparation for a new cycle of the calendar. Sometimes I feel that people are influenced by this period of reflection even if they aren’t aware of it. For instance, this fall, like the last, friends of all persuasions have been directing my attention to books intended to explain something important about what we are doing here, on this rock spinning through space. My favorite subject, and just the right time of year to explore it: the understanding season.
I just finished A Guide for The Perplexed (though the title is very similar to one by Maimonides, he doesn’t get a nod). This very odd little book was written by E.F. Schumacher, famous as an advocate for appropriate technology and humane economies, the author of Small Is Beautiful.
One theme that runs through the book is the search for meaning that animates Dante’s Divine Comedy. Like Schumacher, I love Dorothy Sayers’ translation, which perfectly captures the sense of uncertainty we call midlife crisis:
“Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.”
Schumacher kept slipping away from me with references to Edgar Cayce and the like, but a few things about his philosophy stick to my ribs. First, I like the way he points out that we can perceive only those phenomena our perceptual apparatus equips us to receive.
On the physical plane, the fact that our eyes can’t see infared or ultraviolet rays doesn’t mean these don’t exist, any more than our inability to hear certain sound frequencies render them impossible. The argument by extrapolation is that non-material energies may be perceived by those who have tuned their own instruments to the proper “frequencies,” as by yoga, meditation and other such disciplines. It is also easy to see how a weakness in our perceptual skills can make us stupid. They say, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Today we can see the effect of pounding at every social and human problem with the same clumsy tool: so much lies around us in shards.
Schumacher says the range of human capability is demonstrated by exceptional individuals, those who exceed normal limitations. If one person can run incredibly fast, perform astounding mental calculations or sing with great beauty, then these accomplishments ought to be seen not as unique and miraculous exceptions, but as expressions of general human capability that the rest of us have not yet attained. “The important thing,” he says, “is whether a person rises to his higher potentialities or falls away from them.” I agree. The longer I live, the more I think this is the supremely important thing for each of us to remember, however constrained by circumstance we may believe ourselves to be. The things some people have accomplished under conditions of great deprivation or oppression make me ashamed even to contemplate using my own problems to justify my limitations.
Second, Schumacher offers an interesting dichotomy. I’ve been applying it for a few days and so far, it holds. He divides our problems into two categories, convergent and divergent. Convergent problems are generally posed and resolved on the material plane: if the problem is to construct a light, portable human-powered mode of wheeled transportation, Schumacher says, all the proposed solutions are going to converge toward something very much like a bicycle. Convergent problems all have a solution, and once it is reached, they cease being very interesting.
Divergent problems entail human feelings and values. One example is highly contested, the proper mode of education. Schumacher contrasts the disciplinarian who insists that education requires children’s attention to remain focused on a teacher who is a figure of knowledge and authority who should be obeyed with the libertarian who says that true education is the practice of freedom, stressing unfettered exploration driven by curiosity and desire.
Schumacher says that in this example, both discipline and freedom are good things: too much of one and “the school would become a prison house,” too much of the other and it would become “a kind of lunatic asylum.” The question evokes divergent responses, each logically consistent and, if seen as sufficient solutions to the problem of education, each cancels the other. But really, Schumacher says, the best education requires human qualities: “Love, empathy…understanding, compassion—these are faculties of a higher order than those required for the implementation of any policy of discipline or of freedom.” It is a divergent problem, with multiplying solutions.
Nearly all of the intractable-seeming social problems are divergent, in that no satisfactory solution emerges from the opposed pairs of ideas that describe them: freedom versus equality, freedom versus necessity, and so on. Schumacher bemoans (the book was published in 1977, the year of his death) modern society’s tendency to regard all problems as convergent, which ends in the point-counterpoint character of our public debate these days, screaming contests between simplistic ideas that can never really solve the problem they purport to address.
His hope at the end of his life was that a new period was dawning in which scientism and inadequate “flatland” certainties (to use philosopher Ken Wilbur’s name for the narrowly materialist view that discounts what can’t be weighed and measured) would be replaced by a view that values spirit as well as matter, seeing the world…
as a place where the things modern man continuously talks about and always fails to accomplish can actually be done. 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, 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.
To accomplish this shift, Schumacher believed that we need to recognize the existence of levels higher than purely material existence, adopting spiritual practices to calm our minds, focus our energies and move toward higher understandings. We need to abandon the futile attempt to frame all our dilemmas as convergent problems. No amount of charts and graphs will resolve our disagreements over education; we need a meaningful way to remember and align our values. Schumacher saw it in religion of some type. I think it can also take place in secular contexts where reflection, dialogue and aspiration toward goodness are valued. Either way, though, it has to start with awakening from the pretense that our issues can be meaningfully resolved on the practical and material plane, which leads to what Thomas Hobbes called the “war of every man against every man.”