Tuesday, August 13, 2013

At 41, Fritz Schumacher learns how to think

Economist Fritz Schumacher is famous for his bestseller “Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered” first published in 1973. His daughter and biographer Barbara Wood has titled chapter 16 of his biography Alias Papa: A life of Fritz Schumacher, “Learning how to think”. Schumacher wrote to his parents in 1953, “I have a feeling that I will look back to my forty first year as a turning point for the rest of my life.” The transformation was so dramatic that within a short time rational & scientific thinking Schumacher was writing to his mother asking for the exact time of his birth so that his friend can create his horoscope. What happened? How exactly did his thinking change? Let’s see in this article.

For the first two decades of his career, Schumacher was paid to think. In 1953, he was employed by National Coal Board in England as an Economic Advisor. His primary job was to study the demand & supply of energy and recommend policy changes. As a rational thinker he would consider any argument not based on facts as sub-standard. Intellect was his primary weapon and he took the job of sharpening the weapon very seriously. It meant tracking facts and figures, reading & commenting on theories from Marxism to Keynesianism and making predictions and policy recommendations. However, his faith in his intellect was to get shaken permanently in his forty-first year.

The seed was sown in a rather harmless activity – gardening. Schumacher bought a house in Caterham in 1950 and began his experiments with organic methods in his garden. He joined the Coal Board gardening club and Soil Association. Their message was simple: look after the soil and the plants will look after themselves. He got up at 6am to work in his garden before he left for office and he worked at his compost after he returned from his office. Barbara Wood notes - His acceptance of organic approach rather than the conventional chemical approach was an act of faith. It had opened door to other acts of faith. Like which ones?

During his forty minutes train journey from Caterham to Victoria (NCB Headquarters), Schumacher read on varied topics. This included Indian and Chinese Philosophy. These guys, so called spiritual gurus, were also offering solutions to the questions that bothered him – like “How to prevent wars?” However, their approach was diametrically opposite. Instead of looking at structural changes or policy changes, they identified the root cause as the “crisis of human consciousness”. In fact, this approach regarded intellect as a hindrance in resolving the crisis. This was a “bombshell” for Schumacher because everything he regarded as sacred was being questioned. 

During this time, Schumacher was introduced to the teachings of George Gurdjieff, a spiritual master. On weekends Schumacher participated in a Gurdjieff study group. The group learnt to meditate among other things. Meditation was hard for Schumacher. He wrote to his mother, “I fear that it will be more difficult for me than many others, because I have depended on the intellect to such an extent that it now tries to push itself into the forefront at every opportunity.”  In April 1953 Fritz wrote to his mother, “The crux of the matter – is the method of allowing a deep inner stillness and calmness to enter – a stillness not only of the body, but also of thoughts and feelings. Through this one gains extraordinary strength and happiness.”  

It was the beginning of a new type of thinking that stops flaunting the intellect as the most powerful weapon the man possesses.

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