Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

“The time has come,” the Walrus said, “to talk of many things. Of shoes and ships and ceiling wax–of cabbages and kings! –And why the sea is boiling hot, and whether pigs have wings!”

And small books about Buddhist economics that turn out not to have been Buddhist after all.

All last summer I labored over “Small is Beautiful,” by E.F. Schumacher (1973), stubbornly trying to read the book cover-to-cover before I started another on my reading list. It was a desperate attempt to rehabilitate my reading habits from my usual hit-and-run style, wherein I start a book, get to the middle, start another book, get the middle of that one, and start another book…

I used the word “labored” but I don’t really mean it was a hard read–at least not at first. In fact, in just a bit I’ll write down some of the many quotations I took note of in my earnest but doomed attempt to really digest a book. It’s a very good book, and I recommend it, especially if you like authors who work on their words, refining their sentences until every other phrase seems worth putting on a coffee mug.

Maybe I have strange taste in coffee mugs.

Schumacher, apart from having possibly the best title for a book I can imagine (the subtitle is “Economics as if People Mattered”), is a thoughtful, sharp writer whose curiosity is evident–he inspired me to think about how things are, and how they ought to be. His main idea, as I understood it, was that economics is more than a (pseudo)science of how businesses interact and nations prosper; rather, there are deeper questions that economists ought to be asking, about human nature, about what people believe and value and why people work in the first place. He questions and he prods, and advocates, in the end, a return to certain values that have been dismissed as unproductive or lazy. Of course, he says, we oughtn’t be lazy, but nor must we work merely for money. There is, or at least there ought to be, something in men and women that makes them want to work, to produce something valuable, to create. 

But as a society, America doesn’t tend to value anything that is, perhaps, less lucrative but more fulfilling–we prize profit in monetary terms and sometimes, just sometimes, lose sight of why we’re working. The values which drive our actions get pushed to the back of our minds, and, if we’re not careful, we lose the values altogether. Schumacher takes issue with both Keynes and Carnegie, and sums up five to seven “ideas of the age” which have crept through science, education, and economics.

With that small teaser for an already small book (but a small book very much worth reading), here are some of the more fascinating sections I found.

About man’s nature:

“…we are estranged from reality and inclined to treat as valueless everything that we have not made ourselves (15).

“The substance of man cannot be measured by Gross National Product (20).

“We still have to learn how to live peacably, not only with our fellow men but also with nature and, above all, with those Higher Powers which have made nature and have made us, for, assuredly, we have not come about by accident and certainly have not made ourselves (21).

About pollution:

“As nothing can be proved about the future…it is always possible to dismiss even the most threatening problems with the suggestion that something will turn up (28).

“Nothing makes economic sense unless its continuance for a long time can be projected without running into absurdities. . . Permanence is incompatible with a predatory attitue which rejoices in the fact that ‘what were luxuries for our fathers have become necesities for us’ [Keynes]. . . Every increase of needs tends to increase one’s dependence on outside forces over which one cannot have control, and therefore increases existenstial fear (33).

About greed:

“The modern economy is propelled by a frenzy of greed and indulges in an orgy of envy, and these are not accidental features but the very causes of its expansionist success (31).

“If human vices such as greed and envy are systematically cultivated, the inevitable result is nothing less than a collapse of intelligence. A man driven by greed or envy loses the power of seeing things as they are, of seeing things in their roundness and wholeness, and his very successes become failures (31).

About work:

“There is need for a proper philosophy of work which understands work not as that which it has indeed become, an inhuman chore as soon as possible to be abolished by automation, but as something ‘decreed by Providence for the good of Man’s body and soul’ (37).

“…insights of wisdom…enable us to see the hollowness and fundamental unsatisfactoriness of a life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends, to the neglect of the spiritual (38).

“To organise work in such a manner that it becomes meaningless, boring, stultifying, or nerve-wracking for the worker would be little short of criminal; it would indicate a greater concern with good than with people, an evil lack of compassion and a soul-destroying degree of attachment to the most primitive side of this worldly existence. Equally, to strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure (55).

About education:

“…The task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives. There is no doubt also the need to transmit know-how but this must take second place, for it is obviously somewhat foolhardy to put great powers into the hands of people without making sure that they have a reasonable idea of what to do with them. . . When we think, we do not just think: we think with ideas. Our mind is not a blank, a tabula rasa. When we begin to think, we can do so only because our mind is already filled with all sorts of ideas with which to think (82).

“What do I miss, as a human being, if I have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics? The answer is: Nothing. And what do I miss by not knowing Shakespeare? Unless I get my understanding from another source, I simply miss my life. . . Science cannot produce ideas by which we could live (87).

About everything:

“All subjects, no matter how specialised, are connected with a centre; they are like rays emanating from a sun. The centre is constituted by our most basic convictions, by those ideas which really have the power to move us. In other words, the centre consists of metaphysics and ethics, of ideas that–whether we like it or not–transcend the world of facts. . . they cannot be proved or disproved by ordinary scientific method. . . but that does not mean they are purely ‘subjective’ or ‘relative’ or mere arbitrary conventions. They must be true to reality… (94).

“It is easy enough to see that all through our lives we are faced with the task of reconciling opposites which, in logical thought, cannot be reconciled (97).

Like what you read? You can find this book on Thriftbooks, Amazon, Goodreads–pretty much anywhere there are books to be found. Give it a read and tell me what you think!

P.S. Coming soon: A GoodReads thing where you can see what book(s) I happen to be bumbling through at the moment. Whenever I can figure out the blogging things.

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3 thoughts on “Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher

  1. Not having read the book, I’m not sure I’m seeing the point of the second quote under Education. If the Nobel laureates announced this week had not learned fundamental science, they might not miss anything themselves when at the end of their lives, but their ground-breaking work has value that DOES have wide effects on countless others in the world. I think this quote undervalues the power of ideas to change more lives than just our own.

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      • What he’s saying can almost be reduced to the “science vs humanities” thing, but it would be an oversimplification. In that section, he’s discussing what he sees are the problems in an education system that views science as THE answer to everything. It would be the idea that every question humans have can be answered with the scientific method, and all we need to do is teach the next generation more “know-how,” but Schumacher disagrees that that’s enough to satisfy crucial questions of how to live. I don’t think so much that he’s dismissing science as being worthwhile, but he’s reacting against an environment in which anything that can’t be empirically proved is undervalued.

        I included the Shakespeare quote mainly to be cheeky (and because I WAS an English major, after all), but I probably should also have included this quote, which comes almost directly after:

        “Even the greatest ideas of science are nothing more than working hypotheses, useful for purposes of special research but completely inapplicable to the conduct of our lives or the interpretation of the world. If, therefore, a man seeks education because he feels estranged and bewildered, because his life seems to him empty and meaningless, he cannot get what he is seeking by studying any of the natural sciences, i.e. by acquiring ‘know-how.’ That study [natural sciences] has its own value which I am not inclined to belittle; it tells him a great deal about how things work in nature or in engineering: but it tells him nothing about the meaning of life and can in no way cure his estrangement and secret despair” (87).

        Thanks for commenting, Beowulf!

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