Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Freedom by giving stuff up

The freelance philosopher Ivan Illich had an idea. He was a great inverter of ideas. Perhaps his most well known book, Deschooling Society, published in 1971, argued that modern education risks not actually educating people. It might rather produce individuals equipped with skills to service the great economic machine that has wrapped itself around world. Today, in an age of education cuts, it’s a diagnosis that clearly has currency.

When it comes to freedom and choice, he notes that our problem, in the West at least, is not having no choice, but is having too much choice. He realised that true freedom comes not from making choices, but from making commitments.

Think of the business of falling in love. In a city like London, the choice of potential lovers is almost infinite. And yet, the proliferation of online dating sites suggests that anxiety about finding a partner is booming. Why is there this contradiction? Illich would diagnose that we’re trapped in a cultural confusion: we’re encouraged to think relationships are about making the right choice, when actually they’re about making a commitment.

More broadly, he came to think that there’s more freedom to be found in giving up some of this excess of choice. He called it renunciation: discovering what you can do without. That’s liberating in a consumer society because to discover you don’t need what you’re being told you do need, is to be freer of the tyranny of choice.

Clearly, a certain amount of choice is good. But perhaps a contented life is one that requires far less choice than we might be disposed to imagine. - Mark Vernon


  1. good argument for arranged marriages...or is it just replacing one tyranny with another?

  2. Useful insights. Often I feel overwhelmed by the ammount of options, choices I can (or must) take. It would be great indeed to just let some of them go.

  3. Yeah - this is so right. I feel it internally when I'm faced with too many choices on a restaurant menu. Just give me three and I'll always choose my favourite anyway. Too many choices makes me feel uncertain and limits my ability to be committed to what I know suits me. Fancy - philosophy and food!

  4. Thanks for this. It's something I am finding quite liberating.

  5. 'the tyranny of choice' I like this, quite inverted.

  6. Yes. Bravo on the tyranny of choice. It is true that choices overwhelm us. But I can think of worse evils than being overwhelmed. On another note...
    Yeah. Well you can "think" yourself till you are blue in the face. You can invert everything. But just 'cause you are walking backwards doesn't mean the rest of the world isn't going on forward without you. Give away all your stuff, all your gold. But everyone knows the guy who's got all the gold makes the rules. The "golden rule." The less stuff you have, the less status you have, the less place you have in society and the more you are viewed as an outsider. As an outsider you generally have less respect. Less power. The less power you have, the less power you have for GOOD OR EVIL, Right or Wrong. You live on the fringes of society, because you do not subscribe to the central views. However, YOU STILL LIVE IN THIS SOCIETY, which as stated is a 'stuff society'. You live off it. Perhaps no more than anyone else. But still. So keep "thinking" till you are blue in the face. But know that Cesar is Cesar, and Cesar has got all the 'stuff' because he can deal with making choices. He is not overwhelmed, and he decides what is right now not you. So be better than everyone in your own little world. Be liberated. Be powerless. Ineffectual. The world will come your tiny, tiny way. Please. Live a contented life.