Minimalists in History: Croatian-Austrian Philosopher Ivan Illich

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“Man must choose whether to be rich in things or in the freedom to use them.”

– Ivan Illich

Ivan Illich, born in Vienna in 1926, was a philosopher and Roman Catholic priest who criticized Third World development schemes.

Jerry Brown, governor of California and friend of Illich, has described Illich like this:

It is only through that mystical lens that I can grasp the powerful simplicity of the way Illich lived. He had no home of his own and relied on the hospitality of friends. He traveled from place to place with never more than two bags. He refused medical diagnosis, any form of insurance and gave away whatever savings remained at the end of each year.

Illich’s Tools for Conviviality, published in 1973, attracted worldwide attention. Illich criticizes the industrial mode of production and sets out a basic outline of an alternative mode of production that he calls conviviality.

“I choose the term ‘conviviality,'” Illich says, “to designate the opposite of industrial productivity. I intend it to mean autonomous and creative intercourse among persons, and the intercourse of persons with their environment…. I consider conviviality to be individual freedom realized in personal interdependence and, as such, an intrinsic ethical value.”

Illich addresses the hypothesis that machines can replace slaves:

The evidence shows that, used for this purpose, machines enslave men….

People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves….

As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers….

People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others. Prisoners in rich countries often have access to more things and services than members of their families, but they have no say in how things are to be made and cannot decide what to do with them. Their punishment consists in being deprived of what I shall call “conviviality.” They are degraded to the status of mere consumers.

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