Remembering Ivan Illich

Corruptio optimi pessima. The corruption of the best is the worst. In this old adage, which goes back to the Middle Ages, Ivan Illich summed up his thought about the relations between Western civilization and the Christian gospel. Illich was a Christian, who understood Christianity as what he called "radical foolishness," but he felt that Christianity had been perverted through its institutionalization. When Jesus told the story of the Samaritan, the outsider, who stopped for a half-dead Jew in the ditch, he was indicating, according to Illich, a glorious new possibility and not an ethical norm. But the Christian church when it made common cause with the Roman Empire began to misunderstand the difference between conversion and compulsory care. The possibility inherent in the Incarnation of knowing God in one another became the possibility of a new, more intimate form of power exercised by those who believed they could guarantee, insure and institutionalize this possibility.

The Church in Illich's view was the template for the vast institutional architecture of modernity by which we are now gripped. In his books of the 70s he spoke to a social moment at which it seemed possible to believe that this grip could be released. He called for the disestablishment of schools and the demedicalization of health. Institutions like medicine and education, he argued, had reached a scale at which they defeated their own purposes and were now functioning as a counter-productive nemesis. His arguments gave heart to dropouts but had little enduring influence within these institutions. In Canada today, the proportion of public budgets devoted to "health care" has passed a third and is inching, health economists say, towards a half, and yet all agree that medical "needs" remain scandalously unmet and underserved. This situation would seem to virtually define what Illich called "medical nemesis," and yet Illich is never invoked in discussions of health. Or, if he is, as in a recent issue of the British Medical Journal , he is made an apostle of self-care as a solution to crippling costs, when he in fact he called for a much more radical demedicalization of living and dying.

After his period of "pamphleteering," as he called it, in the 70s, Illich in later books tried to search more deeply into the historical sources of our present day dilemmas. Some of these books like the wonderful In the Vineyard of the Text were hardly reviewed; and, when he died, the New York Times obituary made it sound as if he had already been dead for twenty years. ("Priest Turned Philosopher Appealed to Baby Boomers in 70s," NYT Dec. 4, '02) But, for those who knew him, there was no one more alive. I would not have known how to wish for so surprising a friend. Muska Nagel, a nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, and an old friend of Ivan's, made a memorial card with a quotation from the Gospel of Luke (12:49): "I am come to cast fire unto the earth, and what will I but that it be enkindled." I can think of no more fitting obituary for a man who set fire to so many hearts.

David Cayley is the author of Ivan Illich in Conversation and producer of two five-hour radio series about Ivan Illich. He is working on a book based on transcriptions of conversations with Illich about his idea that modernity can only be understood as a perversion of Christianity.