Friday, April 15, 2016

A Guide for the Perplexed

So, I've been reading E. F. Schumacher's A Guide for the Perplexed.

Schumacher (1911 – 1977) was by profession an economist and statistician. He was a leading figure of the ecology movement in the seventies, served as the Chief Economic Advisor to the UK National Coal Board for many years, and coined the term "Buddhist economics." He's chiefly famous for his 1973 collection of essays, Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered, which, among other things, sets forth the principles of Buddhist (or village-based) economics. Schumacher's thought is refreshingly ecumenical and global. He avoids polemics (unlike me) and cites a variety of Eastern and Western philosophical-religious insights at every level of his writing.

A Guide for the Perplexed is the perfect book for the thoughtful undergraduate. I wish I had had it back when I was a student! (Not that I was thoughtful, exactly.) Simply stated, it's a brief map of the human experience. Instead of giving answers, it teaches the student to ask the right kinds of questions.

Because he inevitably devours everything I give him, my student-friend is certain to read both books before very long, and may even wish to discuss them with me. So it has seemed wise to delve into Schumacher once again, that I might have the text fairly fresh on my mind. Despite being an aged hermit by profession (though I'm not quite as old as Dennis the Peasant), I'm still an enthusiastic freshman in life, and am getting quite a lot out of the book myself.

All of which is just a long-winded* way of saying that I read the following passage, and it stood out to me:
As regards the bodily senses, all healthy people possess a very similar endowment; but no one could possibly overlook the fact that there are significant differences in the power and reach of people's minds. As regards the intellectual senses, it is therefore quite unrealistic to try to define and delimit the capabilities of "man" as such – as if all human beings were much the same, like animals of the same species. Beethoven's musical abilities, even in deafness, were incomparably greater than mine, and the difference did not lie in the sense of hearing; it lay in the mind. Some people are incapable of grasping and appreciating a given piece of music, not because they are deaf, but because of a lack of adaequatio in the mind. The sense of hearing receives nothing more than a succession of notes; the music is grasped by intellectual powers… For every one of us, only those facts and phenomena "exist" for which we possess adaequatio, and as we are not entitled to assume that we are necessarily adequate to everything, at all times, and in whatever condition we may find ourselves, so we are not entitled to insist that something inaccessible to us has no existence at all and is nothing but a phantom of other people's imagination.
This daring intellectual humility applies to lots of things. My little artistic dust-up a couple years ago comes to mind. There's an aptness in a certain loud subset of the Internet sci-fi community to roundly condemn artistic products they don't like as mere posturing, as assaults on the senses or insults against the intellect, and to promote their own products as the truly true art. I don't have anything profound to say about it all, but the interested reader (I know you're out there somewhere) can follow the link and see the application.

* Man, I really need to work on writing shorter posts. I just don't have the time...!

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