Ivan Illich’s star once burned brightly. From the late sixties through the mid-seventies—when his influence was greatest—this learned Roman Catholic became a countercultural guru, notorious for facing a 1968 Vatican inquisition that led him to cease exercising his priesthood, though he never renounced it. During this period, he published in rapid sequence incendiary books on the “counterproductivity” of modern institutions that won him admiring readers, including California’s young governor, Jerry Brown. His essays appeared in the New York Review of Books and other leading intellectual publications. He jetted across the globe, speaking to rapt audiences. Yet, by the time of his death at seventy-six in 2002, Illich was no longer fashionable. A New York Times obituary was typical in treating him largely as a hippie-generation relic who once preached “counterintuitive sociology to a disquieted baby-boom generation.”
In Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey, the Canadian broadcaster and writer David Cayley makes a persuasive case that this neglect is a mistake. Illich should be taken seriously as a thinker, Cayley shows, with insights into educational and health systems, technology, the nature of modernity, and the Christian faith. Illich’s criticisms of the modern world were often exaggerated—but they aren’t always easy to dismiss.
Illich was born in 1926 in Vienna, his father a Croatian diplomat and civil engineer from a wealthy Catholic family, his mother a German-Jewish convert to Christianity. As a child, he picked up languages with ease: German, French, English, Italian, and Spanish rolled off his tongue. He also recognized, by eleven, that he possessed a charismatic influence over others, which he would need to guard against lest it lead him down dark paths. In 1942, Illich’s family fled the Nazis and settled in Florence. He would never find a steady home.
After World War II, Illich attended the University of Florence, earned a PhD in medieval history at the University of Salzburg in Austria with a dissertation on Arnold Toynbee’s philosophy of history, and entered the Jesuit Gregorian University in Rome to begin preparations for the priesthood. In the Eternal City, Illich read St. Thomas under the supervision of Jacques Maritain, who was then the French ambassador to the Vatican. The encounter with Aquinas built the “architecture,” Illich said, that let him travel among intellectual eras and different cultures “without getting dispersed.” Yet Illich never considered himself a Thomist. Aquinas, he said, is “like a delicate vase, something glorious, but apt to be broken when it is moved out of its time.”
Ordained in early 1951, prodigiously intelligent, Illich seemed to his higher ups a likely “prince of the Church.” But he wanted out of Rome, so that autumn he took a steamship to New York City and became an assistant parish priest at the Church of the Incarnation in Washington Heights, serving a barrio of Puerto Rican newcomers. Illich loved the communal Catholicism of these first-generation immigrants and felt that their faith could enlarge the horizons of American Christianity; his parishioners loved him in turn, recognizing his deep commitment, to them and to the Catholic Church. The relationship between the gospel and the cultures it encounters always fascinated Illich. The Church, he believed, must be open to new experiences, even as it stays faithful to “the deep and trans-historical wisdom of orthodoxy,” as Cayley puts it. Francis Joseph Cardinal Spellman, in whose diocese Illich served, was impressed by his dynamic new priest and saw him as a key figure in the American Church’s future.
With Cardinal Spellman’s encouragement, in 1956 Illich was appointed vice-rector of the Catholic University at Ponce in Puerto Rico, tasked with introducing American priests to Latin American culture. He clashed almost immediately with his regional superiors. In Illich’s view, they had gotten too involved in Puerto Rican politics, campaigning aggressively against the ruling leftists. “As a theologian,” he later said, “I believe that the Church must always condemn injustice in the light of the Gospel, but never has the right to speak in favor of a specific political party.” In 1960, the local hierarchy, tired of his criticisms, ordered him to leave the university.
Illich moved that year to Cuernavaca, Mexico, where he founded the Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC), a think tank that would provide him with a base for years to come. CIDOC became a magnet for smart, often eccentric people from across the political spectrum, though it drew a disproportionate number of them from the burgeoning New Left. The center supported itself by offering Spanish and cultural instruction to missionaries, both religious and secular. Illich’s instruction program was rigorous, indeed harsh, as it had been in Puerto Rico. He felt that most North American missionaries were arrogant and clueless, contemptuous of local expressions of the faith and keen to impose inappropriate modern development models on the foreign poor, which would corrode the “vernacular” ways of life that made poverty tolerable. Better to keep such do-gooders out entirely. One participant, the pacifist Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, grumbled that CIDOC inflicted a “lot of intellectual violence” on the religious left. But Illich dismissed missionary tourists, whatever their politics. The sociologist Peter Berger, a friend of Illich, recalled that CIDOC’s free-wheeling model eventually descended into chaos. “All sorts of people were allowed to lecture,” Berger observed, “some of them with quite outlandish ideas.” The serious people started to stay away, and Illich closed the institute in 1976.
By then, Illich was famous—and no longer conducting official priestly duties. CIDOC’s activities had raised the suspicions of some local members of Opus Dei, and in proposing reforms in Church governance, including declericalization, Illich had made enemies within the Vatican too. In 1968, the Holy Office launched an inquisition, questioning him about his doctrinal opinions. Illich refused to answer—the process was rigged against him, he maintained—and he stressed his complete orthodoxy. The inquisition delivered no verdict, but Illich chose to withdraw from the active priesthood. He would celebrate occasional private Masses, and he never stopped viewing himself as a man of the cloth, but his days as an official man of the Church were over.
The jet-setting guru phase of Illich’s career then began, based on books of social thought that were intellectual grenades. One that retains particular relevance today is 1971’s Deschooling Society, a polemic against the “world-wide ‘cargo cult’” of government schooling. In Puerto Rico, Illich had come to see state education as a form of “structured injustice.” Every young Puerto Rican entered the system—but few made it all the way through. It was, Illich observed, as if a system had been invented “for producing dropouts,” compounding “the native poverty” of many of the children with a “new sense of guilt for not having made it.” The same dynamic was at work in wealthier societies, he believed.
Deschooling Society depicted the modern educational system as a totalizing, quasi-religious institution. Not only did it indoctrinate captive subjects, often against their families’ beliefs—think of the imposition of critical race theory or gender ideology in today’s grade schools; it was compulsory for years, just as church attendance was traditionally required for salvation. The teacher, Illich explained, took on the roles of “pastor, prophet and priest—he is at once guide, teacher and administrator of a sacred ritual.” Most perniciously, thanks to the system, official accreditation became expected for most jobs, even when the work was unrelated to anything taught in the classroom. Degrees really served as a social-status sorter—and now, as Cayley underscores, the required credentials demand (at least) sixteen years of schooling, and a majority of young people never get them. The system perpetuated itself ritualistically and attacked its critics relentlessly, as parents fighting racialized curricula recently discovered when teachers’ unions got President Joe Biden’s Justice Department to declare them potential terrorists.
It was time to disestablish schools, and to conceive new possibilities. Education wouldn’t vanish, Illich emphasized. After all, people have always sought out knowledge through libraries, apprenticeships, friends, and mentors. Such activity would persist after the overthrow of the existing system. Schools would still exist, too, he noted, but they ideally would be more “convivial” institutions, open to all on a voluntary basis. And why couldn’t demonstrated competence, not an earned degree, be the criterion for employment, status be damned?
Critics of Deschooling Society blasted Illich for being a “romantic Rousseauian,” as social critic Daniel Bell called him. But this is unfair. His book was often visionary, predicting, for example, a post-disestablishment proliferation of “learning networks,” with computers connecting eager learners with willing educators—and this long before the explosion of free internet instructional programs. One need not endorse Illich’s entire argument—few, say, would want to abolish compulsory education entirely—to recognize the potency of his criticisms of the suffocating, imagination-free current system, and the potential of a pluralistic, decentralized, and freedom-based learning environment. Illich’s influence on the homeschooling movement has been significant.
Modern medicine was another institutional nightmare, in Illich’s view. In his ambitious 1975 book Medical Nemesis, he explored the various dimensions of iatrogenesis: physician-caused illness. Clinical iatrogenesis was the most familiar: adverse reactions to drugs, catching an illness at the hospital, botched operations—everyone can recount horror stories they have heard or endured themselves. A second form was social. It occurs, Illich wrote, when
the medical bureaucracy creates ill-health by increasing stress, by multiplying disabling dependencies, by generating painful new needs, by lowering the levels of discomfort and pain, by reducing the leeway that people are wont to concede to an individual when he suffers, and by abolishing even the right to self-care.
America’s opioid-addiction crisis, fueled by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, would be a current example.
On the deepest level is cultural iatrogenesis, when a society declares a Promethean “war against all suffering” and seeks to rob death of any religious or philosophical meaning, seeing it only as the termination of high-tech medical treatment. “Medical civilization,” Illich lamented, brought a “progressive flattening out of personal virtuous performance,” in which the “art of suffering” is forgotten. Just as compulsory schooling was “disabling” human capacities, so, too, was modern medicine. What Illich wanted to protect and revivify in health, as in education, was a sphere of natural and cultural competence outside of dehumanizing institutional control.
Medical Nemesis goes too far, as is often the case with Illich. Modern medicine obviously saves lives. Most would prefer, say, to have a tumor professionally removed than to leave it untreated—as Illich did with a growth on his cheek that first appeared in 1980, and that left him so pain-wracked late in life that he started smoking raw opium to ease the agony. Since the book appeared, too, medical practitioners and administrators have become more aware of clinical iatrogenesis, though the problem remains significant.
The lightning-like development of life-saving vaccines is accelerating the COVID-19 pandemic’s end. But after the last two years, Illich’s anathema against a monstrous medical bureaucracy seems less outlandish, to put it mildly. The deployment in economically advanced nations of what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, influenced by Illich, calls “techno-medical despotism” in response to the pandemic, with unprecedented government lockdowns, mask and vaccine mandates, and other erosions of liberty—authoritarian measures disturbingly supported by many citizens—underscores the dangers a medically administered society poses to the human spirit.
Illich’s seventies’ work returned repeatedly to the theme of modern alienation. Tools invented to better the human condition—he always used “tools” capaciously, to refer to vast institutions such as hospitals, media, transportation infrastructure, and the most advanced technology, as well as hammers and plows—passed a threshold of extension and power beyond which they turned on their creators. People then accepted this artificial creation as if nothing else were possible—believing that the hospital, not the home, is where birth and death must happen, because the doctor no longer makes house calls; or that compulsory schooling is the only way learning can happen; or that what “the science” says about a problem should end any discussion; or that—other Illichean bugbears—high-speed roadways and ubiquitous automobiles will make transport more efficient (ask someone stuck in Los Angeles traffic). Everything was getting too big, too out of control, too inhuman.
The 1973 manifesto Tools for Conviviality is Illich’s clearest statement of his alternative: a “chastened modernity,” in Cayley’s formulation, in which the power of experts and bureaucracies is curbed, and communities can once again choose “the dimensions of the roof” of technological characteristics they want to live under. Tools can foster conviviality, writes Illich, “to the extent which they can be used, by anybody, as often or as seldom as desired, for the accomplishment of a purpose chosen by the user.” A good example is the old-fashioned technology of the pay telephone: “It is impossible for bureaucrats to define what people say to each other on the phone, even though they can interfere with—or protect—the privacy of their exchange.” Another is the public library, which anyone can use to learn. Illich emphasized that a convivial society would not need to ban “manipulatory” technologies; instead, it would allow space for “complimentary, enabling tools which foster self-realization.” As historian of technology Suzanne Fischer observes, engineer Lee Felsenstein, a trailblazer in the invention of the personal computer, acknowledged the influence of Illich’s book on his efforts. Tools for Conviviality presents a demand for balance, localism, and practical wisdom in the application of tools that is hard to categorize politically but far from irrelevant to contemporary debates.
Illich’s intellectual celebrity collapsed—one could almost say he was canceled—with the publication of his dense 1982 study Gender, the last of his volumes to appear from a major commercial publisher. The book, growing out of lectures at Berkeley, claimed that the modern economy of commodity circulation, where almost everything had a price, only arrived with the overcoming of gender, which Illich defined as the division of the human world into two distinct but complementary realms. Gender was there in every pre-capitalist society, he observed, with men and women taking on differing roles. Culture still shaped the economy in these earlier forms of life; the prospect of men and women becoming perfectly exchangeable in economic calculation wasn’t yet possible. And Illich believed that something of worth—not least for women—disappeared with the loss of this reality.
Illich was looking not to restore the patriarchy but to show how the economic logic of scarcity could be kept within limits, with the hope, again, of defending a realm of convivial life. But as Cayley recounts, feminists went ballistic. One, a linguist, denounced Gender for manifesting all the “salient features of modern propaganda, as exemplified in classics of the genre like Mein Kampf.” At the University of Marburg, where Illich often taught, protestors greeted him with a giant papier-mâché phallus. His reputation on the left never recovered.
Illich lectured itinerantly in the eighties and nineties, “tramping,” he said, on backroads “scented by exotic herbs”—he spent time in India and Southeast Asia—and taught at Pennsylvania State University and the University of Bremen, among other schools. His intellectual explorations deepened, though the audience for his work was now smaller. He delved into topics as diverse as the symbolic meaning of water and the way alphabetization shaped consciousness.
Two major themes, Cayley shows, dominated Illich’s later thought. The first continued his preoccupation with technology. Illich sensed an enormous change “in the mental space in which many people live.” Society was moving from an age of instrumentality to a new age of computerized systems. The age of instrumentality, which Illich claimed ran from the Middle Ages until the late twentieth century, was based on the making and application of effective tools. Crucially, it distinguished the users of tools from the instruments and technologies themselves, and thus left open chances for convivial balance. Illich’s 1993 book In the Vineyard of the Text finds the seed of a philosophy of technological self-limitation in the writings of the twelfth-century monk Hugh of St. Victor. For Hugh, one of Illich’s favorite thinkers, tools were a remedy to the bodily weakness that resulted from our Edenic exile—and a remedy, properly understood, is bounded by our nature.
In the systems age, by contrast, our nature risked getting completely obscured. “The computer,” Illich noted, “cannot be conceptualized as a tool in the sense that has prevailed for the last 800 years.” People were losing the ability to separate themselves from their computerized networks; they were merging with the network itself—becoming cyborgs. Writing long before the metaverse, Illich anticipated a fully mediated existence that could produce an even deeper alienation, he feared, than anything he had warned against in the seventies. Our sense of reality was being consumed in “soul-capturing” abstractions.
The second central theme, developed chiefly in two books of fascinating interviews with Cayley, was the relationship between Christianity and modernity. Illich talked of this in terms of the corruptio optimi pessima—the corruption of the best is the worst. Modernity was born, he believed, of the perversion of Jesus Christ’s shattering message—and the Church itself was the first betrayer.
What appears with Jesus, Illich argued, is a “new flowering of love”—one unimaginable before the Incarnation, an “unforeseeable and undeserved gift.” The famous parable of the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke, which Illich returned to many times, captured this flowering paradigmatically. Asked “Who is my neighbor?,” Jesus tells the story of a Jewish man, traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, who is robbed, beaten, and left to die in a ditch. A Jewish priest and a Levite walk by, and they do nothing to help. Then a Samaritan—whose people were at odds with the Jews—sees the injured man and helps him. He binds the man’s wounds and takes him to an inn, giving money to the innkeeper to look after him until he returns.
Illich rejects the common interpretation of the parable that sees it as proposing a rule of conduct. Jesus wasn’t asked how to treat a neighbor but who is my neighbor. Jesus’s reply is that it could be anyone. In antiquity, place or people formed the boundaries of ethical responsibilities. One cared for one’s own. The Good Samaritan obliterated such boundaries, not to apply any ethical rule but to answer a personal call: This wounded man’s suffering moved him. The “new dimension of love” revealed by Jesus in the parable is a free act. “Now I can choose whom I will love, and where I will love,” says Illich. A bond of reciprocity—a chosen communion of love—opens beyond the constraints of any existing communal order. Yet with this new bond, made possible by God’s grace, comes the risk of an infidelity: The call to communion can be refused. This is what the New Testament deems sin.
The freedom unleashed by the “cosmic atmosphere” of the Incarnation is thus unstable. Nothing guarantees the chosen bond. A temptation then arises historically, Illich claims, to ensure the new Christian love—to institutionalize it and command it by law. The descent from best to worst ensues, starting after “the Church achieved official status with the Roman Empire.” First, the Church claims this power, serving as the social-services organization for the waning Roman Empire, and subsequently establishing the criminalization of sin in the high Middle Ages. The Church seeks—and finds—worldly might, with all the attendant abuses known to Western history. Over time, the Church becomes, as Cayley puts it, “a law-governed prototype of the modern state.” Secular institutions, taking over from the Church, seek secular forms of salvation. Tentacular modern institutions and their ceaseless campaigns of social engineering, both democratic and totalitarian, represent inversions of the New Testament. A “demonic night” paradoxically results from “the world’s equally mysterious vocation to glory,” says Illich.
Illich deems this long historical process “the mystery of evil.” The Church provided the “nesting place” for a shadow that follows the Incarnation—a darkness sometimes referred to as anti-Christ, which the early Church was aware of, Illich says, but mostly lost sight of. He felt that time had reached a decision point. The unacknowledged penetration of Christian conceptions, feelings, and ways of thought throughout modern societies made ours “the most obviously Christian epoch, which might be quite close to the end of the world.” Illich described the apocalypse as an unveiling: We had to awaken to the signs of the times, rediscover Christ’s radical message of free relatedness—and change our lives. Yet he never rejected the Catholic Church, “a divine bud that will flower in eternity,” in his beautiful formulation. The Church had preserved the precious kernel of the gospel across time.
In a 1972 essay, Illich provided an early key to his conception of the faith. Referring to the kingdom evoked by Jesus in the Gospels, he observed that to be Christian “means to live in the Spirit of the Maran Atha—the Lord is coming at this moment.” That is, a Christian “should live and enjoy living at the edge of time, at the end moment of time.” The kingdom is a form of communitarian life, informed by faith and hope. The Incarnation has already happened; history is the theater of salvation; it is up to us to do the rest.
Illich himself sought to live this way, as if the kingdom were already present among us. He liked to keep a candle burning at his frequent “living-room consultations” with friends and students, gatherings filled with conversation and loosened by inexpensive but decent wine. The candle served as a sign of Christ, reminding us that the community is always open. “Whoever loves another loves [Christ] in the person of that other,” Illich said. Christ was for Illich not just the object of love, Caley adds, but its medium. As Illich told Jerry Brown in 1996, “I do believe that if . . . something like a political life . . . remain[s] for us, in this world of technology, then it begins with friendship.”
Illich passed peacefully in 2002, and for many years this “errant pilgrim” of the Catholic Church was mostly forgotten. That has started to change, however, and not only with Cayley’s monumental study. A collection of Illich’s early essays, The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, 1955–1985, appeared in 2019, with a foreword by Agamben. Illich has won a new readership among critics worried about technology’s effects on human flourishing. And fortunately, a small British imprint, Marion Boyars Publishers, has kept many of his books available as inexpensive paperbacks.
David Cayley’s important book thus comes at a perfect moment for reassessing its subject. Illich sometimes lacked prudence. His view that the modern world as a whole was creating hell on earth was, and is, hyperbolic. The title of a Baffler article on Illich—“Against Everything”—captures this critical ferocity. Illich’s anti-development strictures against industrial society and economic growth in defense of the vernacular wisdom of impoverished communities can be accused, with some justification, of ignoring the wishes of the poor themselves. Without growth, a zero-sum world ensues, shrinking alternatives and making untenable representative democracy, which needs “the give-and-take of win-win compromise,” in venture capitalist Peter Thiel’s words.
But Illich’s critical assessments of educational and medical bureaucracies offer vital lessons about reclaiming the freedom to learn, and to heal or confront our mortality. His philosophy of tools can help us imagine a technology-friendly tomorrow that enhances human life, instead of enslaving it with addictive games and narcissistic mirrors. And his call to renew Christian fellowship, to live the kingdom of God through free acts of love, is inspiring in its simple faith. Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey can itself be seen as an act of love, restoring Illich to his rightful place among the significant social and religious thinkers of our time.
This piece originally appeared at First Things
Brian C. Anderson is the editor of City Journal.
Photo by Sigfrid Casals/Cover/Getty Images