Illich's Table

Article excerpt


"Is it not the case that our world is out of whack with any prior historical epoch?" (1)

--Ivan Illich


In 1985, Wendell Berry wrote an essay entitled "What Are People For?" He recounted the mass migration in the Twentieth Century of U.S. farmers into cities and the consequent problems. There were growing numbers of underemployed or perhaps even "permanently unemployable" city dwellers while rural areas declined as a result of necessary work being left undone. "What are people for?" Berry wondered. He went on to ask, "Is the obsolescence of human beings now our social goal?" (2)

Early on, as a boy growing up in Chicago, I sensed people were gradually reducing themselves to cogs in some giant economic machine, what Dwight Eisenhower had called "the military/industrial complex." Everything around me seemed prepackaged: food, entertainment, ideas, even fears. The war in Vietnam raged on all through my adolescence. I could not understand how so many of my neighbors had come to believe that peasants living on the opposite side of the world, whose most "advanced" technology was the bicycle, were a threat to us on the southwestern shores of Lake Michigan.

Great abstractions were paraded before us: freedom, democracy, affluence, progress. My friends and I were being conditioned for our roles as soldiers and, if we should survive our years of "service," as consumers. Increasingly, the evidence pointed to the fact that "affluent" consumption was polluting the water and air and damaging the land--the real places upon which our lives depend. This all seemed completely "out of whack" to me. (3) Like Berry, I wondered if this was all people were for.

When I encountered the writings of Ivan Illich in the early 1990s, I felt an immediate connection with their author. Here was a man who shared my sense of dis-ease and who was trying to understand how this epoch had come into being. As I studied Illich's work, I came to believe that he, more than anyone else I knew about, had exposed how "out of whack" the dominant Western ways of living had become, both for our home places and for our souls.

His series of "pamphlets," as he called them, published in the 1970s drew attention to the "counter-productivity" of modern institutions. (4) Later, he examined critically the assumptions of modern "economics," which had strayed a long way from the "management of households" the etymology of the word implies. (5) As a historian, he sought to reveal the origins of these institutions and the unexamined assumptions he called "modern certainties."

All along, he tried to practice the vocation of friendship symbolized by the "hospitable table" he offered his interlocutors wherever he lived. He hosted symposia where common investigation was accompanied by food and some of the "ordinary but decent wine" a good lawyer had persuaded the IRS was Illich's major teaching tool and therefore tax deductible. (6) He became a master of the art of conviviality.

In this meditation, I invite you to join me in imagining what it would have been like to sit at Illich's table, to share food and wine with him, and to participate in the conversations his search for truth inspired.


Near the end of his life, Ivan Illich "stammered" to his friend, David Cayley, a response to modern Western society he had "avoided to do for thirty years." Looking around, Illich observed "horror, cruelty, and degradation with no precedent in other historical epochs." Illich saw "an extraordinary evil," an evil new and mysterious he could only name with the Latin phrase, mysterium iniquitatis. (7) What was he talking about? And what solace or remedy, if any, did he offer?

In the Western traditions, philosophers and theologians have described two types of evil: "natural evil" that results from disease, famine, drought, volcanic eruption and the like and "moral evil" that results from deliberate human action. …