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.


Much Ado About Nothing: The Expression of a Mood

Like Shakespeare? Read this post. Hate Shakespeare? Read this post. Think Shakespeare is only for pretentious nerds and weirdo theater people? Read this post. 🙂

As children, my siblings and I watched Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing multiple times. The movie delighted us, although the Shakespearean language was certainly “greek” to us, all subtle (or not-so-subtle) innuendos flying straight over our intrigued heads. In determining why we loved the movie so, I picked out at least three aspects that overcame our language and context barriers.

First, the music, composed by Patrick Doyle, evokes a simple, sleepy feel, at times swelling to climaxes of ridiculously heroic proportions. Second, the scenery matches the score’s mood perfectly, showcasing vineyards in quiet, sunny afternoons, the gardeners all dressed in simple garb and perfectly happy in their work. Most of all, though, we felt the mood of Shakespeare, a mood expressed through Branagh’s supplementation of a particular scene. The scene that really sticks out comes right after Benedick and Beatrice have each been fooled into thinking the other is desperately in love with them.

We, as viewers, have left Benedick in the garden with a huge grin on his face, and have switched to Beatrice’s reconciliation with the idea. More than reconciliation, Beatrice expresses her ecstasy by grabbing a garden swing and flying back and forth in the sunlight. Then, as the music swells, we see Benedick, still in his part of the garden, splashing around the once-sleepy, green fountain. The fountain pool is frothy now, churned into a lively blue, as Benedick kicks and flings the water out of its container. There are no words, the characters having talked incessantly up to this point, and what remains is their pure, exuberant joy. We see Beatrice smile up into the sun, her simple white dress glowing; and at the same time we see Benedick practically dancing around the fountain pool, getting his uniform sopping wet—gloriously wet. The music crescendos, signaling to the mature viewer that this, not the misunderstanding between Hero and Claudio, is the focus of the movie. While Benedick and Beatrice’s situation is still a misunderstanding, it is a happy one, and more worthy of our attention.

I suppose what impresses me most, now that I’ve grown and read Shakespeare for myself, is how Branagh deepens our understanding of the characters through non-verbal action. Shakespeare did a wonderful job of conveying the slightly-ridiculous relationship between two overly-clever individuals, and yet it is easy, if one is not careful, to read Benedick and Beatrice’s lines and imagine only two talking heads—two awfully-witty people who always have something to say.

To think that there might come a moment where they have no more words, where they can only act out their happiness, whether on a swing or in a fountain, lends the characters a weight of being that might not be there otherwise. Suddenly, Beatrice and Benedick are not just the witty couple with a steady supply of wisecracks, but are fragile, hopeful humans who find they have been wrong, and are delighted by the discovery.

Perhaps this last observation is no surprise to Shakespeare enthusiasts, but for Branagh to have made clear the mood, even to young, bewildered children like my siblings and myself, is quite a feat. If nothing else, seeing the movie fueled my interest in the real play, and neither has disappointed me since.