Book Review: E.F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed

E.F. Schumacher. A Guide for the Perplexed. New York: Harper & Row, 1977. Repr. 2015. 177pp. Amazon.

A Guide for the Perplexed was published in 1977, the same year E.F. Schumacher died of a heart attack while on a lecture tour in Switzerland. Though his Guide is best classified as philosophy, Schumacher was primarily an economist of some notoriety. His story is interesting enough to be worth bulleting:

Born in 1911 in Germany, he moved to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1930, later to become a protégé of John Maynard Keynes. He taught at Oxford and Columbia University (New York), served for two decades as Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board, and became an advisor in high demand in developing countries around the world. Having been a staunch atheist and philosophical materialist in his early days, Schumacher became attracted to the values of Buddhism, then Christianity, and he officially converted to Catholicism in 1971. Six years later, A Guide is the fruit of much wrestling and a lasting testimony to the grace of God in this man’s life.

The book is an attempt to offer what Schumacher describes as a set of philosophical maps for navigating the world. He opens with a story about his first visit to Leningrad, where he was having incredible difficulty finding his coordinates on an official tourist map. The trouble was that he could see massive churches in every direction, but there were few churches present on his map, so he figured he must not be looking at the right part of the map.

As it turned out, the problem arose because official Soviet maps omitted all churches except those which were used as museums or centers of cultural artifacts (which explained the presence of some churches on the map). But all “living churches” were excluded. “It then occurred to me,” says Schumacher, “that this was not the first time I had been given a map which failed to show many things I could see right in front of my eyes” (1).

He then sketches out his realization that he had been taught not to see reality as it is, but instead to accept as real “the maps produced by modern materialistic Scientism,” which “leave all the questions that really matter unanswered” (4). A Guide for the Perplexed is Schumacher’s effort to help others along in the journey to discover reality, by introducing them to the four Great Truths or “landmarks” upon which are so visible, and yet so thoroughly hidden (7).

The Great Truths comprise the remainder of the book, and are as follows:

  1. The four “Levels of being”;
  2. The “adequateness” needed in order to comprehend the world;
  3. The “fields of knowledge” which are available to humans;
  4. The two types of problems: divergent and convergent.

Perhaps the most fascinating of these is the first Truth, that in this world there are levels of being which progress from mineral (purely physical) to plant (which possesses life) to animal (which has consciousness) to man (which is endowed with “self-awareness”). Schumacher borrows from Eastern and Western philosophy, Christian and non-Christian, to demonstrate that up until about the Enlightenment it was understood by great thinkers of all the great religions that knowing about these levels is fundamental to understanding the world.

The great achievement of the Enlightenment, says Schumacher, is that it precluded the highest three levels from the field of reality and decided to understand the world in terms of only what was physically observable. By this innovative reduction of life, the Enlightenment thus opened itself up to virtually unlimited power in the field of the material world, but also shrank the higher levels of reality and undermined the value of life, the animal world, and what it means to be human. The result is predictable (and visible everywhere today): a loss of the sense of what makes humans human, and disregard for the value of creatures and the world in which God has placed us.

The second Truth, the possibility and necessity of human adequateness, can be described negatively as the real possibility that, “seeing, we do not see; hearing, we cannot hear.” The positive side of adequateness is that humans can develop an ability to see more fully the wonder and amazement of God’s reality. The fact is, though, that some people are capable of seeing things, and others are not. Those who confine themselves to knowledge which can be acquired by empirical investigation, for example, will know “true” things about reality, but their reality will not have a place for much of the beauty, or even pain, present in the world. We must all acquire a taste for the higher parts of reality, similar to the way we acquire taste for good music or art.

The third Truth follows from the preceding two: It is that there are four fields of knowledge to which we can (and ought to) attend. They can be broken down as 1. Internal knowledge of me, 2. Internal knowledge of others, 3. External knowledge of me, and 4. External knowledge of others. This section is by far the most speculative in my opinion. While it is very possible that I am simply not adequate to the task of assessing right views of knowledge of self, for example, it seems to me that the path Schumacher charts in these chapters is a narrow, mystical form of self-knowledge.

The fourth Truth, the two types of problems, underscores part of Schumacher’s critique of material scientism. Schumacher argues that life’s problems come in two groups: those in which precise, logical answer can be obtained by investigation (convergent problems), and those in which further investigation only leads to further polarity (divergent). One way to summarize these two kinds of problems is to think about them in terms of closed (convergent) and open (divergent) systems.

For example, Newtonian physics is essentially a closed system of either/or’s, and it works extremely well at one level of reality. However, there are subatomic phenomena which completely defy the “laws” of physics and even seem to defy logical laws like non-contradiction, e.g. things like superposition and entanglement. The point is there really are either/or and both/and types of problems, and that we cannot begin to understand any problem without first identifying what kind of problem it is.

A Guide for the Perplexed is extremely readable, and Schumacher is a master thinker and writer. That said, it is not specifically “Christian” any more than C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man is Christian. True, they both rest on and (I believe) lead to Christian conceptions of reality. However, Schumacher and Lewis are ardent proponents of the possibility that people who are not part of the people of God are entirely capable of and often have discovered things about God’s reality which his own people have not noticed. I believe this is part of what Jesus was talking about when he noted in Luke 16:8 that in some ways “the sons of this world” are wiser than “the sons of light.”

In fact, echoes of C.S. Lewis’s Abolition of Man abound throughout Schumacher’s Guide. Both are a sustained critique of the same cultural trend toward reductionist materialism, with two great differences: Guide describes the dire modern system for generation after Lewis (Abolition was first published in 1947); and Guide offers a positive critique of the modern world, replete with directional advice, while Abolition is fundamentally negative and somewhat apocalyptic. Evidently Lewis was highly influential for Schumacher, and the two actually met for dinner at Oxford in 1960, at which time Lewis was unimpressed by the younger man’s poor table manners. I would say the two books pair extremely well together.[1]

Schumacher’s Guide for the Perplexed is difficult on a personal level, more than on an intellectual level. At every step he challenges us to become more fully what we are capable of being as humans. I would recommend it to a person who senses that the maps they have been given for understanding the world are inadequate, who is not afraid to have their perception of reality challenged.


[1] I’m happy to report that I apparently am not the first person to make this comparison. Owen Barfield, one of the famed “Inklings”, noted it in a review of Guide in 1977, see here