Conviviality and Friendship: Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry on the Virtues of Limits

At the start of this year, I was reading through Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text and posting a few excerpts. That book, which paid an acknowledged debt to Walter Ong, focused on developments in the evolution of the book around 1200 and subsequent consequences for literacy and society. (You can visit those posts beginning here.) Illich’s focus on literacy, however, came rather late in his career. He had earlier become well known for his writings, largely critical, on industrialized schooling. His work on schooling established a pattern of critique that he then applied to other institutions of industrial society and its tools. Illich was, by most measures, compassionately radical in his critique.

Among his works in this vein was Tools for Conviviality. Below, I’ve excerpted four paragraphs from the opening chapters of the book which give a sense of the main themes: balance, scale, and limits. Central to Illich’s critique is the notion that there are certain thresholds that, when crossed by production and institutions, result in counter-productivity. Benefits accrue on one side of the threshold, but on the other gains are outpaced by losses. Mostly these losses manifest themselves in the realms of individual self-determination and independence as well as in the social fabric of communities. In the very last line quoted, Illich gives a concise definition of what he means by conviviality.

“I here submit the concept of a multidimensional balance of human life which can serve as a framework for evaluating man’s relation to his tools. In each of several dimensions of this balance it is possible to identify a natural scale. When an enterprise grows beyond a certain point on this scale, it first frustrates the end for which it was originally designed, and then rapidly becomes a threat to society itself. These scales must be identified and the parameters of human endeavors within which human life remains viable must be explored.

Society can be destroyed when further growth of mass production renders the milieu hostile, when it extinguishes the free use of the natural abilities of society’s members, when it isolates people from each other and locks them into a man-made shell, when it undermines the texture of community by promoting extreme social polarization and splintering specialization, or when cancerous acceleration enforces social change at a rate that rules out legal, cultural, and political precedents as formal guidelines to present behavior. Corporate endeavors which thus threaten society cannot be tolerated. At this point it becomes irrelevant whether an enterprise is nominally owned by individuals, corporations, or the slate, because no form of management can make such fundamental destruction serve a social purpose.”

And …

“It is now difficult to imagine a modern society in which industrial growth is balanced and kept in check by several complementary, distinct, and equally scientific modes of production. Our vision of the possible and the feasible is so restricted by industrial expectations that any alternative to more mass production sounds like a return to past oppression or like a Utopian design for noble savages. In fact, however, the vision of new possibilities requires only the recognition that scientific discoveries can be useful in at least two opposite ways. The first leads to specialization of functions, institutionalization of values and centralization of power and turns people into the accessories of bureaucracies or machines. The second enlarges the range of each person’s competence, control, and initiative, limited only by other individuals’ claims to an equal range of power and freedom.

To formulate a theory about a future society both very modern and not dominated by industry, it will be necessary to recognize natural scales and limits. We must come to admit that only within limits can machines take the place of slaves; beyond these limits they lead to a new kind of serfdom. Only within limits can education fit people into a man-made environment: beyond these limits lies the universal schoolhouse, hospital ward, or prison. Only within limits ought politics to be concerned with the distribution of maximum industrial outputs, rather than with equal inputs of either energy or information. Once these limits are recognized, it becomes possible to articulate the triadic relationship between persons, tools, and a new collectivity. Such a society, in which modern technologies serve politically interrelated individuals rather than managers, I will call ‘convivial.’”

Illich’s focus on scale, limits, and what he calls conviviality is a more theoretical articulation of major themes in the writing of Wendell Berry. Writing in Harper’s in 2008, just as the financial crisis was unfolding, Berry makes the following observations:

“Our national faith so far has been: “There’s always more.” Our true religion is a sort of autistic industrialism. People of intelligence and ability seem now to be genuinely embarrassed by any solution to any problem that does not involve high technology, a great expenditure of energy, or a big machine. Thus an X marked on a paper ballot no longer fulfills our idea of voting. One problem with this state of affairs is that the work now most needing to be done—that of neighborliness and caretaking—cannot be done by remote control with the greatest power on the largest scale. A second problem is that the economic fantasy of limitlessness in a limited world calls fearfully into question the value of our monetary wealth, which does not reliably stand for the real wealth of land, resources, and workmanship but instead wastes and depletes it.

That human limitlessness is a fantasy means, obviously, that its life expectancy is limited. There is now a growing perception, and not just among a few experts, that we are entering a time of inescapable limits. We are not likely to be granted another world to plunder in compensation for our pillage of this one. Nor are we likely to believe much longer in our ability to outsmart, by means of science and technology, our economic stupidity. The hope that we can cure the ills of industrialism by the homeopathy of more technology seems at last to be losing status. We are, in short, coming under pressure to understand ourselves as limited creatures in a limited world.

This constraint, however, is not the condemnation it may seem. On the contrary, it returns us to our real condition and to our human heritage, from which our self-definition as limitless animals has for too long cut us off. Every cultural and religious tradition that I know about, while fully acknowledging our animal nature, defines us specifically as humans—that is, as animals (if the word still applies) capable of living not only within natural limits but also within cultural limits, self-imposed. As earthly creatures, we live, because we must, within natural limits, which we may describe by such names as “earth” or “ecosystem” or “watershed” or “place.” But as humans, we may elect to respond to this necessary placement by the self-restraints implied in neighborliness, stewardship, thrift, temperance, generosity, care, kindness, friendship, loyalty, and love.”

Clearly, Illich and Berry are working against the social and cultural grain. Although, recently, in certain moments, it has seemed to me that we are as a society more open to talk of limits and scale than we have ever been. This may, of course, be merely a passing phase. But perhaps not. Maybe we have passed another sort of threshold, one beyond which we begin to see the roots of our discontent. After all, if for all of our prosperity and technology, a fundamental lack still persists, then perhaps we may reconsider the foundations upon which we have staked our hopes.

In the same essay Berry writes,

In our limitless selfishness, we have tried to define “freedom,” for example, as an escape from all restraint. But, as my friend Bert Hornback has explained in his book The Wisdom in Words, “free” is etymologically related to “friend.” These words come from the same Indo-European root, which carries the sense of “dear” or “beloved.” We set our friends free by our love for them, with the implied restraints of faithfulness or loyalty. And this suggests that our “identity” is located not in the impulse of selfhood but in deliberately maintained connections.

If, finally, a life of limits yields, among other benefits, meaningful friendships and their attendant satisfactions, then perhaps the sell may not be quite so hard as it appears.

3 thoughts on “Conviviality and Friendship: Ivan Illich and Wendell Berry on the Virtues of Limits

    1. True enough. More careful articulation is needed in any attempt to sell the Berry-esque vision. In a sense, Berry’s whole oeuvre — essays, novels, poetry — is an effort a this sort of articulation. But I do feel — and, yes, this is very subjective — that persistent dissatisfaction may lead to questioning the assumptions supporting lives geared toward limitless consumption. Maybe.

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