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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Try to Remember

I haven’t seen the musical “The Fantasticks,” but I love a song from it, called “Try to Remember.” It’s calm and sweet and reminiscent, and I think you should give it a listen:)

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh, so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain was yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a tender and callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

I’m writing for a few reasons–one is that it’s September, finally. And that is worth reveling in, just by itself. The -ember months (including the very loveliest, October) have a way of waking me up inside; in fact, I’m half-convinced I’m doing a sort of sleep-walk/hibernation the rest of the year. The air dries out and a breeze comes down the trees, and the breeze is bringing fall. And it smells like smoke and cinnamon and hope and yearning.

Another reason I’m writing is to inform the blogging world that I got a job, which is weird. Because I can’t just take the job and shut up–I have to do some soul-searching and agonizing before I turn into corporate-brained robot Jo. That’s not what I meant. What I mean is that, well, I wasn’t gonna get a job this year (see The Plan for that particular bit of soul-searching). I was going to read and read and read, and relish just being with my family, and take all the opportunities that would never come once I settled down to whatever-the-future-might-hold. I wasn’t going to worry; I was going to let next year worry about itself.

I was going to be a lily.

So while I’m very thankful for this job, I feel in some way that I’ve failed by doing anything so crude as being employed. (See what an absolute idiot I can be? I can regret anything.) Enough of the regret. Enough enough enough.

The job, if you were wondering, is medical writing/editing. So I do a lot of scanning long documents for numbers and split infinitives. If I describe it any more, you might think it’s the most boringest thing ever, but that is NOT the point I’m trying to make. The point is I get to use what I’ve learned (about sentence structure and the use of semicolons) and I get to help very smart people communicate even better. Because I’m not terribly smart, scientifically, but when I understand what I’m reading, it’s fascinating.

So my job involves detective work: (1) because scientists like to hide their identity with a bunch of passive voice; and (2) because I have to look up every third word in my newly acquired medical dictionary.

And there’s a third aspect to medical writing–it’s a game Mary Poppins might call “Well begun is half done,” or “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

“In the most delightful way.”

I see if I can make it interesting–whatever “it” may happen to be. I just see if I can be intrigued, and sometimes, God grants me a curiosity about things I never would have expected to be interested in.

Not that reading an essay by E.B. White still isn’t vastly preferable (I love that how that man wrote), but today, for example, I found myself staring at a diagram of a human cell, feeling a steadily rising excitement at the prospect of defining “ribosome” or “reticular.” I like learning (or re-learning, in this case). Words make me laugh, words like “glucocorticoid.” It sounds hilarious.

Honestly, I have no idea what I’m doing–either with this blog or with this job. I do know that I’d kind of forgotten what I wanted to write about, or how I wanted to write, so being reminded of the importance of communication has been lovely. The very idea that literature is valuable and science article abstracts are valuable–this has me wanting to go read Poe’s “Sonnet: to Science.” I’m not seeing the dichotomy between literature and science–or at least, I’m not seeing that the conflict has to be there.

I’m thinking of Robert Herrick and his ode to a woman’s breast and how I blushed when we read it in class, hearing the speaker describe, quite beautifully, quite unscientifically, the appearance of his lover’s body. There’s a wonder there, about the way things are, and the sort of delight that, at least in the abstract, I share. Of course, people are more than only their physical bodies, but the physical is there, and it’s funny and intricate and weird.

I think it’s when I forget that, behind the diagrams and clinical descriptions, there’s a design and a Designer, that science ever could become boring to me. It’s when I forget that the same things are signified by literary words and scientific terminology that the definition of amino acids as “building blocks of protein” fails to delight. Think carefully–of what is meant by building blocks, of what your experience of a building block is, and suddenly the picture is there.

In my mind, there’s a nursery with toys strewn around, and a very solemn and holy baby picking out the perfect little protein block to place on the next one, and so forth until a cell, an organism, a human has been knit together in the womb.

Language is lovely.

Science is lovely, if you can just remember there’s something beyond the physical that gives reason and meaning to existence. The idea that the heart pumps blood without my remembering or my telling it to pump–in a way, to my unscientific mind, inexplicable. If it can lead you to wonder at something other than yourself, it has promise, I’m thinking.

I don’t even know about this whole blog post. Better go and read E.B. White, or the rest of this Septembery song:

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And dreams were kept beside your pillow
Try to remember when life was so tender
And love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember then follow

Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Although you know snow will follow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
Without a hurt the heart is hollow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember
The fire of September that made us mellow
Deep in December it’s nice to remember and follow