Maria's Reviews > A Guide for the Perplexed

A Guide for the Perplexed by Ernst F. Schumacher
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's review
Jul 14, 2009

really liked it

E.F. Schumacher's second book, "A Guide for the Perplexed," starts out by describing a map he consulted in Leningrad (before the fall of the USSR) to find out where he was, only to find out that it had ommitted several enormous churches that were right in front of him. When he asked a guide why the churches were not shown on the map, the guides response was"We don't show churches on our maps." This vignette becomes the opening for the premise of the book: the maps of life and knowledge that we have been given in school and university are like this Soviet map....they leave out things that are of utmost importance to those of us who are searching for how to conduct our lives.

In the first section of the book, Schumacher spends some time setting out the nature of the questions he is going to explore throughout the rest of the book: Questions such as "What shoudl I do?" or "What must I do to be saved?" He writes in the first chapter that in this book "we shall look at the world and try and see it whole." The map he will be presenting will include philosophical, ethical, as well as technical questions and issues. Schumacher explains that like mapmaking,this book provides a guide, not the whole of geography (i.e., philosophy) of the territory he will be exploring.

Schumacher begins by showing where in the history of philosophy our mapmaking became impoverished. He turns to Descartes and makes the case that with Descartes, philosophy no longer bothered itself with anything that could not be subjected to mathematics and arithmetic. Reason, not imaginations, argues Descartes, should rule our methodology and our approach to philosophical questions. By limiting his interest to knowledge and ideas that are precise and can be proven without doubt, Descartes, narrows the map of human thought to only that which we can grasp with ease.

From the point of view of philosphical mapmaking, Schumacher argues, this meant a very great impoverishment of human interest and it erased from the map all the intense efforts of philosophers of earlier generations in one clean sweep. Earlier philosophy viewed the world as a "three-dimensional structure," which distinguished between "Higher" and "lower" levels of being. Descartes and subsequent philosophy essentially erased the "vertical dimension" of philosphical maps. The loss of the vertical dimension meant that it was no longer possible to give an answer to philosphical question, "What am I to do with my life?" other than a Utilitarian one. In traditional philosophy, Schumacher points out, our path to happiness is to move higher, to develop our highest facilities, to gain knowledge of the highest things and if possible, to "see God."

In the remainder of the book, Schumacher carefully reconstructs the four levels of being and the four fields of Knowledge that are part of the map of every ancient religious philosophy, from the far east all the way to Christianity. Schumacher provides frequent quotes from major religions and philosophies (Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, Jewish, Christian) to undergird the point that this vertical dimension has been a major part of every philosophic system prior to Descartes.

Being one of the "perplexed", I read this book with great interest and was excited by the basic premise of the book -- namely, that we have erased the vertical dimension of our approach to some of life's most troubling questions. Moreover, I found myself agreeing with Schumacher's point that we have reduced some of the most complex human questions facing us to "problems" that need "fixing" and shy away from approaching these questions as deep philosphical questions that need self-knowledge, knowledge of others and the wisdom to begin to tackle.

Schumacher argues that the result of this "lopsided development of the last three hundred years is that Western man has become rich in means and poor in ends, The hierarchy of his knowledge has been decapitated: his will is paralyzed because he has lost any grounds on which to base a hierarchy of values. What are his highest values?"

In another section, he writes, "The modern world tends to be skeptical about everything that makes demands on man's highest facutlities. But it is not at all skeptical about skepticism, which demands hardly anything."

Schumacher also makes a very insightful distinction between the validity of the theory of evolution and what he calls "evolutionism." This discussion was particularly illuminating as it helped clarify for me what has been troubling me about the debate between the creationists and the evolutionists. Schumacher writes: "Natural selection has been proved to be an agent of evolutionary change. we can, in fact, prove it by doing. But it is totally illegitimate to claim that the discovery of this mechanism--natural selection--proves that evolution 'was automaic with no room for divine guidance or design.'" Schumacher goes on to say that the Doctrine of Evolution is "generally presented in a manner which betrays and offends against all principles of scientific probity. It starts with the explanation of changes in living beings; then, without warning, it suddenly purports to explain not only the development of consciousness, self-awareness, language, and social institutions but also the origin of life itself." He shows how science has taken the doctrine of evolution and used it to explain all of life as products of chance and necessity and nothing else. He is alarmed that this is how children are taught about the beginning of life and subsequently the meaning of life.

I gave the book four, rather than five stars, because while I think the book is very insightful, Schumacher's style is repetitious and feels heavy handed at times. But more importantly I think Schumacher misses a very important dimension in his discussion of "verticality"-- and that is the dimension of going deeper into wisdom. He tries to reinstate the vertical dimension of the the philosophical mapmaking but gets stuck on "transcendence", i.e., with going "upwards" -- higher. The vertical dimension of human experience also entails going deeper -- sometimes into the abyss before being able to come to some illumination about the opposites of life -- life and death, mercy and justice, etc. He hints at this in the last chapter when he says that the sinner might find redemption before the person who has walked the straight path. But he does not develop this. In fact, even in his discussion of Dante he sidesteps the fact that Dante had to go "down" before going up to wisdom. In the Eastern tradition, both Christian and Asian this dimension is in some ways the cornerstone of the "way" or the path to enlightenment and wisdom. Plato's cave -- an allegory is also about deepening one's awareness of Truth and Beauty by going into the darkness of the cave. Sinking is as important as rising in one's journey to wisdom, something Schumacher overlooks in his book and which left me feeling something important was missing in his discussion.

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message 1: by Bruce (new)

Bruce Fascinating review, Maria! Have you read "The Perennial Philosophy" by Aldous Huxley? It's an anthology with framing comments by the author in which Huxley tries to address the common cross-cultural and cross-religious truths which all religious/philosophical traditions seem to share; you might enjoy it.

Maria Bruce, I just noticed you had added a comment to this review. I have not read Huxley's The Perennial Philosophy but will do so.

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